Thursday, August 13, 2009

Music Library: The Firesign Theatre

Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him (1968). There's an enormous amount of information about the Firesign Theatre out there, even from one of my closest friends at the web magazine we co-edit with friends. With that in mind, I'll try to keep my comments minimal. The skinny is this: the Firesign Theatre made (makes?) albums that are a pastiche of 40s radio dramas, 60s counterculture, and modernist literature. There are only three artists in my collections between the Fiery Furnaces and the Firesign Theatre, so it seems a bit inappropriate to bring up Pynchon again so soon, but there is a definite sympathy between Pynchon and Firesign. Waiting for the Electrician is not a bad place to begin with the Firesign Theatre's albums, being not just the first album but the only one of their early albums with shorter pieces on it. That said, it's also the only one with humor that seems dated, all these 40 years later. The best pieces on the album are "Temporarily Humboldt County," which races through the European conquest of the Americas in some ten minutes, and the title track, which starts as a satire of language tapes and turns into a darkly hilarious (by which I mean "kafkaesque," with all due connotations) story in which a tourist tries to escape a totalitarian state.

How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All (1969). This is where Firesign began creating the artwork that is both timeless and literary - i.e. serious work, but it seems wrong to describe work that it so fundamentally silly and funny as serious. This album consists of two side-long pieces ("side-long" being a word to describe the length of a work on a slab of round vinyl, which, though it's hard to believe now, used to be the primary medium for listening to mass-produced music and audio-based humor). On the first side, which shares a name with the album, a man buys a car, drives through Zeno's paradox onto the American freeway, and comes face-to-face with some of the ugliest aspects of American history, all of which culminates - perfectly, as odd as it seems - with the car salesman, one Ralph Spoilsport, reciting a stylized version of Molly Bloom's soliloquy from Ulysses. On the second side, "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger," the troupe sends up Raymond Chandler's iconic existential detective by invoking time travel through flashbacks, constant deviation from the script, and a thick layer of metatextual humor.

Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers (1970). And here's the greatest Firesign album, a single long piece which sends up charismatic fundamentalists, teenage hijinks, war movies, game shows, totalitarianism, domestic fascism, drug culture, and the transience of life, all built around different aspects of one central character, George Tirebiter. For an album with such lofty ambition, it is hard to describe how funny it is. The jokes come fast, usually in different layers (some of the funniest one-liners are relegated to people speaking in the background), and I'm not sure that one can ever reach the bottom of this album. I believe that when it came out in 1970, at least one reviewer wrote that it was 14 years ahead of its time (do the math), but it still sounds as vital and prescient as ever. I've read Gravity's Rainbow twice, and I don't feel like I've even scratched the surface of its many layers of jokes and symbolism. I've listened to Don't Crush That Dwarf maybe 50 times since I first discovered it in the mid-90s, and I still hear something new and startling and funny every single time. A towering work of art.

I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus (1971). Firesign followed up their magnum opus with another work almost its equal, starting at the exact place the last album left off, with the bell of an ice cream truck. This album follows a single protagonist, too: Clem, an all-American kid who is visiting "The Future" as predicted/determined on a ride at a World's Fair. The ride goes through a utterly delightful pseudo-scientific history of the world and science (from which we get Fudd's Law: "If you push something hard enough, it will fall over" and Teslicle's Deviant to Fudd's Law: "What goes in must come out"), an animatronic President based on Nixon and Reagan (prescience!) who spits out cryptic non-answers to questioners (Clem befuddles him by asking a nonsense riddle), and naturally enough, a bus full of bozos. Excellent stuff.

Everything You Know Is Wrong! (1974). I've never picked up most of the Firesign's subsequent work, although I probably should. I understand that the collections aren't as much fun as the albums (and how could they be?), and the 1972 album Not Insane Or Anything You Want To was muddled in many different ways. I've heard the first 1974 Firesign album The Tale Of The Giant Rat Of Sumatra, which was funny enough, but I've never felt like buying a copy for myself. Everything You Know Is Wrong is about a conspiracy theorist who tries to uncover the hidden story of American history, but misses the darker implications of everything. Funny stuff, although nowhere near as mindblowing as Dwarf or Bozos.


Chromium Switch 11:27 AM, September 06, 2009  

Excellent summary of The Firesign Theatre creativity peak, when at Columbia Records.

Hayden Childs 4:26 PM, September 07, 2009  

Thanks! A pal of mine hooked me up with the entire run of the Dear Friends radio show, so I've been working my way through that, too.

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