Monday, December 19, 2016

The Dramady of the Sixties, in Two Acts

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part Four
The Firesign Theatre, Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers

George Leroy Tirebiter hasn’t left his Los Angeles apartment in years. Desperately lonely, and unable to order takeout, he turns on the television, to find some of his classic films from his child star days running the all-night block. As Tirebiter watches his own face, he regresses through the years, and his life at different ages melds together into an unending dream sequence of hopes, joys, and sudden disillusionment.

Calling the Firesign Theatre’s classic third album “comedy” is somewhat misleading. This hour-long impressionistic play doesn’t much resemble the Firesigns’ vinyl-record comedy contemporaries, like George Carlin or Bill Cosby. There’s no storytelling, only the ghost of a narrative through-line, and most importantly, no cues from the laugh track to what’s funny. It’s an immersive experience, like a fever dream following too much chili and Sonoran sticky icky.

Yet it’s nevertheless constantly hilarious. Like their rough contemporaries, Monty Python, the Firesigns draw influence from the British Goon Show, newly syndicated for American radio during the hippie era. The overlap is unmistakable in their dry humor, very long set-ups that often discard conventional punchlines, and cast of thousands played by a very small ensemble. The humor is fast, kinetic, and arrestingly complex. It demands a thinking audience.

Tirebiter watches two movies, apparently at once—the implication is, he’s flipping between channels, a more laborious process in those pre-remote control days. In High School Madness, he plays an Archie Andrews-type giddy teenager, bouncing off walls with school spirit, who finds his entire school building missing on graduation day. In Parallel Hell, he plays a soldier trapped in a war (implicitly Korea, though never stated) that apparently never ends.

A promotional photo of the Firesign Theatre, from their record label.

Interspersed among these movies, we get glimpses of the commercialized, sterile world Tirebiter now inhabits. The TV plugs The Howl of the Wolf Movie, a satire of all-night B-movie blocks, promising “honest stories of working people, as told by rich Hollywood stars.” Tirebiter sees himself, apparently from the future, on a This Is Your Life-type game show. And he watches a post-WWII commercial appeal for nationalized blandness, “Shoes For Industry.”

Together, this jittery, hot-blooded mélànge of images drops us, boiling frog-style, into a world where everybody works but nobody cares about their product; where staying busy matters, but nothing is worth finishing; where wars continue so long that continuing becomes its own goal. Sound familiar? Isolated from his own accomplishments, valued only instrumentally, Tirebiter uses humor to retain his essential humanity in the City of Angels.

George Leroy Tirebiter was the name of a dog, adopted by students at USC as an unofficial campus mascot in 1946. His fondness for chasing cars got him killed in a hit-and-run in 1950, but his legend survives today. The characterization of Tirebiter on this album implies Bobby Driscoll, a child actor best remembered for voicing Disney’s Peter Pan. Driscoll tried, unsuccessfully, to transition into grown-up war films in the 1950s; he dies of a drug overdose in 1968, age 31.

This description, unfortunately, makes the album sound unremittingly bleak. Not so. For fans of Monty Python or Saturday Night Live, this excellent piece of long-form narrative comedy mixes ensemble slapstick with deep feeling and a surprisingly touching conclusion, for a form of audio-only comedy that one seldom hears anymore. Many people have claimed the Firesigns as an influence; far fewer, sadly, have tried to reproduce what they did.

The Firesigns love long titles. This album opens with a callback to their second album, How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All?, and this album’s conclusion opens their fourth album, I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus. The albums meld into  a rambling, hippie-era gestalt, salted with Beatles references, jibes at then-current politics (a robotic Richard Nixon—hardly a stretch), and more.

Unsurprisingly, the Firesigns are an inextricable part of their generation. Founded in the wake of the Sunset Strip riots, their basic ethic always involved poking powerful people in the eyes. This album, like their others from the late Sixties and early Seventies, reflect a terrible fear of encroaching institutional blandness. Those fears seemed comedic, almost science fictional, when this album debuted in 1970. They seem downright prophetic now.

As stated, this album requires a thinking audience. Because it touches on Tirebiter’s life at different stages, it’ll also reflect the life progress of its hearers; re-listening as you age is a rewarding experience. Its mix of glum themes with silver-tongued comedy zingers could help you see the world as never before.

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