Hand Me the Jam

"I'm not [an actor]," wrote Phil Austin in The Firesign Theatre's Big Book of Plays, published six years after the group's creation in 1966. "I'm a musician. Interesting that it was the soundsof the words that got to me the most. . . . It was a pure jam and the instrument we each played was verbal glibness or radio." Like great comedy and rap teams, the Firesign Theatre specialize in immediately identifiable written and verbal flow, here pouring from four actor-writer-poets—Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, Philip Proctor—and their group mind. Using broadcasting as their preferred parodic medium, the FST combine the Beatles' ambitious pleasure principle with a knack for hallucinating listeners into other realms via the recording studio's magic apparatus—it's thrilling to hear an Austin noir riff inspire one of Ossman's beatific poetry solos as Bergman and Proctor chime in with weirdly ad hoc associations. They are turn-on-a-dime improvisers who layer sounds and meanings in multi-entendres that acquire new layers of meaning from album to album.

The Firesign Theatre released The Bride of Firesignearly last September, which might have been when it would have disappeared, if not for the ubiquitous PBS-fundraising documentary Weirdly Coolthat followed in November, and the subsequent reissues of the group's first eight albums—four classics, on Sony/Legacy, and another four relative misfires from their rumored coke era, on Laugh.com. The quartet's most fully realized record since 1971, Brideis both pee-in-your-pants funny and artistically accomplished—pretty impressive when you consider the group's downtime lasted nearly a quarter-century.

The FST infiltrated free-form radio and college-boy stonerdom with works as mind-bending as any other psychedelic artifact from the cerebral '60s. Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him(1968), How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All(1969), Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers(1970), and I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus(1971) dumped high lit (Joyce, Beckett, Brecht) and low entertainment (Sam Spade, James Dean, Madmagazine) into a vat of electric Kool-Aid and stirred the strange brew together with radio tricks pioneered by Stan Freberg and the miracle of overdubbing (thank you, Les Paul). Think Lee Breuer or Richard Foreman at their avant-gardiest, as performed by the cast of The Simpsons.

Turn-on-a-dime improvisers
photo: Rocky Schenck
Turn-on-a-dime improvisers

On six of these records' eight sides, the FST spliced together a phantasmagoric, Joycean-proportioned, multileveled opus chronicling the trials and tribulations of an everyman character known variously as P, Babe, George Leroy Tirebiter, and AhClem—a doofus Ulysses trapped in mass culture's hypers(t)imulated dreamworks. The entire absurdly malevolent gizmo unravels at the end of Bozos, when AhClem virally reprograms the computer that runs everything in the Future Fair to "forget the past," at which point the illusions that had been taken for reality evaporate.

"The Firesign Theatre is a Technique," Austin wrote. Dedicated to keeping it surreal, the FST during its prime was a smoothly functioning concept synthesizer, a vaguely demonic black box into which the world emerged as a Möbius-stripped Philip K. Dick novel languishing in the giggling shards of its vivisected ontology. The Bride of Firesigntakes some of the group's more popular recurring characters, medium-leaping situations, social satire, and tortuous wordplay and rearranges them to conclude a millennium's-end trilogy the Theatre commenced on their 1993 comeback album, Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death, and continued on 1999's Boom Dot Bust.

Where Electricianbegan with a wry nine-minute history of the United States seen from the natives' p.o.v., Bride opens with the sound of a men's consciousness-raising group faking Indian chants before passing the talking stick around for a series of dick jokes as lame, in their way, as every horrible rap skit you've ever heard. Turns out to be a "human resource lesson" heard by Peorgie, a contemporary iteration of a character played by George Tirebiter in the '50s teen flick on Don't Crush That Dwarf. Orwellian notions of surveillance continually pop up on the album, which reunites FST staples Nick Danger ("third eye"), his Peter Lorre-inspired nemesis Rocky Rococo, and the conservative cop Lt. Bradshaw. Rococo and Bradshaw are running against one another for mayor of FunFun Town as well as competing for the same kidnapped woman, Amanda Reckonwith.

Bridecan be enjoyed on one level as a socio-alchemical elaboration of Duchamp's Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. The characters ultimately converge in the laboratory of Dr. Firesign, who has conspired to transmit their combined attributes into a silent object of desire, a "budding stem cell in a pudding of pure science." The album ends in an apocalyptic conflagration that echoes Firesign benchmark The Wizard of Oz. Its form, however, is secondary to such overdetermined moments as when Peorgie and Mudhead merge aurally into the Festival of Fear level of their Young Guy/Motor Dick II video game. But faithful to its vinyl roots, Brideis divided into two sides, "Something Old, Something Nude" and "Something Buried, Something Rude."

Apart from topical references to Frank Gehry and the Supreme Court fixing the last presidential election, Brideis vintage Firesign. If the toppling FunFun Needle isn't as prophetic as you think, Bridenonetheless marks the point where Ashcroft-era control, represented by straitlaced Lt. Bradshaw and Peorgie's employers, meets Huxleyan domination by spectacle—a message the four Firesigns deliver in a spectacularly distracting manner. After all, as one character observes, "What's more totally human than entertainment?"

 
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