Everything You Know is Wrong !
Did you know that dogs flew spaceships? Or that the Aztecs invented the vacation? Or that your forefathers took drugs? Or that men and women are the same sex?
Well of course you didn’t. That’s because everything you know is wrong. Or at least that’s what theFiresign Theatre was trying to tell everyone back in 1974 when their album of the same name first came out. It’s an album full of absurdist, surreal humor that takes on UFO’s, motorcycle daredevils and New Age sensibilities, as well as the Hucksters and Seekers that inhabit that strange world. And as protagonist “Happy” Harry Cox states,”There’s a Seeker born every minute! ”
But right now I wish that there was one particular bit of knowledge that I could say was wrong, that being the passing of founding member Peter Bergman back on March 9th this year of leukemia. It was a shock to almost all of his fans. He had been doing his Radio Free Oz podcast until just 3 days before his death and had told almost no one of the illness. Instead he spent his time as he always had, trying to point out the absurdities of life through incredibly pointed satire. He was 72 at the time of his death.
The Firesign Theatre was something that Peter and the other founding members, Phil Proctor, David Ossman and Phil Austin developed after working together at Los Angeles Pacifica station KPFK starting in 1966. Mr Bergman had a late night call-in talk show where he would have fake guests show up, one time hosting what was supposed to be the “Oz Film Festival Colloqium”, complete with fake directors and film clips, all of which befuddled any listeners trying to decide if what was coming out of their speakers was real. And considering this was the late 60’s and the heyday of psychedelic drugs, reality just didn’t mean what it once did.
But the Firesign Theatre was not just drug humor, in fact drugs were rarely directly mentioned. They were a million miles from the “Dave’s not here” humor of Cheech & Chong…only George Carlin came close to their cerebral word play. A lot of that came from the members backgrounds, as both Peter Bergman and Phil Proctor were Yale grads and Bergman had spent time working with Spike Jones on The Goon Show for the BBC, one of the launching pads for Peter Sellers and Monty Python as well. If you were to listen to a Firesign Theatre album it might include bits from James Joyce, William Shakespeare and Lenny Bruce, all within the same incredibly hilarious bit.
When the first Firesign album came out in 1968, Waiting For The Electrician or Someone Just Like Him, it was like no other comedy record before. For one thing,it was produced by a rock producer, Gary Usher. He was known for working with Iron Butterfly among others, and he brought rock-n-roll production tricks to the album. There were multiple tracks, special pan effects and fade outs, and a lot of the jokes were hidden behind the main dialogue. The results of this were that you could listen to the album repeatedly and still find new bits you hadn’t noticed before. And there was a single track on side two of the vinyl that was a surreal journey across what was apparently Turkey. Or at least it started with a language lesson where you were given three new words in Turkish : Towel, Bath & Border. The rest of the cut was a comedic journey to the opposite border where you were given three additional words. Until this album almost any comedy album out there was just a live recording of somebodies stand up routine, but this was a whole new world unto itself.
They followed that up with How Can You Be Two Places at Once When You’re Really Nowhere At All, this one also had just one cut on side two,”The Further Adventures Of Nick Danger”, a take off on the old radio detective serials as well as an homage to the Beatles. As well as the birth of one of their most endearing characters, hard boiled detective Nick Danger, Third Eye. But the follow up to that, Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers is generally considered to be their masterpiece, and their first album length story. And to this day, and after four decades of listening to it, I still can’t adequately describe just what that album is actually about. I can say that it is absolutely gut-busting hilarious, a stream of consciousness look at the life of one George Leroy Tyrebiter, apparently a character actor from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Or maybe not. Probably the best explanation of it comes from the Rolling Stone magazine review that came out at the time, done by one time Austin resident Ed Ward. Here’s a link to it :
I can’t say that I agree with every assessment made in the review, but that’s also the point, you have to take the time to try and figure it out for yourself…all while rolling on the floor laughing, not an easy task. And it’s also best to listen with headphones, as always a lot of the story is in the background dialogue. At one time Rolling Stone listed this album as one of their All Time Top 10 albums. Not top 10 comedy albums,the top 10 overall !
That was followed by I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus, an album decades ahead of it’s time. The protagonist in it,Uh-Clem, turns out to be a computer hacker who uses a backdoor to download a virus into the mainframe that runs a strange, Disney-esque amusement park known as The Future Fair. Except this was the early Seventies, there were no hackers, back-doors or viruses then. Computers were the size of rooms and ran on punch cards and huge tape reels. But that was another mainstay of the Firesign Theatre, they were way ahead of everybody and making jokes about situations that didn’t even exist yet. Because everything we knew was wrong……
There were many memorable albums after that, and a couple of forays into movies and video. Not all were under the Firesign Theatre name, some were under individual members names. One of the best examples of that is the cult video classic J-Men Forever which aired on the old NightFlight show in the early 80’s. That was under the name of Proctor & Bergman. Phil Austin and David Ossman also released side projects from time to time. This was due in part to a unique agreement they had set from the start, anything that went out under the name of Firesign Theatre had to be approved by all of the members and any one of them could blackball anything they didn’t like. And they did,quite regularly. So, as with any group of talented individuals, there were occasional bad feelings and temporary breakups, but always eventually they would come back together and work their magic. And magic it was.Their own nickname for the group was The Four or Five Guys Crazee Guys, the fifth guy being the collective persona that took over when they were all in the groove and making things happen, their individual personalities blending into one. But now, with the loss of Peter Bergman, that collective fifth guy is probably lost forever and it is doubtful that the Firesign Theatre will ever put out another album.
There was a tribute page set up for him almost immediately and hundreds, if not thousands of people have now signed in with their feelings about the loss, but more importantly about the impact that he and the group had made in their lives. It is well worth the time to read through some of the comments, the sentiments there express things far better than I ever could. There are comments from the famous and the ordinary, John Goodman and Robin Williams were huge fans, as well as Matt Groening and Chevy Chase. But it’s the thoughts from the many ordinary fans that really touched me, almost all speak of how coming across Firesign Theatre changed their lives forever, almost a mystical or religious conversion. That is the way it was for me, after first hearing them back in my high school days I never saw saw life the same way again. I learned to look for the absurdities of life, to laugh at them and to not let the random craziness of life get me down. Here’s a link to the tribute page, it is well worth a few minutes of time to see the incredible impact that a relatively unknown comic made on people’s lives :
We have lost one of the true American comedy geniuses. I personally put Peter Bergman up there with Groucho Marx, Milton Berle and Lenny Bruce. But his passing was barely noticed in the mainstream media, though there were glowing obituaries from The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, links to those are on the tribute page. He and his group changed American comedy in ways that most people will never realize. And he did it as a class act all the way to the end. Firesign Theatre’s final studio CD was 2001’s Bride of Firesign, since then he had been involved in some live shows with the group and recently reproduced his old Radio Free Oz show as a podcast, never one to be behind the times. His last broadcast was on political Super Tuesday, March 6th. His listeners that night had no idea that he was ill, he was being his usual funny self and making topical jokes about the Republican primaries. But when it came to sign off that night he left us with some incredible words. I want to end this piece with those words, as always no one can say it like Peter Bergman.
“Take heart, dear friends. We are passing through the darkening of the light.
We’re gonna make it and we’re going to make it together. Don’t get ground down
by cynicism. Don’t let depression darken the glass through which you look. This
is a garden we live in. A garden seeded with unconditional love. And the tears
of the oppressed, and the tears of the frustrated, and the tears of the good
will spring those seeds. The flag has been waived. It says occupy. Occupy Wall
Street. Occupy the banks. Occupy the nursing homes. Occupy Congress. Occupy the
big law offices. Occupy the lobbyists. Occupy…yourself. Because that’s were it
all comes together. I pledge to you, from this moment on, whatever it means, I’m
going to occupy myself.
I love you. See ya tomorrow.”