I bought a couple of LPs for the collection back about 1970. One of them was Ellington at Newport. But when I removed the cellophane wrapper and placed the needle on the vinyl, instead of Duke’s piano, I heard this, in the Gatling-gun voice of a late-night, L.A. television, used-car salesman: “Hiya, Friends. Ralph Spoilsport, Ralph Spoilsport Motors, the world’s largest new-used and used-new automobile dealership, Ralph Spoilsport Motors, here in the City of Emphysema.”
They are the opening lines of Firesign Theatre’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All?, from 1969.
One of Firesign’s founding quartet, Peter Bergman, died last week, of complications of leukemia, at age 72. “Let’s just take a look at some of the extras on this fabulous car: sponge-coated edible steering column, two-way sneeze-through wind vents, chrome-studded fender dents – with doors to match!” In the second minute, our hero, who buys the car, switches a knob on the climate control and is transported instantly to ancient Egypt. In the company of W.C. Fields. Among others.
I have no idea how that record got into that album sleeve, but I consider it one of the great bits of luck in my life. Firesign Theatre, born of late-night improv on KPFK radio in Los Angeles, and manifest on a dozen comedy albums from the 60s on, became essential sonic liberal arts: an endless store of puns and one-liners, sly wise metaphysics and razor satire on politics and media in America in the second half of the 20th century.
This is really hard – trying to use the written word to convey a sense of what are densely packed radio plays. The New York Times called them “mind-boggling sound dramas” and “work of almost Joycean complexity.” On the page, you don’t get the giddy speed, or the glee in their voices.
Unlike television or movies, the images are conjured in one’s own mind. (Listening is best on the couch, in the dark. Ideally hearing it for the 50th time.) I can’t do the maze-like plots or the rapid banter justice, so I thought I’d pay tribute by recalling the endings of a few of the records. A random idea, but suitably Bergmanian.
How Can You Be in Two Places at Once winds down with our sodden hero randomly changing channels on the television (back when turning the knob made a click): an ad for Loosener’s Castor Oil Flakes; a Roman gladiator movie; a bad cop drama. And then, Ralph Spoilsport again. But this time he’s selling marijuana: “Our price to you, complete with sticks and stems, delivered by a brown-shoed square in the dead of night…only what the traffic will allow….”
And then, somehow, the voice goes all dreamy and stream-of-conscious, and we’re hearing a facsimile of the Molly Bloom soliloquy from Ulysses: “…yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes…and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
The flip side of that record, The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, is a relatively straight (for Firesign Theatre), Depression-era, radio detective story involving time travel, parallel universes and a Peter Lorre sound-alike: “Rocky Rococo, at your cervix.”
The chaos of the final scene is interrupted by a broadcast message from the President of the United States. It’s FDR announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, “Our rendezvous with destiny.” But this time he concludes with the news that Congress and the Chiefs of Staff have decided to “unconditionally surrender. And now, my wife and I would like to return with you for the thrilling conclusion of Private Nick Danger, Third Eye….”
Such is the power of radio.
In I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus (1971), our hero, a clown, travels to The Future Fair (“It’s just starting now.”) and not only breaks an amusement-park ride designed to look and sound like Richard Nixon, he also intentionally hacks into the park’s master computer, known as Doctor Memory, and shorts him out, too, with the question: “Do you remember the future, Doctor? Forget it.”
The record ends in a gypsy wagon, a much older traveling show, where everything we have just heard may have been foretold in the gypsy’s crystal ball. “Ah,” says a voice both soothing and deceptive, as the next customer approaches, “I see you are a sailor….”
When I think I want Peter Bergman to come back, to return and write more mysterious, imagination-sparking gems, I think of the ending to Everything You Know Is Wrong (1974). We’re listening to Happy Harry Cox, a desert-dwelling, alien-invasion, conspiracy-theory nutcase, recording “another in my series of mind-breaking records… Dogs flew spaceships! The Aztecs invented the vacation! Your brain is not the boss! Yes! That’s right! Everything you know is wrong!” In the end, when Cox is the only human being left – everyone else on the planet having jumped into an irresistible hole in the earth discovered by a motorcycle “daredemon” patterned on Evel Knievel (“Hey, there’s a golden light down there! And breakfast!”) – the aliens do arrive to bring us “a golden age of universal understanding.” But they leave right away when they see “there’s only one guy down there. Hello, Cox.”
“Seekers,” Cox tells us, his faithful listeners, after they’ve flown off, “I guess this is the end. Or is it…? No. It’s the end.”