Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers (1970)|
1970 Rolling Stone review reposted from Benway's House of Firesign
"This record is 14 years ahead of its time," say the Columbia ads for the
Firesign Theatre's latest epic creation. It's a cute headline for an adfor you
slower people out there, 1970 plus 14 equals.... Yeah, it took me a while to
catch on, too, But nice as the slogan is, I think I disagree. Because if you
take fourteen years to get what it's saying (no matter how long those fourteen
years may take), it's too late. In fact, there are many here among us who think
that it's already too late, although I'm not one of them. But this record
will send you coasting on gales of laughter to a very unpleasant realization:
time is running out.
The secret message of the Firesign's last album was that the United States
had lost its gigantic war against fascism, the one the history books have come
to call World War II. The point was never pushed, never even really emphasized,
but there it was, for you to discover if you could. This time they want you to
know for sure.
Before I go any further, I'm going to have to try to fill you in on the plot.
This is kind of difficult, because the Firesign Theatre uses records in a way
that nobody else has ever done. All media involving sound (movies, radio,
television, stage, real life) are present here, and the overlaps between them
are occasionally, and intentionally, quite blurry. Onward, now, to the story
line, such as it is.
The central character of this tale is one George Leroy Tirebiter, in all his
incarnations, factual and fictionala sort of Mr. Here Comes Everybody like
HCE(arwicker) in Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.
Tirebiter is asleep as the record fades in on his television, which is
featuring a classically Los Angelan revival service. Waking up hungry (perhaps
because of the revivalwhich is centered around food, an apparently scarce
commodity in the nightmare world that is about to unfold), he checks out the
refrigerator, finding only some Laughing Cow cheese and some mescaline. This is
hardly promising, so he calls a pizza joint, but they won't deliver in his
sector after curfew (sector? curfew??). His attention drifts back to the
television. The preacher is in the midst of handing out food to the faithful,
and George, upon asking, gets some too. On comes the news: The U.S. Government
has merged with TMZ General Corp., manufacturers of zinc bushings. Who needs
that? George switches around the various channels. George Tirebiter, running for
office. George Tirebiter, star of the "Porgie and Mudhead" movies, now an old
man, is on a quiz show. Ahhh, an old movie. It's "High School Madness!" a
Paranoid Pictures production, one of the old Porgie and Mudhead series.
(Incidentally, this sequence is loosely based on an old forgotten classic
series, the Henry Aldrich movies, which portrayed the "typical teens" of the
"High School Madness!" Porgie is going to graduate from high school today,
and his mother is cooking up some groatcakes for breakfast. His father, who has
recently changed his name to Adolph, is busily wolfing down his breakfast so he
can get back to defoliating his Victory Garden. "Don't eat with your hands, son,
use your entrenching tool!" "Aw, gee, Dad. It's not every day a guy graduates
from high school!" "(chuckle) How many times have I heard that before?"
But, whoops, it's too late for breakfastPorgie's buddy Mudhead is outside in
his car, ready to go. On the way to school, they wonder about what they'll do
after graduation. Porgie says, "With counter-subversive educational priorities
the way they are today, it really helps our side to re-enlist." There is a
flashback to a pep (pill) rally where the principal of More Science High is
about to speak. And speak he does, in some of the most ringing phrases since
Eisenhower, despite harassment from a bunch of Chicanos in the back, who keep
yelling out silly things like "Eat it raw" and "Fuck you," and "What is
reality?" (Of course, they've appeared briefly earlier, in the revival scene,
demanding more sugar. Damn Mexicans, all they do is cause trouble.) Fade back in
on Porgie and Mudhead. There is a screech of brakes. "Where are ya gonna
graduate from?" asks Mudhead. "Holy Mudhead, Mackerel! More Science High,
it's, it's disappeared!"
Fwwwzzzzzip. (pause) Tadah!
After some technical difficulties at the station get ironed out, the movie
continues: Bottles, Mudhead's crazy, hopped-up girlfriend knows where the high
school went. It was stolen by "those bullies at Commie Martyrs High School" as a
senior prank. Porgie dismisses this as nonsense, and suddenly there is a crowd
of students, mostly Mexicans, around the car. "You're a white man, Porgie.
Whaddya think we oughta do?" ("Speak English, Alvarado," one of his buddies
says, trying to help.) The principal, it seems, is on the radio. He urges them
to stay calm, adding that their welfare and insecurity will be assured by the
Department of Redundancy Department. "Now, don't get excited," says Porgie.
("Who's excited?" asks a Mexican voice from the back).
The video portion goes out. Switching of channels. Another old flick, this
one seemingly set in the Korean War. Pico and Alvarado have been out on patrol
for a long time. Silverberg won't go over Pork Chop Hillkilling pigs ain't
kosher, he says. Lt. Tirebiter tries to keep morale up. Something's moving in
Sector N. Quick, the password. "I'd better disguise my voice," and, in a WWII
propaganda-film Japanese voice: "You so smaht, who wunna Seconda Wulda Wah?" The
correct answer, "Not responsible," comes back. It's them. They're bushedthey've
been shooting reds and yellows all day. But the gooks are around them on three
sides. They've got women, children, animals, and tonight they'll all be out in
the paddies because it's the planting moon. The lieutenant outlines the plan,
finishing up with "Then we'll lock and load and go out there and ki-, ki-, ki- .
. ." "Hey, what're we gonna do, lieutenant?" "We're gonna go out there and ki-,
ki-, ki- ..." The voices mount in a crescendo, and we hear one voice yelling
"Porgie, Porgie, Porgie!"/Commercial. Switching channels, and there are Porgie
and Mudhead, at Communist Martyrs High School. It's dark inside, and suddenly
there's Bottles, inside with them. She goes in a door with a flashing red light
(after they encounter yet another Mexican), and there, broken up in pieces, each
of which is labelled, is More Science High. Not only that, but there is Mr.
Tirebiter, People's Commissioner Tirebiter now that he's won the election for
dogkiller. And there is Porgie, with his hand in Bottles' pants!
"Oyez, oyez, all rise for the courtroom scene, take one." "I'd like to take
one, too," admits Porgie, on trial now for his crime. His father is both defense
and prosecution, to make sure he is persecuted to the full extent of the law.
"That's my dad!" says Porgie proudly. And Mudhead is called to the stand"That
one over there," says Mr. Tirebiter (and there's Alvarado"Don't point at me,
Daddy-o; I'll cut off yer finger.").
And suddenly (are you still with me?) we're in Lt. Tirebiter's court-martial.
"Sir, you never told me I'd have to go out there and kill anybody." "...
We will not tolerate the use of prohibited language in these courts-martials
And back to Porgie's trial. Mudhead defends Porgie for being in Commie
Martyrs, because he was looking for his high schoolotherwise he couldn't get
out. "So he was trying to get out?" "Isn't everybody?" "GET OUT in times of
declared emergency ..." Porgie: "What emergency?" Prosecutor: "You see,
judge, Youth here apparently doesn't know about the disappearance of the old
school!" "But that's what Porgie was looking for!"
And to the court-martial. Tirebiter, in a rage, chews out the judge and
announces that he's walking off the set! "You'll never work in this town
again, Tirebiter" thunders the judge. And his agent goes out the door to try and
get him to come back.
And to Porgie's trial. Porgie admits that he doesn't have any friends at
Commie Martyrs. In fact, nobody's ever seen anybody from there. And now
there's no room because it's all filled up with More Science, (You may now ask
yourself: How can you be in two places at once when you're not anyplace at all?)
And the kids, it develops, are all in Korea. And Porgie discovers he's been lied
to. "Say," he asks, "whose movie is this?" "This is no movie, this is
Lt. Tirebiter asks, "Which reel?"
And with his sage advice ...
I can say no more.
* * *
If you're already familiar with the record, you will notice some slight
confusions in the above, especially as regards the sequence of events, although
I don't believe there are many serious errors. (That's what I get for trying to
reconstruct it mostly from memory.)
At any rate, the story is only a very small part of the story. The world that
is broadcasting itself into Tirebiter's television is the real story. Is it
merely a clever satire on today? Is it merely a might-have-been exercise in
Some speculations follow:
Nobody won the war. Germany developed atomic weapons, and we worked out some
kind of deal so that they wouldn't invade us. Japan, well, Japan is scarcely
mentioned. The Japanese-Americans are still in their campsafter all, it's
easier to deal with them that way. The locale of the actionall of the actionin
the story is Los Angeles. Communist Martyrs High School is in Exposition Park
(?), and the Lieutenant says of Pico and Alvarado "If they can find their way
outta East L.A. (a predominantly Mexican neighborhood), they can find their way
back into this gook valley." Television/Tirebiter lives "in the hills," where
nobody will deliver after curfew. The society is pretty permissive; Tirebiter
has his mescaline in the fridge, after all ...
Consumer goods have evolved incredibly into gross exaggerations of their
present-day selves. Imagine buying a tub of slaw. Or the appliance that a woman
wins on a "Let's Make A Deal"-type show: "Two shelves where none are needed
andclose the door, and the light! stays! ON!" The mass of the
population, though, is poorgroats are a common food, and, as all you parakeet
lovers out there already know, they are a low grade form of oats, milled very
coarsely. The old Tirebiter on the quiz show slavers for groat-clusters, as do
the masses at the revival meeting. A commercial for Ersatz Brothers coffee
describes it as being made from "finest Brazilian soya beans, Chilean chicory
nuts, and Spanish Fly," and then is touted as "Ersatz Brothers Coffeethe
How do we deal with a society like this? How does one remain human in it?
Politics, by this time (fourteen years, remember), is outhow can it be viable
when More Science and Commie Martyrs are in the same place at once, and that
place isn't anything at all??? Remember, Mudhead's never even seen
anybody from there. Well, Lt. Tirebiter is the first to discover it, and, having
done that, walks through several studio lots to the sound stage where Porgie is
on trial and hips him to ityou leave the set. You ignore its existence.
("You'll never work in this town again, Tirebiter!" "What town?")
You say you don't want to do that?
Get crackin,' buddy. You got fourteen years.
And that's being generous.
* * *
The Firesign Theatre is making history. Not only the fictional history
outlined above, but real here-and-now history, They are working in a medium that
almost nobody else has even begun to explore, Further, they have synthesized all
of the facets of their art into an approach that is unique in entertainment
history, mainly because there has never before been so much entertainment
history to draw from. Their use of the recording medium is light years beyond
anyone else's. The very least they should get for this is an Academy Award.
If most of this review seems addled, it is because there seems to be so much
to say about this record. To call it one of the most important longplaying discs
ever released is too much like hype. To try to explain the story and its
ramifications is almost impossibleyou have to listen to it and have your
friends listen to it and take it from there. To try and interpret its message is
superfluous or is it?
The Firesign Theatre has something very important to say, and in order to say
it they have gathered together every loose end in the place and have constructed
a tightly-knit presentation that entertains as it chills. The techniques are as
modern as today (there's a message there, too, methinks), and it's all there for
you to experience time and again. You owe it to yourself, your school, and your
country to listen to them. (RS 68)