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Firesigns of Life 

The search continues: Set your clocks forward

Wednesday, Dec 5 2001
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Photo by Rocky Schenck

It’s a Saturday night at the end of November, and I’m sitting in the control booth of a small recording studio in West L.A., watching and listening as the four members of psychedelic-era alternative-comedy pioneer the Firesign Theatre perform their second live two-hour show, Fools in Space, for the much-hyped satellite radio network XM. Beamed to the network’s twin geostationary orbiting transmission modules “Rock” and “Roll,” the pristine digital signal reaches everywhere in the contiguous United States — a far cry from the Firesigns’ first heyday, when edited programs on vinyl were mailed out to a few hundred hippie-held FM stations. “When we started, the media was suddenly very free and in need of content,” recalls senior Firesign David Ossman. “With this jump to satellite radio, XM has given us carte blanche, and that’s very much the way we went on the air in the first place — do what you do. So we have the opportunity once again to do what we do.”

As chance would have it, I am present on the 35th anniversary of the first Firesign Theatre broadcast on L.A.’s Pacifica station KPFK, where station cronies Ossman and Phil Austin joined Peter “The Wizard” Bergman for his popular underground show Radio Free Oz, alongside Bergman’s replanted ex-Yalie theater cohort Phil Proctor. Something clicked that night, and the four began performing and writing together regularly, producing innovative radio broadcasts, first locally, then for syndication on the briefly burgeoning underground radio network of the early ’70s. Within six months of that 1966 broadcast, the group was recording what was to become its first Columbia album, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, which, along with subsequent and increasingly popular Firesign albums, also made its way onto the airwaves.

But as radio formats narrowed their scope, opportunities to work experimentally diminished. “There was some pre-taped stuff for NPR in the ’80s,” says Austin. “But it must be 20 or 25 years since we sat down face-to-face to do live radio. What’s surprising is how quickly it came back.” This is obvious in the broadcast I am witnessing — the group’s timing and sensitivity to one another’s improvisational nuances is remarkable. New material is broken up with recent live re-creations of classic Firesign routines and decades-old recordings of original Radio Free Oz broadcasts. If I weren’t watching through the control-room window, I wouldn’t be able to tell the different eras apart.

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The monthly slot on XM’s Comedy Channel 150 is but one aspect of a wave of renewed interest in Firesign that has been building since their first reunion tour in 1992. Just listing the amount of new activity the group has undertaken is daunting — in addition to the radio show, their first-ever TV special, Weirdly Cool, highlights PBS pledge drives from coast to coast this week. Sony Legacy has just reissued the group’s first four Columbia LPs on CD, eliminating the need to shell out $50 a pop on eBay for the 10-year-old Mobile Fidelity limited-edition reissues. The September 4 release of The Bride of Firesign on Rhino completed the group’s ambitious “Millennium trilogy” that began with the Grammy-nominated Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death. Whirlwind has released two classic Firesign film projects — perennial noir detective character Nick Danger in The Yokes of Oxnard and 1972’s live Martian Space Party — on a single DVD, as well as the reunion performance document Back From the Shadows. Powerhouse agency ICM is organizing a Firesign tour for the fall of 2002. In addition to all this, a wealth of semi-authorized unreleased material, including radio-transcription discs and live recordings from the ’70s, has recently seen the light of day, and the group has begun to consolidate much of this archival material on its own fledgling label, Firesign Theatre Records.

Weirdly Cool, which will be seen on more than 50 PBS stations this month, may kick things to another level altogether. Hopes are high that the group, long the center of a cultlike following of cognoscenti, will finally receive the kind of attention enjoyed by the SNL generation they inspired. “The fact that 2 or 3 million people are going to see me over the next week is amazing,” admits Bergman. “I really don’t know how to deal with that. Am I going to have to start wearing dark glasses when I go to the supermarket? Is this my last free supermarket Sunday? I’d better go now!”

The video itself is essentially their greatest hits performed live, interspersed with bits of vintage footage and endorsements from John Goodman, Robin Williams, George Carlin and Chevy Chase. There are enough twists on the familiar material to keep it interesting for fans, and the truncated versions of old chestnuts like Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers and How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Really Nowhere at All? shift the emphasis from the convoluted postmodern narrative structures of the originals to the more immediately comprehensible performative comedic layer.

Whether or not the big broadcast triggers a critical mass of popular acceptance for the Firesigns, the collateral redemption of their artistic legacy is ensured. The first four albums constitute nothing less than one of the greatest art projects of the 20th century, a densely interwoven, organically and collaboratively composed tetralogy that ignores boundaries between comedy, literature, sound art and radio storytelling. Through half a side each of Electrician and Two Places and the full lengths of Dwarf and its follow-up, I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus, the mutable everyman protagonist (from P to Babe to George to Ah-Clem, respectively) undertakes a classic heroic journey that begins at a Turkish border crossing and passes through a baffling array of hallucinatory electronic trials and temptations, before Ah-Clem finally plants a viral depth charge in the computer-generated “government-inflicted simulation” that proceeds to unravel the whole bed of consumer cultural consensus on which the epic has been predicated.

The complexity of the work, while guaranteeing its longevity, has also frustrated listeners, who sometimes dismiss it as unintelligible, drug-addled verbal riffing. But repeated listenings are rewarding; like all great art, it seems to contain inexhaustible richness and displays correspondences that the artists couldn’t have consciously intended. “Our most recent album, The Bride of Firesign, did have some predictive moments that after the horrors of the 11th became clear to us,” confides Proctor. “There’s this line in there, ‘Does this mean war?,’ and this 666-story tower — the FunFun Needle — is struck by lightning and is described as a shell at the end of the album. It’s spooky.” The generally spooky Bride album, based on a late-night Chiller Monster Horror TV template, collapses much of the group’s oeuvre into a single post-historical adventure — Nick Danger, Peorgie and Mudhead and other favorites reappear in what seems to be a subtle jibe at the group’s reference-hungry fanboys. At the same time, the album is Firesign’s most L.A.-centric, containing satirical barbs aimed at Frank Gehry, Huell Howser and other locals-only targets. In spite of this, it’s the most audience-friendly Firesign album in a while, especially following the almost too dead-on mimicry of AM radio soundscapes on Boom Dot Bust and Immortality.

Such a sustained burst of activity holds a deep significance for the tottering boomers who made up the Firesigns’ original audience. Conceived by Bergman as a “Beatles of comedy,” the group followed through on this concept by breaking up and releasing inferior solo albums as the visionary hopefulness of the ’60s was swallowed by the cynical isolationism of the following decades. But where the Beatles failed, even despite their ghoulish 1990s attempt at reanimation, the Firesigns have succeeded: back from the dead and bigger than ever, producing topnotch work that rivals their youthful, drug-fueled peak. Implicit in their revival is the idea that the widespread current of American psychedelic anti-authoritarianism that kindled the hippie movement isn’t buried under the rubble of Kent State, the Spahn Ranch and Altamont, but has been incubating deep underground, awaiting its moment. There is an air of finality to the Bride CD, a tying-up of loose ends that suggests the group might be getting ready to call it a career. And it would be a plausible conjecture — they have, after all, demonstrated materially that whatever magic they had going in the glory days remains available in the here and now — if they weren’t obviously having so much fun.

Weirdly Cool will be broadcast on KOCE, Saturday, December 8, at 10 p.m.

The Bride of Firesign is available from Rhino Records.

Further product and info: www.xmradio.com and www.firesigntheatre.com

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