By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
|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.
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 Oxnardand 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 Electricianand Two Placesand the full lengths of Dwarfand 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.