You Called It Madness

When uke-strumming, falsetto-keening, raven-tressed bizarro Tiny Tim erupted from Greenwich Village obscurity to international stardom, he was a phenomenon as unique as he was inevitable. Almost overnight, Tiny Tim had it all -- entire fan magazines devoted to him, his very own Milton-Bradley board game, a full-length hardcover biography published by Playboy Press, and movie and TV appearances, including that infamous on-air wedding to Miss Vicki, which drew the highest ratings The Tonight Show ever enjoyed. Tiny Tim was, right up until his onstage collapse and subsequent death in 1996, one of the most deliberately unorthodox and thoroughly mad geniuses of American pop culture.

His 1968 Reprise debut, God Bless Tiny Tim, was a sensation, a concept album of cultural mutations on solid par with either Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds. (Doubt it? You’ve probably never sat down and listened to the damn thing.) Among the Tin Pan Alley hearts-and-flowers trills, the record featured apocalyptic visions (”The Ice Caps Are Melting“), some extravagant proto-psychedelic imagery (he wants ”a champagne fountain sizzling at my feet“), a trip to Hades (”Stay Down Here Where You Belong“) and his wild ”a little duet with myself“ send-up of ”I Got You Babe.“ Contemporary pop music was taken completely by surprise, and completely taken in.

Born Herbert Khaury in Brooklyn circa 1932, Tim had been wearing his hair shoulder-length since the early 1950s, performing under a variety of richly metaphorical stage names (Judas K. Foxglove, for one) in a series of weird venues -- at one point working in Hubert‘s Museum, a subterranean 42nd Street flea circus. An obsessive walking jukebox of antiquated pop tunes who often announced not only the artist and label but also the release number of the original disc, Tiny Tim mixed separate and distinct male and female voices, a seemingly limitless repertoire, and a ratty thrift-store wardrobe to create an entirely separate reality. He had, during his many years of ignominy, cultivated a rumpled propriety and exaggeratedly formal manner; after worldwide fame was thrust upon him, he wore these like a cloak to keep the harsh elements of real life away, insulation for his odd vision’s purity.

The fact that he was able to find popular context at such a tempestuous point in America is hardly surprising (the rise in recreational drug use doubtless aided his cause), but the actual artistic weight and value Tiny Tim represented has yet to be either recognized or fully understood. To finally hear his fabled Albert Hall show (considered the high point of his performing career) is flat-out exhilarating, capturing as it does a never-to-be-repeated confluence of highly unusual occurrences. Albert Hall, after all, was hardly a regular stop on the American pop circuit. To play London‘s Palladium was a prestige gig, but landing on this stage surpassed even a Carnegie Hall appearance. It was a giant step up (reflected by the fact that members of the Beatles and Rolling Stones attended), and his performance fully matched the grandeur of the setting.

With the 39-piece National Concert Orchestra led by his studio producer, Richard Perry, Tiny Tim covers a wide variety of material, meticulously describing the various ”swoona-croonas“ and ”soft singers“ who originally introduced each number. Performing most all of the God Bless album, he mixes in a handful of standards and frequent divergences into trademark solo-voice-and-uke treatments of severely obscure oldies. The charm of a segue between narcissistic novelties ”I Love Me (I’m Wild About Myself)“ and ”I Wonder How I Look When I‘m Sleeping“ is difficult to put across in print, but Tiny Tim sells ’em like a master hustler. With the disarming setup his weirdly shabby image projected, his blindingly sunny, upbeat warbling of archaic ditties like ”A Little Smile Will Go a Long, Long Way“ has a resonance matched only by the shrewdly calculated nature of his entire presentation.

Tiny Tim had much more going than mere cunning shtick; as he wrote in that evening‘s program, ”The spirits of the singers whose songs I do are living within me. That’s why the songs come out in the voices of the original singers. I‘m not doing imitations. That’s the way they sound inside me.“ He was completely serious, and the real knockouts here are his eerily effective channeling. He is Al Jolson on ”I Gave Her That“; his straight-ahead performance of Russ Colombo‘s ”You Called It Madness (But I Call It Love)“ is a devastating example of balladry; and, switching to guitar (!) on a great old Ernest Tubb number, ”Love Is No Excuse,“ he takes an extraordinary side trip to country (”One of my rare numbers,“ he announces, ”from back when I was known as Texarkana Tex“) wherein his voice and phrasing are entirely changed. The weirdest part of it is, he sounds not like the then-still-living Tubb but exactly like dead honky-tonk pioneer Rex Griffin -- and the result is mesmerizing.

Part showman, part spiritual conjurer, full-time oddball, Tiny Tim, who was more often ridiculed than embraced, makes it clear with this performance that his talent was far more than just skill, craft and entertainment. His was an immense power, captured here in all its outlandish glory.

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