Between 1968 and the mid-'70s, the Firesign Theatre's albums -- unique long-form psychedelic radio dramas that lampooned the movement as well as the monuments of the contemporary scene -- contributed as much to the counterculture meme stream as The Beatles and Bob Dylan. To this day, thousands of people of a certain age can quote classic phrases - "You may sit here in the waiting room, or you may wait here in the sitting room"; "May I see your passport, please?" "I think we're all bozos on this bus"; or just the name "Audrey Farber" -- and spot kindred souls in a roomful of strangers by the knowing looks or followup lines that come back at you.
The LA-based troupe's 1993 25th-anniversary reunion tour was a warmly-welcomed curtain call, reprising their finest work before delirious audiences. Inspired by the turnout and excited to be working together again, the quartet -- David Ossman, Philip Austin, Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman -- have teamed up again for their first full-length, full-strength collaboration in more than 15 years: Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death, released September 8 on Rhino Records.
I was excited and a little bit apprehensive about the idea of a new release from the Firesign Theatre. So many reunions are business-driven train wrecks of forced bonhomie, cashing in on brand identity with little or no concern for history, artistic quality or personal integrity. Fans who once based personal philosophies on their icons' output turn away in embarrassment, and their kids wonder what Dad could have been thinking (or smoking). The Firesign Theatre's voices and characters and ideas are woven deeply and warmly into the fabric of my consciousness; I needed their new stuff to be valid. I fed the disc to my home entertainment center and then sat back as the madness unfolded.
I was not disappointed. I was thrilled. I found myself laughing hard, and feeling relieved and then proud. I was right about these guys, and they've still got it! This is smart, funny, weirdly cool stuff.
Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death is a return to form for the Firesign Theatre, more than two decades after their last great album, the 1974 New Age send-up Everything You Know Is Wrong. Like most of their best work (all on Columbia Records, briefly reissued on CD by Mobile Fidelity, and all unjustly out of print), the new disc projects the zeitgeist into a foreseeably jaundiced future, with deeply satiric and risibly plausible results -- today's popcult obsessions tomorrow.
The scene is a radio station on the last day of the Millennium. The format of RadioNow (a subsidiary of US Plus -- "We own the idea of America") changes several times a day. "Souped Up, Suggestive, Desensitized, Bite Me, Environmental NowRadio" becomes "Extreme, No Sense of Humor, Aggressive, In Your Face, NowRadio," later giving way to "Detoxified, Gender-Blind, Re-Babble-ized, Up All Night Talk Radio," and so on. But it's all the same people delivering the same traffic, sports, conspiracy talk and psychobabble.
The CD opens with some disorienting sounds that turn out to be (surprise!) a radio commercial. A woman -- Mrs. Caroline Presky, who first appeared as a game-show contestant in Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers ("but-but... This is a bag of shit!") is jarred awake by the radio and yanked directly from dreamland into the spot and the plot. Soon she is tying up traffic in her Y2K-addled car ("It's the motherboard under the hood! It's going zeroes!"), catching the attention of Captain Happy Pandit in the NowChopper.
We're in the midst of a news drought, but celebrity deification is going full-tilt. Celebrity stalker Danny Vanilla gets close to "Princess Goddess," the recently deceased symbol of noble compassion living on in a new incarnation as a digital talking doll and the star/subject of a biopic titled "Pull My String." Georgewillian pundits offer bland and condescending reassurance to ignorant and superstitious plebes on "Hullo, Don't Worry." And the sports talk guy touts junior-high soccer and sticks up for violence in sports ("Hey, you don't want to see it? Get yourself blinded!").
Some of the funniest stuff is almost thrown away in the tumult -- "celeberazzis taking pictures of themselves"; "the reunion of the Rolling Dead"; "the fall line of the House of Usher"; sentient traffic helicopters mating in midair -- and that's what makes Firesign Theatre records worth listening to several times.
Other characters from past Firesign works are present in Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death, and they are anything but gratuitous walk-ons. The craven, dimwitted happy-talk news team from Everything You Know Is Wrong, Ray Hamburger and Harold Hiphugger, are here, and of course Ralph Spoilsport is still in business! He's selling body parts these days: "Yes, you can live forever while your friends fall apart around you like rotten fruit. And here's how: Lease an organ or limb from our Headless Body Farm. It's made in America, from Americans!"
The Millennium -- a great non-Apocalypse -- is a perfect subject for the Firesign treatment. These eyeball hats play a role; they keep turning up, eliciting all sorts of tell-tale reactions from the characters. What, if anything, do they portend? At one point, the Chumpster is sufficiently spooked that he locks himself into a studio; later, he calls in to O'Nann Winkiedink's ("an old hand at self-love") masturbation talk show, looking for some assistance in gaining release.
As the broadcast day progresses, traffic reports and news items and even the commercials lurch toward this vaguely millennial event (cum Pull My String promotion) at Homeless Stadium. Along the way we meet "Disgraced icon Joe Camel, " who "had to climb down from his last billboard this morning before a jeering mob of addicts and ex-children." He'll crash the stage at Homeless Stadium before the day is through to deliver a rambling, self-serving farewell, followed by a tearful catharsis from sports-babbler Threads.
The Firesigns are so hip to the forms of this medium -- and so adept at voicing them -- that they can pack huge laughs and subtle secrets into something as mundane as a traffic report: "That's going to block the Quadruple Bypass, clog every major artery into the city."
It doesn't all work -- or maybe I should say all the bits haven't divulged their deeper contents yet. A recurring phrase in the US Plus spots and elsewhere -- "a pig that looks like a locomotive and tastes like flowers!" -- doesn't seem to go anywhere, though it works just fine as the meaningless corporate blather it appears to be on the surface. And the "Unconscious Village" spots are a little too self-consciously weird to be as weirdly cool as they purport to be. But these are minor quibbles, and I'm prepared be enlightened by further nuances down the line.
It's probably not a good idea to over-think this stuff; no need to draw firm conclusions when the possibilities are so numerous and intriguing. The Firesign Theatre works on so many levels that you're never sure where your next laugh is coming from.
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