Friday, March 09, 2012

You're Confused, the Horizon is Moving Up!

One less bozo on this bus. Peter Bergman, one of my heroes from adolescence, passed away this morning.

On its Facebook page, the Firesign Theatre announced that Peter Bergman, one of its four company members since the group's earliest performances on Los Angeles radio, died today from complications related to leukemia. He was 73 years old.

My parents made an occasion of sitting me down in front of the record player and having me listen to my first Firesign Theatre album when I was 12 or 13 years old. The album was How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All (1969), and it was audio theatre as I had scarcely dared imagine it. As summarized on the Firesign Theatre's home page:

The title track, which follows a babe in the woods as Climate Control draws him into a revisionist hysterical Americana travelogue/propaganda montage, is bookended by the omnipresent Ralph Spoilsport. It's Homer's Odyssey and Joyce's Ulysses in the blender of popular culture, set to puree. This segues into "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger," a classic parody of golden-age radio theater and one of Firesign's most enduring creations. This segues into (go back to the beginning).

Yes, and more than that, even. I was hooked. Obsessed. And this album is what I thought of as soon as I heard that Peter Bergman was gone.

Bergman played the central character in a hilarious odyssey fitting on one side of an LP. It starts with Ralph Spoilsport doing a car commercial, when Bergman's character shows up and immediately buys a car. It appears to be an RV, absurdly large and equipped with a magical "climate control" device that instantly transports him into different lands. He meets up with a group of irritating and inept explorers, who end up following him into the Land of the Pharaohs. At one point he complains that he wants to go home and the sun is setting, and one of the explorers (who sounds exactly like W.C. Fields) says, "No, you're confused... the horizon is moving up!" To prove it, they decide to stand him on his head. He then falls and someone complains, "He's no fun, he fell right over."

And that's just the beginning of an adventure that takes him through a pyramid into a surrealistic tour through U.S. history, and ends with Ralph Spoilsport talking about marijuana and reciting Joyce.

On the flip side, we had the first recorded adventure of Nick Danger, "Third Eye," a private eye in the mold of classic radio-noir, with Bergman playing his foil, police lieutenant Bradshaw. At one point in this seemingly-unrelated story, the A side of the record begins to infiltrate.

It blew my mind. This was as if Thomas Pynchon had written for Monty Python. I devoured all of the early Firesign albums, listening to them over and over again. They kept on working together right up until today, doing podcasts and videos and occasional spots for NPR's All Things Considered. Famously, they recorded a Thanksgiving piece entitled "Pass the Indian, Please" in 2002 that NPR refused to air. NPR called it "incomprehensible" but in my own opinion, it was too subversive. (You can hear it and judge for yourself by visiting this page and scrolling down a bit.)

Peter Bergman was a Yale graduate who taught economics, and started improvising radio broadcasts with the other members of Firesign in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. (When I lived in Los Angeles, I had to listen to these albums all over again -- there are so many local references!) We have lost one hilarious genius.

So Peter Bergman has passed on from this absurd planet, and I am enjoying a fantasy of him emerging in that tropical paradise from How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All, meeting up with those wisecracking explorers in pith helmets.

This video contains three excerpts from that album, starting with Babe's first drive in his new car and trying out that chromium switch...

And if that has you intrigued, why not go back to their first album and listen to it in its entirety? Here is Waiting For The Electrician or Someone Like Him (1968), an amazing satire of european colonialism, 1960s counterculture, television, and a bizarre Kafka-esque fantasy on the B side.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I, too, was delightfully devastated by Firesign back in the day. They had an impact on my writing, in terms of trying to loosen up more, be funnier, and weave in more plot threads.

"What is reality?"

Al Sirois