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Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers
1970 - Don't Crush that Dwarf, hand me the pliers: Columbia C 30102
Taking us through a surreal, paradoxical, hilarious world, DCTDHMTP is a
masterpiece of modern comedy. Including commercial and television show parodies
that make me laugh painfully hard every time I hear them, this album is by far
one of the best ones to own.
From the RollingStone:
"This record is 14 years ahead of its time," say the Columbia ads for the Firesign Theatre's latest epic creation. It's a cute headline for an ad—for you slower people out there, 1970 plus 14 equals.... Yeah, it took me a while to catch on, too, But nice as the slogan is, I think I disagree. Because if you take fourteen years to get what it's saying (no matter how long those fourteen years may take), it's too late. In fact, there are many here among us who think that it's already too late, although I'm not one of them. But this record will send you coasting on gales of laughter to a very unpleasant realization: time is running out.
The secret message of the Firesign's last album was that the United States had lost its gigantic war against fascism, the one the history books have come to call World War II. The point was never pushed, never even really emphasized, but there it was, for you to discover if you could. This time they want you to know for sure.
Before I go any further, I'm going to have to try to fill you in on the plot. This is kind of difficult, because the Firesign Theatre uses records in a way that nobody else has ever done. All media involving sound (movies, radio, television, stage, real life) are present here, and the overlaps between them are occasionally, and intentionally, quite blurry. Onward, now, to the story line, such as it is.
The central character of this tale is one George Leroy Tirebiter, in all his incarnations, factual and fictional—a sort of Mr. Here Comes Everybody like HCE(arwicker) in Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.
Tirebiter is asleep as the record fades in on his television, which is featuring a classically Los Angelan revival service. Waking up hungry (perhaps because of the revival—which is centered around food, an apparently scarce commodity in the nightmare world that is about to unfold), he checks out the refrigerator, finding only some Laughing Cow cheese and some mescaline. This is hardly promising, so he calls a pizza joint, but they won't deliver in his sector after curfew (sector? curfew??). His attention drifts back to the television. The preacher is in the midst of handing out food to the faithful, and George, upon asking, gets some too. On comes the news: The U.S. Government has merged with TMZ General Corp., manufacturers of zinc bushings. Who needs that? George switches around the various channels. George Tirebiter, running for office. George Tirebiter, star of the "Porgie and Mudhead" movies, now an old man, is on a quiz show. Ahhh, an old movie. It's "High School Madness!" a Paranoid Pictures production, one of the old Porgie and Mudhead series. (Incidentally, this sequence is loosely based on an old forgotten classic series, the Henry Aldrich movies, which portrayed the "typical teens" of the Forties.)
"High School Madness!" Porgie is going to graduate from high school today, and his mother is cooking up some groatcakes for breakfast. His father, who has recently changed his name to Adolph, is busily wolfing down his breakfast so he can get back to defoliating his Victory Garden. "Don't eat with your hands, son, use your entrenching tool!" "Aw, gee, Dad. It's not every day a guy graduates from high school!" "(chuckle) How many times have I heard that before?" But, whoops, it's too late for breakfast—Porgie's buddy Mudhead is outside in his car, ready to go. On the way to school, they wonder about what they'll do after graduation. Porgie says, "With counter-subversive educational priorities the way they are today, it really helps our side to re-enlist." There is a flashback to a pep (pill) rally where the principal of More Science High is about to speak. And speak he does, in some of the most ringing phrases since Eisenhower, despite harassment from a bunch of Chicanos in the back, who keep yelling out silly things like "Eat it raw" and "Fuck you," and "What is reality?" (Of course, they've appeared briefly earlier, in the revival scene, demanding more sugar. Damn Mexicans, all they do is cause trouble.) Fade back in on Porgie and Mudhead. There is a screech of brakes. "Where are ya gonna graduate from?" asks Mudhead. "Holy Mudhead, Mackerel! More Science High, it's, it's disappeared!"
Fwwwzzzzzip. (pause) Tadah!
After some technical difficulties at the station get ironed out, the movie continues: Bottles, Mudhead's crazy, hopped-up girlfriend knows where the high school went. It was stolen by "those bullies at Commie Martyrs High School" as a senior prank. Porgie dismisses this as nonsense, and suddenly there is a crowd of students, mostly Mexicans, around the car. "You're a white man, Porgie. Whaddya think we oughta do?" ("Speak English, Alvarado," one of his buddies says, trying to help.) The principal, it seems, is on the radio. He urges them to stay calm, adding that their welfare and insecurity will be assured by the Department of Redundancy Department. "Now, don't get excited," says Porgie. ("Who's excited?" asks a Mexican voice from the back).
The video portion goes out. Switching of channels. Another old flick, this one seemingly set in the Korean War. Pico and Alvarado have been out on patrol for a long time. Silverberg won't go over Pork Chop Hill—killing pigs ain't kosher, he says. Lt. Tirebiter tries to keep morale up. Something's moving in Sector N. Quick, the password. "I'd better disguise my voice," and, in a WWII propaganda-film Japanese voice: "You so smaht, who wunna Seconda Wulda Wah?" The correct answer, "Not responsible," comes back. It's them. They're bushed—they've been shooting reds and yellows all day. But the gooks are around them on three sides. They've got women, children, animals, and tonight they'll all be out in the paddies because it's the planting moon. The lieutenant outlines the plan, finishing up with "Then we'll lock and load and go out there and ki-, ki-, ki- . . ." "Hey, what're we gonna do, lieutenant?" "We're gonna go out there and ki-, ki-, ki- ..." The voices mount in a crescendo, and we hear one voice yelling "Porgie, Porgie, Porgie!"/Commercial. Switching channels, and there are Porgie and Mudhead, at Communist Martyrs High School. It's dark inside, and suddenly there's Bottles, inside with them. She goes in a door with a flashing red light (after they encounter yet another Mexican), and there, broken up in pieces, each of which is labelled, is More Science High. Not only that, but there is Mr. Tirebiter, People's Commissioner Tirebiter now that he's won the election for dogkiller. And there is Porgie, with his hand in Bottles' pants!
"Oyez, oyez, all rise for the courtroom scene, take one." "I'd like to take one, too," admits Porgie, on trial now for his crime. His father is both defense and prosecution, to make sure he is persecuted to the full extent of the law. "That's my dad!" says Porgie proudly. And Mudhead is called to the stand—"That one over there," says Mr. Tirebiter (and there's Alvarado—"Don't point at me, Daddy-o; I'll cut off yer finger.").
And suddenly (are you still with me?) we're in Lt. Tirebiter's court-martial. "Sir, you never told me I'd have to go out there and kill anybody." "... We will not tolerate the use of prohibited language in these courts-martials ..."
And back to Porgie's trial. Mudhead defends Porgie for being in Commie Martyrs, because he was looking for his high school—otherwise he couldn't get out. "So he was trying to get out?" "Isn't everybody?" "GET OUT in times of declared emergency ..." Porgie: "What emergency?" Prosecutor: "You see, judge, Youth here apparently doesn't know about the disappearance of the old school!" "But that's what Porgie was looking for!"
And to the court-martial. Tirebiter, in a rage, chews out the judge and announces that he's walking off the set! "You'll never work in this town again, Tirebiter" thunders the judge. And his agent goes out the door to try and get him to come back.
And to Porgie's trial. Porgie admits that he doesn't have any friends at Commie Martyrs. In fact, nobody's ever seen anybody from there. And now there's no room because it's all filled up with More Science, (You may now ask yourself: How can you be in two places at once when you're not anyplace at all?) And the kids, it develops, are all in Korea. And Porgie discovers he's been lied to. "Say," he asks, "whose movie is this?" "This is no movie, this is real."
Lt. Tirebiter asks, "Which reel?"
And with his sage advice ...
I can say no more.
* * *
If you're already familiar with the record, you will notice some slight confusions in the above, especially as regards the sequence of events, although I don't believe there are many serious errors. (That's what I get for trying to reconstruct it mostly from memory.)
At any rate, the story is only a very small part of the story. The world that is broadcasting itself into Tirebiter's television is the real story. Is it merely a clever satire on today? Is it merely a might-have-been exercise in speculative fiction?
Some speculations follow:
Nobody won the war. Germany developed atomic weapons, and we worked out some kind of deal so that they wouldn't invade us. Japan, well, Japan is scarcely mentioned. The Japanese-Americans are still in their camps—after all, it's easier to deal with them that way. The locale of the action—all of the action—in the story is Los Angeles. Communist Martyrs High School is in Exposition Park (?), and the Lieutenant says of Pico and Alvarado "If they can find their way outta East L.A. (a predominantly Mexican neighborhood), they can find their way back into this gook valley." Television/Tirebiter lives "in the hills," where nobody will deliver after curfew. The society is pretty permissive; Tirebiter has his mescaline in the fridge, after all ...
Consumer goods have evolved incredibly into gross exaggerations of their present-day selves. Imagine buying a tub of slaw. Or the appliance that a woman wins on a "Let's Make A Deal"-type show: "Two shelves where none are needed and—close the door, and the light! stays! ON!" The mass of the population, though, is poor—groats are a common food, and, as all you parakeet lovers out there already know, they are a low grade form of oats, milled very coarsely. The old Tirebiter on the quiz show slavers for groat-clusters, as do the masses at the revival meeting. A commercial for Ersatz Brothers coffee describes it as being made from "finest Brazilian soya beans, Chilean chicory nuts, and Spanish Fly," and then is touted as "Ersatz Brothers Coffee—the rceeeal one."
How do we deal with a society like this? How does one remain human in it? Politics, by this time (fourteen years, remember), is out—how can it be viable when More Science and Commie Martyrs are in the same place at once, and that place isn't anything at all??? Remember, Mudhead's never even seen anybody from there. Well, Lt. Tirebiter is the first to discover it, and, having done that, walks through several studio lots to the sound stage where Porgie is on trial and hips him to it—you leave the set. You ignore its existence. ("You'll never work in this town again, Tirebiter!" "What town?")
You say you don't want to do that?
Get crackin,' buddy. You got fourteen years.
And that's being generous.
* * *
The Firesign Theatre is making history. Not only the fictional history outlined above, but real here-and-now history, They are working in a medium that almost nobody else has even begun to explore, Further, they have synthesized all of the facets of their art into an approach that is unique in entertainment history, mainly because there has never before been so much entertainment history to draw from. Their use of the recording medium is light years beyond anyone else's. The very least they should get for this is an Academy Award.
If most of this review seems addled, it is because there seems to be so much to say about this record. To call it one of the most important longplaying discs ever released is too much like hype. To try to explain the story and its ramifications is almost impossible—you have to listen to it and have your friends listen to it and take it from there. To try and interpret its message is superfluous — or is it?
The Firesign Theatre has something very important to say, and in order to say it they have gathered together every loose end in the place and have constructed a tightly-knit presentation that entertains as it chills. The techniques are as modern as today (there's a message there, too, methinks), and it's all there for you to experience time and again. You owe it to yourself, your school, and your country to listen to them. (RS 68)
"Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers"
"Take 6... Take 6... ROLLING!" And thus begins the Firesign Theatre’s Faustian play "Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers," which takes us Dear Listeners through the Five Ages of Man in the form of George Leroy Tirebiter, a B-movie actor from Hollywood’s heyday.
"Dwarf" picks up where the previous Firesign Theatre album "How Can You Be in Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All?" left off. On that album, producer Cyrus Faryar ends the work with a tired "Scene Three, Take 600." "Dwarf" begins with an engineer signaling the action, followed by another mumbling about a Little Chromium Switch. That switch will be flipped many times in the coming Hour of Reckoning, as our hero George Leroy Tirebiter reviews his life.
The 4or5 expand upon the structure of the last act of "How Can You Be..." where they present a TV on which the owner rapidly changes channels. In "Dwarf," the channel changer is George Tirebiter, who wakes up in the middle of the night to Pastor Rod Flash on the TV. Hungry for anything, George gets more than he bargained for when he accepts the Pastor’s offer for Hot Buttered Groat Clusters. "My God, it’s still warm," George exclaims as he is plunged into his personal Hour of the Wolf, during which George is confronted with his past and future and comes to realize that he Sold Out.
First stop: a guest appearance of the 60s TV show "Truth or Consequences." George faces the truth of his life -- he is a forgotten and forgetful Cold War actor -- and then must face the consequences: a Stab From the Past. George dives head-first Forward into that Past, and he sits up all night watching himself on the TV. As Peorgie, an Andy Hardyesque child actor fighting the Commies of the neighboring High School and authority figures Dad and Principal Poop. As a Lieutenant in the Army fighting the Koreans in East LA and the authority figure of the Director who orders him to kill. Like Dante and Virgil, he wanders through this Parallel Hell, reviewing his life and his mistakes. His primary selves, Peorgie and Lieutenant Tirebiter, even find themselves being tried for their resistance to authority, wondering aloud if they chose correctly between This Side and the Other Side. Along the way he is interrupted in his quest for meaning by numerous advertisements -- Rancho Malerio, Napalmolive, Ersatz Brothers, Anger Dreams, Ames Guns. It is as if Mephistopheles himself were directing his TV stations, distracting George with violent, exploitive imagry, reminding him of his deal, his "selling out." George even imagines himself in the role of his tempter, briefly casting himself as the host of a "Let’s Make a Deal"-style game show, Hawaiian Sell Out, awarding his contestant a bag of shit for her greed.
In the end, George is saved by the realization of the depth of his selling out: to the authorities, to the advertisers, to the propaganda machine. He sends Lieutenant Tirebiter back to confront Peorgie, and all his selves become re-integrated. George’s trip ends at the end of his life with a visit from an angel in the form of an answering service operator. While she recounts reminders of an earlier, simpler time, George is gently escorted to the Other Side, innocent as a young child running for an ice cream truck.
In many ways, "Dwarf" is the most complex of the Firesign Theatre’s recordings. They utilize the same muli-layering recording techniques that revolutionized their previous effort "How Can You Be..." but on "Dwarf" they use these techniques to more subtle and powerful effect. It is primarily through the background sounds we are introduced to Pico and Alverado, Latino characters named after famous boulevards in Los Angeles. They appear in various guises throughout Tirebiter’s life, acting as a Greek Chorus, heckling figures of authority such as Principal Poop ("eat it raw!"), Dad, the prosecuting attorney ("don’t point at me, daddy-o, I’ll cut off your finger"), even challenging Tirebiter himself once he is put into a position of relative authority ("what are we going to *do*, man? what *are* we going to do, man?"). Pico and Alverado exist primarily in the audio margins, but they play an important role. They are a reminder that all is not what it seems in Tirebiter’s voyage ("what is reality?"). Although they take center stage only once -- in Parallel Hell -- they show up everywhere, commenting on the action, keeping the listener tuned to the issues at hand.
Also complex is the structure of the play. Unlike their other masterworks, in "Dwarf" the Firesign Theatre adopt a non-linear structure, pushing and shoving their hero (and their listeners) forward and backward in time at the switch of a channel, into a past that may or may not be the real past. We are given subtle hints along the way that what we are observing are only Tirebiter’s recollections, colored by his memories and his search for meaning. Did Bottles really try to kill him? Is East L.A. surrounded by gooks? In the end, the details are insignificant, as they are to George, as he grapples with the larger Significance of his life. We -- like George -- are tempted astray with interruptions in the form of very entertaining (and thus seductive) advertisements, designed to mask George and us from the larger issues at work: sin and redemption, individual choice and submission to authority. "Dwarf" requires multiple, careful listening to penetrate the complexity of structure and density of sound.
Despite the heavy themes and requirement for careful listening, it’s a very funny work. The 4or5 make these themes palatable with some of the best wordplay and satire in their Canon. "High School Madness" is a perfect parody of the wartime Andy Hardy movies (with a tip o’ of the hat to the Archie and Jughead comics). "Parallel Hell" brings to mind any number of post-WWII movies with an eye on Korea. The advertisements are right-on, and remind us of the simpler 1960s method of sell, sell, sell. The televangelist Rod Flash is an excellent commentary on any number of TV preachers, from Bishop Sheen to Jimmy Swaggart. As is typical of their work, no line is a throwaway: every word, every sentence, exists to either move the story along or keep us entertained along the way.
Literary, artistic, and popular culture references abound in "Dwarf." Like the previous "How Can You Be..." which relied on Homer’s "Odyssey" as filtered through James Joyce’s "Ulysses," "Dwarf" borrows from several works for its’ themes and structure. It’s Goethe’s "Faust" filtered through Thorton Wilder’s "Skin of Our Teeth," which expounded on the idea of "Five Ages of Man" first mentioned in Hesiod’s "Works and Days" (circa 300 BC). Lucille Ball’s neighbors Fred and Ethel get a mention, as does Nick Danger (in a roundabout way that is the most-discussed self-referential moment in the Firesign body of work), Hugh Downs and the Today Show. Even Groucho Marx makes an appearance.
And, oh, yes, that title: "Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers," the first apparent non-sequitor in an album of seeming non-sequitors. Phil Austin, in his liner notes for the CD release, claims that the Dwarf is TV, and thus the title means "don’t destroy the television, fix it." Whatever. To me, the TV was only the medium by which the main character had the opportunity to review his life and redeem himself; the cathode ray as crystal ball (an image that would turn up in a later work "I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus"). In this play, the medium is more than the message; it is the ship by which our hero takes his life-affirming journey. In that sense, there is nothing broken to be fixed. We must all take a similar journey now and then to remind us of the difference between This Side and the Other Side, and to choose the proper course for our lives. To begin this journey, we may have to use the medium(s) available to us at the time. (I can imagine an update to "Dwarf" where the hero reviews his life one Web site at a time. At least the clicking sound between jumps in the stream of consciousness would be the same.)
"Dwarf" has not suffered from age after 28 years. If anything, it has matured. "Dwarf’s" themes resonate in mythology and popular culture (they reappear in the "Star Wars" films), and the jokes and satire never lose their edge. Expect to be mining this work for pop culture references and symbolic meaning for at least the next 28 years.
-- Richard Arnold