Sunday, March 11, 2012

40 Days of Lent: Day Nineteen

Peter Bergman (1939 - 2012)

Oy. A day after learning about the death of one of my favorite visual artists, Moebius, I learn that one of my favorite audio artists, Peter Bergman of the Firesign Theatre, has died. Clearly it's not a good time to be someone whose work I like. Robyn Hitchcock: consider yourself warned.

Or are people leaving the planet any way they can before the Mayan prophecy about December 2012 comes true (which sounds like something from a Firesign Theatre record)?

What was the Firesign Theatre? I can't put it any better than Greil Marcus in the Rolling Stone Record Guide: "They were the first, and remain the only, comedy group whose primary medium was the stereo phonograph record itself; thus, their best albums stand up to literally hundreds of listenings. Multi-tracked, multileveled, multidimensional--one never gets to the bottom of them."

I got into them as a child because some Big Kids liked them. I heard about them from my best friend Steve Gutin, who heard about them from friends of his older sister Madeleine. I first learned of Monty Python the same way - I must have been all of 10 years old - but unlike Python, which I immediately got, Firesign's humor was much more elusive, i.e. it didn't make me laugh. But I kept listening, feeling like I was getting closer and closer to figuring it all out and because certain bits were such pleasures to listen to. Soon after they began to make me laugh. Then I started to figure it out.

Because they worked as a collective, 4 or 5 Crazee Guys, it's hard for me to pick out exactly what Bergman brought to the group, though it was on his radio show Radio Free Oz that birthed the group. I can't tell who is doing what voice on the records except for the times that David Ossman's smooth "Golden Age of Radio" tones or Phil Proctor's cheerful Leprechaun jests come through. But the one time I saw them live, almost twenty years ago, it was evident how integral each performer was.

Because their work was surreal and associative rather than linear, I believe listening to them taught me to think in a slightly different way. I began to understand puns, allusions and quick references better than any English class in school could teach me. Thinking in levels of meaning seemed neither alien nor a challenge. Accepting that an artwork didn't have to make "sense" so long as it felt right was something I picked up from their records, along with the attitude that things may be horrible but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be amused by them. I suspect that when people refer to the importance of marijuana use in conjunction with the Firesign Theatre's work, it is this attitude to which they are referring as much as their original audience's drug of choice.

Mr. Bergman had been suffering with leukemia and I wish him the peace he deserves. Part of what hurts when your favorite artists die is knowing there's no one around who can possibly replace them.

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