I’m stepping out of order a bit on this one — from what I can tell, this show was in early May 1992, and there’s still a slew of April shows left to report on in the series, starting with a three-night run that still leaves me a bit surprised. Meantime as mentioned this show was ticketless in that I don’t remember any formal ticketing at the door. But for a variety of reasons it’s good to talk about this show in the series and especially to talk about it this week.
Some years back I wrote a story for Perfect Sound Forever called “The Importance of Having a Laugh.” It was about the Squirrels, the now-formally retired group led by Seattle’s own Rob Morgan for many years, and who I had the pleasure of seeing a few times in concert this past decade. Given their penchant for stage antics, reworkings of pop classics (and not classics) and other bits of mania, the Squirrels had long been tagged as a ‘comedy group,’ one of those descriptions that is meant to help but just as often ends up hurting. To quote a bit of my story:
…”Weird” Al Yankovic, They Might Be Giants, Dread Zeppelin, folks who don’t have any real connection at all besides they fact that they use guitars and one way or another are anxious to use to humor overtly, who are inviting you to laugh, not necessarily every second but more often than not. The implication, though, is that these aren’t bands to take seriously or enjoy seriously – there’s long been an idea that somehow, in some ways, people who like them aren’t actually serious about music at all, that it’s music for nerdish accountants in training, for computer programmers to enjoy in between tapes of Monty Python. Even “Weird” Al, whose decades-long career has turned him into a downright national institution, can’t quite escape this tag still – witness the truly horrible joke The Onion made at his expense after the honestly tragic death of his parents due to a home accident. For a long time Devo seemed like the noble exception and maybe still is in some corners.
Simplistic (as is most of my writing when I look back at it) but I’d argue the point remains valid. It’s not a question of humor but what humor is allowable, who gets the joke. (Witness my Mr. Bungle story for an extreme example from the other direction, if you like.) Too Much Joy don’t quite fit into this overall discussion, perhaps, but among some their reputation at the time of this show was something not far removed from this potential trap — “Oh yeah, weren’t they the guys who did that LL Cool J cover? And they played 2 Live Crew songs in Florida and got arrested?” Album titles like Son of Sam I Am and Cereal Killers, songs about drum machines and called “King of Beers.” Seemingly, something of a joke, something not serious.
Pretty sure I first heard about them because of the 2 Live Crew thing, pretty sure I first heard them due to the LL Cool J cover, so I won’t pretend otherwise. What did I know about them? Not much, really — they were from out East and it’s plenty true that due to my interests in general I knew a lot more about bands from the UK even further away than I did about most New York area bands. Which Too Much Joy also realized was a widespread phenomenon as well — and that’s why one of their songs was “Long-Haired Guys from England,” a general complaint about bands fitting that description getting plenty of attention from “ladies in the music biz” while they didn’t. (A complaint not all that far removed from “Instant Dance Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything)” by the Dead Milkmen…another comedy band! Or so it seemed.)
Time perhaps has changed this dynamic to a certain degree when it comes to where the jokes can come from. (Consider Art Brut. Then step back a few decades and consider the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.) But the thing was, for all these songs and the band’s liner notes — really, they write some of the best around — and the various stories in the press during this time of almost-fame — Too Much Joy were a band that first and foremost wanted to be a good band. Like ALL the acts I’ve mentioned or can be lumped into that rubric, like all bands in general as a matter of fact. And like all the acts I’ve mentioned, none of them were directly related to each other beyond this kind of random lumping together that can and has always gone on. With certain genres, putative or otherwise, there’s an implication of sonic similarity — call an act a comedy act and it’s almost a scarlet letter, as noted. This when Too Much Joy had written among other things a song called “Hugo!” about a former member of the often incredibly serious Gang of Four and how time and compromised ideals had turned an inspiration into someone or something else unrecognizable. And how, exactly, is that a joke, unless of the blackest sort?
All this by way of introduction to say that Steve M., veteran of the Mr. Bungle insanity, and I and a slew of mutual friends found ourselves heading down to OC again to see Too Much Joy play at Cal State Fullerton’s pub one evening. I remember we were all charged up about this, it was a generally good feeling — which given that it was early May in the LA area is a little surprising (or maybe completely unsurprising) in retrospect, as the LA riots had only just happened a few days beforehand, and had to have been on our minds. Perhaps we just needed an excuse for a show.
If there was an opening band I’m totally blanking. I just remember that we all ended up near the front of a nicely boisterous bunch of characters in the pub, a small stage setup but not miniscule, about what one would figure for a setup on a college campus like that (and Cal State Fullerton isn’t a small place to start with). Who knows what kind of introduction happened, who knows if the stage lights went down much, all I know is that at some point the band was on stage, that I was probably more in front of guitarist Jay Blumenfield than singer Tim Quirk but not by much and that Tim came out wearing a wrestling mask — which given Mr. Bungle and their wrestling masks had to have given Steve and I flashes of deja vu.
What I remember most from the show wasn’t just the humor, though that was there of course. It was the feeling, it was a damn good time. You got the sense of a band that knew they were good performers and because of that could enjoy other things about the show as well, whether it was audience interaction or just random hilarity. Years ago Billy Corgan once said that he admired Nick Cave a lot because Cave refused to suck onstage, he always gave it his all, and that’s something that could describe this show as well, a band that were out to entertain by stepping up whenever possible.
At one point Quirk said something about how if someone could get him a drink he’d write a song about said person (it was something like that) and next thing I knew Steve was passing up the drink to him, so that seemed appropriate. There was an unplugged section or something of the sort because I remember them doing “Drum Machine” to a hearty singalong, then again it seemed like every song got a hearty singalong, especially “King of Beers,” “Making Fun of Bums,” “Long Haired Guys From England” and especially “Clowns,” which I think Steve had as an anthem. Or something like that.
It all ended with an epic take on “Theme Song,” the closing song to Cereal Killers and as perfect a slightly-sloshed but going-down-fighting end of the night/show/whatever number as one could want, the key lyrics of “To create/you must destroy/Raise your glass and cry/’Too Much Joy!'” belted out by everyone, and it could have gone on forever and we wouldn’t’ve minded. I think I picked up the ‘TOO MUCH FUCKING JOY’ shirt I still have on my way out the door when passing the merch table, it’s the one direct connection to the show I have.
Though in a weird way, there’s about to be another. Later this week, as I’ve muttered any number of places on the Net and elsewhere, I will be appearing at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle, presenting at the conference for the first time ever. It’s an honor and a privilege already and I hope to hell my piece passes muster, but we’ll see! Among the many distinct pleasures of the conference will be who else is on my panel — the amazingly talented Douglas Wolk, the constantly energetic Nick Minichino, and a fellow whose official job title is the Vice President of Music Programming for Rhapsody.
His name? Tim Quirk. Eighteen years on from that show and now we’re on a panel together. I’ve had a chance to meet and chat with Tim before at past EMPs, and he’s a friendly and thoughtful fellow and I look forward to hearing his presentation as always. And you know something? Some part of me will still be pinching myself that this is all happening to me, and if that’s uncool, as supposedly uncool as being in a ‘comedy’ band, then I’m damned proud to call myself uncool.
Not Just the Ticket will restart sometime next week after I recuperate from the (always exhausting!) EMP whirl — I will however be doing my best to provide full liveblog coverage of as many of the presentations and panels as I can attend. And there’ll be other posts this week as well!