I was very excited when I read that Bloomsbury Press was looking for writers to write book length essays about iconic albums for their 33 1/3 series. Now, I’m not a rock critic. Or a musician. Or a person who really knows anything about music. Or a particularly passionate music fan- but still this sounded like the perfect opportunity for me – 30,000 words about an album? No problem! Who’s better at writing more about less than I am? Maybe Andy Rooney, but fuck him, he’s dead, it’s all me bitchez! So- emboldened by my confidence in my limitless verbosity I resolved to apply to write about They Might Be Giants’ third album Flood and set forth to write the first chapter, one of the many requirements for submission.
Well, I may not be a music person but I am a theatre person, so you would think I’d know all about hubris. But no, I arrogantly ignored the lessons of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus: Rise of the Machines and Oedipys Genisys in which Oedipus kills his father, marries his mother and then travels into the distant future where he makes an ill-advised deal with Goldman Sachs to temporarily conceal the extent of Thebes’ crushing debt load with catastrophic consequences for the global economy. Damn you Oedipus!! Why must you anger Merkela- Goddess of Austerity and Conveniently Forgetting How Germany’s Economy Was Rescued By International Debt Relief. Yeah, that’s right. Talk about hubris!
But even the hubris of the hypocritical Germans doesn’t live up to the hubris I was feeling when I set off to write my trial first chapter about Flood. Let’s just say that, if banging his mom wasn’t enough to make Oedipus poke his eyes out, reading my efforts at music criticism sure would do the trick. OK, so maybe it’s not that bad (or, at least, maybe I shouldn’t say it’s that bad, cause I’m about to ask you all to read it)- but there’s a whole lot more stuff in here about me, and who I was in 1990 when I heard this album then there is about the actual “music”. Then again, if you wanted to read about some silly old album you could go to Wikipedia- but where else could you read about ME. Uh Oh. Here comes that hubris again! Well, before you put my skills as a music critic to a referendum, I encourage you to read the never-before and most likely never again first chapter to my unwritten 33 1/3 tribute to Flood.
Chapter One: A Brand New Album for 1990
In the grand and illustrious tradition of the American muscle car, only one black Pontiac Trans-Am has ever been purchased ironically- and that was the one that my friend Mark bought in High School. Now to be fair, I’m not sure if the purchase was intended to be ironic- but it sure as hell came off that way because Mark, like me, was a gigantic nerd. Now, I know some of you younger readers are saying “What’s the big deal? Nerds are cool!” Well, my millennial friends, you have to remember that this was 1990. A very different time for the American nerd. There were no cool nerds. No hip nerds. No bearded bowtied dot-com outdoor movie screening Decemberist fan blueberry acai craft IPA maple bacon artisanal Ho-Ho Portland Brooklyn Silverlake nerds. Hell no! We were nerds of the old school- think less Nate Silver, more Orville Redenbacher. Think Anthony Michael Hall before GNC and steroids (Joe Piscopo was his pusher) and Booger before he started working for Bruce Willis and fell hard for Ms. DePesto. Think computer camp and calculator watches. Think bad skin, BASIC and BIG plastic eyeglasses. Sure, nerds may be accepted, nay, even loved, today- but back then- we were social lepers eating lunch under quarantine. You remember that spot in the woods where everyone was always partying and drinking beer and getting laid- yeah- I DON’T. We were persecuted by the jocks who cheated off our tests. Last picked for kickball- first picked for lab partner. Sure, we dreamt of a better day- Revenge of the Nerds was our Django Unchained– but we knew our place (in the Video Lab). And while there were many things expected of us- high SAT scores, Golden Key National Honor society, wearing clothes our moms bought on sale at JC Penny- one thing that was not expected was to have a bad-ass car- especially not one as totally bitchin’ as a jet black Knight Rider Trans Am. But Mark bought one anyhow, and it was perfect- right down to the lights that flipped up (if you pulled over and sort of tugged on them a little.) And while we were in this car, it didn’t matter that we were nerds- we were as cool as anyone out there skipping gym to go to Dunkin’ Donuts and we didn’t care who knew it.
And so, it couldn’t have been more fitting that the first time I heard Flood, I was sitting in Mark’s Trans Am. Because if it was unexpected and unusual for a nerd to own a Trans Am, it was down right subversive for nerds to be rock stars. But were TMBG rock stars? Well, their second album Lincoln was so successful that Elektra picked them up to record Flood, the “Dial A Song” service on their answering machine was a viral streaming-media sensation before any of those words meant what they do today and Tiny Toon Adventures used two of their songs for cartoon videos. So….if they weren’t bona-fide rock stars they were damn close. As close to being rock stars as any accordion playing nice Jewish nerds from suburban Boston were ever likely to get. Let’s just say they were a hell of a lot closer to being rock stars than Mark’s Trans-Am was to being KITT- and listening to them made us feel just as cool as being in that car.
I should add that, when we first listened to the album, we were sitting in Mark’s Trans Am all dressed in suits and ties parked on Krumkill Road in Albany, right outside Congregation Ohav Shalom and we were blowing off Yom Kippur services to listen to it. An act of defiance so utterly weird and dorky that only They Might Be Giants could provide the soundtrack.
So yeah- They Might Be Giants were strange- but that didn’t make them unique. After all, they were hardly the first band to embrace stangeness. It’s how they embraced strangeness that set them apart. You see- usually when bands choose to be “strange” they take the cool, mysterious, elusive route- often conflating “strange” with “difficult” and even “inaccessible”. Lyrics are mumbled, screamed or distorted – as difficult to discern as they are to comprehend. The music is “experimental”- more punishing than entertaining. These bands place themselves on a pedestal of weirdness, where they may only be reached by an enlightened few who are willing to ascend to their level or, at least, fake their way through it in a vain effort to get laid. It’s the Salvador Dali approach to weirdness- a voyage through a grotesque and willfully bizarre dreamscape – music screaming from the subconscious like a knife slicing an eyeball.
They Might Be Giants, though, take a whole different approach. The music is light and bouncy- Nouveau Polka with a drum machine and Casio keyboard. The lyrics are sung clearly, easy to make out, perfectly comprehensible- the listener can hear them well and make them out perfectly so there is absolutely no doubt about the fact that they make no goddamn sense. It’s like looking at a painting by Rene Magritte. Look at the canvas and you know exactly what you see. It’s a man with a bowler hat and an apple floating in front of his face. Very straight forward, totally clear, and utterly impossible.
And it was exactly this wonderful strangeness which drew me to them, because they fit in so well with my other obsessions at the time- Monty Python, Kurt Vonnegut, David Lynch, Douglas Adams- all the high priests of wonderful weirdness that made a nerd’s life worth living. Because, you see, as a nerd- I didn’t have much going for me in high school. I’m not talking about grades, or AP classes or SAT scores- I I’m talking about the stuff that really mattered. Despite all my best efforts, I was useless at sports. If the EU was a softball team, I would be Greece. (Hang in there, Greece! I know what it’s like to be up at the plate in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, the tying run on first and the global economy at stake while Germany and France just sit there in the dugout burning holes in your back with their eyes. You’ve just got to figure out the economic equivalent of getting hit by a pitch on purpose and get yourself on base- worked for me!) or getting girls (my teen stand up comedy nickname was Platonic Man- sort of like Superman but Lois Lane just wanted to chat. Shockingly enough, the joke didn’t really improve my situation with the ladies) I knew I would never compete in the nightmarish preppy Wonder Bread abyss that was Bethlehem, New York (“Where Suburbia Meets Dystopia!”) with its packs of roaming cheerleaders and jocks who looked down upon the likes of me from the lofty heights of their popped collars, the alligator on their chest embodying the cruelty in their hearts. And, so, like so many other freaks and misfits I said “fuck it”. Who wants to be part of your stupid club anyhow? I’m building my own tree house, inviting my friends in and pulling up the ladder behind us so you can’t reach us (an elaborate metaphor for skipping gym to hang out in the Video Lab with Mark and other nerds, before we could just take the Trans Am to Dunkin’ Doughnuts).
And, I was hardly alone in this. There were numerous groups of freaks and rejects – probably more of us than there ever were “cool kids”, each group with our own special way of responding to the “normal” order of things and a corresponding soundtrack. If you were angry about normalcy, you could listen to Metal, if you were sad about it, you had The Cure, and if you just wanted to drop out of it, the Grateful Dead were waiting to envelop you in their patchouli scented, hairy armpit embrace. And if, like me, you just wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all, then They Might Be Giants were the perfect band. Because life may be nothing but a meaningless joke, but at least we were smart enough to get it and we had artists like TMBG who were cool enough (or, let’s face it- uncool enough) to get us. Most days, that was just enough to make our adolescent lives worth living. These artists reminded us the world was a bigger, weirder and more wonderful place than Bethlehem Central High School and that we could have a lot of fun in it if we could just (as the band said) “hang on/hang on tight….just to keep from being thrown from to the wolves”.
OK- so- yeah- there you have it. Everything you need to know about Flood. Except for any information or insight into the music. Or the band. Or the record itself. But- hey- that’s what the rest of the book is for- I’ve got 28000 more words to go- I’ve got to save something for the rest of it! So, read on and enjoy chapters like “I’m Your Only Friend: Alienation, Despair and Building a Birdhouse in the Dark Night of the Soul”, “Istanbul Was Constantinople- A Satiric Meditation on the Psychological Disorientation of Shifting Geo Political Boundaries in a Post Cold-War World? Nah. Not So Much” and “What Did Particle Man do to Triangle Man, Anyhow?”
But really, the most important thing about a great album is how it can take you back to a very specific point in your life. And for me, whenever I hear Flood, I’m right back in Mark’s ludicrous Trans-Am, listening to freshly unwrapped gem of nerd culture, laughing our assess off and waiting for one of our dads to come drag us back to Kol Nidre. Ahhh. Good Times.
And, besides, Flood has never been more relevant- hell, the Fight for 15 could use “Minimum Wage” as their anthem. The ocean levels are still rising, though most scientists no longer think TMBG are responsible (Jeb Bush isn’t sure and Donald Trump blames Mexicans); thanks to Facebook, everybody knows they have at least one racist friend, and, most importantly of all, despite all our differences, what all Americans really want deep down is just a rock to tie a string around. Or maybe it’s prosthetic foreheads on our real heads. Who the hell knows for sure?
So there you have it, more or less everything I have to say about Flood. Hopefully, this makes you want to listen to it again or discover it for the first time. It sure deserves a book to be written about it…by somebody. As for me, I’m gonna stick to writing about stuff I’m better at- like the T-Rex sized crapitude of Jurassic World, the “Summer of Darkness” noir festival on TCM I’ve been obsessed with and the unfathomable buffoonery of Donald Trump. After all- I do know a thing or two about hubris. But of course, the real tragedy is how many people would vote for that shithead. And wait wait wait wait wait- I almost forgot- Sharknado 3 is premiering this Wednesday- now there’s something I can really sink my teeth into. Ha! Sink my teeth! Wow. That was terrible. They Might Be Giants really dodged a sapphire bullet of true love by not having me write more about them. OK, OK, I’ll cut it out. The next time I get going, just tell me “don’t let’s start”.
Enjoy Flood! I’ll be watching Sharknado Week on SyFy. Oh, hell yes!!