Friday, July 24, 2015

Waiting for the Firesigns

So, the recent passing of Phil Austin, one of the four members of Firesign Theatre, prompted me to write a couple of blog posts featuring their second, and most popular album. Just on the off chance that you missed those posts, or are in need of a review, the first was A Nick in Time for Firesign, and the second was Of Flip Sides and Firesigns.

Well, now I'd like to turn to their first album, Waiting for the Electrician of Someone Like Him, released in 1968. Like side 2 of their second album, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All, which features "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger," side 1 of Waiting for the Electrician of Someone Like Him includes some of their more accessible, mainstream material, relatively speaking.

In fact, side 1 consists of 3 short pieces, again relatively speaking, as opposed to "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger," which takes up an entire side of the album, and as opposed to side 1 of How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All, which, while listed as several separate pieces, is really one long journey through an insane, hallucinogenic landscape, and mediascape.

So, let's start with the first track of side 1, which is given the name, "Temporarily Humboldt County" for reasons I could not fathom. A quick hop over to the wikipedia entry for the album, however, reveals that, "the group had been told by friends in Humboldt County, California, that the local Indians added 'Temporarily' to the county's name as a way of saying no one could really own the land."

"Temporarily Humboldt County" is a parody of narratives that tell the story of the discovery of the New World, colonization, westward expansion, and our treatment of Native Americans. It's just over 9 minutes long, so here, take a listen:

As I recall, some time ago I was speaking to someone who was teaching a class on audio production, and he used this particular track as an example of what can be done with an acoustic medium and a radioplay format. No doubt, he also used it because it is relatively straightforward as a narrative.

Clearly, this recording also reflects the understanding, still not all that widely held in the 60s, about how Europeans treated the "Indians" (as they are are still officially referred to by the US government), and satirizes not only mainstream, but also the counterculture mythologies. Coming out of California, the Firesigns would have been much more attuned to both the stories of the wild west, and of the Spanish conquest, than us northeasterners.

Waiting seems to be a theme here, whether it's for the electrician referred to by the album title, or someone like him, or the "true white brother" the Indians are waiting for in "Temporarily Humboldt County" (and disappointed to discover it wasn't us). 

Perhaps the connection can be traced back to Waiting for Godot? Certainly, Firesign Theatre can be seen as heir to playwright Samuel Beckett's absurdism, creating sonic environments that place the listener at the center of the play, immersed in the action, spatially rather than sequentially in medias res. Orson Welles referred to radioplays as theater on the air, and the Firesigns also are part of that lineage, creating an acoustic theater of the absurd.

Waiting... what a concept! As much as we live in a temporal environment measured by nanoseconds, even picoseconds, as much as we eschew delayed gratification, as much as we want everything to be available on demand, it seems that waiting is as much a part of our lives as ever, and in some ways, due in large part to all of our technological innovations, more so than ever. It's like sports journalist Tim McCarver used to say when he was calling the New York Mets baseball games, nothing slows the game down more than speed.

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