Sunday, February 17, 2019

Firesign Theatre: Clown Show from Lehrstück (Hindemith / Brecht)

In early 1979 William Malloch, artistic director of the Ojai Festival, asked the Firesign Theatre to join a special performance. Firesign had just performed live at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip in February doing their new piece “The Owl & Octopus Show”, and Malloch wanted them to join the West Coast premiere of a notorious Weimar-era theatre piece, Lehrstück, with music by Paul Hindemith and text by Bertolt Brecht. Firesign performed as part of the show on 5/20/1979, which was later broadcast on KPFA. (The Clown Show segment only has parts for three actors, and Phil Proctor did not appear on stage, being credited in name only.) 

The entire piece, which you can stream from the Internet Archive, is about 53 minutes; Firesign’s segment is 13 minutes. The experience was seminal for Firesign and it strongly influenced their own writing and live performances for the next three years, especially their stage show / album Fighting Clowns in 1980. From the festival program, here are notes by Allan Ulrich:

The completion of Lehrstück (most conveniently translated as “instructive play”) in 1929 marks the end of a period of Hindemith’s career that produced some of his most important vocal works. The bitter lyricism of the song-cycle Das Marienleben (1923) to poems by Rilke led the way to the most important stage work of the decade, the three-act opera Cardillac in 1926. Although Hindemith extensively revised this work in 1953, even the original version signified an important change in his esthetic. The ideals of Strauss and Wagner were to be rejected in favor of a new emphasis on the purely musical side of opera, with an emphasis on polyphonic shape and rhythmic clarity.
Bertolt Brecht, librettist for Lehrstück, was Hindemith’s full equal in stature. The composer met the poet in 1927 in Baden-Baden at the first performance of Kurt Weill’s Little Mahagonny, and both began collaboration on a “folk oratorio” designated for Baden-Baden two years later.
The text of Lehrstück concerns a pilot who calls on his fellow men when his plane crashes. Critic Geoffrey Skelton calls it:

“a harsh parable on the unimportance of the individual…it seems likely that Hindemith did not fully grasp the message of the piece or the nature of Brecht’s dramatic method when he decided to set it as part of his music for amateurs.”

Hindemith prefaced the score with the following words:

“Since the Lehrstück is only intended to implicate all people present in the actual performance, and not in the first place to make any definite impression as a musical or literary utterance, its form can be adapted to the needs of the moment. The order of pieces in the score is accordingly to be taken more as a recommendation than a command. Ommission, additions and transpositions can be made.”

In light of their vastly divergent philosophies, the friction between the collaborators seemed almost inevitable. Brecht’s interest lay chiefly in implicating his audience in the moral framework he had created, forcing it to make an ethical choice. Hindemith wished only his listeners’ active participation in the venture.
The scandal which the Lehrstück caused at its first performance (July 28, 1929) was owing entirely to a scene in which there is hardly any music. This is the sketch in which the clowns cure a giant of his physical afflictions by sawing off the affected limbs one by one. Such hardened observers as Gerhard Hauptmann and Andre Gide were reportedly shocked. Brecht was pleased. Hindemith was concerned only that the scandal would deafen people to the true quality of the music and he specified that the clowns’ scene might be omitted from future performances.
Brecht insisted that the interlude remain. In a few months, he withdrew his text, refusing to allow any more performances of this first version. Both parties consulted their lawyers; the work was withdrawn from circulation and was not performed again for almost three decades. It was a lamentable fate for a work which is now generally considered as one of the finer examples of Hindemith’s Music to Sing and Play. It is sadder still that it ended the chance of any future collaboration between two of Germany’s most fertile intellects.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

"...he is not for children, of whatever age"

You grew up with this guy; his books are important to you. In 1960 he published this, his second book of cartoons. It’s not part of his Children’s canon, it’s for adults (you discovered THAT body of work later, of course). The publisher is still around, indeed is still a major player, yet despite the deathless popularity of the author the publisher has let this title stay out of print for more than 40 years; and due to the predictable effects of living in a dumb old Economy, this has drive up prices of the original into the $200, $300, and even $400 range. This is, as John Cleese’s Professional Logician character pointed out, “pure bullshit”. And so for the $6 cost of an interlibrary loan, and specifically thanks to the generosity of St. Mary’s College of Maryland who has this book in its collection and so bravely allows it to have the kind of cross-country adventures that led it to land in my grubby mitts, and following a few hours restoration work by yours truly, here’s a clean PDF of the whole book.

TL;DR = There’s a scan of this book at, but it isn’t very good. 

(Technical note: This book has 128 pages of guts at roughly 8.35” x 11” page size, but all the pages with cartoons are laid out to be read one two-page spread at a time, so those pages of the PDF are all 11” tall and 16.7” wide.)

And here you go

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Robert Grossman, 1940-2018: Yes, Lolita, there IS a Santa Claus

From Los Angeles Times West magazine, July 23 1972 pg. 2

Robert Grossman (left) and Peter Bergman. Date/photographer unknown. From “The F Files” archive of Fred Wiebel

In honor of iconic illustrator Robert Grossman, who died this week, here’s a gallery of his drawings from the archive of the Firesign Theatre and my own collection. Bob Grossman and Peter Bergman were roommates at Yale and collaborated on the school humor magazine The Yale Record, and their friendship eventually led to Firesign commissioning this iconic work for the cover of Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers in 1970:

From Bergman’s archive, here’s one of their previously unpublished collaborations, from Feb. 20 1958: an excerpt from Bergman’s illustrated school essay “The Fundamentals of Writing an Art Paper” which attempts to answer the question: “What is the secret of the art paper, and how can it be most efficiently exploited?”

“…Now that I have described the psychological factors underlying the teacher’s choice of a certain object, I am ready to present and explain the “Four Step Plan” of formal analysis. I have chosen for my subject Norbert Wellrock’s famous painting, “Rock with Granny Frickert.” Step 1 entails a very careful study by the student of the general tonal and emotional effect of the painting. Special attention should be given to the contrasting light and dark areas in and around the feet.”

“In Step 2, the student should divide up and number the picture into the major areas of perspective, light reflection, and outline detail.”

“At this point the student is ready to attempt Step 3, which carries him into the realm of advanced art appreciation. The object of Step 3 is to discover in the painting those hidden symbols and allegories that escape the layman. … Isn’t it amazing what you’ve been missing?”

“Step 4 is the culmination of the process, and since the success of the paper is greatly dependent upon it, it is imperative that the student master the first three steps before tackling it. Step 4 is the abstracting of the picture into its basic geometrical forms. In this way the student is able to get a clearer insight into what motivated the artist.”

Here are some of Grossman’s illustrations for the Yale Record (Grossman was a contributor in 1958, and by 1960 he was the paper's Chairman):

Yale Record Vol. 86 No. 8 May 1958, pg. 13 

Yale Record Vol. 87 No. 3 November 1958, pg. 2

Yale Record Vol. 87 No. 3 November 1958, pg. 11

Yale Record Vol. 87 No. 3 November 1958, pg. 13

Yale Record Vol. 87 No. 7 May 1959, cover

Yale Record Vol. 87 No. 7 May 1959, pg. 11

Yale Record Vol. 88 No. 3 December 1959, cover

Yale Record Vol. 88 No. 3 December 1959, pg. 10

Yale Record Vol. 88 No. 3 December 1959, pg. 13

Yale Record Vol. 89 No. 2 October 1960, inside front cover

Yale Record Vol. 89 No. 2 October 1960, pg. 7

Yale Record Vol. 89 No. 2 October 1960, pg. 9

Yale Record Vol. 89 No. 2 October 1960, pg. 20

Yale Record Vol. 89 No. 5 Feb. 1961, cover

Yale Record Vol. 89 No. 5 Feb. 1961, pg. 1

By 1962 as a fresh graduate Grossman was already selling cartoons to the New Yorker:

New Yorker Jan. 13, 1962

Grossman had a long run illustrating articles for the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine supplement West - I snagged hard copies of all of these while I was working in a newspaper store in Burbank in 1997:

Los Angeles Times West June 2, 1968 pg. 16 "Her Son the Vulcan"

Los Angeles Times West August 4, 1968 cover "Florida's Kirk: Ready for the G.O.P."

Los Angeles Times West December 15, 1968 pg. 66-67 "California Is a Fadist State"

Los Angeles Times West January 5, 1969 cover "Howard (Las Vegas) Hughes"

Los Angeles Times West November 16, 1969 pg. 32 "Ol' Bob Finch Keeps Smilin' Through the Shootouts Along the Potomac"

Los Angeles Times West January 9, 1972 pg. 27 "How Do You Like Being Cary Grant?" "I Like It Fine"

Los Angeles Times West January 23, 1972 pg. 8-9 "You Know I Can't Hear You When the Jets Are Flying"

Los Angeles Times West July 23, 1972 cover "Alexis Smith"

Los Angeles Times West October 8, 1972 pg. 10-11 "The Last Marx Brothers Movie" (Note: Bergman had this one hanging on his wall at home for years.)

Here's an illustration for Saturday Review from 1972, presaging Volkswagen's giant scam to be uncovered decades later:

Saturday Review June 10, 1972 pg. 48 "The Bug Meets the Brain"
Here's an illustration for the college papers ad campaign for Firesign's Dear Friends LP circa March 1972 (he later graciously agreed to let us use it as the back cover of our book/DVD Duke of Madness Motors):

Grossman designed the ad campaigns for multiple Proctor and Bergman projects in the 1970s, including Tunnel Vision (1976) and Americathon (1979):

And in 1993 he reprised the airbrushed Dwarf cover in a line drawing for Firesign's 25th anniversary tour program:

Grossman drew about a billion illustrations in his career, so here's hoping a major gallery takes the obvious step and puts together an exhibition soon.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Wolfman Jack Air Force ad, 1975

Captured from a 9/15/1975 aircheck on KLZ-FM Denver, a 60-second singing ad for the Air Force featuring Wolfman Jack.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Life Magazine: Sing Along with Millard Fillmore

From 1964, Life magazine's excellent album of band + vocal covers of vintage Presidential campaign songs going back 160 years. Life issued this version as a freebie to attract advertisers, and the same year Columbia Records sold it commercially in slightly different packaging. You'll tap your toe, you'll sap a tree, you'll wonder "Are ALL these lyrics stupid, or is it just me?" (Spoiler: the lyrics to campaign songs are always VERY, VERY STUPID.) Hat tip to Jason Klamm for loaning me this record from his collection - thanks again Jason!

Album audio & artwork

DISCLAIMER: To the best of my knowledge, this work is out of print and not available for purchase in any format. If you are the artist and are planning a reissue, please let me know and I’ll remove it from the blog. Also please get in touch if you’ve lost your art &/or sound masters and would like to talk with me about my restoration work.