Guitar with Mittens: A Flipper Anecdote
Noticed while pawing through the archives, here is my one and only Flipper anecdote. Or at least, the only one I can remember. Life was fuzzy back then. In the interests of preserving it before it blows away like dust, here it is again.
But first, a word on Flipper. I was aware of the band for a few years before I actually saw them live (and, believe it or not my stupid little high school band wound up on a compilation that they were also on during this period, which at the time didn’t strike me per se as the “honor” it might have done later.) I loved the “Ha Ha Ha” and “Sex Bomb” singles when they came out and was happy to collect them. But my mainline, as you can maybe surmise, tended to be more traditionally composed rock and roll pop songs, and I was already by then looking perversely to the past to find my preferred punk rock “now” sound.
But when I did finally see them, I think in around ’82 when the “Get Away” single came out, they genuinely blew my mind. And I mean that in the serious sense of the phrase. I mean, I came away from that show thinking “wow, everything is different now” and meaning it, literally and unironically.
And I still love that single. It’s a pop masterpiece, a real work of art:
I didn’t lose my preference for the Kinks and Buzzcocks and that sort of song, but I had no doubt that the blowing apart of everything I loved about music that I had just witnessed was the Sound of the Future. The sound, that was it. It was so much bigger than me and my world that my petty preferences, whatever they were, just didn’t matter.
And I became obsessed with it — whatever “it” was to me, at 18, I don’t even know — to the point of trying to write my own anti-songs of that general sort and destroying several amps trying to make them be loud and messy enough. This period lasted a few years. Very little about those songs (mine) were worth anything at all and few vestiges of the experiment remained when I started my own clumsy foray into rock and roll outside the bedroom when it happened.
In fact, thinking about it now, it was probably Jon von more than anything that turned my attention back to the traditional, away from The Future. When he started “jamming” with the just-fooling-around non-band we were doing just for fun in Alex’s basement, this material was dominant and he was (appropriately I see now)… nonplussed I think would be the term. Probably he just didn’t get it, which makes sense because there wasn’t much to get: it just wasn’t very good, and whatever it is that I can do, especially at that primitive stage, deliberate formlessness and artlessness did it no favors. We gravitated toward the rational, the concise, the traditional, the retrograde, away from the future. For better or worse, my dreams of being the poor man’s Flipper were never to materialize.
However, life is weird. And it so happens that when that non-band did emerge from the basement to start playing shows, it overlapped with Flipper’s active years towards the end of their first phase. So we wound up playing a few shows with them here and there. They were still my heroes, though our agendas can certainly be said to have diverged.
I believe the story below is from this show:
June 11, 1987, a record release show for the debut D.J. Lebowitz album Beware of the Piano. (Remember him? He’s still around, like many of us.) I don’t know how we wound up on the bill, but it was probably through him. And of course, we’d take any and every show offered to us. What Flipper was doing playing with all of us nerdy oddballs, though, well, I really couldn’t tell you.
Anyhow, I shall now proceed to the anecdote. Which may not be much of an anecdote but it’s the only one I happen to have. (Originally posted Feb. 3, 2011.)
A chance conversation about band anxiety dreams this morning reminded me of this one show a ways back — one of the early MTX shows, opening for Flipper somewhere in San Francisco. Guitarist Ted Falconi hadn’t shown up and they asked for volunteers to play guitar and Jon von stepped up to do it. (The reason this has to do with band anxiety dreams is that such dreams so often involve not being able to find a band member at showtime, or being called on to play a set when you don’t know any of the songs.)
Now, Falconi’s guitar set up was all crazy, over-driven, feedback-heavy, noisy to the point where the noise was quite a bit more prominent than any chords or tones intentionally played: the chords are definitely there, somewhere, but they’re buried. Just listen to any Flipper recording and you’ll know what I’m talking about. The result was that when Jon just played “Blitzkrieg Bop” over and over for three songs, it still sounded pretty much like Flipper. Which was, as I remember thinking at the time, rather wicked. I still think that now.
One of the signature parts of Flipper’s act in those days was that the singer would amble on-stage after the band had been playing for a while and ask another bandmate (though into the mic, too, so the audience could hear): “what song is this?” It was funny the first time I saw it, and then, as I saw it more and realized it was a schtick, it just became kind of loveable. But it was never better than when he said it to Jon von, who in response just continued playing “Blitzkrieg Bop” with a bug-eyed shrug.
I got my shot at playing with Flipper, too, though my moment in the spotlight got cut off after about a minute when Ted Falconi finally showed up. The noisy guitar set-up was a small revelation to me. The sound was like a wild, elusive, sparking coil you could barely control, something you had to point in the general direction of the music, doing the best you could to nudge it here and there, but in the end just hoping for the best. It was a sixty-second adventure. And I realized: oh, so that’s how he can do things like play the guitar with mittens on.