Minor Secrets of the Mr. T Experience Revealed (#3)

Frank Portman
15 min readApr 2, 2018

I’ve been doing these little “minor secrets” write-ups of songs on the social medias, one per week, and every so often I’ll aggregate them with some illustrations and a bit of editing into a post like I’m doing now. There’s more in the way explanation in the intro to #2; and, while we’re at it, #1 is here.

1.”Cinthya (with a Y)”

The bare bones of this song had been kicking around for quite some years before I decided tack them together and incorporate them into King Dork Approximately, the novel. We may even have tried to play some rudimentary version of it at some point back in the 90s — if so, though, it was never more than a quarter-baked and couldn’t have come together anywhere near as well as it did here. Of all the songs we’ve recorded, this recording and arrangement probably comes closest to the thing I heard in my head before being humblingly brought crashing to earth by the force of reality.

The idea of doing a song about teenage girls’ “creative” re-spellings of their own names had been kicking around for many years, and I wrote the character Cinthya into the book King Dork Approximately mainly so I would be spurred finally to finish the song. It’s got some good lines, and great rhymes, if I say it myself (“double M” / “trouble them” “double u” / “trouble you”) but what really makes it work is the trick of casting it not as lazy ridicule of this cultural phenomenon as it might have been, but rather as a celebration of and apologia for it. That wasn’t a feature of the original song, but once I started thinking of it that way everything kind of slid into place. I love it when that happens. Alizabeth or fight!

The punknews.org review of KDATA referred to this material as “somewhere halfway between the Ramones and AC/DC” and built for Madison Square Garden sized crowds, a context in which it would never be played, which is certainly the case. But we sure do have fun playing it anyway.

I don’t do a whole lot of actual guitar solos these days, but it’s probably the one I’m most pleased with of the ones I have done.

Original post on minds.com is here.

2.”Theme from The Munsters

My buddy Will found this on a VHS tape (all it had on it was two MTX songs from this same performance and the Quincy punk episode.) If it’s not obvious, the method of transfer was his taking a cell phone video of the TV. This had to be 1985 or 1986, probably before Everyone’s Entitled… was recorded, and it’s the only document that I’ve seen of our Munsters theme cover, which we used to play in all our sets in the beginning. No idea where this is from, but it kind of looks like a campus room of some kind.

This “move,” mining your childhood for bits of pop and trash culture to recapitulate semi-ironically, is something we used to do all the time and it has had a long history in punk rock and alterna-culture generally. You know the kind of thing I mean: you take a Brady Bunch song, or a song from or about the Partridge Family, feed it through your own machine and make it your own. (Well, “your own,” except that, everyone else is doing that too.) I probably learned it from the Dickies. I can tell you that for 13 year old me there was nothing in the world more amazing, more brilliant, more perfect, more meaningful, or more transcendent, than the bare fact of the existence of a recording of a punk band playing the Banana Splits theme. (I’ve kind of, you know, gotten used to the idea by now.)

But what I was thinking was, what’s the contemporary equivalent? I doubt very many people under 35 are familiar with the Munsters or the Banana Splits, and like so much of what amused us to death back then it’s completely incomprehensible to them now: but they must be aware of SOMETHING. What stuff from twenty years ago do “the kids” mine for semi-ironic thrills in 2017? i.e., what would the 2017 version of the 1985 Mr T Experience present a warped re-capitulation of from the year 1997 that would be suited to this use? Well, the answer is, there isn’t one, so: nothing. Rock and roll as “the now sound” is gone, for good, probably. But if there were? Some video game thing I’d expect. Is there still “trash culture,” and if so what is it?

3.”Just Your Way of Saying No”

Another (the only other) song from that found tape that also had the Munsters theme on it, “Just Your Way of Saying No,” one of Jon’s best tunes. ’85 or ’86. We played it too fast, like everything else and like everybody else, but there’s a good bit of rock and roll in there nonetheless, thank God.

I think you can see my terrible old Yamaha combo amp propped up on a chair in the back there. That thing really sounded awful. I wonder what happened to it.

4.“What Difference Does It Make?”

So now it’s back to Southampton, UK, in the Summer of ‘92.

I don’t think we played this Smiths cover live too often, but it was no surprise to find it on this particular set. I remember it very well, in fact. Our off-kilter, borderline-insane version of this well-known song had preceded us across the Atlantic on the Milk Milk Lemonade album that had come out earlier that year and almost as soon as we arrived at the White Cliffs of Dover, people started shouting its title at us, which I first took as a sincere question (the answer to which, I agree, is none.) Eventually I realized it was a request. This shouting continued throughout the Southampton set till we finally played it at the end.

Well, people love covers, of course. They especially love ironic, or sarcastic, covers, which this wasn’t quite, but I can certainly understand why it would be taken that way. There’s a further element here, though, in re the reception of this song in Southampton because, as it turns out, Smiths’ singer Morrissey was most known to this crowd as (a) a guy who carried daffodils around with him wherever he went; and (b) a guy who always took his shirt off. Well, then that explained the daffodils everybody was waving at us and why people kept asking when I was going to take my shirt off, both of which had been dead baffling till it had been explained after the fact.

It also explains the behavior of the crowd when this song did get played. (Well, it explains it as well as anything could.) When the song began, the guys in the room engaged in the following ritual: they lifted up their shirts and massaged each other’s nipple area while dancing around maniaclly (and their girlfriends looked on with rueful, jaded resignation.) You can see a bit of it at the beginning of the clip and in the youtube video’s preview, where one of them climbed on the stage and another one just… you know, got to second base with him. Just imagine looking out and seeing a bouncing crowd of a couple of dozen people doing this.

I love it when people get into the spirit of things.

Now as to the song itself, recording it for the album was a pretty weird thing to do. I mentioned that it wasn’t “quite” ironic or sarcastic as such a cover might have been, and that’s perfectly true. It’s a great song that I loved at the time as I do now. As an appropriated anthem of crippling social and emotional reserve with an explosive, unarticulated subtext I could relate to it very strongly and it was deliberately selected to fit the pointedly unarticulated theme of that weird album. However, there’s something inherently ironic and off-kilter about a band like us even attempting to do such a thing so that element is there, desired or not. And there are supremely screwy things about that recording, beyond the overall sonic weirdness that makes that album so peculiar, such as the “Crazy Train” riff somehow sneaking into the final chorus. Why on earth? And what difference does it make? Less than zero, I’m sure. We were all but insane in those days, especially me.

One final note: the credits to the MML album, done by Jon von, credit the song to “Frank’s brother, Morrissey Smif” and maybe that had something to do with the OTT Morrissey-ish welcome we got in the UK on that tour. I no longer remember the basis for this joke (maybe it was my general air of morose narcissism; or maybe it was just the hair.) But like so many such things, it took on a life of its own to a degree and I still get asked occasionally if there’s any truth to it. And: there is none.

5."Surfin’ Cows”

“Surfin’ Cows” was one of three cow-themed (or rather, cow-named) surfy instrumentals from Jon von’s old Boston band the Sacred Cows, brought with him when he headed out to California after college. The others were “Skatin’ Cows” (which wound up on the Night Shift album the year following this) and “Hang 4” (get it?) which I don’t believe we ever recorded but which we used to play all the time in The Early Years. Sometimes we’d play all three in a row in fact, because Alex the drummer liked playing them and was the guy who started them out, so he’d charge into them serially and there was nothing we could do but play along. I suspect that may have been too much of a good thing all at once for our sparse audiences but it was by no means the only thing we did that was probably too much of a good thing for them.

We, shall we say, “challenged” our audiences in all sorts of ways. Like good, standard-issue “punk rockers” we were offensive inadvertently or on purpose, but mostly somewhere in between the two.

The fact that a song from an early 80s Boston punk band wound up on a little home-made record that people still remember over 30 years later, by a band named after the star of the A-Team that is still playing is about as unlikely as unlikely gets. I knew Jon from KALX radio and from Disorder Records, which was a little mail order record business Jon did as a sort of hobby: he’d put an ad in MRR listing the punk and hardcore records available from Rough Trade, people would send in orders, our buddy Max would pick them up at Rough Trade, and then Jon and Kenny Kaos and I would meet up once a week to pack the orders and drink beers. I had a sort of “band” at the time (which I was calling The Visine Eye, in my head and on the cassette recordings we’d sometimes make) with no ambitions beyond personal, imaginary, momentary glory at occasional “practices” in our drummer’s parents’ basement in Burlingame. Somehow Jon started coming to these — I knew he was a member of this “band” when after the second practice he left his amp there.

Soon, somehow, to my not inconsiderable befuddlement, we were playing little shows we arranged ourselves and, a bit later, spending a weekend at the cheapest recording studio we could find and recording what would become this album. That was all Jon’s doing. I was just standing there going: “wut?” I guess he’d figured out how to do that stuff in Boston with the Sacred Cows and just did it all again out west.

Result: the record “came out”, and we became world famous in Berkeley.

I’ve got more to say about those early shows and the first recording sessions with Kevin Army, which I’ve been thinking a lot about recently because I’ve been trying to organize and inventory the mountain of tapes in my apartment and get a handle on what’s there and what’s missing. In the process I’ve come across lots of brain-jogging stuff. But that will have to wait for another “minor secrets” session.

I know nothing at all about the video other than that it was made by bass player Byron’s neighbor (along with a similar one for “At Gilman Street” which I will minor secrets presently, Odin willing.) Pretty cool-looking though. And that isn’t a bad guitar solo, really, for a guy who had no clue what he was doing.

(I put this on the “official and semi-official music videos” list because basically it’s as semi-official as things get, so you can check them out here.)

6. “Somebody Wants to Love You”

Still in Southampton, UK, Summer of 1992.

This is a Partridge Family cover that we played in most every set in those days, and was one of the songs on the B-side of the “Love American Style” 7". (The other was “Spiderman” — basically, zooming out, that record had a semi-unintended theme, and that theme was the possibly warped view of life and love you get when your picture of the world in formative years is only what was displayed on a TV screen ca. 1972. I don’t know: I find something that works, I stick with it. And even if it doesn’t work I tend to stick with it because, you know, you work with what ya got.)

As I believe I’ve mentioned before in one of these “minor secrets” write-ups, I’m at a loss to characterize the precise flavor of irony at work in this sort of cover song. It’s not “camp,” quite. And it certainly isn’t meant as a straightforward joke, a la, “hey we’re gonna play this cheesy song now, let’s all laugh at how stupid it is”. That’s a kind of cover bands do all the time (and if you want an example, check out the the ISM cover of “I Think I Love You”…)

But I know people have taken it that way when we’ve done it with various songs (if they even realize it’s a cover, which is a whole ‘nother matter: I really doubt many of the kids in that Southampton crowd were thinking of the Partridge Family while we were playing it.) There is a bit of irony about it, just in the fact that a band like us is standing there “interpreting” a Partridge Family song. There just is. I suppose there’s irony surrounding the entire enterprise of the Mr. T Experience, and in another sense everything is basically irony.

Anyway, if you know a bit about me, you won’t be surprised to hear that my take on “Somebody Wants to Love You” is that it’s a great song per se and full stop, and that our cover of it is as sincere or “serious” as, say, when some band covers Dylan or the Velvet Underground or whatever it is that people tend to cover “seriously.” I’ve never understood the contempt with which the recorded work of fictional TV bands of that era was and still is routinely dismissed. I mean stuff like the Partridge Family, the Monkees, the Archies, the Banana Splits, the Wombles… There’s this sense that it’s some kind of disgraceful, shady fraud and moreover that it’s an affront, somehow, to the legitimate, oh-so-important High Art created by more “authentic” acts. But: “acts”. That’s the giveaway. It’s all show biz, whether you’re Zimmerman portraying the character of Dylan or Ron Dante portraying Archie Andrews. Authenticity and “relevance” is bunk.

They got the greatest and best songwriters and musicians to create these recordings to fill out the recording artist conceit in what were in fact great collective, commercial art projects. And while the Partridge Family discography probably doesn’t match that of the Monkees (and what could?) there are more gems there than in most bands’ discographies and some of them are in fact genuine works of pop genius (e.g. “Point Me in the Direction of Albuquerque,” “Brown Eyes,” the present song, even “I Woke Up in Love this Morning.”)

I was around five when The Partridge Family first aired, and I encountered it at some point thereafter because it was on after the Brady Bunch, which, to be honest, was more my speed. I thought of the Partridges as kind of the dark “hippie” side of the Bradys, and I was afraid of hippies because of that whole Manson thing. However, I thought Laurie was pretty. (It was also through Laurie that I first became aware of the Rolling Stones when she heard them through her braces that one time during a living room rehearsal.) And when I was asked by my twin aunts (who were only five years older than me because Catholic families) when they were babysitting me what my favorite group was I said the Partridge Family because it was the only group I knew the name of. They gave me Partridge Family albums, as a joke. (They were into Lou Reed and Bowie and such… they always used to tell me to take a walk on the wild side, and it blew my mind when I realized the source of that at some point later on.) And the result of this was, after I’d grown up all wrong, well, watch the video.

(And speaking of the video, I know there’s some transfer warpage, insufficient data coming through at certain points, but I think it’s kind of beautiful, and anyway it’s all we got.)

Original post on minds.com is here.

7. “King Dork Approximately”

As I’ve noted before in various spots, this tune, conceived as a “theme song” for my third novel King Dork Approximately, more or less accidentally sparked the launch of the latest voyage of the MTX Starship. The song was written concurrently with the book, which isn’t too common. Novels and songs are different sorts of writing and that trope about wearing different hats doesn’t quite cover it; it’s more like you have a couple of replaceable heads, or almost different selves. (Not saying there aren’t things in common between the two heads, just that it’s difficult to operate them simultaneously.)

Years of hard and bitter struggle against the indifference of the world and the limits of my own abilities had trained me to have modest expectations. You can only do the best you can with what you’ve got: you can’t actually make anyone care about it. I’d hoped for little more than doing justice to one of my better songs, upping the “novel theme song” ante for its own sake, ticking off a promotional box, and drawing attention to the new book. But when we did finally manage to meet up in the studio, something clicked. The song came out great, but more importantly, we knew we were going to have to do more. It took a bit of organizing and agitating but the King Dork Approximately “balbum”, a whole bunch of shows, and further schemes of breathtaking grandiosity ensued.

As for the song, I think it’s one of my best, as a stand-alone composition, as a sequel to the song “King Dork”, and as an integrated plot and characterization feature of the novel. The Dylan reference is almost a throwaway gag in the first two categories, but it’s a major part of the novel. The song depicts the ambivalence, uncertainty, and ingenuous hope that follows fulfillment of the “please say yes” love song (before we stampede toward the inevitable break-up song, as I usually do.)

Apart from that, it’s got a pretty interesting structure that shouldn’t work but somehow does. When I first started playing around with it I was thinking about Tom Jobim’s “One Note Samba” and thought I’d see if I could manage that feat (a single note cadence that feels like a melody because of the chords underneath it.) In the end I gave up, but wound up with the two-note melody on the a, b, and d verse lines (with the c line being kind of like a verse “bridge.” There’s only one chorus, all the way at the end, and it’s kind of a coda or adjunct to the song, not strictly necessary even. But the various uses of the word “approximately” during the verses and bridge function as a kind of anchor for the song and make this ending chorus more of a punchline, or at least, a summation. Pretty neat. (Also, I’m quite pleased with that bridge.)

And that, as the saying goes, ‘ll do her. Till next time, and till then stay numberwang.