They Might Be Giants snuck an underage me into the 7th St. Entry
Artwork by Chris Strouth
They Might be Giants have definitely fallen out of the mainstream of alternative music. You're not likely to hear a lot of the new songs on heavy rotation on the Current or your alt station of choice. You don't hear a lot of covers of their songs, and especially not a shrill wannabe-Etta James teenager singing any of their songs on American Idol or The Voice -- though if they did, I for one would be likely to watch. They don't fit in with a lot of of other bands, in part because -- and please don't take this the wrong way -- they aren't cool.
That's not a diss, its just a statement of fact. TMBG is not Bowie, or Roxy Music -- they write songs about scientists. They are mirthful and silly, words never used to describe Steve McQueen. It's what makes them such an interesting standout in the madras plaid of pop culture. Their last and only platinum record was Flood, released 23 years ago. Yet through it all they have continued massive sellout tours. It's not the music of hipsters, even though almost every hipster has them somewhere on a playlist. It's the music of tech support workers, and Renaissance fair goers, and people who have detailed conversations about Star Trek, sometimes in Klingon. It's Geek Rock, and yours truly had an immediate connection with said Geeks.
TMBG took their name from a 1971 movie. The film was the director Anthony Harvey's second feature, and the second made from the work of playwright James Goldman. The first film from Harvey and Goldman was The Lion in Winter, which was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, and won for three of them -- actress, score and adapted screenplay. It was the 12th highest grossing film for that year. All of which is pretty impressive given that it was the year that The Graduate, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Funny Girl were released.
They Might Be Giants is about a millionaire, played by George C. Scott, who falls into a fantasy world where he is convinced he is Sherlock Holmes. He is placed into a mental hospital under the care of -- wait for it -- a Dr. Watson, and wackiness ensues. The film is really as much about Don Quixote as anything else, the title making reference to "tilting at windmills" thinking them to be giants. A Lion in Winter captured the world's attention and is considered a classic, They Might be Giants is a cult film that people either love or hate.
The band couldn't have picked a better name. It's a reference within a reference -- pure whimsy leading to something deeper and darker underneath that can be interpreted any number of ways, much like most of their material.
There are few bands that have that kind of lineage, that reach beyond a genre and become a subculture unto themselves. The Grateful Dead, KISS, Weird Al Yankovic, Jimmy Buffett, the Pet Shop Boys, and Devo come to mind. You could include the Misfits, but if we are going to be honest, they are more of a cult.
If you were to write They Might Be Giants off as a mere novelty band you would be totally missing the point. This isn't clever for clever's sake, or parody; this is genuine and earnest, yet with a sense of whimsy that would do Oscar Wilde proud. They are also amazing tunesmiths: their music is complicated, yet easily accessible, as if Raymond Scott and Spike Jones decided to form a band.
I was a very early adopter to They Might be Giants. In 1986, your only options as a 17-year-old to hear cool music were either KFAI on random occasions, or on MTV's 120 Minutes. It was here that my world was permanently rocked when I saw the video for "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head." The alt world was still mostly new wave, and here was this crazy thing, silly like a Dead Milkmen song, yet with untold depths that made it feel positively existential.
I am pretty sure I was the only person in Minnesota who went to the record store at 10 a.m. on the Tuesday that They Might Be Giants, their self-titled first release, came out. For the next several weeks I proceeded to drive my roommates crazy by playing this record nonstop. It was about a month after the record came out that TMBG did a show at the 7th Street Entry, with an in-store at Northern Lights.
For those that read my previous piece about "losing my virginity at Northern Lights," a lot had changed for me since. If I first entered Northern Lights a virgin, by this time I was kind of a slut. I worked down the block at the Rifle Sport Gallery and was at Northern Lights every day. Much to the chagrin of most of the employees, I think -- though in fairness my vinyl habit at the time probably covered at least one person's salary.
The in-store was at six in the afternoon on a Monday. It was not exactly prime time, and I think I was the only one in attendance. Bad for the band, but beyond fantastic for me. We got to talk, a lot. They had a big art background in Brooklyn, and I was knee-deep in art here. They invited me to come hang out with them and when I explained that I was underage they even offered to let me act as their roadie.
The problem I was pledging a fraternity. Yeah, I was in a fraternity. Deal with it. Monday meetings and dinner were a big deal, and as a pledge, to miss one is an even bigger deal. Given that at that point I also had blue hair and often wore a cape, I didn't want to do anything obvious to mess up. I couldn't miss it, so the Johns came up with an alternate plan.
They would tell the door guy that I was a Warner Brothers rep, and that I had been mugged earlier in the day and lost my wallet. They would describe what I would be wearing, and they'd get in trouble if I didn't get in. What's more amazing than them suggesting this plan, is that they actually did it -- and even more surprisingly, it worked. It was one of the best nights of my life at that point.
They were even more fun live than at the in-store; just two guys and a drum machine. I still hold it as one of my best musical memories. The night was also epic because on that night I introduced myself to every single employee I could. That one night completely changed my life; within a year I was producing my first show at the Entry. And within three years I was promoting a regular Thursday night dance night (House Nation Under A Groove). I never got carded there again until the night I turned 21. I was promoting in the Entry and had been for about the previous year and a half without ever showing an ID. I raised a fuss and came back at midnight with my now-valid ID. I still recall the absolutely flummoxed look on Conrad's face as he said, "I bet you think you're pretty clever," to which I responded, "Well yeah, kinda."
For the record, I never drank when I was there during that period. I also never lied about my age, I just avoided the question. In fact, at one of the first shows I promoted at another club, my job was to kick out people who were underage. They of course were two years older than me.
I would love to tell you that I stayed in touch with the Johns and that we were still friendly. We didn't; in the pre-internet age, communication was a lot more of a hassle. Though when I last ran into them, on a tour probably 10 years ago or so, they still remembered me, which is a testament to what they are. They are more than a band; they are a conduit to a community, a soundtrack to the culture of geek.
Oh and guys, if you happen to read this: thanks for sneaking me in on that night so many years back. It had a profound impact on me, and may have in fact helped to build a little Birdhouse in my Soul. The new record is aces, by the way.
They Might Be Giants. 18+, $23, 8 p.m. Saturday, June 1 at First Avenue. Tickets here.
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