Firesign Theatre

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When I first heard the news of Peter Bergman’s death, it came in the relatively old fashioned form of an email from my brother. He’d seen a tweet about it, and figured I’d heard already. Peter was one of four who made up the Firesign Theatre, and suddenly there would never be another chance to take them for granted.

For all of my adult life, I’ve orbited in the outer regions of their solar system. In college, I abandoned the curriculum to play their records late at night on the 40 watt campus radio station. It was the birth of what was called underground radio, then Album Oriented Rock, as FM took over the airwaves. The new Firesign record was a cultural event, right up there with a Beatle or Dylan release, and equal in its power to sink into the DNA of the times.

Inevitably, or as inevitable as I could make it, I was in the room with them as they wrote the script for what became the Martian Space Party, a short film I directed and produced with the group about the National Surrealist Light Peoples Party presidential political convention. This was 1972, the year Nixon broke into the Watergate, most likely to get the goods on John Lennon before he could give peace a chance. Lennon wore the film’s Not Insane campaign button until he won his fight to stay in America.

The magic of the recording studio gave way to the personal computer, the Internet, and social media. The world Firesign modeled in their surreal vision of the near future has become the default. We still love to repeat the catch phrases, the touchstones of our love-in with infinite possibility, but now they are the language of Likes and retweets, OMG and LMFAO, check-ins and iPads. How can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all? Easy. It’s called Facebook.

When we’re young, we think we’re immortal. And if we live that way, we are. Losing Peter Bergman is the cruelest of jokes for a generation now struggling with being whittled down to a size we thought we’d eluded. The Sixties was a time for authorized magical thinking, banned by the government as a favor to the “leaders” of the Movement. All we were saying was give war a rest. What were we thinking?

The Firesign spoke as one animal with four heads, as Robert Grossman illustrated on a cover of one of their famous records. With Bergman gone, you’d think that voice was stilled. I feared so, until I listened again with the new day. Even on his last netcast, as he raked over the pinheads in the race for losing to Obama, you could hear the glorious joy of being right AND being funny about it. For what Firesign knows, and so do we who’ve been incurably infected by them, is that when we laugh, we’re eyes wide open.

One of the four, I don’t remember which one, said the Firesign Theatre is a state of mind. In fact, it’s a country of mimes and one of which I’m proud to be a citizen. The more Peter’s swift and sudden death stings and terrifies, the more grateful I am for the forces that brought these four poets together as they did that other four. Even now, I can hear Peter clear as a bell reminding us in some random conversation with a conviction that brooked no argument even as it sounded faintly absurd: “There are no accidents.” Except maybe this time.

In 1973 I traveled to New York to see my mother in the hospital, where she’d just undergone a second mastectomy after 5 years of remission. Her illness had brought us together after many years of estrangement, and though I knew of her work translating and dubbing the classic New Wave films of that time, she had no idea of who I was becoming as an adult. I was in town to premiere the Martian Space Party at a WBAI benefit concert and make a deal with New Line Cinema to distribute it with Reefer Madness.

But first, I lugged her 16mm projector into her hospital room and set it up to project on the wall opposite her bed. As we sat in the afternoon gloom and the movie unspooled, my mother was transformed by her delight in the love of language, the magic of the group’s verbal alchemy, the fact that somehow her son had something to do with this. Today my eyes are filled with those same tears of joy, how insanely lucky to know these 4 or 5 crazy guys at all.