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Every Story Paints a Picture

With the publication of The Elements, long-running Baltimore duo the Tinklers return to their spry narrative roots

Michael Northrup
Charles Brohawn (left) and Chris Mason have been the Tinklers for 30 years.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 10/7/2009

The Tinklers read from The Elements, with Zomes, Blaster Al Ackerman, and Ghost Life.

Shattered Wig Night at the 14 Karat Cabaret, Oct. 9

Consider: One morning Mary sees her husband Steven off to his first day at an aluminum beverage-container manufacturer. He returns looking broken, a shell of the man who left that morning. The next day, Mary meets a neighboring woman who tells her two very important stories. One is about how the manufacturer's greed led to layoffs and higher productivity demands, pushing the local workers to strike as the company brought in scabs. The other is about how lava cools to form granite, which includes feldspar--made up of aluminum, oxygen, and silicon--and briefly explains the long story of pressure and time producing aluminum silicate, which, when water-logged, becomes clay.

This story, one of 18 collected in the Tinklers' new book, The Elements (published by sometimes City Paper contributor Rupert Wondolowski's Shattered Wig Press), ends with Mary crossing the picket line to pull her husband out of his job and continue on their journey across a landscape that feels and sounds very much like America. "I was reading about a few different strikes at the times we were writing this," says Chris Mason, one half of the Tinklers, of the early 1990s. "I think it was one in Austin, Minnesota. And I was thinking about aluminum cans. This was all done before the internet, so we just had to read a lot of books to learn this stuff."

Mason sits next to his creative partner, Charles Brohawn, on the couch in Brohawn's eclectically decorated Idlewild home. A striking array of paintings hang on the walls, and the living room feels like an ideal incubator for creative whimsy. Mason pulls one of the duo's old rubber-band guitars out for a demonstration. And Brohawn need only walk a few steps to snag a 1950s/'60s era scientific textbook about the atom as an example of the sort of research they explored in creating The Elements.

"It's not really serious science, because we're not, you know, scientists," Mason says. "But we have researched it. Just like in ancient times people would look at the world and would be amazed by the winds and the stars and describe it to the gods, we're just amazed by what's happening inside the atom."

"The elements are kind of a frame to look at the world through," Brohawn agrees.

If authoring a book sounds like a change of pace for a musical duo, bear in mind that the idea of the Tinklers as a purely musical act is a 1990s phenomena. The pair recorded three albums for indie label Shimmy Disc between 1990 and 1993. Riddled with deceptively precious melodies and faux-innocent ideas--the immortal "Mom Cooks Inside, Dad Cooks Outside" off 1990's Casserole, "Dinosaurs Are Better" off 1991's Saplings, "Dog Sounds" off 1993's Crash--the band was, arguably, too hastily aligned with the primitive-punk naivetAc of Daniel Johnston, Happy Flowers, and the twee Pianosaurus.

When Brohawn and Mason first coalesced into the Tinklers in 1979, though, it was to create narrative performances that included songs, visual art, and theater. Brohawn was coming out of MICA's painting department, Mason out of Johns Hopkins' poetry program, and they encountered a rich Baltimore community of poets, performance artists, video artists, and punks, including City Paper photographer John Ellsberry and his brother Richard, provocateur tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE, and MICA poetry professor Joe Cardarelli. It was a hearty brew of art and DIY that, well, doesn't sound too far removed from what a different generation has discovered in Baltimore in recent years.

"That's why I wanted to start doing music," Brohawn says, recalling seeing a band such as Half Japanese deliver its goods. "Just seeing something like that and thinking, Why not?"

Early Tinklers shows were less concerts than performances that combined visual art, puppets, and songs played on homemade instruments. They performed their "History of the World"--illustrated on a gigantic single roll of paper and dramatized through songs and plays--in 1981 at School 33 and in New York. The songs themselves were often the products of free-flowing binomial idea trees that concatenate out into something else. Mason pulls out an early book of song charts to illustrate the point.

"Like, if you have 'scary things,' you can divide that into 'scary things that are moving' and 'scary things that are not moving,'" he says. "And then, scary moving things that get on top of you, that don't get on top of you; scary moving things that get on top of you could be buzzy or squirmy; scary moving things that get on top of you that are buzzy could be electric or flying; scary moving things that get on top of you that are buzzy and electric could be things that you could get your fingers caught in or things that shock you--and from that we did the song 'Don't Put Your Finger in the Fan.'"

It follows a rigorous logic, but one predicated on an outlandish idea. "On some level, we were kind of making fun of performance art by just telling these stupid stories in these stupid songs," Brohawn says. "There wasn't any mysterious aesthetic or anything going on."

Other narrative projects that became self-published books followed. "Manifest Destiny," which also involved The Elements' Mary and Steven, "was kind of an American history book with songs and performances," Mason says. "Our Childrens' Childrens' Worlds" followed in 1984, the story of Siegfried and his cousins--Marcia, Missy, Megan, Sam, and Simon--who get lost in a cave during a family picnic, during which time the world ends and begins again, and they emerge to be adopted by three utopias.

"It's kind of a poke at the post-apocalyptic thing, because the world ends while they're in the cave but starts up before they get out of the cave," Brohawn smiles. "But 'History of the World,' 'Manifest Destiny,' 'Our Childrens' Childrens' Worlds'--they were thought of as these stories with songs. I think we were thinking of Wagner or something--our own version of it."

Just don't mistake this irreverent streak for irony, and don't misjudge the Tinklers' seemingly simple sounds and drawings for insincere ease. "Simple" and "childlike" are two of the most overused adjectives when describing the band; "efficient" feels most accurate. The music and songs may sound easy, but they deal directly with sophisticated feelings and emotions. They're just delivered extremely directly. And while such economy may suggest the childish, consider how conflicted childhood is: a time period that adults nostalgically look back upon for being more innocent and idyllic, but also the locus of psychological and emotional trauma that lingers well into maturity.

The Elements is an equally complex document. It works on multiple levels: organized periodically, the stories offer basic science information, and those scientific facts frequently provide thematic structural elements to the stories themselves. The book also tells the story of Mary and Steven as they travel across the country; inside their journeys, though, they encounter the often difficult socio-political realities of an unsettled country. Given that each of these stories is but a few pages long at most--the entire book a mere 78 pages--The Elements starts to feel less like a simple, childlike tale and more like a surreal adventure of a couple set adrift across America's unstable time and space.

And it makes you curious as to what sort of big idea the Tinklers might next wrap their brains around. Brohawn mentions Darwin, and how 2009 is the 200th anniversary of his birth. Mason smiles at the idea of the Tinklers getting a grant to do research on the Galapagos. Since they've already done the history of the world, Manifest Destiny, and a good chunk of the periodic table, evolution is just the sort of small topic that fits into their bailiwick.

"And it's controversial," Brohawn smiles, before audibly deflating into the realization, "well, it is here."

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