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Arts and Entertainment

"Well Maybe I'm a Voice-Hearing Freak"

An Appreciation of the Sacred Songs of the Tinklers

By Rupert Wondolowski | Posted 9/17/1997

Don't go looking for the dodo bird.
-from "The Dodo Bird & the Calvaria Tree" by the Tinklers

It is not often that I receive calls here at the Patsy Cline Institute for the Emotionally Disabled, so it was with great trepidation that I picked up the jangling telephone.

"Hello," I said, my voice sounding foreign to me.

"Rupert, this is Lee from the Baltimore City Paper. I want you to shake yourself from what you're doing and write a piece for me on the Tinklers."

It was a familiar voice, from what seemed a long distant, happier time. I had once sung in a Baltimore duo called She Bites with a highly talented, mercurial pianist named Pope. I would pack my hairy, bloated body into a dress and sing such standards as "Love Hurts" and "Feels Like the First Time." We had often gigged around that crime- and drug-ridden, yet lovable town, with a couple of visionaries who went by the tag "the Tinklers."

The Tinklers are environmental prophets and folk philosophers employing music as their primary medium. With cherubic faces and haunting subterranean voices they strum their guitars made of rubber bands and boxes, beat on old cans, and occasionally point at charts and graphs. They sing about people who went outside the boundaries of society, such as Malcolm X and Joan of Arc, as well as more average joes like Mike Cheesewolf, who "was in junior high school, but he was doing senior high school stuff."

Often walking the tightrope between comedy and tragedy, the Tinklers sometimes leave their audiences unsure how to respond to these two fellows who look like college professors who've left the track and spend most of their time feverishly scribbling pamphlets in the school coffeehouse.

"Lee, my friend, how did you find me?"

"Let's just say you leave a trail as subtle as Limburger. I've come into my own these days, I'm preparing to be married, and I felt like repaying some old debts."

I had forgotten completely about the videotape, once in my possession, that captured my journalistic friend with such oddly striking features and challenging motions that I wondered where he was that fateful day when John Waters shot the wedding scene in Pink Flamingos featuring the mystery man with the talking nether lips.

"It's time for our Best of Baltimore issue," Lee continued, "and I thought I'd give you a shot."

Sun god, god of heat
Red god, god of meat
Winter god, god of wrath
Wet god, god of your bath
What kind of god? What kind of god?
What kind of god will answer your prayers tonight?
-"What Kind of God"
I first heard the Tinklers a few months after moving into Baltimore in 1984. I had escaped the psychically arid regions of Washington, D.C. and had arranged to work in a used-book store in Waverly.

It was a period of great experimental ferment in Baltimore. There were many people blurring the boundaries between art, music, theater, poetry, and pure sound. Widemouth Tapes, started by Chris Mason of the Tinklers, was (and still is) one of the outlets for some of that experimentation. One of the first releases on this tape-only label-which features such poets and musicians as CoAccident, Svexner Labs, cris cheek, Ellen Carter, Franz Kamin, and Tentatively a Convenience-was the first recording of the Tinklers.

On the tape, one side is a musical exegesis on the history of the world and the other side holds early, raw recordings of such soon-to-be Tinklers classics as "Mom Cooks Inside/Dad Cooks Outside"(which almost completely encapsulates suburban family/gender relations in about two minutes) and "Tough Guys Are Probably Sad Inside." And even though there is a photo of fresh-faced Charles Brohawn (who went by the name "Chuck" at the time) and Chris Mason (who went by "Chip") on the cover, half the tape is a wild hodgepodge of group vocals, including those of a "Mr. Tweedy" (aka City Paper contributing photographer John Ellsberry).

Upon hearing these lucid, groundbreaking observations half-buried in brainy bacchanals and lo-fi recordings, I felt a spark in the dormant part of me-the part of me left crouching on the Little League field in twilight, marvelling at how beautiful, yet frightening, Debbie Dillworth looked in the bleachers, smearing her grape lipstick all over some bundle she held wrapped in burlap. I felt a door open into a new room, which proved to be empty, except for a tantalizing door that opened into mystery.

Your life is like a canvas
Your imagination forms the poles
You can build it on the top of a hill
Or deep inside a hole
If we put our poles together
We could maybe make a plane
Our love would be the propellers
We could fly above the rain
-"Tree Song"
The Tinklers' first album on Shimmy Disc, Casserole, opens in the middle of a tense domestic situation, delivered as a chant with sparse instrumental accompaniment. "Turn the Screw on the Crank" is a claustrophobic nightmare from the viewpoint of a suburban husband. "Mary's trying to get me to paint the house/ The neighbor's dog keeps me up all night/ It's getting hard to pay the bills/ Mary's always got a headache/ There's something strange about those kids."

So begins the escalation of the Tinklers' gentle, slightly off-kilter revolution to save the Earth's resources and to give voice to the misfits and underdogs who got beat up in junior high by people like Mike Cheesewolf. (Although the Tinklers' universe is not simplistic. Later in the song "Cheesewolf," the one cut where they "rock out" in the traditional sense with slabs of big fat electric guitar, you find out that the singer's older brother was in glee club with Cheesewolf and that he "was not so mean. He was pretty nice as a matter of fact.")

Their songs reflect and document the fragility and holiness of life on this battered planet, and often honor those humans who speak up against all odds, or those lost in the flood. In the former category is "A Simple Song of Simple Faith": "the worm in the dirt/ the germ in the hurt/ the slimy eel in the sea/ God loves them as much as me/ the tiniest little speck/ that time you had a stiff neck/ your granny in a chair/ God is everywhere."

In the latter category are "Norman Mayer" and "Eleanor Bumpers." Norman Mayer was the retired janitor who used to set up a folding chair and a sign by the White House fence and say to passersby, "Step right up, I'll give you 10,000 bucks, if you can prove nuclear weapons deter-come on buddy, can't you tell me, what those goldarned things are for?"

Mayer eventually drove up to the Washington Monument (one of the most hideous obstructions known to mankind, next to Rush Limbaugh) in a van he claimed was loaded with dynamite and demanded that 51 percent of all radio and TV time be devoted to peace. He ended up with a bullet in his head, provided by the National Guard, and it was found that there was nothing in his van after all.

But for me the most chilling Tinklers song of all tells the true story of Eleanor Bumpers, a 67-year-old grandmother who was killed by New York police for resisting arrest during her eviction. She held a kitchen knife. The police had bulletproof vests, shotguns and shields.

One of the most popular Tinklers' songs is "The Library Song" (a song that should be implanted in Mayor Schmoke's brain via microchip, before he continues the latest round of library executions in "The City That Reads"). It tells about kids who have problems that, realistically, their parents, friends, and guidance counselors can't help with, so they just go to their local library and discover their answers in a book.

There is a Tinklers song for almost every blemish or lesion of civilization, and yet they never come off as paint-by-number do-gooders. Their sincerity, succinctness of vision, and sense of humor prevents this. I'm sure if they showed up at a "Save the Haircut" event Sting would keep one or two of his bodyguards between him and them.

Who else could show the inter-relatedness of all beings as simply or graphically as in the song "The Dodo Bird & the Calvaria Tree"? Not only is the dodo bird wiped out by traveling hunters and the rats who arrive on the hunters' boats and eat the dodo-bird eggs, the Tinklers point out, but also the calvaria tree, the seeds of which would only sprout once they passed through the intestines of the dodo bird and landed in the ground. And for the hard-core environmentalist there is "Trees Like to Rot in the Forest," wherein the narrator hears the squeaking of his rocking chair as the cry of wood that yearns to be rotting beneath the shade of the younger generation of trees. ("Well, maybe I'm a voice-hearing freak," the protagonist acknowledges.) These songs, and many other Tinklers' classics, have become staples on National Public Radio.

In addition to the aural branch of Tinklers' propaganda, there is the visual and written branch: folk paintings and books like their own History of the World, Tinklers Encyclopedia, and Our Childrens' Childrens' World. In the works is a book of stories based on each element of the Periodic Table. There is also Tinklers sculptural furniture, sold through the Gates of Heck catalog, which describes the pieces as "sturdy and straightforward, built from branches and rough lumber and engraved on the top surface with . . . charts and diagrams from the Tinklers' books and performances." The furniture pieces are called "Heaven Bench," "Scary/Not Scary Stool," and "Mom/Dad/TV/School Stool."

After three albums out on the New York-based Shimmy Disc label, the Tinklers are branching out with a series of projected singles gathered around specific themes, the first of which, UFOs, is out on Frownland, a German label. Still to come are an EP of monster songs on the Belgian label Ubik, and a four-song single called "Four Bands" about the main bands that influenced the Tinklers (the Stooges, the Patti Smith Group, Half Japanese, and the Incredible String Band) on the English label, Garden of Delights.

In addition to all this, there is the cassette compilation, The Tinkler Home Tapes ,and the various-artists compilations the Tinklers have appeared on: What Else Can You Do on Shimmy Disc; Working Holiday on Simple Machines; When I'm Hungry I Eat on Gourmandizer; Potatoes, a selection of folk songs, and Goobers, a selection of kids' songs, both on Ralph Records; and If a Tree Falls on Earthbeat!, featuring diverse lineup of other folks including Ferron, Jello Biafra, Mojo Nixon and Hank Williams, Jr. Really!

You get a feelin' in the pit of your gut
You start to shiver but you don't know from what
You look outside where the moon used to shine
Chilly goose flesh tingles your spine
There's something out there
Make no mistake
It's the wandering specters
Of them that didn't get an even shake.
-"No Even Shake"
So what went wrong, Rupert?" Lee was asking me on the phone. "I mean, it seemed like you were doing well. It was even rumored that Jerry Lewis approached She Bites for a spot on the telethon. A prime spot right after Rip Taylor."

Things had gone well for a while. Regular shows at Laure Dragoul's legendary 14Karat Cabaret in downtown Baltimore, the annual Maryland State Fair in Timonium with livestock and the Tinklers. Then on to the Holiday Inn circuit where things got a little too good, I was bloating on a comp river of cheese nachos and daiquiris.

The last time we played with the Tinklers was the release party for their third Shimmy Disc album, Crash. Afterwards, Charles took me aside backstage and advised me "to lay off the sauce, maybe jog a bit, get involved with 4-H activities, and perhaps look into electrolysis."

I wrung my handkerchief that night watching the Tinklers sing, realizing they were in the light, pilgrims of the light, and remembering how on the murky night of my 30th birthday a friend of mine had arranged for Chris to call me at the bar where we were having a party to "adopt" me as his son (the Tinklers being ideal spiritual guides, maybe I would correct my course).

The Tinklers were even responsible for my last serious love. She had moved to Baltimore from Chicago after corresponding with the Tinklers after discovering one of their CDs. Once Chris and Charles convinced her my bark was worse than my bite, we had nearly two months of romantic bliss before we appeared on any national talk shows.

But then came the night that landed me in the Patsy Cline Institute for the Emotionally Disabled, the night I had one hot toddy too many and She Bites never made it to the stage.

"You know, Rupert, on second thought, never mind on this story," Lee said. "I think we're just going to go with our original idea of interviewing the hairdressers for Kix and Crack the Sky and then recreating a follicle-anthropological history of Baltimore music in the 70s and 80s."

The click of the phone was gentle, but the cold whirring of the dial tone chilled my soul. Once again I assuaged my loneliness, envisioning the Tinklers shaking hands with Martian emissaries, teaching the saplings of all species to only play the games with no losers.

Maybe, things don't have to turn out so bad
What if you tried to share everything you had?
Maybe, we don't have to end humankind
Could be, maybe if we weren't so unkind.
-"Maybe"

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