That was the question They Might Be Giants, a New York City-based pop music duo, and I were asking ourselves. It was Day Four of the Giants' "Bring Me the Head of Kenny Rogers World Tour '87," and we'd just entered the portals of the Electric Banana, Pittsburgh's self-proclaimed House of Rock. From the look and smell of things at the Banana, it was going to be a long night and a long, long trip. Into hell.
The two Giants, John Flansburgh and John Linnell, and their producer/tape wizard, Bill Krauss, had invited me to join them on a twenty-seven-day, nineteen-city, 5200-mile rock sojourn. I'd like to think that it was my scintillating conversation and my renown as a fiendishly irrepressible bon vivant that accounted for the invitation. But in all candor, I suspect it was the keys I held to a shiny Plymouth Voyager LE minivan.
What better way to test the company's capacious load hauler, we'd explained, than to fill it with a rock group and its equipment?
Well, how about filling it with a group we've heard of? came the corporate reply.
Sure, we'd responded, like Mötley Crüe's really going to fit into a minivan.
The big name, full-rock-regalia acts travel by Learjet and semi nowadays; a single minivan wouldn't hold some groups' drug paraphernalia.
That was part of the They Might Be Giants advantage. Like most artists of conscience, the band members have every intention of one day becoming internationally rich, with a full retinue of personal stylists, unashamed sycophants, and professional arse-sniffers in tow. But, at the present time, the TMBG roadshow is economy in motion: One guitar, one accordion, one amp, a tape recorder to play the backing rhythm tracks, and a couple of funny hats are all it takes to produce the band's compelling pop sound, what they call "sophisticated head-bobbing music."
Because the only drug They Might Be Giants abuse is caffeine, we advised Chrysler that there would be no need to worry about unpleasant run-ins with the Man. As I discovered while traveling with them, one of the two Johns' favorite topics of discussion is where they can get a cup of coffee. A vehicle's ability to negotiate frequent pit stops is necessarily of greater concern to them than its provision for stowage of illegal items.
Besides, we pointed out, it wasn't as if the Giants were complete unknowns. Their music video "Put Your Hand inside the Puppethead" has been in regular rotation on MTV. Their debut LP, They Might Be Giants, is tearing up the college charts and has earned kudos in Rolling Stone, Musician, Billboard, and People magazines, to name but a few.
"Good," said Giants' guitarist John Flansburgh, when news arrived that Chrysler had acquiesced and the Voyager was on its way. "They've taken the They Might Be Giants Challenge."
Flansburgh, who is sometimes called Jack, and accordionist John Linnell, who is known as the Professor, often refer to their band in the third person. This messianic tendency is one of the many similarities between rock stars and politicians. When I suggested this to him, the twenty-seven-year-old Flansburgh bristled. "It's not like we're megalomaniacs. We don't want the whole world. We just want our half."
Some portion of the world may ultimately wind up in the They Might Be Giants discretionary account. But it was plain to see that the most meaningful part of the band's universe for a month's time was going to be inside of a Chrysler minivan.
Although the Voyager's charcoal gray interior looked plush and comfortable, the Giants weren't entirely thrilled by the prospect. People often associate rock musicians with cars and wild road trips, but the boys in this band don't even drive. The Professor doesn't have a license. Jack does, but shouldn't.
"Everything you've ever heard about life on the road? It's all true." Installed as would be his wont in the Voyager's shotgun seat, Flansburgh discoursed on the rigors of touring as he fine-tuned the AM/FM/cassette's five-band equalizer and frantically changed tapes.
"You know, you have the attention span of a two-year-old, Jack," Krauss observed from the back seat.
"Shut up, Bill, he explained," said Flansburgh, finally retrieving an early recording of the Giants' song "Alienation's for the Rich (and I'm Getting Poorer Every Day)" from the cassette bin. "You know my dad wrote this song for us."
"He's lying," Krauss said.
"Jack is right about one thing," accordionist Linnell explained. "When you're touring, no bummer will be left unbummed."
On that very subject, sort of, we'd heard some disquieting things about Pittsburgh's Electric Banana and its balding proprietor, Johnny Banana. A stout fellow said to be fond of the occasional midday highball, Johnny's reputation preceded him in a big way. Reports had him pulling a gun on the celebrated headbangers Circle Jerks when, following an appearance at le club Banana, they had the audacity to request payment in full.
We shared our concern about Mr. Banana's special sense of theater with Bill, a regular Joe who fills in as the club's soundman. Not to worry, he counseled, as we stood around the stage setting up equipment. "Johnny fired over the guy's head. Besides, he only gets nasty when he's been drinking..." Bill was interrupted by a bellow from the back of the room.
"Get you boys a drink?" It was Johnny Banana himself, who'd lately come strolling through the front door. Like death row convicts watching the cell door swing open for the last time, we stared as Johnny swaggered to the bar and began elaborate preparations on some sort of deadly libation from the depth-bomb family of cocktails. "Bottoms up, Johnny," we thought. I fingered the keys to the Voyager nervously, preparing to repark it directly out front in case the need for a speedy get-away arose. None did.
Being a sort of fourth wheel on the TMBG musical tricycle, I made myself useful (when I wasn't behind the wheel of the Plymouth) by selling the band's T-shirts and LPs during shows. To facilitate such sales, I was outfitted with an eye-catching gold fez presented to the band by one of its fans. The fez is one of the timeless expressions of the haberdasher's art, and, in it, I looked a perfect fool. As the miles piled up on his personal beverage odometer, Johnny Banana had not been hesitant to comment to this effect.
As I remember it, the derringer came out when I declined to honor Johnny's suggestion that I give him a couple of free T-shirts. "Listen, junior, every [expletive deleted] band ever to come through here has given me two [expletive deleted] T-shirts for my two [expletive deleted] kids."
"Cripes, why didn't you just say you were a family man, Johnny?!" I asked as I handed him a couple all-cotton X-Large T's, gratis. Later he pulled the gun on Bill, his soundman.
[The fans] are both a boon and a bane. Total, uncompromising adulation is always nice when you can find it. And what weary traveler doesn't like a place to sleep for free? The difficulty is, many of the fans encountered seemed to think They Might Be Giants came all the way from New York in a minivan just to party with them. "Sometimes," Flansburgh admitted, "it's a little tough for us to handle their love."
Politely refusing countless invitations to ingest the white powder they call Big Lie was not the problem. "Sorry, man, forgot to bring the Teflon nostril liners along. Doc says we have to use them."
Other foolhardy proposals from well-meaning hammerheads who wanted us to join them while they turned on to the Really Big Lie, the Mildly Awful Lie, and the dread Honest Misstatement of Fact were rebuffed with similar ease and no hurt feelings.
A different sort of inquiry was more problematic. Like a sizzling-hot grounder to a third baseman playing in for the bunt, the query "Do you think John Linnell wants to sleep with me?" was one I always had trouble handling. In every instance, I couldn't answer truthfully without risking insult. It's not my business, but I think the Professor is a private kind of guy with high moral standards just waiting to meet the right gal. Then again, he may just have a rule against intimate associations with skanky fuzzbrains who reek of peach schnapps and Salem 100s.
Maybe I'm getting old, but it seems to me kids today don't know when to quit. Following a show at the Bottle Neck in Lawrence, Kansas, an earnest-looking young man approached the band and asked if we'd care to spend the night at his apartment a block away from the club. We'd already been offered a spot in Kansas City, thirty miles east, but we were bushed following a long ride from Minneapolis. So when he assured us there would be quietude and beds for all, we thanked him for his hospitality and sent our friends from Kansas City on their way. Given his assurances, we were somewhat surprised to discover, upon arriving at his home, an impromptu sixteen-person vodka-and-Baileys-Irish-Cream chugging contest in progress. Most distressing was the fact that there were not beds for all, as promised, but one at that. Professor Linnell, who takes his rest more seriously than most, hopped straight into the sack, leaving the rest of us to make our peace with the party cannibals.
It was a dirty job, I think. To be perfectly honest, I don't remember all the details, but I do recall walking into the living room at four a.m. to find Flansburgh leading a half-dozen collegians in a spirited rendition of the Hustle while the 1977 punk classic "Anarchy in the U.K.," by the Sex Pistols, blared at maximum volume.
As the sun came up over Lawrence, I staked out a cozy piece of real estate behind a tattered couch with nothing but slumber in mind. However, I was soon stirred by Professor Linnell, looking dazed and forlorn. He related a frightening tale. It seemed he had been joined in bed by our host and an inebriated woman friend. "Don't mind us," they'd said, "we're just going to sleep." At which point they had put on some cool reggae music and set about doing the wild thing with reckless abandon.
Sensing the Professor's horror, I offered him my place and went to sleep in the hallway. Two hours later, the woman who had robbed him of his mattress managed to step on my neck on her way to make a loud and interminably dull telephone call. "Oops, a humanoid life form," she'd observed after almost crushing my windpipe. Finally, she finished her call. She stepped on me again. "You're still here!" she exclaimed. Arriving in Kansas City, we off-loaded at the home of promoter Hearne Christopher, Jr. A renaissance man for the Eighties, Christopher toils as a bond trader by day and as a rock impresario by night. He might as easily be in the luxury hotel business, for he attended to our every whim during our two-day stay.
Kansas City is TMBG country. As 500 seats at Parody Hall were sold out. Hearne, Jr., had done his job right. But the day had had a rocky start with a live television appearance he'd arranged for the band on the local CBS-TV affiliate's midday news program.
Host Lilly Bliss, aptly named with her blow-dried hairdo and implaccably sunny disposition, didn't quite know what to make of the Giants. Another guest, actress Talia Shire (of Rocky fame), was there to peddle an E.T.-clone movie she'd produced and told us in the Green Room that she'd heard the Giants were some kind of religious musical group. Noting our puzzled expressions, she apologized for the mistake. "Sorry, I just flew in from the coast."
The band certainly has considered religious themes, as evidenced by John Linnell's solo accordion number, "Kiss Me, Son of God." A stinging indictment of organized religion, it was, in fact, the exact number the Professor was crooning for Lilly and the audience at home when the folks at the studio control board panicked and pulled the plug.
"I built a little empire out of some crazy garbage called the blood of the exploited working class," the Professor had begun to sing, while Jack smiled and snapped out an uptempo beat. "Now they've overcome their shyness, and they're calling me 'Your Highness,' and the world screams, 'Kiss me, Son of God.' "
Poor Lilly. Her evanescent smile had completely disappeared. Her hard-boiled co-anchor, a crusty old news guy straight from central casting, fell out of his chair laughing. Linnell continued: "I look like Jesus, so they say..." Good night, Professor, I remember thinking, as the monitor in the Green Room went blank.
After the show [at the Blue Note, in Columbia, MO,] we were invited to yet another gathering of bohemian college kids. We couldn't put our finger on it as we stood on the porch of a ramshackle crash pad, enjoying the cool night air, but the folks we were talking to seemed oddly cryptic. Then a guy came running up to the house. He was red-faced and wild-eyed. "It's terrible," he shrieked, "man, it's so messed up. The streets are filled with people fighting, and they're all on fire." We looked at this guy and then we looked at his friends. They had gotten up and walked toward him. Now they were roughly two microns from his face. They said nothing. Then it came to us.
"Are you guys tripping?" we asked, but we already knew the answer. Just as we'd been told, acid had returned to the campuses. "Yikes," Linnell said, and we braced ourselves for a rough evening of another order.