THE TINKLERS by Rick Sugden, Chemical Imbalance, 1990
Ten years ago in Baltimore, the part-hippie, part post-punk Tinkklers were emblematic of the energetic happenings in a town where you did little things like make art to keep from going crazy. Their reductive sound, their persona of a 9-year-old, and anti-Reagan politics were edifying and fun. I liked the silliness they would use to talk about serious issues. Now, however, when I listen to the virtually-complete Tinklers collection Casserole (Shimmy Disc), I feel very sad. After the past decade's events, it's not so funny.
The opening song, "Turn the Screw on the Crank", paints a suburban xouple's troubled relationship through the man's eyes: It's getting hard to pay the bills; Mary wants him to paint the house; the neighbor's dog barking at night is driving him crazy; Mary's got a perpetual headache and there is something wrong with their kids.
Sad stories continue: Norman Meyer, killed by the National Guard after he threatened to blow up the Washington Monument if nuclear proliferation wasn't halted (it was a hoax on his part). Eleanor Bumpers, the lederly woman who resisted arrest during an eviction proceeding for 5 months rent in arrears, and was blown away by New York police officers wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying shotguns; and even "Joan of Arc": There once was a time/ when they burned a lot of girls / Because they thought that girls / Would become too powerful in the world.
"Ghost Dance Song" has Native Americans trying to get to Heaven cause stuff's so bad / trying to get to Heaven cause we're so mad. "Mutations" lists the various deformations caused by radiation. "Tough Guys Are Probably Sad Insideæ explains that sad guys have got some hurt they're trying to hide. Sexual self-explorations lead to stern consequences according to the admonishments in "Don't Put Your Fingers In The Sex Places." Pretty bleak stuff for two nine-year-olds.
Charles Brohawn and Chris Mason have lived in the Baltimore area for a long time. Charles was born there and Chris moved from Minnesota in the mid-seventies. Charles studied visual arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art, while Chris studied poetry in the Johns Hopkins creative writing program. They met through te fecund poets cum performance artists scene in late-70's Baltimore, and through Half-Japanese. Chris joined an earlier noise-rock version of The Tinklers that Charles had started with some friends, which by 1979 was whittled down to just Charles and Chris.
The New Wave/ punk rock scene and seeing Half Japanese made Charles realize that anybody could make music; Chris came more from the John Cage/ Jackson MacLow school of improvised music as an extension of writing. (Currently, Charles supports himself working in the art supply store where he has worked for eleven years. Chris teacher deaf-retarded kids).
These different backgrounds aren't as opposed as they first seem. John Cage once said that rock was the only popular music that "felt". Punk music shares a respect for disorder and spontaneity that poets like MacLow had investigated decades before. For many kids in the late-sixties and early-seventies, it was the experimental rock of the Soft Machine or Roxy Music that led to the discovery of visual art.
The Tinklers' sound is not a rock sound at all: it's a type of non-sound: originally Erector Set instruments would be pulled across the floor or shaken for noises to add accompaniment to a capella renditions of their songs. The personae of little kids, playing with rubber band guitars and shoehorn marimbas. Shyly, they played under the tables. This wasn't a pretension: Charles loathese live performances. They would use complicated charts as a mode of composition and as illustrations, attempting to explain the whole universe by dividing it into scary and not-scary things. Personal development would be diagrammed as the nexusses of mom, dad, school, tv.
With "The Tinklers' History of The World", they began making narrative charts: a fifty foot long time line (which is included in photo-reduced form as liner notes to the Casserole LP) that they had divided into weapons and food and hygiene. Charles and Chris walk down this list of human achievement, reading the chart and performing a sock puppet play related to a moment in history.
Going through most of Western Civilizations's milestones, it starts with "eating and putting your enemy inside you" (weapons line) and "wipin' The Dirt off the Root and wipin the Guts off the Sloth" (food and hygiene line) and ends with "social media barrage causes people to lose the ability to communicate" (WEAPONS) and "CLEANING THE MUTATIONS OFF YOUR BODY" (food and hygiene) which leads to the end of the world.
Charles and Chris spent the first half of the 80's working on charts and songs,exploring permutations of The Tinklers. There was the typical Tinklers' Big Band, a mess of non- and semi- musicians playing playing a rollicking mixture of punk and funk, which recorded a few tapes on Widemouth Tapes a cassette distribution company for poets started by Chris. The history of the world became a book, and produced other books, such as Manifest Destiny, an illustrated tale of the life and crimes of the ever-expanding USA.
Then in 1987, a friend of theirs who shows at the Sharpe Gallery in SoHo got them a gig during the off-season. They were surprised when some paintings made as set decorations were bought. In the Spring of 1989, they had an official show, in which, again, they sold all the paintings.
Longtime admirers and friends Half Japanese sent some tapes to Kramer at Shimmy Disc, and soon enough, with Don Fleming on "good" guitar and Kramer on keyboards, Casserole was recorded in two days. The superior recording quality allows the sometimes eerie quality of The Tinklers' sparse vocals to come through, sounding like Gregorian chants or moans from a wounded soul.
"Mom Cooks Inside, Dad Cooks Outside" concisely paints the divisions of the sexes. This child's-eye view can lead to a William Carlos Williams type of poetry. "Black dog, friendly dog / brown dog, barking dog/ Red dog, hearty dog, White dog, expensive dog/ What color is your dog?" A paean to sandwiches, "I love a Sandwich"lists the various sandwiches you might like to see in your lonchbox.
At times, the assumed naivete misfires, resulting in the disturbing semtimentalism of "Splash Splash", the story of two youths, male and female, who in typical heterosexual desire, want to swim upstream to mate. Or to the almost Shirley MacLaine New Age tone of "we're Not Alone" and "The Whales Know".
The songs on this record are not simple songs of simple faith as the title of one of their tunes says. They are simple songs of a sad soul. The Tinklers have looked deep into thefissure of our personal and collective psyche and it seems that the ugliness of what they saw has forced them to regress to the optimism and insight of an innocent age.
Widemouth Tapes #8262 is a complete collection of The Tinklers early home recordings, at times more interesting than the record.
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