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A Carnival of the Last Days

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The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink
By Mark Dery
Grove/Atlantic; 295 pages; $25

Give Us Immortality or Give Us Death!
By the Firesign Theater
Rhino Records; $14.95




A new book and CD expose thrill seekers to the shocks and shivers of the new millennium

By Richard von Busack

A GREAT CRESCENDO of mania, these last days before the odometer turns. And the scary thing is that chimeras--black helicopters, gray aliens and so forth--have distracted millions from real cause for fear, such as pollution, the precariousness of the economy and overpopulation. Here are two works portraying millennial America 1999. What's played for scares in Dery's collection of essays is played for (last) laughs in a new work by a reunited Firesign Theater--the most auspicious reunion of a 1960s supergroup in a long, long time.

In The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, Dery (author of Escape Velocity, a critique of cyberfuturism) compares the modern world to a blazing amusement park, part cardboard paradise, part lunatic asylum. His title comes from a literal conflagration. The accidental burning in 1911 of Dreamland, one of the attractions at Coney Island, was, he writes, "a scene worthy of Salvador Dali," with the lath-and-plaster palaces on fire and the circus animals running through the streets. Coney Island is the mother of theme parks, a distant mirror (to use historian Barbara Tuchman's phrase) of our own 1999 interest in carny culture, freak shows and thrill rides.

It's a dark carnival indeed that Dery visits in his essays. As an opener, we have the fireworks of Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber. In a subsequent essay, Dery sends in the bad clowns of stage, screen and serial-killing. Krusty, the Joker, Pennyworth, John Wayne "Pogo the Clown" Gacy are all accounted for. Dery completes the chapter with a visit to the "Clowns Are Evil Incarnate" website (www.geocities.com/
Colosseum/2430/clown.html), where victims traumatized by bozos can search for healing.

Dery also explores the midway's collection of two-headed kids ("pickled punks" in carny slang) and how they have been elevated to museum status through the work of photographers Rosamund Purcell and Arne Svenson and artist Damien Hurst, who titillates museum-goers with exhibits of cross-sections of farm animals in formaldehyde. In the fortune-telling tent, futurist swamis from Wired magazine predict a magic era in which bad human meat is swapped forever for elegant electronic wiring. But while you still have your flesh, you can visit the tattoo booths and have the corporate logo of your choice engraved on you for eternity.

Past commentators thought that Coney Island was the end of American culture, just as those who drop in on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show exclaim that they're seeing the finish of democracy. Dery doesn't endorse the hackneyed neoconservative view of American morals in decline. A self-described "Grub Street hack," Dery has written a Mondo Millennium, a loose catalog of excesses and fringe culture.

Such studies are usually assembled from secondhand research, which gives in scope what it lacks in depth. It's depressing enough, as Dery reports, that some hard-charging Nike execs get tattooed with a swoosh. If the author had talked to any actual tattoo artists, he could have found out that many people, not just Nike employees, cough up money to get their hides swooshed. (Two different tattooists have told me this.)

Still, Dery's style is informed, chatty and witty. Unlike some prophets of the coming catastrophe, such as my old pal Adam Parfrey in his book Apocalypse Culture, Dery has only detached enthusiasm for the shock artists he writes about. He even denounces the murderousness of the Unabomber. (I appreciate the morality. Few zine or Net pundits deign to mention that dead people are a byproduct of a serial killer's implicit critique of society.)

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THE MILLENNIAL Insanitarium is the natural playground of the Firesign Theater. Since the 1960s, these recording artists have been masters of exactly the same kind of paranoid collage Dery has composed. Despite the hippieish, astrological name, the Firesigners were far more than just the smarter version of Cheech and Chong. (The group's erudition shines in their 1982 recording, Shakespeare's Lost Comedie, the finest, funniest Bard parody ever written.)

Everything You Know Is Wrong (1974) is the Firesign Theater's sendup of conspiracy theory and saucer fanciers--at the end of the record, the cultists commit mass suicide, just as the members of the Heaven's Gate cult did. The group's 1971 album, I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus, is a not-so-distant mirror of the bad millennial fun house Dery portrays in The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium.

In Bozos, we're given a tour of a propagandistic insanitarium, a Future Fair. We're greeted by a holographic president, lauded for his communication skills--just as Reagan was. Supposedly friendly, but actually threatening, exhibits are patronized by a huge clown cult (the Shriner-like Bozos of the title).

"You may already be there" is the motto of the Future Fair; it is also the conclusion Dery draws about the postmillennium era, since he finishes his book with a quote from musician Sun Ra: "It's already after the end of the world. Don't you know that yet?" In an era of fruit-flavored computers, America has finally caught up with the Firesign Theater.

The new Firesign Theater recording, Give Us Immortality or Give Us Death!, takes place during a New Year's Eve 1999 broadcast of Radio Now!, an FM radio station whose management shifts formats hourly. ("A new focus group?" sighs DJ Bebop Loco. "Yeah," says Duane, his producer. "They've focused us up real good.")

It's the eve of the Y2K-induced millennial breakdown. Signs of the apocalypse include the resurrection of Princess Di in cyberandroid form, as a sort of 6-foot-tall Chatty Cathy doll with a string in her back ("She may be dead, but she's obviously a very caring person"). As the legions of "submillionaires" gather at the Homeless Arena for the midnight countdown, traffic is stalled by a slow-speed car chase led by the Whore of Babylon down the Tribulation Freeway.

The Radio Now! broadcast is peppered with sinister adverts from USPlus. Like Solomon Smith Barney and Archer Daniels Midland, USPlus is omnipotent and yet terrifyingly vague about what the hell they're up to. USPlus' motto: "The idea of the idea of America belongs to us."

Dery and the Firesign Theater have individually cracked the codes that conceal some very bad news. What Dery studies, the Firesign Theater turns into hilarity. But all of these men recognize that the millennial carnival is nothing but a sideshow.

Ugly as it is, the neon-lit false front of the electronic village isn't nearly as ugly as what's going on behind it. America obsesses over the glitter, the geeks and the games of chance. Hardly anyone sees the missing rivets and pressure cracks in the frame of the roller coaster.

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From the February 25-March 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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