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I Feel Bad about “Good Times”
‘This isn’t me,’ insist the Tape-beatles, who don’t like it when people talk about the work that made them hurt
by Peter Torrenti
THE RECORDING you are about to listen to, like one great big red stick of unexpectedly detonated, finely wrought artistic dynamite, signals a bitter distraction from the recent economic upturn and solid IPO postings by new corporate blood. In the current market bolstered by rapid technological development and low inflation, Rolling Stone has dismissed Good Times as “a compendium of misguided social and economic disaffections … possibly the most ideologically wrong-minded American-made recording of the past year.”
The political punditocracies on both sides could only fan the fires of a seemingly well-choreographed and lucrative conspiracy apparently designed to generate pre-release interest in the often murky and timeworn social hysterics of Good Times. Denounced on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as a result of its well-publicized “bad attitude,” prices soared briefly as the market responded to traders’ longings for a new age of beauty and truth.
Vulnerable to rumors of a cultural renaissance, a tearful US Treasury Secretary Alan Greenspan was heard to lament, “Our hopes are dashed — again!” Junk bond king Michael Milken, refusing to listen to Good Times, said, “I don’t like anything to blunt my spiritual life.” Critics of the work point to its lack of originality and battle among themselves as to whether the recording is even good art. A New England Wal-Mart announced that Good Times will not be permitted in its CD browsing bins.
Hysterics — about what?
Reaction of a hype-saturated listenership was decidedly mixed when the notorious Good Times was finally released to the public. Antique dowager Dame Mae Whittie, from the porch of her Iowa City bungalow, was heard to ask, “What is all the fuss about?” and then offered the reporters cookies and milk.
Others denounced it as “a waste of potentially useful human resources,” and “just more ultra-leftist propaganda from a liberal media controlled by an alienated, moneyed elite seeking to destroy, for the sake of a few bucks, the very principles upon which this country was founded.” Those who were excited by its artistic values were as furious in its defense as others were in its denunciation, and the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences inexplicably considered Good Times worthy of an Oscar nomination. “Of course they would,” said a saddened George Bush, Jr. at a recent press conference. “Hollywood certainly doesn’t care any more if a movie is good. Why would they care whether or not it’s a movie?“
But the Tape-beatles are not your typical, calloused cultural icons. They are sensitive fellows, hurt by assertions that they are out of touch with the feelings and aspirations of middle America. “I never expected all that to happen,” Ralph Johnson [sic] says now. “I’m sorry if we hurt anyone’s feelings.” Speaking about Good Times as though he were a real person, dressed casually in a crushed-velvet bathrobe, he adds, “I feel very bad about the fuss it has caused. I feel that I was a very innocent child, very sweet, very pure. It hurts when I hear people say I’m a moron.” There is, in fact, a certain innocent sweetness about him, almost a colorlessness, which is evident in the way he sits down, folds his hands and prepares to carry on a conversation.
And there is a kind of serenity.
“I haven’t really been much affected by Good Times,” Tape-beatle John Heck said, looking evasive. Nor is his claim of detachment unreasonable. Heck is a product of the Art School®, a meeting place for young people who follow the “method” articulated by The Works of the Masters. They practice a received mode of production, determining a work’s fit into the currently popular ideology, revealing what the consensus of public opinion will be through surveys and focus groups. Much of what the group does is shrouded in secrecy, and there have been a number of unpleasant accusations made about their back-alley antics.
Even so, there was a significant warmth in the way Heck spoke aboutGood Times. “I don’t think that marketing or some other dark motive has always had the upper hand in the Tape-beatles’ work, as some people insisted. I didn’t feel that Ralph was a moron. I felt he was a real person. And I didn’t feel he was primarily motivated to profit from the misfortunes of others, as the local evening news would have you believe. He wanted love and affection, the way any person does. And I felt he was frightened. I really felt very bad when I heard people talking about him.“
Supposed to be Funny
On the other hand, as if to prove his detachment from the role of an artist, Tape-beatle Lloyd Dunn described his feelings the first time he saw his picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone in which Good Times was featured. “I didn’t feel at all that it was me,” he said. “My smile looked so sincere! It was hard to believe that they would publish such a big picture. And in color!“
Dunn declares that he has not permitted the fallout from the release of Good Times to affect him. “I played the part of an artist as well as I could,” he said. “I tried to put what I thought of an artist, his pureness and innocence, into that role. If some people interpreted it some other way - well, I just don’t understand how their minds work,” he went on, the intensity of his words strangely contradicting his claim to detachment. “They must have been looking for something of which to disapprove. There were many, many people who saw nothing whatever wrong with this work. After all, it was supposed to be funny.”
Mysterious manuscript — or Hoax?
Curiously, at the time of this interview The Tape-beatles were reading a long-buried but recently uncovered manuscript, a dramatization, which curiously also bears the title of Good Times.
The typewritten manuscript came to light last autumn after a mysterious fire had raced through the Tape-beatles’ own Glassed-in Laboratories. In the process of demolishing what remained of the original structure, a mysterious, crackly yellow manuscript was discovered wedged in a hole in a wall, right next to the junction box of a high-voltage power line that had supplied the lab with electricity. Evidently someone had used the pages of the manuscript to shore up the space behind a plaster repair for a fist-sized opening in the wall. There it stayed, concealed, probably for decades, before its inadvertent discovery.
There are few meaningful clues to the source of the document. Between the pages of this brittle, water-stained text was found an envelope addressed to a certain “Mater M—.” It contained the letter that was later to be known as the notorious Mouches-Documents, creating a controversy in the literary world, needless here to repeat.
It was the primary work to which the Mouches letter was attached, however, that held the greatest interest for the Tape-beatles. Consisting of a short play with various disorderly notes scrawled in the margins, it seemed to condense an earlier generation’s angst into the simple dialog of two young ambitious, vibrating women.
In this odd little drama, amid a Spartan milieu, the characters did little more than pose and answer questions of one another. However, the implications of this beguiling work extended well beyond the main characters’ banal struggle for life fulfillment. In a few short pages, the author, cryptically signed only as “C.,” had expressed a questioning of the deep structure of society, springing from a deep psychic void that electrified the six audio auteurs. In consequence, Good Times the play has caused almost as much scandalized sensation in its own way as Good Times the CD has.
While scholars have been unable to establish a connection between the author of the Mouches letter and the play’s creator, philologists have placed the work in the early part of the 20th century, much to the consternation of many serious students of drama history. Like the well-known M. Bresard, many deny the authenticity of the work, insisting that, rather than being a rare example of an American modernist experiment in theatrical minimalism, it is rather a clever forgery foisted on a public hungry for a nostalgic sense of “newness.” It doesn’t help matters that this is precisely the kind of antic one has come to expect from the Art School®. The Tape-beatles have always denied such charges, insisting on the play’s authenticity, choosing to let its raw sense of unease speak for itself.
What holds the Future
Dunn picked up the script, glanced at it and let it drop on the coffee table in front of him, grimacing. “It’s a good job of dramatizing what continues to retain a sense of ideological hollowness in American culture,” he said, “but I’m not sure I want to connect anything as genuinely sensational as this play or the Mouches-documents to our work.” Then he smiled and said, “Besides, the Coca-Cola Corporation has something else for us to do,” offering a sly wink, suggesting the possibility of future product placement in work to come.
The Tape-beatles enjoy the comfort of greater profits that come from working with nationally known products such as Coke, naturally. But again, they keep themselves a bit detached from it. They appear to be more interested in their next top-secret project, already begun at Pinewood Studios outside of London, rumored to be an even tighter fit with the consensual desires of a semi-integrated middle-class with moderate earning power. All that can be said for sure is that the secret code name for this top-secret project is not “Horseshoe Magnet Dementia.”
The boys gave a little sigh. “Who could want more out of life?”
Don’t miss: The Tape-beatles in Too Much Too Soon, Thursday night, June 23, on Le Canal+.