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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

fifi History 5: Captain Kangaroo Stole My Car

NOTE: Citing my notoriously faulty memory and my tendency toward “mendacious untruth” (not my words), various fifi alumni and supporters have graciously added corrections and additions where necessary throughout this series. If there are no corrections in the article below, that must indicate that my recollections are without error.

fifi Cries ‘Havoc’ and Lets Slip the Dogs of ROCK

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The “Metrix Era” Comes to an End, Which Is Good
Because I’ve Run Out of Matrix Movie Titles

When we recorded our first album, in 1984, we were recording studio rubes, if you will; some would say tenderfoots, possibly even greenhorns. The process of recording an album in a studio was something we knew about only by reading the liner notes on Rush albums. Three years on, however, much had changed. We had recorded and released three full albums! In fact, one of them (Live and Rabid / Rabid) we had released twice! We had closely observed, and even (to the annoyance of the Metrix staff) enthusiastically meddled in the engineering, mixing, and mastering of those albums. By 1987, when Eric and I were preparing to record “Captain Kangaroo Stole My Car,” we considered ourselves seasoned professionals. We had an established routine for recording an album; this routine had worked for us in the past, and we had no doubt that it would serve us well in the future. We were young, smart, prepared, and confident. But we didn’t count on Our Lord Jesus Christ totally f’ing up our plans.

To get the ball rolling, we consulted our “Album Recording Flow Chart” and executed Step 1: “Contact Doug at Metrix Studios and Book Some Studio Time.” When I got him on the phone, Doug was somewhat evasive. He had a lot of other projects at the moment, he told us. He had taken a day job to pay some bills, he told us. We were insistent, so he finally agreed to meet with us to discuss the project. Significantly, he asked us to meet him at his day-job office, not at his home/studio. We arrived at his office, squirrelly as always, dressed in our ridiculous fifi costumes, and bursting with mind-blowing ideas for our upcoming album… and left again 15 minutes later, rebuffed and despondent.

Doug had always been a Christian, we knew. No problem! So were we! But now, he told us, he had been born again (or something) and that The Lord God (or maybe Doug’s wife) had decreed that Metrix Studios should only be used to record Christ-praising music. We made the case that we were, in fact, a “Christian” band, since both current members of fifi attended “Christian” churches, but Doug was not convinced. After showing him the lyrics for our new songs, the meeting came to an abrupt end. Doug politely but firmly showed us the door, and fifi was without a home.

Referring once again to the classified pages of the Rocket (Seattle’s alternative weekly at the time, R.I.P.), we found another studio in our price range: Gibson Studios, in West Seattle. A week later, we arrived at Gibson Studios to discuss our project with the proprietor, Duane Gibson. Eric, as was his custom at the time, was wearing a large, gaudily sequined sombrero. Yes, really.

Duane, while being a nice guy, was certifiably odd. Eric and I were used to dealing with the semi-professional staff at Metrix, who observed popularly-accepted rules of basic hygiene. By way of contrast, Duane was obese, smelled like mildew, and seemed to be coated in a thin layer of cooking oil at all times. He wore unwashed clothes that (we suspected) doubled as his pajamas, and his thick eyeglasses were permanently fogged by scratches and finger-grease. He muttered and mumbled a lot, and sometimes seemed disoriented. But he had no objections to our (apparently) satanic songs, and his rates were reasonable, so fifi signed on the dotted line.

The fact that he used quarter-inch recording tape, rather than the half-inch tape we were accustomed to using, gave us momentary pause, but Duane assured us that the quality was comparable, and we’d still have the same eight tracks to use, so we put our trust in his superior knowledge and let it go.

The first couple of recording sessions at Gibson Studios went well, and included one of my favorite fifi memories. I had absent-mindedly scheduled some oral surgery for the afternoon prior to a recording date. The surgery was slightly more radical than expected; they ended up having to crush the wisdom teeth in their sockets and then extract the broken shards. I arrived at the studio hallucinating on pain meds, my benumbed cheek packed with gauze, my chin and shirt stained with blood and saliva. While Eric recorded a solo and some keyboard parts, I fell asleep on a stool, drooling, with my head against the control room wall. When the time came for me to record my vocals, Eric shook me awake. I stood up groggily, re-acquired my bearings, and stumbled to the microphone. When I turned around to sing, I could see the stool where I had been sleeping. Starting right about where I had rested my head against the wall, there was a shocking crimson streak of blood that had dripped all the way to a small puddle on the floor. I was the only one who found this hysterically funny. Duane wasn’t happy about the mess, but he didn’t charge us for the clean-up. Rock and ROLL!

We should have recognized that bloodstain on the wall for what – in retrospect – it clearly was: A harbinger of disasters to come. As was our custom, however, we ignored this explicit warning from the supernatural realm and blithely flailed away at our little project, grinning like loons.

At our next scheduled recording date, Duane didn’t show up. We waited for an hour at his locked door, then ate dinner at the Royal Fork buffet across the street, then went back and waited some more, but Duane the West Seattle Homunculus never appeared.

In the following days, I tried to reach Duane on the phone at all hours of the day and night. A week later, he finally answered the phone at 3AM. He apologized distractedly, blaming his disappearing act on some “heavy shit” that had being going down, and vowed not to charge us for our next recording date. Ever optimistic, Eric and I showed up at the pre-arranged time, in full fifi costume, keen to continue recording. Once again, Duane failed to appear.

I remembered that he lived nearby, so we walked around the neighborhood, hoping against all probability that we might spot him. Incredibly, two blocks from the studio, we saw Duane in the distance, climbing into a rust-caked Toyota. “Duane!” we shouted. “Wait! Where are you going?” we screamed, as his car backfired, belched a cloud of oily smoke, and then rattled away down the street.

That was the last time we ever saw Duane. As you’ve probably surmised from television, the police were no help whatsoever: “There’s no crime in a man leaving town,” they told us, each time we called, and they were right. In fact, we were already making plans to continue our recording in a different studio, and we didn’t have any desire to see Duane again – partly out of anger, partly out of physical revulsion – but there was one thread that kept us bound to Duane: he had our tapes. All of the work we had done thus far was stored on reels of quarter-inch tape, locked somewhere in the bowels of the now-shuttered Gibson Studios. Many weeks passed, many phone calls were made, and still our dreams lay a-moldering in a darkened closet in West Seattle.

One day, I hatched a plan to simply knock on every door in the office/apartment building which housed Gibson Studios, in the hopes of finding someone who knew something. After talking to several suspicious/angry/drunk apartment residents, I began canvassing the businesses. In the offices of an insurance company downstairs, I hit pay dirt: The landlord of the entire building worked there part-time as an insurance agent. After assuring him that I was not in the market for any auto, homeowner, or life insurance, I explained our predicament.

“Well…” he stroked his chin, “I suppose I could let you in there, but I doubt you’ll find anything. Duane’s brother came and took all of the recording equipment.” From a desk drawer, he produced the landlord’s traditional enormous ring of keys, and led the way to the studio. He was right; everything of value had been stripped from the premises. The stacks of recording tapes, however, had been left untouched. Duane was never a tidy man, and didn’t really go in for “labeling” the tapes, or any nonsense like that, so I had no idea which tapes contained our masterpiece, and which tapes contained the folky noodlings of some coffee shop Trotskyite, for example, so I just took everything.

I’ll spare you the details of our search for a new recording studio. Bottom Line: We ended up at The Right Track, a much nicer, much more professional, and much more expensive studio in Burien. They had plush couches in the control room, a huge recording room, 16-track decks (we had only used 8-track prior to that), and tons of instruments and equipment available for fifi to use improperly, infuriating the engineers, as was our custom.

After months of spinning our wheels, we were eager to get back to work on (what we presumed would be) our masterpiece, but more delays were in store. That quarter-inch tape that Duane used? Nobody else in town used that, apparently, so everything we had already recorded was useless. We could barely afford to complete the project at a “nice” studio – starting the project over from scratch was simply out of the question. Fifi prepared to call it a day, our romantic visions of artistic and commercial success stopped short by cold reality.

“Wait a minute!” exclaimed Ron Combs, our mentor at The Right Track. “I know a guy… he’s kind of a space cadet, had some drug problems but he’s clean now, alanon and the whole bit, lives out in Snohomish – I THINK he’s got a quarter-inch deck!” Ron gave the (recovering) speed freak a call, and we arranged to rent his deck for one day. Now it was just a simple matter of listening to every goddamned tape in the stack, and identifying those few tapes that contained our visionary recordings. Oh, also: once we had whittled the stack down to the 6 tapes that should have been labeled “fifi”, we had to dupe the contents of those tapes over onto half-inch tape before we could do anything else. By the time we added up the rental of the quarter-inch deck, the purchase of the new half-inch tape, and the studio time required to preview and dupe the tapes… we found ourselves with a tab of several hundred dollars before we had recorded note one at The Right Track.

But now we were ready to go! As soon as we had finished paying off our initial tape-transfer bill, we made a date to begin recording in earnest. We arrived at the scheduled time, conferred briefly with Ron, and, at long last, Eric strapped on his guitar. Ron checked some levels, and Eric began to play.

“(click) Hold it” came Ron’s voice over the intercom. “(click) Eric, are you sure your guitar is tuned properly?”

“The name is He’s. He’s Aboy,” responded Eric.

“(click) Right. Listen, He’s, your guitar sounds weird to me; can you bring it in here?”

And that, my friends, was the day we learned about this arcane guitar thing called “intonation.” As near as I could make out, it had something to do with Eric’s left-handed playing. He had swapped the strings accordingly, but had neglected to flop this other thing that controlled the, uh, “intonation.” Or something.

“I cannot allow you to record in my studio using that guitar,” Ron stated flatly.

We protested, but Ron held his ground and gave us three options:

  1. Bring another guitar from home (which was impossible, because we didn’t have “another guitar” to bring)
  2. Rent a guitar from the adjacent music store (also impossible, because they had no left-handed guitars)
  3. Pay Ron to fix Eric’s guitar (should be ready in a week; $50)

In any event, we wouldn’t be doing any recording of any guitars on that particular day.

One week later, the recording – and the drama – continued…

While I was busy getting married to Jen, Eric was having a tumultuous relationship of his own with a young woman I shall refer to as “Kelli,” because that is her real name. She was a Baptist or something, and Jen made the mistake of asking her about it, which made Kelli angry because “religion is private!” and after that she wouldn’t talk to us, and didn’t like Eric hanging out with me.

Things came to a head one night, when Eric took a break from a lengthy recording session to make his nightly “I love you, snooky-lumps” bedtime call to Kelli.

It started out in the usual semi-nauseating way, but then Eric’s face fell, and his previous love murmurs gave way to terse half-whispers.

“What do you mean, you want to date other people??” he hissed, and it got worse from there. Ron and I sat dumbfounded as the conversation ran on, becoming increasingly heated and emotional. “All I know is that you’re BREAKING MY HEART!” Eric shouted into the phone, weeping openly, as Ron and I stared uncomfortably at the floor. After several minutes of this, Ron got up and went into his office to do some paperwork. “Call me when you’re ready to start working again,” he said as he left the control room.

At $25 an hour, that breakup call cost us close to 50 bucks.

But Eric was not the only one having relationship difficulties. It was sometime during the making of this album that I began to sense my wife’s growing disillusionment with the time- and money-devouring black hole that the “fifi project” had become. Who could blame her? Jen accused me of being a neglectful, distracted husband and being more committed to my silly parody band than to my marriage. Not that her unhappiness led to any actual change in my behavior, mind you. Rock and ROLL!

In the interest of fairness, and in the service of a more well-rounded portrait, I asked (now ex-wife) Jen if she had any reflections she wanted to add before closing this chapter, which seemed like a great idea until she actually responded:

Jen: Here’s some shit *I* have to say, you can stick it where ever you want to.

My deep respect and admiration for boys who could think about something besides kissing for two seconds was fueled by my association with fifi and its socially retarded co-horts. I was star struck. Once I saw Jason from afar, wearing two different shoes, in his blue bathrobe, (at school) with a bandanna tied around his head like a drummer from Foreigner… I was done. I could NOT resist this.

Skip ahead a few years, and I learned to resist it pretty well, actually. By the time my rock star lover and I got married… I kind of realized how hard it was to work for things like food and rent, and the shine of spending one damn dime of our money on “studio time” or “midi mixing” just made me crazy. I clearly remember trying to be a supportive 19 year old wife. I think I said: “Jason, seriously – stop this dumb fifi stuff! You’re WASTING YOUR TIME and MINE, and I wanted to buy some other stuff with that money, like… for me, too!”

Ahem. (Jason shuffles feet nervously before continuing…)

After we completed the album, I sent cassette tape copies out to several local radio stations and music magazines. A friend told me she heard one of our songs played on a late-night local music show on a Seattle radio station. Though I have never been able to confirm this, I choose to believe it, because it makes me happy. The mass mailing did, however, result in the sole confirmable public recognition that fifi ever received: A one-paragraph review in the Rocket’s annual “Local Music Extravaganza” issue:

“If you were locked in a room with nothing but a television set and electric guitars, you’d probably wind up like FIFI too, with a bunch of playful songs about sadistic boyfriends, criminally inclined children’s TV hosts and poisonous sour cream, linked together with theme tunes and announcements from our sponsor. Kinda fun stuff.”

Captain Kangaroo Stole My Car: A Listening Guide

A Special Offer From He’s – Inspired by a series of radio ads touting the solace to be found within the loving arms of the LDS Church (“Everyone has to deal with the loss of a beloved family member at some point in their lives; if now is that time for you…”), and referencing several events documented in our fake autobiography “fifi – A Band,” this spoken-word piece features a backing track from the Capitol Records “Production Music” LP library. “As you can imagine, my life became a literal maelstrom of confusion, pain, guilt, frustration, nihilism, anger, rejection, dejection, bitterness, golfballs, hatred, uncurtailed lust, drunken revelry, more uncurtailed lust, fraud, extortion, hunger, pestilence…”

Skippy’s Outta Jail – By the time we recorded this version of the song, Eric was no longer dating Vicki, so Jen subbed on vocals and did a great job, to boot. Much more professional recording this time around, with a nice guitar sound and a solo that stubbornly refuses to end. Opens with a big band track from the Capitol Records “Production Music” set, and closes with an excerpt from an old movie theater announcement 45 given to us by Matt Terry.

Sarah Ness: Um, though you mention my bass on Captain Kangaroo below, I also played bass on Skippy’s Outta Jail, and I played the tambourine as well. As a matter of fact, I believe this is the song you (jason) wanted me to play on on this tape, album, C.D. whatever… in the first place.

Captain Kangaroo Stole My Car – Opening with another excerpt from that movie theater announcement 45, I consider this one of our more successful bits of cultural appropriation. Eric’s guitar sounds nice and bouncy, for once there’s a decent bass track (contributed by friend and co-worker Sarah Ness), and my conga-playing is… passable. The lyrics are still funny to me, but I don’t like my delivery; not entirely sure what kind of accent that is supposed to be. Still: overall, one of my favorite fifi songs.

Rock and Roll is Pretty Cool – During the preparatory phase for this album, I had purchased a new Casio keyboard, primarily because it had a small microphone which you could use to “sample” sounds. You could then play the sampled sounds back at different pitches, using the keys of the keyboard. In 1986, this was simply mind-boggling technology, indistinguishable from black magic. We, of course, used it solely to sample and play back the sound of Eric burping. The lyrics are dumb, but the guitar sound and the production on this song are miles beyond anything on previous fifi albums. Also, I’m kinda proud of my piano-pounding. Listening to this song today, I’m amazed how “Licensed to Ill” it sounds, though I don’t think that was intentional.

Sarah Ness: …in addition, Jay (my husband) contributed a belch for this song.

Mirage – Well, we had those congas for the whole night, so…

Sacrilegious Sour Cream (Part IV of “Evil Dairy Products”) – The creaking at the beginning is the door to the recording booth at Gibson Studios. Eric’s keyboard intro is simultaneously spooky and goofy, and Sarah contributes another casually spot-on bass track. By the time we got around to finishing this song, Eric and I were in one of our periodic “break-up” periods, or perhaps he had joined the military by that point. In any case, there was nobody around to play guitar. Frustrated and impatient to get the damn album finished, I appropriated some timbales from the music store next door to The Right Track and improvised a percussion track. Sarah added some wind chimes, we layered the whole thing with a hollandaise glaze of production effects, and: voila! It sounds like we never intended to have a guitar track in the first place. “Do you like to waterski?” was something I heard David Letterman say, apropos of nothing, in response to a long-winded rant by a guest on his show.

Sweet Song of the Void – We had this idea that each member of fifi should have a signature song on this album, but only got around to doing the songs for He’s (Eric), Annette (Me), and The Void (Paul). There was originally a Filler (Joey) song as well, but it never really came together. Oddly, neither Paul nor Joey had anything to do with fifi by this time, but – within the elaborate fifi mythos – they were still active members. You would think that if we were going to do a song that was ostensibly sung by The Void, we would have simply asked Paul to come in and sing the song, but no. I wrote the words that Paul would supposedly be saying (mostly about the abuse he suffered at our hands), and Eric sang (spoke) the song, pretending to be Paul. Such was our megalomania. My favorite moment is after the first time Eric says, “Where’s my dog?” and you can hear him turning to the next page of lyrics.

When I Was a Porcupine (Annette’s Lament) – There’s a segment at the beginning of this song, during which you can hear what appear to be the unholy voices of devils, speaking in their satanic coded language. We created this terrifying effect by recording several minutes of us talking (about spaghetti, I Love Lucy, and whatever else came to mind while the tape was running), then running the tape backwards. During the same section, alert listeners may recognize one of Max Von Sydow’s monologues from “The Seventh Seal.” The keyboard part was meant to be sort of like that “Tubular Bells/Exorcist” melody, but neither Eric nor I could play it with any degree of consistency. Finally, one of us was able to play it through once without error, and Duane Gibson looped it, once again protecting us from the consequences of our own inadequacy.

We’re Still Great – another in our series of “Isn’t Rock Awesome?” / “Our Team Yay, Your Team Boo” songs. Not one of our best, though my take on the lead vocals is at least energetic. Every time I listen to this song, just when I’m about to lose interest, Eric’s guitar solo comes on and makes me laugh out loud, reminding me why we liked working together so much, despite the occasional melodrama.

Video

  1. “Sorry ‘Bout That” Documentary, Part 5

Audio

To download any of the songs individually, just right-click on the desired track in the playlist above and select “Save link as…”

To download the entire set in a .zip file, click here.

Lyrics

In case you’re interested (and also because Robin says she can’t understand what the hell we’re singing), the lyrics for this album can be found here.

Proceed to the next chapter in the spellbinding fifi saga.

5 Comments

  1. Actually, yes, that IS pretty damn funny. Thank goodness we persevered, despite the fact that we couldn’t always get along. Thus is the greatest art created! Out of conflict! Conflict, acrimony, and seething resentment!

    But seriously: Thank you for putting up with my crankiness for all those years, Eric.

  2. (NOTE: I had written a fantastic commentary including an open confession regarding some of our “work.” I was just a few sentences from finishing up when Jolinda came in and asked me to come downstairs so she could show me some things. She sounded like it was important, so I left the project open so I could come back and finish it. It turned out she wanted to show me some of Ian’s and Alex’s new shirts and pants. Really. She then started talking about what I was planning to make for dinner tonight. After some discussion I started milling about in the kitchen, messing with a little German cookbook from the library. Jolinda told me she wanted to look the book up on Amazon. I told her not to touch the page I was on and came up, set up a new tab for her to use, and returned to the kitchen. Five minutes later she came down and said, “Well, that book is like, twenty-five dollars. Uhm, when the computer says ‘Close all tabs,’ do you push yes?”

    This is my second attempt.)

    To think we were actually denounced as “sa-tah-nic” for our work in a rock-n-roll band. How cool is that?
    ————

    This was a very traumatic period in my life and has largely been successfully expunged from my memory.
    Except Duane. Yeesh. Duane looked like the commune had left him behind and took his spare clothes, in 1973.
    ———–

    Actually, it was “Kelly,” and she was a Methodist. Officially, at least. Apparently, when she was young, the pastor said something in a sermon her parents didn’t like, thereby clearly, unequivocally and permanently excusing her family from all further religious obligations and responsibilities. Or something.
    ———–

    “Rock-n-Roll” and “We’re Still Great” were actually written at one sitting. That sitting was an overnight coffee binge at Denny’s in Lynnwood. Somewhere around the twelfth cup, I decided to start jotting down some ideas for songs. Amazingly, the words started pouring forth and, after a few more of Denny’s world-famous “Mug o’ Sludge,” I had finished both songs. I hurriedly gathered up my treasures, hopped on my bike, and started my five-mile trip home. It was 4:30.

    Within a few blocks I started…seeing things. I couldn’t figure out what any of these hallucinations were, because my mind was racing from the songs to the hallucinations to the songs to the white line on the road and how some of the crevices are more thoroughly coated with this sparkly paint to the hallucinations to the dead squirrel! to the songs and so on for what seemed like a day and a half.

    Once I got home, I crawled into bed and begged God for sweet, merciful death. I was constantly aware that heaving was just a wrong twitch away, and I lay in a never-ending state between dreamland and a restless, pained state of semi-consciousness.

    I never revised the lyrics after that, surely a touch of PTSD setting in. What you hear are the first, very rough, drafts.

    Jason and I agreed to do a lot of our preparatory work separately. You know, like the Beatles? Also like the Beatles was the reason: we hated each other’s guts. We were still best friends and all that, but our respective “abrasivities” were really, well, abrasing each other. It didn’t help that our girls didn’t understand. (Although, today, my feet are also shuffling uncomfortably.) Regardless, it was a difficult time, and I think it sometimes showed in the music. You know, like Zeppelin’s “Presence?” For now, we could only prepare for the Gibson Sessions.

    Two months later, it was time to record. I was really struggling at this time, perhaps fatigued, uninspired. Jason called to tell me he was on his way to pick me up. “I’m ready! See you in ten minutes!” I hung up the phone, plugged in my guitar, took a deep breath, and pulled out the wrinkled, java-stained artifacts of a night long past.

    “It is time,” I thought. “The time is now. Now is the time to reach inside, to reach outside. Reach. Reach for that spark, that ever-elusive spark of artistic creativity. Now is the time to ask the question…”

    “What the hell am I going to play for these pieces of crap?”

    Ten minutes later Jason knocked on the door and I showed him the two songs, fully arranged and mapped out, including the way-cool piano riff in “R-n-R.” As my wife, an accomplished pianist and teacher, describes it, it is “definitely a theoretically acceptable embellishment.”

    Ironically, those two songs took just a couple hours to pretty much complete. You know, it’s great how time makes it possible to get things off your chest. Things you know that, years ago, would have spawned irreparable acrimony had it come to light at the time, but now are actually pretty damn funny. Aren’t they, Jason?

    Jason?

  3. RE: That 45 I gave Jason… on a random trip to a Value Village in the Central Area, I came across a 45rpm that said: “Barker” What the hell? So I bought it.

    Basically all it was – was a guy yelling: “HURRY HURRY HURRY! The show is starting in a few minutes! C’mon in! There’s fresh popcorn in the lobby. HURRY HURRY HURRY!” On the flip side was the same except maybe it went a tad bit longer and maybe there was another “hurry” thrown in for good measure – I actually do not know.

    My assumption was that some movie theatre with an external speaker system would crank this up 5 minutes before the show to try and draw customers in. Having bought and played it, I gave it to Jason to use.

    It’s the closest I ever came to actually singing on one of these albums.

  4. The section about writing theme songs for each member reminded me of the time that all the members of the band KISS made their own albums with their faces on the cover.

    If fifi had continued with all the band members intact…I think that the natural progression would have been something like that. Okay, not really, not anything like that. At all.

  5. Um, I also played bass on Skippy’s outta jail, and I played the tambournine as well. As a matter of fact, I believe that is the song you (jason) wanted me to play on on this tape, album, C.D. whatever… in the first place. In addition, Jay contributed a belch for the song, ‘We’re still great’.

    And as for that blue bath robe, Jason also wore it to work one day – toting around a teddy bear to boot. Which is really nothing, when you consider that one time he wore a bikini and some flippers! He did keeping things interesting!

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