A Child's Garden of Noise
Modern children's music can be filed under several broad categories, depending on who produced the music and for what audience. Often enough, the involvement of actual children is somewhat marginal.
==Music by adults, for children. This comprises the bulk of what is usually thought of as “children's music” and is usually educational in theme, with some moral or practical lesson to impart (counting, sharing, the perils of nose-picking, etc.)
==Music by children, for adults. Relies heavily on saccharine cuteness (and prurient undertones) to manipulate the heart- and/or purse-strings, the classic example being Shirley Temple's “Good Ship Lollipop”. Think young Michael Jackson, or the creepy French child-star Jordy.
==Adults making children's music for other adults. Far less common and harder to pin down—what, after all, is children's music if actual children are absent? Seeking to clarify the nature of childhood through the lens of adulthood, this music usually falls short of the mark (you can't go home again!) but does so in fascinating ways, excavating all kinds of buried trash and treasure. Chicago spazzmaster John Bellows is a longtime practitioner of this medium, as are many so-called “outsider musicians” such as Daniel Johnston, Half Japanese and Tiny Tim.
==Children making music for other children, or for their own solitary enjoyment. While it might be argued that this is the most authentic form of children's music, it is rarely documented, and is therefore the most obscure of the bunch.
It is the last two categories that have piqued my interest, and that we wish to discuss today.
Case Study: The Tinklers, Casserole LP (Shimmy Disc, 1990)
From the opening track, the Tinklers' Casserole picks up the adult listener and throws him on the cracked pavement of a junior high playground. Over in the corner, two of the weird boys in class are banging on empty paint buckets and mocking their fathers' tiresome complaining in a ludicrous sing-song: Mary's trying to get me to paint the house, the neighbor's dog keeps me up all night, it's getting harder to pay those bills, there's something strange about those kids—structured like a childhood memory game, the verses grow fatter and tenser line by line. They veer into a hilarious parody of the day's Social Studies filmstrip, in which the “good kid” and the “bad kid” take divergent paths—one starts smoking cigarettes (maybe just one) and drinking beer, and ends up taking drugs and hanging out with gangsters, while the other kid joins the Boy Scouts, does volunteer charity work and ends up becoming a police officer—but in a thrilling denouement, the bad kid, through his underworld connections eventually becomes a bar-owner, and finally, we see them working together in society.
The Tinklers are a duo from Baltimore, Maryland that have been writing and performing since the late 1970s, though not as actively in recent decades. Though clearly grown men, they speak the language of late childhood incredibly convincingly, boiling down complex topics like gender studies to the level of jumprope chants: Mom cooks inside/Dad cooks outside. Most of their output might, in fact, be described as an extended parody of the midcentury junior high Social Studies class, the humor becoming painful and sublime with the dawning revelation that Social Studies class—ditto Sunday School, ditto sex ed—is a tool of hardcore repression in the hands of an oppressive ruling class, with occasional release-valve digressions like “I Love a Sandwich” and “Don't Put Your Finger in the Fan”. Their first album bursts with the exquisite fury of a kid who's gotten wise, clawing and scratching at every precept of modern life, from trade unions (Working together united we are one/This way building cars seems much more fun) to nuclear radiation (Mutations, meltdown up the creek/Mutations, bird with no beak). In one sense it's extremely authentic children's music; on the other hand, there might not be a parent on earth who's ever played a Tinklers album for their li’l sprout—“Hokey Pokey” might be safe enough, but what to make of “Eleanor Bumpurs,” the disturbing true-story ballad about the mentally ill black woman shot dead by the NYPD in 1984? Or the caustic satire “I'm Proud to Be a Citizen of the Roman Empire” (Living off the conquered peoples of the earth/We just sit around and widen our girth)? Certainly that's not going in Junior's Christmas stocking.
This, then, is clearly children's music of the third category, by-and-for grownups, and its aim is deeply subversive—to peel away at the layers of fraudulence that adulthood accretes, digging past all the false explanations and back to the burning, unanswerable questions of childhood (Is God a person, or is He just a feeling? What if no one had to live on crumbs? If Universe is endless, what's on the other side? Why am I so ugly that I don't have any friends? Where did Grandma go?) They're not, of course, the first or only group to work this vein—obvious predecessors include the Fugs, whose mid-60s blasts of musical clumsiness and puerile poetry (“Kill for Peace,” “Boobs a Lot”) practically spawned punk rock. But where the Fugs had the hip righteousness of the hippy-era Lower East Side to lean on, the Tinklers were just a couple of scrawny dorks from Baltimore without a scene; children's musicians without any children around.
Case Study: Coolman Tony, Surfin' Time With Coolman Tony (self-released, c. 2003)
For something completely different, we turn to the work of Coolman Tony, a completely-unknown artist from the Chicago suburbs whose preadolescent glory years coincided with the advent of computer recording programs like Garageband in the early 00s. I only came across Coolman Tony's recordings through a ludicrous chain of acquaintances (Coolman is my roommate's best friend's sister's boyfriend, if you must know, but I've certainly never met the man). The song I am Cool off his debut “album” Surfin' Time With Coolman Tony showed up in my house one day, hilarity ensued, and it enjoyed numerous replays over the following week. Built around the silliest of all possible Garageband loops, the tune nonetheless features monster hooks and the incomparably exuberant (if barely coherent) “rapping” of Coolman T. ((real name:) né Seth). Name-checking Pokemon, Harry Potter and Monty Python in the course of a blurry 1:21, the song comes across as a total wave of idiotic prepubescent id—charming, in its own way, and relentlessly catchy. I was intrigued.
Funny that, having come of age with the internet, Coolman Tony's body of work is much easier to track down than the should-be legendary Tinklers, whose cassette tape I had to wait for in the mail, for Chrissake—all five of his “albums” are free to download at lastfm.com. Worth noting as well is the far-more polished sound he is able to achieve, screwing around with Garageband on the fly, after frickin' soccer practice, probably, than the Tinklers could ever hope to, with their shoddy homemade instruments and rudimentary musicianship. But precocious polish aside—the kid was apparently a cello prodigy when not wearing his Coolman cape—the level of discourse in his work is certainly never elevated to that of poetry. Song titles like “Wafflehead,” “Pop It Extreme” and “Duct Tape Times (Takin' Over the World)” give a pretty good idea of where Coolman's head is at—where most 10 year-old's heads are at—spazzed-out on Milk Duds and Mountain Dew and babbling nonsensically. Turns out the adult-as-child frauds like the Tinklers might have a great deal more wisdom to impart than the genuine-article child himself.
Case Study: Human Skab, Thunderhips and Saddlebags (re-released on Family Vineyard Records, 2010)
Which is not to say that all made-for-its-own-enjoyment-by-children music is as silly as Coolman Tony's, or that all 10-year-olds think about is cartoons and junk food. Also popular at my house have been the youtube videos of Human Skab and Old Skull, two child-punk bands that put out a few songs in the late 80s and earned some small-time cult status before slipping into puberty and various doomed fates.
Human Skab was essentially one kid, 10 year-old Travis Roberts from Elma, Washington, who with the help of some cousins and neighbors recorded several albums' worth of sprawling, improvised punk-poetry, backing himself up on electric guitar and cookware from his parents' kitchen. Puking up whole worlds from the depth of his middle school subconscious, songs like “We Need to Destroy the Soviet Union” might scan as satire, Human Skab yelping like a sandlot Jello Biafra, until the incredible violence of the lyrics—No one will survive!/You will melt into a puddle, no bones will be there/Your babies will die—your teachers will die—your girlfriends will die—you in the Soviet Union!—start hinting at a more haunting core: Christ, the kid probably believed half the stuff he was screaming about, probably got his nascent political views from Dad's USA TODAYs. Things just get weirder on songs like “Screamin' Demon.” Best intro ever: In ten years, I'm gonna be cruisin' the coast, Travis adlibs into the tape recorder, Drinkin' my pop/I'm gonna be kissin' all the girls, I'm gonna be singin' all the rock, an eerie ode to explosives set to the insane screeching of a toy accordion, and the acapella “Dead Baby Blues.” I told my friends, let's go down to the graveyard and read some tombstones, he drawls, channeling Townes Van Zandt and Edward Gorey in the same breath.
Human Skab's sublimely strange tapes fell into the hands of obscurity-hunting tape traders (an LP collection was eventually released on Family Vineyard records), and he enjoyed some brief notoriety. Perhaps not that surprisingly, the scrawny kid shown sneering and mohawked, his arm in a dirty cast, on the cover of his LP Thunderhips and Saddlebags later joined the military, became a private contractor in Kosovo and Afghanistan, got into drugs, et cetera; also not that surprisingly, he got the “band” back together in 2009 to play retooled versions of the old songs—the shit he wrote when he was ten years old—and hopefully make a couple bucks; suffice it to say that the grown-up, tattooed incarnation of Human Skab, featuring rap-metal songs about post-traumatic stress disorder, hasn't enjoyed the same cult acclaim as the younger model.
Case Study: Old Skull, Get Outta School (Restless Records, 1989) and C.I.A. Drugfest (1992)
And then there's Old Skull, whose story is so fraught with baggage that their otherwise righteous noise is almost hard to listen to. Formed in Madison, Wisconsin in the late 1980s by the Toulon brothers, J.P. And Jamie (encouraged—some say manipulated—by their father Vern, a staple of the local punk scene), with pal Jesse on the drums, they released two albums on then heavy-hitting indie label Restless Records, Get Outta School and C.I.A. Drug Fest. Sounding like late period Black Flag, minus chops but with fury to spare, these little skater kids blaze through the issues of the day with total rage and pathos, as in their flailing take on the AIDS crisis: WHAT IS AIDS? HOW DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL?/unintelligible.../HOW DO YOU CATCH THEM? FROM WHAT WE KNOW: DIRTY NEEDLES /unintelligible…/WHAT IS AIDS? A TERRIBLE THING. WILL I GET THEM? I FEEL AFRAID! Or homelessness: PEOPLE THAT DON'T HAVE HOMES/WHEN I LOOK IN THEIR EYES I SEE SADNESS!/ THEY DON'T HAVE MONEY TO PAY THE RENT, BECAUSE THEY DON'T HAVE GOOD JOBS! /WHY DON'T THEY HAVE GOOD JOBS? THEY DIDN'T GET ENOUGH GOOD EDUCATION—BECAUSE OF WAR GAMES! THEY MAKE ME FEEL DUMB AND I'M PISSED OFF!
All of which seems kind of cute or whatever until you read their wikipedia page. After dismissing them as a novelty band and suggesting that their father may have ghostwritten their material, the authors reveal that J.P. later moved to a Lower East Side squat, joined a crust punk band, and died in 2010 as a result of substance abuse-related pancreatitis, followed months later by the suicide of his brother Jamie, who was also battling homelessness and drug addiction (father Vern had reportedly met a similar fate before passing away in 2001), the sheer irony and tragedy of which is makes the tunes doubly chilling.
Not that their music is all dark and foreboding; songs like the ludicrous “Pizza Man” (PIZZA MAN! GET ME A PIZZA! I WANT EVERYTHING ON IT! I WANT ONIONS AND EXTRA CHEESE! DOMINO'S THIN CRUST TASTES LIKE SHIT!) clearly fall under the rubric of kids being kids, despite being released by a hip label and featured on MTV's “120 Minutes” (the kids, interviewed while pigging out on milkshakes and nachos, talk about their stance on the “AIDS academic” and how many music lessons they've “tooken”: three), they're obviously still children, reveling in fucking around, venting all the rage and confusion of childhood with little blasts of pure, stupid, glorious noise.