Monday, June 21, 2010
  Read me, Dr. Memory

l to r: Phil Proctor, Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman

Listen to the Firesign Theatre's I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus (1971)

Also listen to The Firesign Theatre Radio Hour Hour

The Firesign's first self-hosted radio series was The Firesign Theatre Radio Hour Hour, a two-hour weekly show that aired Sunday nights on KPPC-FM, Pasadena, from January to July 1970. Between September 1970 and February 1971, Firesign hosted the weekly series Dear Friends on KPFK-FM, Los Angeles. Their last self-hosted radio series was Let's Eat, broadcast weekly on KPFK between November 1971 and February 1972, plus the 90-minute series finale Martian Space Party in March 1972.

Denny Zartman's 1999 Interview with Philip Proctor and David Ossman

Radio Free Oz
Firesign on WFMU

Norman Bel Geddes' Futurama (1939 World's Fair)

I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus (1971) remains their masterwork, a stereo spin-off cyber-springboarding from the Hall of Science at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, Norman Bel Geddes' Futurama at the 1939 World's Fair and Disneyland. Here's an excerpt from Phil Austin's explanatory essay:

Bozos is the last of the four classic albums of the early Firesign Theatre and was written and recorded in 1971. It might be thought of as the first of our consciously Science Fiction pieces and although it attempts to span some time/space barriers, it exists primarily in a world just out of sight, in a future that seems to be just around the corner. At the height - so it would turn out - of our fame, interviewed and taken seriously for the first time, we felt ourselves under unusual scrutiny and pressure for the first time since Columbia had nearly dropped us just before we recorded our second album, How Can You Be In Two Places At Once, When You're Not Anywhere At All. (Available from Mobile Fidelity on Compact Disc:MFCD 834.)

We had tentatively settled upon a form that was to be reminiscent of the old Bozo the Clown children's records of the Forties and early Fifties. We did not fulfill that dream, with its musical page-turnings and breezy narration, but the idea of a Bozo certainly survived. The strain of the process of writing can be felt in the long, digressive opening which takes up almost all of Side One on the original, vinyl album. In it, a scientific and religious system that rules the Future is sketched in a number of impressions that are satires of the kind of script-writing for animated dummies that you hear and see at Disneyland. Clem, the main character of the piece, is only rarely heard and his motivations are maddeningly secret. This was a far cry from Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers - our third album - (also available from Mobile Fidelity on Compact Disc: MFCD 880) which immediately preceded this one, replete with complex characters and interwoven stories and media satires. Luckily, Bozos was an immediate success and has always been a favorite with a substantial portion of our listeners, especially those interested in science and Science Fiction.

The story is very concerned with computers although it was written in a time some years before the general availability of the Personal Computer. We drew a good deal of inspiration from the now-famous Eliza Program, an early attempt to elicit the questions and responses of a psychiatrist from a computer.

Bozos is also very much about the phenomenon of someone who can "Live in the future, now!" as the first voices of the fair tell Clem. Prescience and prediction of the future and the peculiar traps of fortune-telling are what this story is about. Clem is not who he seems, neither is Barney. (Much of our thinking about the future was conditioned by a mutual fascination for the history of the New York and Chicago World's Fairs and their exhibits about the future, in the General Motors pavilion in New York, or the Surreal, as in the Salvador Dali building at Chicago. But it is Wait Disney and Disneyland's peculiar slant on education that inspires most of what we will hear in the first half of the story.)

The first voice of the future is that of someone in the distance, over a loudspeaker, saying "... biting through, in this area." This reflects the throw of the I Ching coins, tossed by us upon beginning and ending any album in a process that by now was increasingly superstitious and not wholly inspirational. We had already been through a bitter but private breakup and had reformed. And the tumultuous social and political events of the early Seventies were mirrored on our own lives by the tragic deaths of two of our intimate associates, Jerry (Wacko) Brian and David Grimm. Circling whatever this idea was to be, like wolves under pressure, we had begun to think about the Future.

A man named Clem goes into the Future Fair by associating himself with a happy group of spectators called B.O.Z.O.s (Brotherhood of Zips and Others) whose mission in life seems to be to get together and do things together in a state we characterized as "mindless fellowship." He hooks up with a Bozo named Barney, who doesn't like to "clone alone." In the background, we can hear the receding sound of the ice cream wagon that is being chased by George Tirebiter at the end of "Dwarf." We hear a bus equipped with loudspeakers through which speak the voice that is "biting through." As it pulls to a stop at the station on Dutch Elm Street, we hear the voice of Clem. Practically the first thing he says is "Holy Fudd!" Science is God in the world of the future and Sir Sidney Fudd is His prophet and we will soon learn why.

Several lovable, life-size holograms leap from the bus and entertain and usher the passengers on board. They are large cowboy vegetables, evidently so familiar to everyone as to need no introduction and they sing of Another World, the Shadows:

"We're back from the Shadows again
Out where an In-jun's your friend
Where the vegetables are green
And you can pee right into the stream."

They seem to hearken back to some idyllic American time when no environmental conscience was needed and in which no Indian would have a discouraging word about his treatment, some slap-happy, Disney-like approximation of a shared longing for an imaginary past seen from the vantage of an imperfect present. Even when they quarrel - which is frequently - they tell each other something that will come to be a byword of our journey, that fighting is "out of style." Although there are evidences, here and there, that the real world is not free of fighting, (particularly in Hideo Knutt's Boltadrome, a mobile carnival of violence that must attract a more rowdy, sideshow crowd) it is clear that Whoever has programmed this future does not want its inhabitants to fight one another.

Once inside the bus, the ride to the future itself is accomplished by surrounding simulation screens and disembodied voices that trick the innocent Bozos into thinking that they are actually flying. Since they got on a bus, what must happen is that the bus simply drives to the site of the Fair, but they believe ("Do you suppose that was simulated?" askes Barney) what they see and hear much as we had been believing what we saw on TV in those end-of-Vietnam and beginning-of-Watergate times.

We are introduced to the rubber lines, moving colored walkways that transport visitors in the Future Fair. We learn incidentally that the Bozos - and presumably nearly everyone else in this world - wear wigs that must be locked down in flight and inflatable shoes that can walk on water. Clem, it seems, gave up all shoes years ago. By now, any serious Firesign Theatre listener knows that "taking off your shoes" serves us as an analogy for childhood itself and its attendant dreams of freedom. Clem's ambivalence and rootlessness project the image of a slightly bored and pleasantly childlike person with nothing much to do. In fact, he is something quite different but we will not learn the truth until the very end. The Bozos are a self-satisfied, cheerful lot, especially in the person of their "Chairman" Barney, (is this some implication that the Bozos are, in fact, communists or at the very least Maoists, somehow integrated into a capitalist world of the future? Hmmmm. If so, it's a cheerful, middle-class kind of Maosim and an interesting prediction in itself when set against the tumultuous events in the Eastern Europe of the early Nineties.)

The simulation that begins to surround Clem and Barney already shows the wearing and cracking of age and repetition. The scientific "knowledge" that is displayed is addled and mixed in strange ways, as if truth were less important than entertainment and entertainment meant to manipulate its audience by drawing on such basics as fear of the night, fear of science and fear of knowledge itself. As Clem rather aimlessly gets on the Yellow Rubber Line which will lead him to an exhibit called the Wall of Science, he seems to be just killing time, just letting the random events of the Fair move him in any old direction.

The Path of Science that leads to the Wall of Science is a recreation of popular myth of the social and intellectual development of Man. First we hear a kind of portentous telling of primitive Myth, the story of the Turtle and his Mother, a kind of arboreal, incestuous mixing of species and genera which produces a mythic figure, the walking Catfish, so human and so male that he carries two enormous testicles which are also the Sun and the Moon of our terrestrial world. This myth is roundly ridiculed as primitive naturism and is quickly replaced by animatronic scenes which detail the comfortable, self-satisfied view of Mankind that places scientific knowledge at the top of a pyramidal view of history and Man at the top of the Ladder of Progress. Full of his new-found power, Man drops a great fecal load of knowledge over the earth to fertilize it and make it grow.

The idiotic antics Of Sir Sidney Fudd, who by knocking a woman over invents the basic principle on which this civilization seems built - that "if you push something hard enough, it will fall over" - and the equally adolescent version of the invention of Technology by Tom Teslacle and Dick Beddoes that follows, would convince any Bozo that Science has solved the problems of the Present and has led us to a happy Future, wherein we may interact with a simulated President who seems to exist in a Model Government of the Future, both of them wholly dependent on electricity and cocaine (or do you think that the little boxcars are filled with industrial sugar water? Don't be naive.) Cocaine and electricity are the life's blood of the Bureau of Western Mythology, controlled by Chester Cadaver and presided over by President Springhead himself. It is one great system, fed by nonsense knowledge and skewed mimicry of nature which has resulted in this Future Fair.

(There is a temptation by some writers about the Firesign Theatre to look for some systematic political metaphor in this Path of Science and while it is true that we most often use electricity and power interchangeably and that a good deal of our work qualifies as social satire, it is equally interesting to examine the biological aspects that seem most superficial; the simple sexual ones. The primitive confusions of the Turtle and his Mother and the Catfish are all concerned with procreation and, by extension, evolution. Fudd's Law and Teslacle's deviant, although both are childish male adolescent ways of viewing sex, still are a good enough imitation of unruly Nature to lead to a kind of Frankensteinian Pushover Machine (called, presumably, "Nancy") that produces electricity through some mechanical sex act or another.)

Man, still without shoes, still living a dream of adolescent freedom, only divines the world around him from his own limited experience, entirely male. He sees the sun and the moon as is own testicles and he sees the power that issues therefrom to be capable of taming and controlling an unruly and presumably dangerously feminine world. It may not be Science as we know it, but it's good enough for the Future Fair.
                       -- Phil Austin

1964 World's Fair Futurama II

The Firesign FAQ probes the origin of Dr. Memory:

and "hmmm..."

Dr. Memory is based on an early "Eliza" type psychiatrist program
that ran on a PDP-10. The consensus of the alt.comedy.firesgn-thtre
newsgroup experts is that this program was written in (((((Lisp))))),
and compiled using the SAILON LISP compiler for the DECSystem10,
running TOPS-10 operating system. Tim Rentsch noted that one of these
systems was installed at Caltech, and that a former classmate of his
demonstrated the program for the FT .

There is much evidence that David Ossman attended Claremont McKenna College
(then "Claremont Men's College") in his younger days, at which there was one
of the first implementations of the Doctor.

Tim Brengle writes of the implementation:

"CMC is one of the Claremont Colleges, along with Harvey Mudd College,
Scripps College for Women, Pomona College, and Pitzer College.  Five schools
taking up a total of about one square mile.  The hot new shared computing
resource was a PDP-10 model KA-10 (with 256K bytes of *CORE* memory, and a
swapping drum) running Tops-10.  This was the same type of machine upon which
Weisenbaum created the original DOCTOR program, one of whose scripts was
called "Eliza".  The program, at least the version I hacked on, was written
in Stanford LISP 1.6--which did have a pretty awesome compiler..."

The evidence for these detailed descriptions of Dr. Memory are based
on the contents of Dr. Memory's commands and error statements:

For example, "SYSTAT" was a TOPS-10 command that gave the system
status, and "UPTIME" showed how long the system had been running.

In addition, the hero (P.) of the story identifies himself as "worker"
whenever he wanted to access the internals of the computerized fair; ("This
is Worker Speaking, Hello"). It is highly likely that David Ossman saw DOCTOR
on the Claremont PDP-10.  The way that one started the program was to
activate the LISP environment and then execute the form:

 (worker hello)

Up until executing that function, you had to enclose everything in () just as
one would expect from LISP.  But the WORKER function changed the syntax
tables for the parser so that a double carriage-return delimited your
statements and told the DOCTOR that it was time to reply. But, there was a
bug in DOCTOR, forgetting to take into account that dots have special meaning
in LISP.  Putting one in the wrong place confused the LISP function MAKNAM
("make name") which was trying to assemble characters into tokens. It
returned its error message to the top-level reading function (READ). It's
error message was, of course, "READ: UNHAPPY MAKNAM".

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Thanks for this post When I went off to college in 1970, I was a city boy not use to country folk, but a few tokes and any of Firesign's LPs made fast friends quoting every line ad infinitum.
You are getting close to where "Hello Worker" came from. The original program, ran on the Stanford AI Projects PDP-10 during the late 60's and 70's.
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