I own all of the albums, each collection, a box filled with B-sides, concert albums, and too many shirts to count spanning the last two-and-a-half decades. I even once bought a shirt of theirs to save! See, my dream was that one of the characters in a screenplay I had written would wear that shirt in one scene. So even though I didn’t have a producer, studio, director or even an actor for it, I wanted to have the shirt just in case.
I’ve seen They Might Be Giants five times in concert, and the best way I have found to describe the experience is to compare it to what (I assume) it is like to attend a meeting of the masons. You are with others that believe the same as you, know the same rites, know the same words, and instead of wearing creepy pinky rings we wear shirts with obscure references that no one but us really know…. And whenever I have met someone who already knows their albums, we immediately bond, our humor and artistic likes immediately snapping into alignment.
I was indoctrinated into the club of John Flansburgh and John Linnell (The geniuses behind They Might Be Giants) via a B-side of a single for Flood. I was in high school, and had to rely on one of my friends to get back and forth to school. And as we would drive each day, with our saxophones bumping against each other in the backseat, my esteemed driver would keep throwing in the same tape that had nothing more than four songs on it.
Now “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” is fun, but what got me each and every time was a song that was only a minute and nine seconds long and was called “Stormy Pinkness.” Even at that young ripe age I was obsessed with writing, and liked to create stories that would be considered “out there,” but this song surpassed anything I could do.
Stormy pinkness / Human weakness / Fills my jolly cup with gloom / Your progression, my digression / Forty days this afternoon / The things we cherish are small indeed / So much the larger the need / Stormy pinkness / Set me thankfully free
I’m in my late thirties and I still have no idea what it means, but I do know one thing that was true than and still is today: that is a freaking awesome song.
Growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the 1990’s we had one alternative rock station (WGRD). Just one. And while they thought they were cutting edge, it really wasn’t the case; honestly, their music was no different than what you got during the normal working hours of MTV (back when they played music). Here is a story about WGRD and I wish I could remember the artist in this story, but I can’t. Anyway, this rock artist was being interviewed on the station before a concert. The DJ asked him who his favorite band is and he replied They Might Be Giants.
I kid you not; the rock artist had to repeat the name of the band three times for the DJ. The DJ thought he was hearing him wrong.
The artist, not wavering said the DJ should check them out and recommended they play a track right then, putting him on the spot. The DJ didn’t have any of their music in the studio, or so he claimed, but that was okay, the artist had Apollo 18 with him and asked the DJ to play “Fingertips.”
For those that don’t know, “Fingertips” is a collection of very short songs that were created to make the Apollo 18 a unique shuffle experience. Yes, the first CD made for the shuffle on your player! (That idea still makes me smile.) Now, while “Fingertips” is supposed to be played on shuffle, a lot of people still love it played in the order on the CD. (Personally, I like it both ways). So the first song of the collection that makes “Fingertips” starts, which is nothing more than John and John singing “Everything is catching on fire” and lasts only a few seconds.
Then there was silence.
When the DJ awkwardly returned to the air (with a click), he thought the artist had played a joke on him and you could catch his annoyance in the tone of his voice for the rest of the interview. He had no idea what he just missed.
The wonderful thing about being a They Might Be Giants fan for me is that for every stage of my life and development, from the small to the large, they have been there before me in their songs. It is like being on a dark road and they are ahead lighting the lampposts ahead, leading the way.
- Do you question faith? Well, check out “”Kiss Me, Son of God.”
- Scared of death? Try “Dead.”
- How about aging? “Older”
- Dislike your job. “Memo to Human Resources.”
- Have an argument with your mom? Blast “I Palindrome I”
- Feel too old to go clubbing anymore? “Man, It’s So Loud In Here.”
Parenting? They even were there first! With four children albums, helping to introduce my son and daughter to the ABCs, numbers, science, and the fact that no, means no…. and they give that lesson via a catchy song.
I am even a little secretly convinced that when they die they already have it worked out that they will return and write a song about it. Yes, a part of me believes that John and John could accomplish something most major religions only dream of.
They Might be Giants are also the soundtrack for The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, so my children are falling in line behind me in my adoration of the band. My kids even have a toy that when you flick the switch They Might Be Giants start playing “The Hot Dog Dance.” And my kids dance to it every single time.
Did I mention I once got in a head-on collusion because of They Might Be Giants? I was driving home from work in the 90’s (with a college class to attend that evening); and I was in good spirit, happy to have escaped the confines of a cubicle. I was listening to my favorite They Might Be Giants album, John Henry, and–I am not embarrassed in the slightest to admit this—car dancing to “Meet James Ensor.”
Yes, I was dancing in my car and even attempting to sing along with it, when the car three cars in front of me (it was busy traffic), decided to stop quickly to make a left hand turn. And, in my distracted state I slammed into the back of a jeep.
Now before anyone worries, I was fine. And while the front of my car was completely totaled, the Jeep SUV I hit only had a scratch (Clearly, a much better made vehicle).
Do I blame They Might Be Giants? No, not at all. Heck, I was still humming the song as I sat in the Arby’s across the street from the accident waiting for the tow truck to take my vehicle away and for my dad to pick me up. I even remember the sandwich I had, and the curly fries were exceptionally good; everything tastes great after an accident.
And here is the funny thing: the tape I was listening to, well, if you were to listen to it now, you can hear where the accident occurred. The tape does this weird hiccup. Man, I have creeped out so many people in my car by playing that tape and saying “Right there, did you hear that? I almost died right there.”
I have always had mixed results introducing They Might Be Giants to people, but it is not because of their music (which is always fun and brilliant), it is because I have a hard time explaining them to people. They are obscure, fun, artistic, experimental, catchy, but also sometimes as mad as you would expect a Looney Toon to be if it was written by a crazy English professor.
The only album I have ever felt can somehow explain the experience of pushing play on one of their CDs is The Beatles’ White Album.
Yes, I said The Beatles’ White Album.
The White Album is the most eclectic of all of the work of The Beatles, filled with fun lyrics, stories, and different music stylings. It is The Beatles throwing off the shackles of pop and trying everything under the sun, from 1920’s love song to a three-part love song to a gun by way of a nun. If you enjoy listening to The White Album from beginning to end (Not just jumping to the hits), you will like They Might Be Giants. (I’ll give you permission to skip “Revolution 9.”)
For me the release of a new CD by John and John is an event with singles purchased as soon as they are released. It has always been that way for me and I remember taking the day off work once, borrowing my mom’s convertible so me and my friend (decked out in our favorite They Might Be Giants shirts) could go to our local record store, and grab the album on the first day. We wanted to blast the music from the speakers while driving down the main drags of our town declaring the return of our heroes to our speakers.
Even today, as they continue to release new music every few years or so, I remember that car ride, thinking how sweet it would be to drive around again, blaring the new music out of the speakers confusing (and delighting) as many people as possible. What can I say? They are giants to me.
- Favorite Albums: Lincoln, Apollo 18, John Henry, The Spine
- Favorite Songs: Birdhouse in Your Soul, Mammal, No One Knows My Plan, Ana Ng, Experimental Film, Don’t Let’s Start, Till My Head Falls Off, It’s Not My Birthday
If you liked reading my article, why not check out some of my books? I had two novels published in the last few years, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here. Thanks for reading!