Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Tubes -- "What Do You Want From Life?" (1975)

What do you want from life?
A meaningless love affair with that girl that you met tonight?

I was in law school when The Tubes' first album (The Tubes) came out in 1975. That fall, as part of their "Ad Hoc Rock" tour, they came to Cambridge to play two nights at the small Harvard Square theatre (seating capacity: 383) that was home to the famous Hasty Pudding Theatricals.

I'm not sure how I heard about the Tubes -- maybe I read about them in the local free alternative newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, or maybe Charles Laquidara played their music on WBCN. In any event, I bought a ticket to the first show.

It was the second-best rock concert I ever attended. The best concert I ever attended was the following night, when I went back and saw the show again -- but this time, from backstage.

How did I pull that off? Glad you asked. Have a seat and I'll tell you.

I had been wandering through the record department of the Harvard Cooperative Society (a/k/a/ "the Coop") and saw a backstage pass for the previous night's concert stuck to a Tubes album cover. As I recall, it was blue and there was a date handwritten in a blank space on the pass -- the date of the previous night's show (October 3, 1975, to be precise). I figured I had nothing to lose, so I peeled the pass off the record's cover, stuck it on my shirt, and presented myself at the theatre that night. Apparently no one on duty knew what day it was, so I was politely escorted to the backstage area and left alone. (Apparently, they were all color-blind as well, because the passes for October 4 show that everyone else backstage was wearing were yellow.)

So I watched the show from backstage. That is, when I wasn't gawping at the female dancers who performed with the Tubes as they changed costumes, which was most of time.

I had a bit of a cold that night, and when one of the band's members (or perhaps just a roadie) heard me sniffling that evening, he demanded that I share my cocaine with him. I'd admitted that I just had a cold, and he gave me a mock-angry glare -- at least, I think it was a mock-angry glare.

I was online a couple of nights ago, trying to track down any details about the concert I could find -- I wasn't even sure which year it was when I went to the concert. Lo and behold, I hit the mother lode -- a site called
"The Tubes Project", which includes large chunks of video from the Tubes' early concert tours, as well as copies of reviews and news stories about the band. It appears that someone is doing a documentary movie about the Tubes -- here's a link to the trailer for that documentary.)

Amazingly, the site had three reviews of the band's performances in Cambridge that I attended -- one from the Boston Globe, one from Newsweek, and one from Rolling Stone.

the Boston Globe review:

[F]rom the moment lead singer Fee Waybill strutted on stage in a white tux for a put-down [of[ overconsumption entitled "What Do You Want From Life," the Tubes were manic surgeons cutting on the flesh of pop America's soul. Part theater and part music, they unleashed a witty and satiric 90-minute barrage of 15 tunes that were impressively tight but seldom crossed the line into slickness.

From the Newsweek piece:

Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Neuman became a rock star he would probably slip into a silver-lame jumpsuit, put on a pair of 18-inch platform shoes and swish on to the stage like a stoned-out lead singer named Quay Lewd. Quay is actually a refreshingly perverse character created by the Tubes, a rock theater spectacle currently on its first national tour . . . .

"What do you want from life?" the band sang recently from the stage of Harvard's venerable Hasty Pudding Club as TV monitors flashed shots of washer-driers and microwave ovens and two hideously smiling boob-tube hostesses buried a "contestant" in boxes of Tide. The 23-member group . . . also whipped through "Mondo Bondage," a vamp of black leather, skin and silver studs, and brought down the house when Quay sang "White Punks on Dope." . . . "It's not Jonathan Swift," one Harvard spectator punned, "but it's not slow."

Finally, an excerpt from the Rolling Stone review that took (and still takes) the words right out of my mouth:

The Tubes' antic amorality is not only very funny but so intimately attractive that we end up wishing the party would never end. The circus atmosphere naturally extends to the audience, because the Tubes' fantasies are our fantasies as well. . . . [I]t is impossible for the observer not to revel, to some extent, in such gloriously insane nihilism. When I grow up I want to run away and join the Tubes.

And that reviewer had a sweet gig at Rolling Stone. By contrast, I was just a poor second-year law student -- sentenced to live in a tiny room in one of the concrete-block Gropius dorms at Harvard Law School and suffer through a nasty Massachusetts winter. If he wanted to run away and join the Tubes, just imagine how much more badly I wanted to run away and join the Tubes. (Plus I had an additional reason for wanting to do so -- I had seen the Tubes' dancers in a charmingly dishabille condition while observing from backstage.)

"White Punks on Dope" may have been the band's signature song -- they closed their shows on this tour with it -- but "What Do You Want From Life?" (which was the band's opening song) was their real tour de force.

The first half of that song was a series of possible answers to the question asked in the song's title, which ranged from bizarre to pathetic:

What do you want from life?
To kidnap an heiress and threaten her with a knife?
What do you want from life?
To get cable TV and watch it every night?

Some were more short-term in nature:

What do you want from life?
A meaningless love affair with that girl that you met tonight?

The last stanza suddenly turns serious, and perhaps comes a little too close to the truth for comfort:

What do want from life
Someone to love and somebody you can trust?
What do you want from life?
To try and be happy while you do the nasty things you must?

The second half of the song shifts gears suddenly. Lead singer Fee Waybill informs you that you can't have any of those things, but as an American citizen you are entitled to a number of other items. He declaims a list of said items in the manner of Johnny Olson or some other TV game-show announcer racing through the list of prizes that the lucky winner will be taking home that day. His reading becomes more and more frantic as he pours on the crescendo and the accelerando -- so much accelerando, in fact, that you miss about half the jokes. (Of course, since about half the jokes miss being funny, it's no big loss.)

The items on the list include:

A foolproof plan and an airtight alibi

(Think about it.)

A year's supply of antibiotics.

(This was 1975, remember, and people weren't quite as hygienic in those days.)
A personally autographed picture of Randy Mantooth

(Mantooth played a paramedic on the long-running NBC television series, "Emergency!" I suppose you could say the show was the 1975 equivalent of "E.R." -- but Mantooth never enjoyed the success of George Clooney.)

A Las Vegas wedding, a Mexican divorce

(Might as well be prepared.)

A baby's arm holding an apple

The highlight of this part of the song is when the announcer reads a long series of names of cars -- most real, a couple made up (like "Mort Moriarty," which isn't a car at all but the name of the Tubes' manager):

A new Matador, a new Mastodon, a Maverick, a Mustang, a Montego, a Merc Montclair, a Mark IV, a Meteor, a Mercedes, an MG, or a Malibu, a Mort Moriarty, a Maserati, a Mack truck, a Mazda, a new Monza!

Here's the entire song:

The "Tubes Project" website mentioned above has hours of film -- much of it in black and white, and shot from a distance -- of the Tubes early tours. Here's a video of a performance of "What Do You Want From Life?" that took place just a few weeks before the Harvard Square shows I attended:

The second side of The Tubes features three other Tubes classics that were highlights of the live show. First, there's "Mondo Bondage," which featured Fee Waybill and lead dancer Re Styles in a full-leather pas de deux and one of the great rhyming couplets in rock history:

I could run off the Jamaica
If this bondage I could breaka

Next comes "What Do You Want From Life?" -- which is followed by "Boy Crazy," a song about a girl who grew up just a little too fast:

Petting heavy didn't bother you
Your eighth grade teacher showed you what to do
Failed your English and Biology
But you learned the facts of life from A to Z

But the final song of the album is the song the Tubes are best remembered for today -- the band's signature and most tongue-in-cheek song, "White Punks on Dope."

Other dudes are living in the ghetto
But born in Pacific Heights don't seem much betto
We're white punks on dope
Mom and dad moved to Hollywood
Hang myself when I get enough rope
Can't clean up, though I know I should

My life intersected these songs unexpectedly in the summer of 1978, after I had graduated from law school and had started working for the federal government in Washington, DC. That summer, a group of my friends and I went to half a dozen or show midnight showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the long-gone Key Theatre in Georgetown. (That's a story for another post.) People showed up early to get good seats, and the theatre was usually filled at least half an hour before the movie started. To entertain the crowd, the Key's management would play the second side of The Tubes -- with "White Punks on Dope" leading right into the movie. nbsp;

Here's a video of a live London performance of "White Punks on Dope," complete with Quay Lewd's toilet-seat guitar (with "born in Beverly Hills" substituted for "born in Pacific Heights"):

And here's a video of German singer Nina Hagen performing her version, the lyrics of which are entirely different -- "White Punks on Dope" has become "I Gawk at the TV":

In closing, let me just say that I hope you clicked on all the links and watched all the videos. If you didn't, go back and do that NOW!  

If you want to buy "What Do You Want From Life" from, click here:

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