I first met They Might Be Giants May 5, 1992 in Paris. On a business trip as V.P. at Warner Special Products, I attended their show at the tiny Espace Ornano and then tagged along for a late dinner in Montmartre arranged by the local Warner publishing office. I’d already dealt with their manager Jamie Kitman numerous times, but had never met “The Two Johns” Flansburgh and Linnell. Their last three albums (Lincoln, Flood and Apollo 18) had knocked me out. After several years of recording and touring, they were still operating as a duo plus drum machine, Flansburgh on guitar and Linnell playing keyboards, accordion and saxophones. (This was the last tour in that form, they got a full band later in the year.) They Might Be Giants formed in 1982, their wordplay and clever subject matter getting them pegged as “quirky” and “nerds” from the get-go, and that was certainly part of their appeal to me being something of a nerd myself, but I especially responded to the deeply emotional lyrics and melodies that were the specialty of John Linnell. Like me, he was a the class clown afraid of not fitting in.
I remember standing right in front of him at the Paris gig, my eyes welling up as he played the accordion and sang “Whistling In the Dark” (“There’s only one thing I know how to do well/And I’ve been often told that you can only do/What you know how to do well/And that’s be you/Be what you’re like/Be like yourself”). But their set wasn’t all heartstring-tugging. I wondered what the duo was really driving at in the lyrics to “Dead” (“I returned a bag of groceries/Accidentally taken off the shelf/Before the expiration date/I came back as a bag of groceries/Accidentally taken off the shelf/Before the date stamped on myself”). By the time of the Paris show, the quite wonderfully upbeat “Birdhouse In Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” had become European pop hits, but in America the band never moved out of the “College Rock” charts or broke too far from the “novelty” tag, despite being the most complex black-humorists this side of Randy Newman.
At dinner we got on famously. Flansburgh was most interested in the work I’d done licensing their Elektra recordings for movies and TV shows. He was the one who’d designed the no-budget videos that got the band early MTV attention, and he always understood how the band’s visual image could support the music on stage and off. We had one of those unhurried expense-account meals, with lots of liquor, that critics of the music business are always complaining about, and which we took as our due. I was a random “label guy” who dropped in uninvited, but they were open, smart and interested in lots more than just music.
In the following year, I got to spend more time with them backstage at gigs, or hanging out in New York. Jaime would sometimes call me for input (“They’re writing a song that mentions Nyquil in the title, do we need to clear that?”). They mixed their next album John Henry at CanAm Recorders in Tarzana, California, about 5 miles from my house, and let me bring along my three kids (aged 14, 10 and 7) to the studio, where we played ping-pong and listened to the laborious mixing of insanely complex new songs “Snail Shell” and “A Self Called Nowhere.” My kids used to wander around the house singing TMBG’s “Particle Man,” and it was pretty surreal for them to meet the actual people who wrote it. Flansburgh asked my 7-year-old daughter Miriam if she had any questions for him, and she said “How come your songs don’t make any sense?” “Well, they do to us!” he laughed. We all went to the band’s gig at The Troubadour that night, my kids watching the show from the glassed-in Green Room since they weren’t actually allowed to be in the club.
Since that time, the band has developed dual careers, one as the reliable “alternative rock” adults who tour incessantly and record massive amounts of brilliant new songs every year, and another as the darlings of the young Disney Channel set. Their theme for TV’s Malcolm In the Middle (“Boss of Me”) won a Grammy as did their children’s album Here Come The ABCs and their other kids’ albums No!, Here Come The 123s and Here Comes Science are equally groovy. This dual popularity has caused occasional problems for the band. They clearly market some shows as “adults only” and parents still insist on bringing their kids, who are then refused entry, causing serious disputes with bouncers, promoters and bystanders. (I was present when Flansburgh had a meltdown at an Anaheim House of Blues “18 and over” show, convinced if they let the tots in, they’d be trampled to death and the group blamed. Some families were bribed with T-shirts and albums to agree to refunds, a few were eventually allowed in upstairs and watched carefully by the venue staff. “If you’ll notice, I don’t personally have kids myself” Flansburgh grumbled to me.)
Last month I decided to take in the group’s re-creation of the Flood album at UCLA’s Royce Hall and the very next day a kid-friendly 4p.m. show at University of Santa Barbara’s Campbell Hall. In full-band mode, TMBG tailored their shows perfectly for each setting (with regular Tom Waits sideman Ralph Carney on stage playing terrific wind instruments as a bonus), Flansburgh exorting the UCLA crowd to rush the aisles one day, and tenderly holding his guitar over the lip of the stage so kids could strum it the next. They turned down the volume quite a bit during the kids’ show, which featured somewhat difficult sing-a-longs “Particle Man,” “Why Does the Sun Shine?” and their tributes to the periodic table (“The Elements”) and geography (“Alphabet of Nations”). They also surprised me with a sterling version of The Monkees’ “Zilch.” At UCLA, Flood sounded still fresh and weird, as the lesser-known songs absent from setlists for years (“Someone Keeps Moving My Chair,” “Lucky Ball and Chain” and “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” for instance) bumped against tunes like “Your Racist Friend” and “Twisting” that never completely left.
It had been many years since I’d heard “Whistling In the Dark” live. When I put it on the tracklist for the compilation album I co-produced with the band at Rhino (A User’s Guide to They Might Be Giants) they refused to include it. I tried to sneak it onto other compilations without success. I got the impression that Linnell didn’t like it much anymore; when I requested it backstage before shows I never got my wish. But forced to perform it as part of Flood, John Linnell returned to that wide-eyed-little-boy expression of joy for a few minutes, and I got misty. In their tour bus after the show, I told him how happy I was to finally hear it again. He just started telling me how hard it was to learn all those old songs they’d forgotten. And I remembered – oh yeah, this is his job.