By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
By Falyn Freyman
By Hans Morgenstern
Begin with a bouillabaisse of Zappa, Beefheart, and the Residents, add a liberal dose of Spike Jones's comedy, and then throw in the best bits from sound-effects records you've borrowed from the library. That's the recipe for entertainment -- Mister Entertainment to you. Mr. Entertainment is Steve Toth, who's prepared to spread joy and mirth with the festive musical menu of 1926 Funstown Street, the first recorded product from Toth and his band the Pookie Smackers. "I'm not sure if I've made a rock record or a comedy record," Toth admits. Eventually he decides that like Shine, the floor wax/dessert topping, it's both.
On this day Toth is working on a turquoise iMac in the breakfast nook of his Hollywood bungalow. A self-described house husband, he's keeping the place tidy while he burns the first CD copies of 1926 Funstown Street on his computer. Then he has to score and fold 100 jackets that hold the disc in a colorful gate-fold greeting card. "If I put it in a jewel box, it's just like anybody's CD," he says. "This is disruptive; it doesn't fit in the racks." Indeed Toth's album won't fit anywhere. It's always a copout to label music as indescribable, but if you can find a handy slot to fit songs such as "Plastic Dog Doodie Salesmen" or "Pete the Gay Republican," you'll have to coin a new category.
A rare Florida native, the 35-year-old Toth was born and raised in Hollywood. His home is a virtual art gallery of rock and roll artifacts, folk art, collectible toys, vintage musical instruments, and obscure books and videos, rounded out by Betty Page photos, an old phone booth, theater seats, and the odd croquet set. He has amassed a collection of the weird works of Athens, Georgia, folk artist Howard Finster, the eccentric octogenarian who's painted album covers for the likes of R.E.M. and the Talking Heads. (An ordained minister, Finster married Toth and his wife back in 1989.) In every room, on every wall, there's something to study. Any fan of arcane esoterica from the weirder side of the pop-culture spectrum would have a field day at Toth's Funston Street digs. "To tell you the truth," he says, "my house is so fuckin' cool, I don't even feel like leaving it."
From 1987 until last year, Toth worked for the phone company, and didn't spend much time at home. Calling himself a "fan boy," he immersed himself in South Florida's underground music scene, befriending Southern oddballs such as Man or Astro-Man? and Mr. Quintron. Just before Toth quit his job, he and his wife purchased the Hollywood "Land of Entertainment," and he made music his main priority. "I've played music down here for about eight or nine years, but I've never put any of my crap out," he admits. "Last year I took my time and recorded it all, got a really good graphic designer, and made a really freaked-out little piece of packaging."
Completely homemade with help from Toth's friends ("It was done in true punk rock fashion: No one charged me for anything," he explains), 1926 Funstown Street looks more like a birthday card than a CD cover. The fluorescent gaudy art was a gift from an artist friend, the Crumbs' Chuck Loose. "I bought him lunch," Toth says, "and he donated about $1000 worth of printing."
On this afternoon his home becomes the Communist Record Company, and he's manning the production line. As he removes a finished disc from his computer, he frets about the sod he laid in the back yard and stoops to escort a cockroach out of the kitchen with a dust mop. "I'm a pacifist and a vegetarian," he muses. "And an anarchist, antiestablishment atheist."
Easing his wiry frame in a dining-room chair, Toth pops a finished CD into a paper sleeve, adds an arty insert, and places it in the greeting card. "Another one done," he announces. 1926 Funstown Street was a team effort with a drummer and bassist who joined Toth's guitar/vocal freak show. After laboring on the album, the erstwhile Smackers declined to participate in any live adventures with the group. There's no telling who these players are: The disc lists them as "Schlong Doggy" and "Captain Johnson McFucknuckle."
"That was kind of a dig on them for not playing with me anymore," Toth says with a grin. Toth hasn't exactly been a prominent fixture on the local music skyline; instead he plies his trade wherever strangeness is accepted. With toy pianos, Fisher-Price xylophones, and a Sears Silvertone guitar with its amp built in to the case, Toth once fronted an ensemble known as Faberge Dildo. After that project's demise, he settled into a groove with the duo who would come to be known as the Pookie Smackers.
"Everyone just likes that name," Toth says, and the chirping white finch behind him agrees. "Anyone who plays with me is a Pookie Smacker now." True -- unless Toth is doing something with his other band, the Tiny Show. Drummer Dan Hosker and washtub bassist Clif Lee Roy round out this equally crazy trio, which started out playing on miniature instruments. The rules have changed now, and the band can congregate on a tiny stage, play a tiny set, or perform in front of a tiny crowd, and still uphold the charter of the Tiny Show. "It's a roll of the dice every time the Tiny Show plays," notes Toth.
With a stripped-down rig, the trio can raise a ruckus on short notice, in any location. "You can find us on any street corner in Broward County, on any given evening," says Toth. Just last week Toth and his pals branched out and set up in front of Churchill's Hideaway, Miami's venerable punk dive, performing twisted versions of "Folsom Prison Blues," "The Kids Are Alright," and Toth's own demented originals. The Tiny Show's racket proved inspirational to a female member of the Laundry Room Squelchers, a noise-oriented combo performing at Churchill's the same evening. "She's kind of crazy and an exhibitionist," reports Toth. "She basically stripped in the middle of the street while we played and rolled around on the ground." The usually bewildered passersby appeared more confused than ever. Some even seemed scared.
Like Mr. E's performances, 1926 Funstown Street is a dangerous listen. Several tracks should be approached slowly and with great caution. A prime example is "Rippin' a Whole in the Side of My Heart," containing the immortal line, "You keep it up/Till you throw up/In my pickup truck/In your baseball cup." "Tour de Hotown" cruises along to chattering high-hat, toy-piano torture, and Toth's skittish surf-guitar lines. "Flying Trapeze" is a giddy carnival-ride waltz with everything but the cotton candy, while "Circus Man Suits" makes a valiant stab at normal rock music and fails wonderfully. Underneath the sauntering swamp-blues backwash of "Big Al Shoeshine," a baritone sax honks like a loose cannon in the pachyderm house. On "Co-Cola for Breakfast," the tape speed is manipulated to warp the tune like a fun house mirror. Sound effects, such as the train noise that permeates "East Coast Railway," also thread their way through the album, adding elements from Toth's suburban soundtrack. "Dogs barking, cars driving by, the A/C -- that's all music to me," he explains.
The oddest oddities on 1926 Funstown Street come courtesy of Toth's mom, Sandi, another life-long Hollywood resident. Two songs she used to sing to her boy in his childhood have been resurrected: a campfire ditty called "Catalina Matalina" and an untraceable, tongue-twisting folk song, "King of the Cannibal Island." Both were recorded in the bathroom of Sandi's house. "It was spooky for me to hear them again," says Toth. Listeners should prepare to be similarly nostalgic: The tunes capture the thrill of finding an old record in the attic, something at once familiar but also long forgotten.
Interested? You should be, but don't look for Toth's colorful audio greeting card on Amazon.com or in your local Best Buy just yet. He's planning to give away most of the first pressing to friends and family. Eschewing the rock-star game and all of its trappings, Toth also is bypassing the traditional CD-release party or anything formal. "I don't really play by the rules," he says, pointing out the obvious. "South Florida is extremely fickle. It's always a struggle; you've gotta do it all by yourself down here. It's fun -- we do it because it's art."