This Phone Is Our Phone
"I brought my car phone!" Mr. Entertainment boasts loudly as we file down the "Three-Four Persons" aisle of the Rascal House cattle chute. He waves a bright red Princess tabletop model in the air, chord dangling, attracting the attention of the two persons and one persons lined up on our right. Amid the walker-bearing throng at the Sunny Isles Beach diner, the towering Mr. E (Stephen Toth) and his diminutive pal Boise Bob (Hal Spector) stand out. They may be old for rock and roll (37 and 47 years old, respectively), but at the Rascal House the novelty songsters on the imaginary record label Ho-Town are as young as they feel.
Throughout lunch whenever a cell phone rings within earshot, the two scramble to answer the obsolete Princess. "It could be my mom," guesses Boise Bob, as a cellular ditty sounds at the table next to us. The red of the receiver contrasts sharply with his ashy ponytail and the sun-furrowed skin of his gaunt face. "I can't hear anybody," he shrugs. "They hung up."
Dubious of the scruffy pair's celebrity, the husky man on the mobile interrupts his own conversation to ask, "Who are these men you're interviewing?" His companion, a handsome middle-age brunette, leans across the broad banquette, points to the red phone, and laughs, "Is this part of your act?"
Pretending not to understand, the jokers bombard the brunette with their own questions. They establish that she is Cristina Torch, an Italian-American snowbird down from New York.
"Do you sing?" Boise Bob asks.
With a mischievous smile Torch breaks into a Sinatra standard, barely audible over the din of glasses, heavy plates, and the hundred elderly voices straining in conversation. "Fly me to the Moon/And let me play among the stars/Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars." She does not finish the chorus. "Fill my heart with song/Let me sing forevermore." Instead she offers her distant daughter to the strangers.
"My daughter sings jazz," she announces proudly.
"You have to stop her from singing jazz," the little man warns. "That's very bad for her."
Ignoring his concern, Torch adds breezily: "When my daughter comes, we'll audition for your band."
"But we don't want your daughter," insists Boise Bob. "We want you."
"When you come down next winter," suggests a conciliatory Mr. Entertainment, "we can put together a Christmas show. We always like to help young people break out."
Interviewing each other, canvassing the diner for bandmates, and taking calls on an unplugged phone, Mr. Entertainment and Boise Bob send up the conventions of stardom just as their outsider pop outfits the Tiny Show and Siesta Trailer Park mock the pretensions of rock and roll. A ragtag pseudo-lounge squad fond of freak shows and circus clowns, Toth named the Tiny Show after his initial conviction that he would not be able to convince anyone else to play with him, much less the six musicians who drift in and out of his roster. Done up in ten-gallon cowboy hats and Western suits, Siesta Trailer Park debuted at Tobacco Road last December with country-flavor novelty tunes such as the one dedicated to George Bush, "Don't Wanna Go to Texas."
It was an earlier Boise Bob project that drew Toth, then a phone-company stiff, onstage for the first time. Long a fan of outsider pop, Toth served as a prop in a 1992 performance of the song "I Want to Record on the Same Label as Elvis" by Bob's band, Lee County Oswald. Later Spector would invite the inexperienced Toth to play bass in yet another band. "The point of Steve being the bass player," relays Spector, "I could have found 50 better bass players, but they wouldn't have shown the same enthusiasm. When I want you to be in the band, it doesn't matter if you can play. You are the one I want, and that's it."
The waitress breaks in to inform Spector that the kitchen has run out of potato pancakes. When he orders two eggs over medium with sausage, Toth accuses him of being a "hogaterian."
"You think if everyone eats enough pork, then eventually someone will eat our president," remarks Toth, pleased by his own absurdity. "You retired your cowboy hat because of our president."
Spector warms to the story. "I always wear a black hat, but I decided I couldn't wear it anymore," he says of his symbolic protest of the presidential election just before Siesta Trailer Park's second gig. "I decided just to take it off and stomp on it."
"It was scary," interjects Mr. E.
Boise Bob agrees: "I'm the biggest pacifist there is, and I just destroyed it. I'm not real political, but I had to do something."
The pair are as wary of realpolitik as they are of real music. When Mr. Entertainment sheepishly confesses, "I'm kinda communist," he refers not to the Manifesto's call to arms but to Woody Guthrie's agitprop folk. The Broward-based anti-ideologues expound on their theory about the relationship between facial hair and communist evil (Marx and Engels: lots of facial hair, good communists; Krushchev and Mao: no facial hair, evil), but Miami's most hated bushy-bearded neighbor does not even figure into the equation. Castro's cruel mantras are out of tune with the homespun hopes of the Thirties Popular Front radicals as expressed by Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."
Forget about the dictatorship of the proletariat. Their revolution will be funny. Socialism is seriousness is death. What's most important is to labor without feeling alienated. "You get to the point," says Toth in a reversal of the young rocker's fear of eventually having to settle down, "where you have to decide if you're going to keep up this grind for the rest of your life." Subsidized by phone-company savings and his wife's generosity, Toth has dedicated himself to not making money with music. Working a partial-week schedule, Spector is a champion of use-value. "I collect things I like," he says of the toys and cheap guitars that fill his trailer home. He is especially happy with his Sears Silvertone guitar, he explains, "not because it's worth anything but because I like how it sounds kind of ugly."
The guitar is a recent obsession. "I was born in 1954, when rock and roll started," says Spector, "and I haven't been playing for even five years. My guitar player died. I had no choice." Spector sang and wrote songs for the duo Boise and Moss from 1988 until the death of his partner, Pete Moss, in 1996. "And now I've written 50 songs since then just as a way of dealing with Pete."
We are sitting on a bench in front of the Rascal House, shooed out by our waitress, who was eager to fill our table with another round of tippers. As Boise Bob explains his faith in the novelty song, the parking lot shuttle chugs to the curb. "Novelty music is where I come from; that's where my heart is," he notes as an elderly woman slowly pulls up in a large sedan. She taps the shuttle from behind and squeezes the portly driver against the steering wheel. "Idiot," hisses an octogenarian watching from the entryway. Toth jumps up to tell the management but is blocked by an elderly knot shuffling out the front door to witness the incident.
While we wait for Toth to return, relieved to see that the shuttle driver has recovered sufficiently to curse the offender, the onlookers notice the red Princess phone. "Did you call the police?" jokes one oldster. "Maybe you have to put a nickel in it," another suggests, dating himself. As the manager comes out to attend to the driver, Toth takes his seat on the bench. "Humor is everything," observes Spector. "To me, the death of music is seriousness."
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