RIP, Mr. Bergman

Kage Baker adored and venerated The Firesign Theatre, especially Peter Bergman.

For those of you who do not know who they and he were … there is no way to describe them in any way that would do them justice. But they were a comedy group of the 1960’s, 70’s ad infinitum (because their work is deathless). which shaped the minds of many of Kage’s generation in the directions of surrealism, topical humour, and laughing so hard you spout whatever you’re drinking out your nose.

It may be you are too young to remember them or to have been exposed to their later work – because they have not been idle in these late, degenerate days. So go and check out www.firesigntheatre.com for their history and many and varied works. Check out their entry in Wikipedia, if you are inclined that way. And if you are young enough, go sort through your parents’ and aunts’ and uncles’ old record collections for LPs with titles like We’re All Bozos On This Bus, or Put Down That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers. And listen to them. You will have an apotheosis, as G.B. Shaw said in Man and Superman.

Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Philip Proctor were the components of the Firesign Theatre. Last night, alas, Peter Bergman died. Kage would have been desolated – she regarded the four of them, but especially Bergman, as gods, GODS, of comedy.

During the 1970’s, in particular – when I was away at college a lot – she stayed up late at night in her tower and listened to FT on the radio. They used to broadcast on station KPFK, from some redoubt in the San Fernando Valley; loosing a tidal wave of ingenious insanity on the immediate environs. KPFK was listener supported, and didn’t have a hell of a lot of wattage … but Kage, still ensconced in the ancestral pile in the Hollywood Hills, was right down the twisting road and could pull in the station easily.

She used to sit up there in the dark, drinking wine, scribbling stories or letters to me from the moth-eaten comfort of her enormous overstuffed armchair, by the glow of candles and the rushlights she made out of aluminum beef potpie plates and dryer lint. (You think I am kidding. I am not.) She had to use candles and rush lights because the only electricity in the tower was by way of an extension cord from the second story hallway, and she needed that to plug in her Grundig console.

The Grundig was a huge beechwood radio/turntable unit. It pulled in AM, FM and all the marine bands – we used to listen to the Coast Guard harassing private sailors out in Long Beach on nights when the skip was good … it had green lights that lit up somewhat erratically, but generally indicated some portion of it was now warm enough to function. And in that submarine light, Kage would stay awake all night to listen to the Firesign Theatre.

On nights when they did not broadcast, she’d listen to old Mervin Cross on the Gas Company Opera Hour, and play records. Which included the LPs of FT, among others … the Beatles, Doors, Stones and all the other rock gods we took for granted; operas in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. Never the news – she hated the news. She lived up there in the exalted atmosphere of music and fantasy, and slowly tuned her brain into the otherwordly aether.

I too am saddened by the news of Bergman’s death. Like all the rest of our weirder contemporaries (a lot of whom ended up at Faire) he was a voice of my youth. One with staying power, too – the routines are still hysterical, the buzz words and tropes and punchlines can still make old friends snicker.

What makes me saddest, though, is that when I read the news this morning, my first automatic thought was “Oh, God, how will I tell Kage?” Then there was the now-familiar earthquake in my mind, realizing once more that she’s dead; that I can’t tell her but at least it won’t upset her; but … But. She’s dead.

On the other hand, I can hope that she and Bergman might be in some proximity now. Somewhere in eternity, he’s probably working up a riff on the really strange trip dying turned out to be, offering another sugar cube to the nice paisley horsey … and Kage is giggling by the light of the flames in her own eyes, passing away some portion of an immortal night in laughter.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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10 Responses to RIP, Mr. Bergman

  1. Sad news, Peter will be very unhappy…

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  2. The Lord of Misrule says:

    Oh, my…I had no idea and, in the day, I was one of their biggest followers. (I still have most of their records…and the books.) In many ways, they were as much a quotible staple as the Monty Python boys. This is a great loss.

    Wern’t they, in the early, early days of the Faire, part of the entertainment? In one of the books, there’s a photo of them in really bad costumes entertaining what looks to be a large crowd of people.

    On another note, I always thought it a certain sign of the general decline in interest in them when they were featured on PBS.

    (Sigh)

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  3. Back in my mis-spent youth–well, actually, it may have been my second youth since I was already a grandmother–I worked for the St. Louis equivalent of KPFK. We brought David Ossman in for a week to do some staff training, much of which took place at our apartment. I called it my week of learning at the feet of a master.
    We did a live broadcast of a FST-show. I got to be a chicken, I got to be a stalk of celery and just generally participate in one of the most fun evenings I’ve ever had.

    I join you in mourning the loss of a great comedian.

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  4. That was FST-type show

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  5. Part of the soundtrack of my youth–or at least my college days–was supplied by Firesign Theatre. I don’t remember what birthday it was, but someone gave me How Can You Be in Two Places at once. I’d never heard of them. I had no idea what I was in for, The next day, still at the home of the friend where we’d had the party, we put it on and laid out on the floor to listen. I don’t think I understood a word, entirely. LOL So what did we do? We played it again. I played it constantly for days, digging the words and the sounds and the *layers* of meaning going on, and getting some bits or single lines only years later. Alternately and sometimes simultaneously ridiculous and sublime, it became part of my vocabulary,m as you say along with Monty Python.

    Thanks, guys. Thanks Peter. And thanks, Kate.

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  6. Kate says:

    It’s good to take a look at what helped shape us in our gloriously misspent youth, you know? Because we were fortunate enough to be influenced by brilliance and wit and art. Craziness, sometimes, but splendidly so!

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  7. Tom says:

    If not for Peter Bergman and his pals, I would never have known I needed ReGrooving.
    Adios, sir. See you in the next theatre.

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  8. mizkizzle says:

    This is sad news indeed. The Firesign Theater helped me survive a hellish six-month stint as a midnight to 8 am reporter for a daily newspaper in New Jersey. Most of the stories I covered involved characters and incidents that might have sprung full-grown from the brains of the Firesign guys — for example a group of homeless men who were arrested for capturing and eating seagulls, a woman who insisted that the ghost of Elvis Presley was trapped between her thermopane windows, a man who called the police to complain that someone had stolen his living room furniture and cunningly replaced it with identical items, and (my favorite) the guy who called the cops to report his marijuana plants stolen.
    After a night of such lunacy I would go home and put a Firesign Theater album on the turntable. Usually it was “Bozos.” All it took was the tinny sound of the ice cream truck bells and I was off to dreamland…
    Vale, Peter Bergman!

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