Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Voice Artist ahead of his time: RIP Phil Austin

Phil Austin (Nick Danger) of the Firesign Theater has left the land of the living. I am sad to realize what a vacuum it leaves in my world, while thrilled and grateful to be among the millions who found his humor to be more important than you might reasonably expect.
Firesign albums were not just audio humor – they created an immersive aural environment that put you in the middle of the action. There were years when almost every sentence I uttered used their words.
How ironic that I posted on Facebook two weeks ago, at dinner after Rowan Weller’s recital, Jane Stephanie Lantz’s wish that I would quote anything by the Firesign Theater rather than “This is John Galt Speaking” from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
Like yours truly hopes to do, he followed one successful career with another as a voice-over artist and audiobook narrator.

Caption: Phil Austin, center bottom, with Firesign Theater members, from left, Phil Proctor, David Ossman and Peter Bergman in an undated photo. Credit Firesign Theater

The New York Times
Phil Austin (a.k.a. Nick Danger) of Firesign Theater Dies at 74

He pronounced his name “Regnad Kcin,” because from behind his desk that’s how he read it, backward, through his glass office door. But listeners to Firesign Theater radio broadcasts and record albums knew him as Nick Danger, the loopy fictional detective who strode “out of the fog, into the smog,” focusing his third eye, hidden under his hat, on solving crime.

“Nick Danger has left the office,” the Firesign Theater website says in its tribute to Phil Austin, the comic who voiced that detective. Mr. Austin, who was a founding member of that cheeky underground group, died of an aneurysm on June 18 at his home on Fox Island, Wash., in Puget Sound. He was 74. His wife, Oona, said he had had cancer for months.

The Firesign Theater became famous in the late 1960s and early ’70s for albums of surrealistic satire, among them “How Can You Be Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All,” “I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus” and “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers.”

Mr. Austin was a writer, producer, guitarist and, in addition to Nick Danger, the voice of characters like Bebop Loco, a radio personality, on the album “Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death,” and as a New Age nudist and documentarian narrator, on “Everything You Know Is Wrong.”

The Firesign Theater’s albums, collections of skits that college students could recite verbatim, were nominated for three Grammy Awards (although the group never won). “Don’t Crush That Dwarf” was enshrined in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2006.

Nick Danger, Mr. Austin’s most famous character, was initially based on Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled Sam Spade but later became more like Raymond Chandler’s contemplative detective Philip Marlowe — although with a flakiness all his own.

Caption: Mr. Austin as Nick Danger in 2000. Credit Firesign Theater

In one episode, thinking out loud about a nettlesome case, he says: “There was something fishy about the butler. I think he was a Pisces, probably working for scale. I felt a thin shiver run up my spine as I sat down on the cold marble floor.” (A “woh-oooh!” is heard.) “What was it about this place? The atmosphere was as phony as the Tudor balustrade that leered at me from the top of the staircase, and there she stood, radiant. All those curves showing through that flimsy burnoose.”

Philip Baine Austin was born on April 6, 1941, in Denver and raised in Fresno, Calif. His father, Donald, was a railroad worker and a jazz musician. His mother, the former Priscilla Baine, was a drama teacher.

Young Philip seemed destined for Firesign Theater. “He began broadcasting by reading the funnies over the air while still in elementary school and continued to create comedy and political satire on tape with high school friends,” David Ossman, another member of the group, said in an email.

Mr. Austin won a two-year fellowship to Bowdoin College in Maine, then attended the University of California, Los Angeles.

Joined by his future Firesign partner Phil Proctor, he performed with the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles. As literature and drama director at the radio station KPFK-FM, he met Mr. Ossman and Peter Bergman. Mr. Ossman was 30; the rest were still in their 20s.

In his email, Mr. Ossman quoted Mr. Austin as recalling how he got his start in show business: “I got a job in a radio station because I could always do that with my voice — could make you believe that I was committed to the words coming out of my mouth. I mistakenly believed, therefore, that I was an actor. I’m not. I’m a musician. Interesting that it was the sounds of the words that got to me most. The Firesign Theater was the vehicle that allowed me to make that discovery.”

The four first performed together in 1966 on Mr. Bergman’s show “Radio Free Oz,” which Mr. Austin produced. They recorded about 20 albums as the Firesign Theater.

The group played major venues nationwide, including Carnegie Hall, Town Hall and the Beacon Theater in New York, in the 1970s. Later, benefiting from a tide of ’60s revivalism, it staged a comeback. The last Firesign Theater album, “Bride of Firesign,” was released in 2001. The group’s final live show was in 2011. Mr. Bergman died in 2012.

In addition to his wife, the former Oona Elliott, Mr. Austin is survived by a sister, Cathy Andreasen.

Mr. Austin also wrote for and performed on the radio program “The Daily Feed,” provided voice-overs for commercials and published an audiobook, “Tales of the Old Detective and Other Big Fat Lies.”

“Phil Austin’s goal,” said Frederick C. Wiebel Jr., the author of “Backwards Into the Future,” a 2006 book about the group, “was to fool people into laughing by looking at themselves and their beliefs and shaking out the truth.”

Mr. Austin was once asked if he had any great wisdom to impart. He replied: “Wisdom is not my strong point. I have been known to have a couple of good ideas and get a couple of laughs here and there. I think that’s more than enough.”

Friday, June 19, 2015

Helpful then, nearly forgotten now

How many would-be authors toil, or plan to, anticipating that "Once my nonfiction book is published, my name and my words will live forever!"
While perusing my Journals from 1981 I found a reference to Targets: How to set goals for yourself and reach them! by Leon Tec.
The hardcover (right) was published in 1980 by Harper & Row; a paperback by Signet (below) in 1982.
I just checked on Amazon and there was not one single customer review. There was a blurb in the listing that said, "Non-fiction - Self-help - Dr. Leon Tec, a psychiatrist, offers suggestions for using short-term goals that add up to a program moving you toward successful completion of complex tasks. Includes chapters entitled: Noticing the Elephant, Determining Targets, A New Look at Planning, How to Get Around to Doing Things You Don't Like, Handling Diversionary Targets, and more."
Tempus (and Gloria) Fugit!
Please do not read this as a discouragement to your writing ambitions - Write on! Write on with reasonable expectations, for the pure joy of sharing your insights and conclusions.

As a follow-up to this post I will add this quote that I found good enough to record in my Journal: page 185. “…the confusion that frequently surrounds the making of an important decision clears up considerably once you have a clear idea of what your objective is and how your options relate to that objective. You begin to think less in terms of what should I do, and more in terms of what needs to be done in order to achieve a certain set of objectives. You develop, in short, an approach to life that is more firmly rooted in the way things are, and not in the way you’d prefer them to be.”

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Columnist can’t imagine life without libraries

[Technology] "can’t replace the tactile engagement of wandering the stacks, pulling a book from the shelf, reading the dust jacket, flipping through its pages."

This short, uplifting column speaks for itself. Thank you Jeff Jacoby!

The Boston Globe: Opinion

Life without libraries would be unimaginably poorer

By Jeff Jacoby GLOBE COLUMNIST JUNE 17, 2015

[Caption] Argentina’s “Weapon of Mass Instruction” mobile library, which is shaped like a military tank, is one of many such improvisations in “Improbable Libraries.”

I WAS FOUR the first time I remember reading in a library. The book was “Are You My Mother?” by P.D. Eastman, and I’m not sure which I found more captivating — the adventure of the hatchling that sets off to find its mother, or my own adventure of picking out a book from what seemed an endless array of enticing titles.

I was hooked early, on books and libraries both. To this day I can visualize precisely the shelves in the fiction section of my school’s library, where I first discovered many of my favorite children’s novels: “The Twenty-One Balloons,” “Harriet the Spy,” “A Wrinkle in Time.”

But the small library in my Cleveland-area day school was merely a gateway drug to the local public library. I spent innumerable hours there as a boy, addicted as much to the serendipitous pleasures of searching for a good book as to the satisfying relish of losing myself in its pages once I found one. My parents, raising five kids on a meager income, had little money to spare for buying books. But my library card was free, and I made heavy use of it.

The University Heights Library was my home away from home. Nothing was off-limits to a curious reader. From the Edward Eager magic books that fascinated me when I was little to “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask,” which held a different fascination as I grew older, it was all available. All I had to do was choose.

I can’t imagine life without libraries. And by “libraries,” I mean actual books. I don’t mean bookless digital-content centers like San Antonio’s BiblioTech, an all-electronic reading venue that looks, as Time magazine wrote, “like an orange-hued Apple store,” outfitted with 500 e-readers, 48 computers, and 20 iPads and laptops. I would never discourage reading, but rows of iMacs do not a library make. The ability to browse goes to the essence of the library experience, along with the egalitarian access that puts books in plain sight of all comers.

Happily, that experience is alive and well. As British journalist Alex Johnson documents in a wonderful new volume, “Improbable Libraries,” even in our digital age readers yearn for printed books, and librarians go to amazing and creative lengths to supply them.

Johnson highlights libraries that have opened in airports, train stations, and hotels, the better to serve readers on the move in this hypermobile era. In Santiago, Chile, there are lending libraries in the subways: The Bibliometro system lends 440,000 books a year from 20 underground stations, and has become the largest public library in the country. A global tiny-library movement has blossomed in the form of honor-system book nooks on street corners, at bus stops, and even in front yards of private homes. In Great Britain, hundreds of iconic red telephone boxes, no longer needed, have been repurposed into mini-lending libraries.

Smartphones and tablets have grown ubiquitous, but reading on screens is not the same — and for many people, not nearly as satisfying — as reading in print. Clicking links on an electronic device is efficient, but it can’t replace the tactile engagement of wandering the stacks, pulling a book from the shelf, reading the dust jacket, flipping through its pages.

The hunger for books knows no boundary. In Laos, the Big Brother Mouse project uses elephants to carry books to remote villages for children to borrow and exchange. The Mongolian Children’s Mobile Library, using camels, does the same thing in the Gobi desert. So does Luis Soriano’s Biblioburro library in rural Colombia — with donkeys.

Life without books and libraries in which to discover them would be unimaginably poorer. “Improbable Libraries” makes that point beautifully. Then again, if you’re anything like me, you’ve known it since you were four.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.