I sat in a Penguinarium in New Jersey with my penpal Andrew Horowitz. I was twelve, and he was fourteen. He fiddled with a plastic-cased glockenspiel and a green tape recorder while I read an old paperback biography of The Beach Boys with an Isaac Asimov quote in the back of my head: âThe most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not âEureka!â (I found it!) but âThatâs funny. . . .ââ Listening to Andrew play those shrill bells all day while penguins waddled in darkness cracked me up. In a good way. When Brian Wilson was working on Smile in 1966, he was making an album that would make people laugh. Pet Sounds had dark currents of emotion: teenage drama. Smile was light and effervescentâ Spaghetti Westerns, raw vegetables, and pocket symphonies. Horowitz, despite his bizarre affinity for Penguinariums, would later attempt similar musical feats with a band comprised of a few of my friends: Tally Hall.
In 2008, after two EPs, a demo album, and an album released on Michiganâs Quack! label, a band comprised of five friendsâ Rob Cantor, Ross Federman, Joe Hawley, Andrew Horowitz, and Zubin Sedghiâ released their debut album on Atlantic Records: Marvinâs Marvelous Mechanical Museum. Wonkiness and alliteration aside, the real Marvinâs Marvelous Mechanical Museum (in swinging Farmington Hills, Michigan) was a childhood mecca for the members of Tally Hall and myself. It was an electric dreamworld made of beat-up carousels, ominous robot fortune tellers, cotton candy, and model airplanes that flew around when the lights were off and the kids went home. Loose baby teeth. Hide-and-seek. Tickets for prizes. It was part âBeing For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!â, part forgotten Ray Bradbury novel, and like every dream I could not remember upon waking up. MMMM is Tally Hallâs teenage canticle to our shadowsâ may we never forget them. They worked with music producer Chris Shaw (Bob Dylan, Weezer, Lou Reed) to make the album, and they even wrote and produced a psychedelic internet tv show to accompany their waggish work.
Oh, itâs dark whimsy. It shivers and humsâ Marvinâs Marvelous Mechanical Museum. My friends, Tally Hall, beginning to work in brilliant accord with each other. They are melodies, and they are harmonies. Theyâve become their lyrics and laughter. But I knew them well before all that.
I met Joe Hawley when I was six-years-old. Our parents knew each other, and he lived in a cavernous old house of crooked mahogany and dark paisley wallpaper. From my six-year-old perspective, his house was scary as hell. And his parentsâ strange professions didnât exactly put me at ease during those first sleepovers. Mr. Hawley was an old, and long-since retired, magician-turned-orchid hunter. Alone at 3 oâclock in the morning, Mr. Hawley would put on a cape, play calliope, and practice old tricks to a vinyl copy of Queen II in the Hawley family ballroom. Joe and I would watch secretly from the shadows. Joeâs mom was a research scientist in cryogenicsâ actually, thatâs all she and my dad talked about. Occasionally, a sleek mechanical sarcophagus would spend the night in Mr. Hawleyâs orchid-filled greenhouse, but it would never be in there long enough for us to look inside.
Joe got into making moviesâ capturing light and time, as he thought of itâ when he was twelve. I was in one of his first films: Frozen Tentacles and the Orchid-Covered Gravestone. We co-wrote the script together in the summer of 1996. In the film, I play a psychotic scientist who can become invisible or mutate into an Antarctic octopus at will. We shot the bulk of the film in graveyards. I drove a submarine made of cardboard, blue paint, and a telescope around cemeteries looking for âthe gravesâ of old archenemies that I had killedâ only to resurrect them and kill them again. We screened the film in Marvinâs Marvelous Mechanical Museum. It received mixed reviews.
Joeâs dad gave us a rare, bright red orchid in honor of our efforts. Joeâs mom said that she wished she could freeze the summer and thaw it out when we were all old and grey. While she was saying this in Joeâs kitchen, Rob Cantor stole the cardboard submarine from our film and later hawked it for a case of Hi-C Ecto Cooler, the board game Crossfire, and a battered Harmony acoustic guitar. To this day, we all agree it was a great heist and an even better trade.
Rob Cantor was one of those kids who had a monopoly on great ideas. In all seriousness, we became friends by haggling over the price of lemonade. He ran an amazing curbside standâ one of a multitude of business ventures he had going at the timeâ that gave away free goldfish with every cup. I got all my pet goldfish by buying Robâs âPatented Lemon Wondermiddel,â and one fish, a white-spotted Comet named Zinc, is still alive. To bolster his credibility, Rob even took to wearing fine hats (trilbies and bowlers mostly) and waistcoats everywhere he went. He even had a Purple Heart that he traded off of a retired General who lived in the neighborhood.
I worked at Robâs stand for a little while during the sixth grade, but we didnât become âbest friendsâ until he fell out of an oak tree that grew next to his stand. He was finishing a new promotional scheme, hanging lemons with cinnamon dental floss from the oakâs highest branches, when he âslipped as to avoid crushing a Blue Jayâs nest.â
Rob broke his collar bone, cracked seven ribs, and suffered a concussion from the fall. He was in the hospital for a month, and to this day, he swears he heard Straussâ âWhere the Lemon Trees Bloom Op. 364â play from a distance as he fell through the thick tangles.
I visited him almost every day. He got pretty good with that Harmony acoustic during his stay and was particularly delighted when I brought him the broken remains of a periwinkle-hued eggshell I found under his oak tree. One Saturday, I played him a tape that my penpal, Andrew Horowitz, had sent me. Rob didnât care for it much. To him, it sounded like a bunch of prickly sounds arranged randomly, but something (whether it was the dog barks or the church organs or the shoes crunching leaves, Iâll never know) on Andrewâs tape got me to visit him in New Jersey the next summer.
When I first met Andrewâs parents, I thought they liked me more than he did. His mother said I looked âdapperâ even though I was wearing a ripped Fresh Cream t-shirt and ill-fitting khakis. Andrewâs dad was a used car salesman. Heâd take old beaters, fix âem up new, and paint âem wild colors. Heâd work in his garage listening to old hot-rod records all day. Andrewâs mom designed board games. She even helped Andrewâs dad fix up the family cars: a vintage finned Cadillac painted to look like a black whale and a VW van colored like the nightâs sky.
I spent two weeks at Andrewâs place. He was quiet at first and mostly asked my opinions of his tapes. He would make little orchestral pieces by looping everyday noises from the neighborhood. His songs reminded me of the old Disney cartoon series Silly Symphonies. Mostly because they were bizarre and crazy: the sounds of buzzing bees, watermelon seeds being spit, wind chimes in a storm, and kids jumping into a pool were turned into little pop songs with Andrew singing softly over the cacophony-turned-melody.
Andrewâs dad drove us to the zoo every couple of days with sack lunches. Weâd spend hours in the Penguinarium. Talking and listening. More listening than talking. I distinctly remember Andrew putting on Surfâs Up every night while we fell asleep. One night, while Andrew drifted off as âA Day in the Life of a Treeâ played, I cried quietly and breathed deep breaths through my nose. I didnât know how I could feel so old at twelve. It felt like I had been alive for a million years, and it felt like Andrew and I were little old men who somehow still had their whole lives ahead of them. I fell asleep missing my own bed and my younger brother. The next day, I helped Andrew record a song at the zoo outside of the lionsâ cages. I wrote Andrew postcards and visited him twice more in New Jersey before we met up again in college. We were both lonelier kids than we ever let on and having Andrew as a friend helped me to appreciate how beautiful thoughts can be when youâre young and lonely.
Ross and Zubin, drums and bass respectively, were each a different type of childhood friend altogether. The kinds of friends who are mythic by their association to the most freewheeling childhood season: Summer. Ross and Zubin were the best of my best July friends. Though, they were (as most devastating duos are at their onset) archenemies when I first met them.
Up on a mossy pond near the strawberry-shaded banks of Lake Huron, Ross Federman had a chipped-up rowboat that any self-respecting ten-year-old would lust after. Before I was friends with him, I agonized over its whimsical knots and lacquered grandeur. It was small, but it was Rossâ. Ross was a collector of sorts, and what he collected skirred over the pond waves with him. He had jars all over the boat filled with grass, sticks, and pet crickets. He named all of his crickets: Marshmallow, Oberon, James T. Kirk, Motorpsycho Nightmare, and Winston to name a few of his favorites. He had an old lantern mounted on an iron post that he claimed was from 18th century London, but Iâve always thought that to be one of his most winsome white lies. And (perhaps Rossâ coolest stockpile) old drums were tied around his rowboatâs hullâ rusty snares, slashed-up toms, cymbals, and a shoddy timpani in back. Ross said that to the aquatic life, the reflected light of silver steel cutting across water made his boat look like shoals of sparkling fish. I didnât really believe this either, but it was all just Rossâ percussive catamaran.
He said he found a drum graveyard in a patch of backwoods behind an old abandoned music camp. At a barbecue three years later, Mr. Federman told me that Ross bought every drum he could find on weekend trips to junkyards in Detroit.
But, for all his hyperbole and preteen perjury, I didnât give a damn. Ross chewed bubblegum cigars while we fished. When all the stars came out, heâd play tambourine and bongos for his singing crickets as we drifted through black waterâ campfires and mosquitoes in the distance, occasionally kids with sparklers. Heâd catch me a big catfish for my birthday and put it in the kiddy pool behind my cottage. He told my cousins it was an ancient monster, and when it eventually died, heâd bury it in my momâs garden and hold an impromptu funeral service before we cut the cake. Unfortunately, Zubin did give a damn.
Of all my friends in Tally Hall, Zubin was, and is, the most cryptic. I never knew his siblings or parents, and his presence in Summer was chimericâ like smoke coming off a burning marshmallow or the faint perfume of chlorine from a pool that youâll never swim in. He kept a fort in the burnt-out basement of an abandoned cottage on the far side of the pond. You know the cottage: overgrown, half a roof, missing windows, courted by adult rationales and kid-spread monster stories. In this rooky cellar, Zubin told stories with no words.
On sticky grey afternoons when you could smell a storm in the air, Zubin would invite friends to his hideout. Thunder rolled gently, and âThe Umbrella Gang,â skinny pond-goers seeking sanctuary, would fill the basement. It held the essentials: a red metal cooler filled with ice and soda in glass bottles, Zubinâs grandpaâs stand-up bass, a battery-powered blue plastic record player, Zubinâs record collection, countless flashlights and umbrellas, and Zubinâs grandpaâs WWII sleeping bag. Kids would sit on towels and ride out the storm as Zubin played his grandpaâs bass to Motown records. To Zubin, bass melodies told the truest stories that could be toldâ more pure and expressive than even a songâs lyrics. To Zubin, Ross was no storyteller. Ross was a liar. Heâd tell me this again and again when I was the only subterranean gangster to weather a storm with him. During one storm where I was convinced thick lightning was going to crush us both, I made him stop playing along to the appropriate Temptations cut âI Wish it Would Rainâ replacing it instead with The Marvelettesâ âBeechwood 4-5789.â
We never found out who did it, but there have been many speculations over the years. At the tail-end of a lazy drizzle in August 1998, Ross heard a cannonade. He found his boat on fire, sinking, and with a hula-hoop-sized hole in its hull. One of The Umbrella Gang had sunk the leviathan with a pair of Genuine M-80s. I still remember Rossâ impromptu eulogyâ itself a bastardized A. W. Pugin quote: âThere is nothing worth living for but Christian Architecture and a boat. And Iâve never been able to recognize Christian Architecture.â Out of respect and associative responsibility, Zubin and other members of The Umbrella Gang dove in, salvaged what they could, and moved it all down into Zubinâs cellar. Rossâ unnamed wreck still lies in its crypt of seaweed. And in the newly shared summertime hangout, it was only a week before Zubin and Ross turned their animosity into a sparky rhythm section. âProvocateurs at harmonious odds.â Thatâs what Andrew made of the situation when I wrote him about it.
And thatâs Tally Hallâs mini biography. Later, my friends met in college, formed a band, and played wonky rock-and-roll for everyone. They wear color-coded ties that serve as indicators of individual chromatic interests and, more importantly, reminders of ideas, humor, and humourous ideas. âMaking people laugh and smile is the only thing worth getting out of bed for,â Joe told me a long time ago. And, as far as my personal accounts go, it reminds me of a quote from a book I once borrowed from Joeâs dad, The Amateur Magicianâs Handbook: âMemory is an internally edited record of interest (not of attention, much less of âeventsâ)â (Hay 3). These are my most heartfelt and ridiculous memories of Rob, Ross, Joe, Andrew, and Zubin. Itâs when my friends were electric and red-blooded. And my interests and old recollections become new again whenever I listen to Marvinâs Marvelous Mechanical Museum or see Tally Hall play live. They recreate the memories and emotions Iâve wrote down in this biography at each and every show.
Talk to them after a show. Youâll see that they believe in you as much as they believe in themselves, and with that, youâll have known them just as long as I have. They drove me to think only my wiliest thoughts and smile at times when near everybody was lionizing practicality and dead dreams.
Their songs are dreams of themselves dreamt in the lifetimes of an instant. Their songs are songs to transform your world... as theyâve transformed mine. Iâll always be âlooking through glass eyes/ giv[ing] it a few triesâ (âGood Dayâ Horowitz).
To conclude, Iâll paraphrase a quote Abraham Lincoln should have said in 1865: âImagine if the great War Between the States were fought with songs instead of gunsâ bands instead of battalions. The casualties would have been aesthetic growth and the outcome would have been an unimaginable tomorrow. A better tomorrow in all ways. A tomorrow with better music. A tomorrow with more living than dead. A tomorrow with a freedom so wild that itâs almost inconceivable.â Lincoln on psychotropics. Lincoln listening to Pet Sounds alone on a train writing an anachronistic address for 1966 Gettysburg. Just a stovepipe hat, a Stratocaster, and an absurd and beautiful daydream draped in colors that managed to seep through the sepia of hypothetical histories.
Dedicated to: The Slurpee, 1967âs frozen carbonated beverage of wonder Millard Fillmore, infamous Know Nothing & our 13th President and Marvin Yagoda, an old pharmacist with the best cure youâll ever know
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
BERNIE J. MICHAEL grew up and went to school with TALLY HALL. He is a member of THE ROYAL LIONS and, currently, continues to dream and learn at the UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN, ANN ARBOR.
*  A record company with quirk and heart to spare thriving in beautiful ruins that were once home to MC5, The Stooges, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and The Goriesâjust to name a few... who put sincerity above pop propriety.
*  A circus reverie remembered in reverse by The Beatles on Sgt. Pepperâs Lonely Hearts 2 Club Band.
*  And by co-wrote, I mean, I ate blue popsicles and listened to Revolver while Joe brainstormed and tended to his fatherâs ancient orchids.
*  He also ran a rock tumbling business that gave away homemade rock candy with every order of rocks tumbled, was assistant manager at Sparkle Laundromat, and started a telegram office out of his attic which catered to kids grades K through 12. All before he was eleven-years old.
*  Wondermiddel, I later found out in college, is Dutch for âcure-all.â
*  Ever hear of Haunted Treehouse or Soda!? Both independently distributed boardgames designed by Mrs. Horowitz.
*  All but one of the cricket jars were salvaged.
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