Whatchu talking 'bout, Willis?
Only in a strange world would this happen: You settle down for a nice little afternoon nap and wake to the sound of the phone ringing. You answer, and an unfamiliar voice says, "Yo, this is Todd." Dazed, you think to yourself, "Todd who?" But before you can ask, he answers the question for you--"Todd Bridges."
Todd Bridges...Damn! It's Willis on the phone, man!
Yes, it is a strange world. A diff'rent world, you might even say, one that don't move to the beat of just one drum.
And nobody knows that better than Todd Bridges--except perhaps for Jake Szufnarowski and Scott Pollack, the two young masterminds behind Which? Records and its flagship freakshow album, Show & Tell.
Containing 35 tracks' worth of TV theme songs, many performed by vintage-era punk bands, Show & Tell features such oddities as Agent Orange doing "Get Smart," The Meatmen covering "Mission: Impossible," The Dickies doing "Secret Agent Man" and, of course, "Diff'rent Strokes" performed by Todd Bridges and the Whatchu Talking 'Bout Willis Experience.
It also features three Texas acts--Austin's Jesus Christ Superfly doing "Hee Haw," the posthumous Brutal Juice's Denton space-rock interpretation of the "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" song (titled "Paid Programming"on the album), and the ever-enigmatic Corn Mo's deeply ethereal version of "Charles in Charge."
Which?'s cramped office headquarters in Greenwich Village seem to share more in common with a clandestine meth lab than the usual record-label digs. On the far wall is a Xeroxed copy of a check for $15,000, and on the opposite wall, a picture of Salvador Dali. It's a perfect combination, especially given the very real-looking sign on the door that reads "Acme Detective Services."
Most days, Pollack and Szufnarowski sit around making promotion calls to magazines and record stores. The conversations usually go something like this: "It's a compilation CD of TV theme songs, featuring Todd Bridges singing a punk version of 'Diff'rent Strokes'...What? No, this isn't a prank call."
As a matter of fact, the CD is very real and has sold quite well, entering its second pressing at the moment--assisted, no doubt, by MTV's Week in Rock story that aired just before the April release, reporting that Bridges--seemingly reformed after a number of earlier scrapes with the law--had once again gotten in trouble for smashing his car into another vehicle after a fistfight in a video arcade.
"It was perfect timing," says Szufnarowski. "I mean, you couldn't plan better marketing than that."
Of course, it's one thing to sit around doing bong-hits, watching TV, and thinking "Man, wouldn't it be cool to do a punk compilation of TV songs?" and quite another to actually go through with it. The strange tale behind how two guys who look like extras for the movie Clerks--operating on a budget that was "not even shoestring, but more like dental floss"--managed to get this project off the ground is a monument to the power of DIY capitalism and the fanatical love of television.
"We were sitting around listening to a Horace Pinker seven-inch version of the Laverne and Shirley theme, and we just said, 'I think there's a possibility here for a whole album to be produced,'" Pollack recalls. Their dreams were very nearly crushed by the School House Rock and Saturday morning cartoon compilations that soon followed, so the pair decided to take the hook a step further by getting an actual star to sing a track.
Originally they wanted Ron Pollilo (Horshack of Welcome Back Kotter) to sing John Sebastian's "Welcome Back," but the deal fell through because his agent demanded too much money.
"This project was never about money," Pollack insists. "It was about the spirit of TV and punk from the very start." So their attentions turned elsewhere.
"Diff'rent Strokes was the natural choice," says Szufnarowski, "given our love for the show and just the weirdness of what happened with the people involved in it."
Todd Bridges, you might recall, was busted for cocaine in 1990. Dana Plato, who played Kimberly Drummond, did time for robbing a video store, then posed nude for Playboy. And Gary Coleman...well, what can you say about Gary, other than that he's now guest homunculus on the Psychic Friends Network?
After unsuccessfully trying to get Coleman, Pollack finally reached Bridges' mother, Betty, who works as an actress and Todd's agent in L.A. Pollack says that she spoke to Todd and that the two decided it would be a good thing for his career. Within days, Bridges was in the studio.
The Which? guys hooked up with most of the bands on the CD (about 10 of whom are from the New York area) in much the same way--just by picking up the phone. Then they got major distribution through Caroline Records.
Pollack offers to call Mrs. Bridges on the phone. When she answers, a very sweet and caring woman is on the other end of the line.
Asked what she thinks of Diff'rent Strokes and what has become of its fallen stars, she says, "I think it was a very good show. It had a lot of morals, and hopefully you learned from it. But you have to realize that people's lives on TV aren't the same as in real life."
You can say that again, Mrs. Bridges.
And on the subject of Todd, she offers that "I am very proud of my son. I'm not happy that he had a drug problem, but I'm proud of how he pulled himself up with God's help."
Pollack says some reassuring words to Betty and hangs up the phone, smiling sincerely. "Isn't she great?" he asks, and you start to think that the whole thing is nuts, that maybe these guys have gotten in a little too deeply. "We put a flag on this planet first," says Szufnarowski, making perhaps his twentieth subconscious TV reference of the day (it's still early). "And if anybody else gets a TV star to sing on their CD, it's gonna be a rip-off."
Asked which is their favorite track on the CD, the guys agree that Brutal Juice's "Paid Programming"--the last thing Brutal Juice recorded before splitting up last year--takes the prize. "We met Brutal Juice when they were opening for Gwar and the Meatmen," says Pollack. "They were one of our favorite bands, and one of only two who had a major-label record deal featured on the album."
The two partners agree that this is a grassroots effort. They chose punk bands like Tilt, Murphy's Law, and Jesus Christ Superfly on the basis of both their accessibility and genuine love of TV. And they've actually put a lot of thought into the concept, complete with built-in room for irony.
"This is all our lives leading up to this point," Pollack says, holding the CD as if it were the Bible in the hands of a TV preacher. "It's on this album here." It's all too much. It's time to go home and fall asleep, with visions of sit-coms dancing in the head until interrupted by Bridge's phone call.
Bridges' responses to any probing questions are rather abrupt. He says he doesn't like to talk about the past, so we ask him a little about punk (which he says he had never listened to before), then slowly work into Diff'rent Strokes territory.
"I just think it's a shame that they always pick on our show," he says. "I mean, Dana and me are the only ones who got into trouble. Gary didn't get in trouble. Conrad (Banes) didn't get in trouble. The maid didn't get in trouble."
When asked what he's been up to lately, Bridges says he just finished a movie with plunge-alike star Corey Haim called Busted. "It's a comedy about a police captain and a brothel," he says. "See, the police station is actually a brothel."
Anyway, perhaps those two young entrepreneurs say it best when Scott declares, "We love TV. And we honored it with this record. It's an homage to our youth. To a whole generation."
"To the whole world," Jake tacks on as an afterthought.
It's hard to tell how much of what they're saying is really serious, but the decision to include an artist like Corn Mo as the final track on the CD should tell you that TV is truly in their hearts.
Corn Mo (Jon Cunningham), an accordion-toting super-geek, is famed for, among other things, having been personally visited by Kevin Von Erik after writing a fan letter to the wrestler, proclaiming his love for the sport and his sorrow for the misfortunes that befell the Von Erik family. The wrestler was so moved that he actually called Corn Mo and arranged to spend a day watching WWF matches on TV at Mo's house. Corn Mo, in turn, wrote a song inspired by that day, called "Shine On Golden Warrior," dedicated to the Von Erik family.
It was that same forthright, true-blue emotionalism that compelled Corn Mo and local producer and former Brutal Juicer Sam McCall--plus two guys from new local act Q--to pack up and head to NYC to play for the album release party.
It was a classic road adventure. One of the Q guys got left at a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. When the group got to New York, a stunned Szufnarowski and Pollack had to tell them that the release party was tentative. Well, it was tentative, now it was cancelled.
"We were so busy attending to other matters--like getting our record into the stores--that we forgot to get back with them," Pollack says, still sounding a bit crestfallen. "We were like, 'aw, man, we fucked up,' so to compensate we got Corn Mo a gig at Coney Island High, which is one of the hippest clubs in the East Village."
"It was really cool," Corn Mo says enthusiastically. "The place loved my act. I found this really cool toy store on Bleecker Street, and played this open mike in Williamsburg (the Bronx) which went over well, and I met this Armenian clown named Voki and hung out and walked the streets with him. It was a good trip."
One of the most enduring Corn Mo memories for Szufnarowski and Pollack was attending a post-Coney Island High party with the accordionist. The overall theme was gothic: black clothes, black lipstick and nail polish, lots of eye shadow, and lots of generally self-indulgent weirdness. "I asked this one girl if people here had fangs, and she said yes, but I couldn't tell if she was joking or not," reports Corn Mo, who made the scene in white vinyl pants and a pink tuxedo shirt.
"I thought it was demented at first," says Szufnarowski. "But Corn Mo grew on me."
"He's great, [and] that's the ultimate way to end a shticky consumer CD," agrees Pollack. "A guy from the middle of nowhere--Denton, Texas--recording a song on his accordion in the basement. Perfect.
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