Uncle Floyd→Slip Away

March 27, 2014

Unca-Floyd

Uncle Floyd.
Slip Away.
Slip Away (Jonathan Ross, 2002).
Slip Away (Live By Request, 2002).
Slip Away (live, 2002).
Slip Away (live, 2003).
Slip Away (live, with the Polyphonic Spree, 2004).

Deep in the Heart of Jersey!

Hanging out with Lester Bangs & all
Phil Spector really has it all & all
Uncle Floyd Show’s on the TV…

The Ramones, “It’s Not My Place (in the 9 to 5 World),” 1981.

The Catholic Church no longer believes in limbo, but they’re wrong: it exists, and it’s in New Jersey.

Floyd Vivino was a showbiz kid (“show people are show people, and that’s where I’m from,” he told the New York Times). Two of his brothers are in Conan O’Brien’s house band, his niece was in the original Les Miserables. Vivino tap-danced at the 1964 World’s Fair, worked as a sideshow barker, honed his comedy act at burlesque shows and amusement parks. He sang, played piano, did impressions. Like other vaudevillians, he found refuge in television.

When he was 23, he launched a kid’s show that, by the end of 1974, was on WBTB in West Orange, Channel 68 (a channel New York City aerials could pick up). An upstart UHF station like WBTB had to devote a percentage of airtime to children’s programming, so they took on The Uncle Floyd Show to fill the requirement (also, Vivino agreed to sell ads for it).

Compared to the child-psychologist-approved Sesame Street, The Uncle Floyd Show was weird, unsettling, a shaky transmission from some backwater. Uncle Floyd (all kids’ TV hosts were Uncles or Misters, Vivino figured, so why not be an Uncle) wore a loud plaid coat, bow-tie and porkpie hat; he played an upright piano and cracked off-camera to his crew and sidekicks, who laughed at odd, inappropriate moments (in part because the show didn’t rehearse, so crew members were seeing skits for the first time).

The show’s production values consisted of lighting and microphones. Vivino often used food as a prop because he could buy it cheap at the local Pathmark. His puppets included Oogie, a wooden ventriloquist’s clown that Vivino had found in a Times Square magic store, and Bones Boy, an ill-tempered skeleton whose catchphrase was “snap it, pal!” His co-stars included Looney Skip Rooney, gangster Don Goomba, the musical parodist Mugsy and Netto (a genie’s head in a box). There were celebrity parodies, from Floyd’s Julia Stepchild (who cooked corn dogs) to, in a nod to Jersey royalty, Mugsy’s Bruce Stringbean.

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Most of our characters fell into two categories, con men and idiots. And on the Uncle Floyd Show the con men were often outsmarted BY those same idiots. Floyd has often correctly explained the theme of the show as a frustrated host constantly being interrupted by an endless parade of pests.

Mugsy, 1999.

Much of Uncle Floyd‘s allure for early fans like Robin Williams and John Lennon was its shabbiness. It was children’s television done sincerely, with the right materials (puppets, singalongs)—Vivino wasn’t running some acidic spoof; he wanted to entertain kids while cracking up their parents—yet seeming to get it wrong. Although Vivino would bring on New Yorkers like the Ramones and Cyndi Lauper as guests, he was more devoted to the eccentrics and irritants that he seemed to have found on the roadside somewhere. Uncle Floyd was the only place in America that these people were allowed on television.*

Here’s an example: R. Stevie Moore playing “Sit Down” on the Uncle Floyd Show in 1980. After the performance, Uncle Floyd greets each member of the band. The guitarist blankly tells Floyd his guitar’s wrapped in newspaper from the day he was born (“well, that’s different,” Floyd says). Floyd vaguely insults the bassist, while the drummer is hostile (“can you shake my hand at least? Don’t you wanna meet me?”). Throughout Floyd is calm, unruffled, a king. This was television fulfilled: the rules of civilized society didn’t apply here. Television was a world made from collisions of random elements, held together by a man in a plaid coat.

Pee Wee’s Playhouse was a cleaned-up and vaccinated version of Uncle Floyd; The Howard Stern Show is its coarse descendent.

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I’m a man removed from this time zone. I would have liked the 1910s to the 1930s but now the only thing I like is “60 Minutes.”

Floyd Vivino, 1982.

John Lennon, who spent his last years in New York watching television, recommended Uncle Floyd to Bowie, who got hooked during his run on The Elephant Man in 1980. Iggy Pop became a fan, too. “We used to love falling around watching this guy,” Bowie said in 2002. “The show looked like it was done out of his living room in New Jersey.” (Close enough—it was filmed in an old house built on the site of a burned-down circus). Bowie, wearing an Uncle Floyd button, went to a live taping at the Bottom Line and told Vivino how much he loved his work. Vivino didn’t know who Bowie was at first and wanted him kicked out of backstage. (You can see why Bowie enjoyed the Sales brothers, whose background and attitude were the same as Vivino’s).

By 1982, Uncle Floyd was on enough radars that a syndication agreed to air it nationally in some 17 markets. NBC stations considered Uncle Floyd a good fit to follow Saturday Night Live (Vivino agreed: “It’s Saturday night, 1 AM. Half the audience is drunk and the other half is stoned.”). For Uncle Floyd, it was the big leagues (Vivino had only started getting paid, $125 a week, in 1978); the show even got an upgraded set. It had relocated to Newark, which meant the studio now had an air conditioner.

Syndication also meant Uncle Floyd was “cleaned up.” The syndicate brought in a former Sesame Street director, who was appalled by the lack of rehearsals and the anything-goes culture. Mugsy recalled having to shoot a single sketch 30 times. Then the finished shows were cut to bits by various stations, both to remove “weird” skits while also, in some cases, trying to make the show more salacious to appeal to the stoned post-1 AM college crowd.

It didn’t work. A few NBC affiliates soon revolted, one calling the show “garbage,” while Vivino got sued by Joe Franklin for defamation after doing a “Joe Frankfutter Show” skit. The syndication deal was over after a single season, despite good ratings in New York and Philadelphia and sold-out live shows.”Why then were we preparing to tape the final episode? Because that’s how the business works,” Mugsy wrote. “Besides we had gone from a small UHF station to national syndication in a profession that usually chews up and spits out people, programs and plots faster then the life expectancy of a bottle of beer at a ballpark.

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So Uncle Floyd went back to Jersey, and Oogie and Bones Boy didn’t become the next Kermit and Fozzie. For the rest of the century, Uncle Floyd would air on local channels, first on the public New Jersey Network until Vivino started making barbed political jokes about his home state (in West Orange, he “lived on top of a radon field, and as a taxpayer I have a right to laugh about it in public,” he later said), prompting complaints to NJN about the show’s alleged bias and its “lowbrow” humor. Then came the sunset years: a stint at the Cable Television Network of New Jersey, who wound the show down in 1992, and a brief millennial revival on Cablevision.

Interviewed in 2002, Floyd was stoic about his fortunes—he’d made a decent career in supporting acting roles (he’s in Good Morning Vietnam) and he’d never compromised on a show that he’d managed to keep alive for a quarter of a century. And around 2000, he’d gotten a phone call from David Bowie. “He said he was thinking of doing a song about me, and wanted to know what I felt about it.”

Let’s Dance, Bones and Oogie

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He still looks remarkably fit at 54 (“I’m just a year older than President Gore: one of us has had work done,” he winks), hardly changed in appearance from his career-defining role as Caligula in “I Clavdivs.” And his schedule’s never been busier: he’s starring in Boy Child: The Songs of Scott Walker, which opens at the Majestic on April 1, as well as promoting a new album, Toy (Nonesuch). It’s going to be his last, or so he says.

“The record industry and I have always been on rather estranged terms,” Bowie says. “I’ve put out an album every half a decade and each time I’ve come to regret it. The stage is where I like to be, or making a film [he’s rumored to be the baddie in the next James Bond film], or back at home painting. Standing in some recording studio, where it’s just you against a microphone, can feel like such a primitive art. I feel like I should be singing through a megaphone, like Rudy Vallee.” Still, the new album has personal resonance for him. “These were my first songs, back when I fancied myself a pop singer. No one heard them at the time, and with good reason! I wasn’t cut out for the ’60s.”

New York Herald Tribune, 22 March 2001.

Down in space it’s always 1982. Uncle Floyd‘s pivot year was also Bowie’s. In 1982 he recorded Let’s Dance. Like Uncle Floyd, Bowie was put on a larger stage than he’d ever played before; unlike Bones Boy and Oogie, he made the big time.

Bowie had been a proper pop star in the mid-Seventies, with gold records and Madison Square Garden shows to his credit, but he’d spent the rest of that decade trying to break himself down into a cult figure again. Let’s Dance and Glass Spider and Labyrinth and Sound + Vision put paid that conceit: Bowie had become globally syndicated. Years later, whenever he’d try to be a marginal figure once again, the clothes didn’t quite fit him.

So on Toy he dug out some of his oldest songs. These were the work of a man who never charted, whose shows had never sold out, whose name barely got into the music trades. The David Bowie of 1968, the Bowie of “Laughing Gnome” and “We Are Hungry Men,” was the Uncle Floyd of his day. The hipsters (John Peel, Penny Valentine, Pete Townshend) knew who he was but the radio wanted nothing to do with him. It was tides and cross-tides of history: what if these songs had been hits? Or what if Bowie in 1968 had given up music, had gone off into cabaret, and Toy was just an actor’s indulgence, a tribute to a lost, failed youth?

Toy‘s finest song used Uncle Floyd‘s lost chance at fame as a way to frame the album. Imagine a ghost world where Bones and Oogie star in films (promoting Uncle Floyd’s Big Adventure, Amy Adams gushes in an interview about how much she loved Bones Boy as a child. “I can’t believe we’re working together!”), a New York where Oogie is inflated to the size of a city block as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day float.

“Once a time they nearly might have been,” Bowie sings, giving a delicate weight to the last three syllables, as though if he pressed any harder, the bubble would pop. “Bones and Oogie…on a million screens.”

What Would You Do, Uncle F?

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It began its life with a semi-out-of-tune piano and some grainy synth strings which sounded like they were pulled off of an old 78 rpm record,” Mark Plati wrote in his web journal in 2000. “Both sounds gave the effect of someone playing in a basement of some small, sad, lonely house.”

In October 2000 at Looking Glass Studios, Bowie and Plati were working on a new song. It had come together from a few pieces, its sound owed to a few new contributors. The Irish-born guitarist Gerry Leonard came in for some overdub work and Bowie bonded with him over stories about old coin-operated electric meters back in the UK. Lisa Germano was there to add some violin parts.

As with “Afraid,” another new song that Bowie composed during what was supposed to be a mixing/overdub session, he went off on his own to write some of it. Plati started working on a rough mix of the backing tracks. By the time he was done, Bowie had returned with a full lyric, cutting most of his vocal in a single take. For the chorus he roped in Corinne Schwab, Sterling Campbell, Holly Palmer, a few Looking Glass staff and Stretch Princess, a British alt-rock band recording in the adjacent studio.

For an intro, there was an opening routine with Oogie. It went on for a minute and a half, becoming increasingly unsettling; it reminded Germano of “a Mark Ryden painting…sweet and strangely disturbing.”

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Oogie crooks his round head. His empty eyes consider us through the camera, then he looks over at the unseen crew. Didja ever stop and think if there wasn’t an Uncle Floyd show what everyone on the show would be doing? Uncle Floyd says he does. A few laughs and hoots come at odd moments; they sound slightly menacing. Oogie plays with the idea, blows it up like a balloon. Netto wouldn’t even notice the show was off the air!…Scott would sit home all day and wait ’till silent movies came back. Then Oogie turns to Uncle Floyd, looks up at the man who lends him his voice: what would you do, Uncle F? What would you do if you didn’t exist anymore? There’s no answer. A Stylophone fades in.

The old toy instrument, a supporting actor of “Space Oddity,” retrieved from Bowie’s attic, sings in its small nasal range, with its crablike moves up and down a tone. Bowie sings the first verse over it; he’s a man singing along to a music box, as he would do, in mourning, on a Madison Square Garden stage a year later.

Mike Garson’s piano comes in on the second verse to settle the song down, establish its chords. The verses are long, meandering journeys off the ground (F major, “Once a time..”) up into the air, out into the orbit of a G major diminished (“Bones and Oogie”) and then slowly falling back to earth. Sterling Campbell’s drums and Gail Ann Dorsey show up to give the song its confines; Leonard’s guitar, whose tone has a touch of Mick Ronson in it, plays against Germano’s violin, two satellites in orbit. The last verse, with Germano as lead mourner, seems about to fade away, drift off into space. Then Campbell stops time with his hands, in a slow revolving fill across his toms.

Don’t forget to keep your head warm…twinkle twinkle Uncle Floyd. It’s a gift from one performer to another. Bowie won’t let the Uncle Floyd Show die. In this cavernous refrain, in this melody that he seems to have pulled out of the air, which he sings with a pack of friends and strangers, Bowie mourns the show and he saves it. Here, within the confines of his song, Uncle Floyd is a legend. Here there are stars named after Bones and Oogie. You can see them from the beach on Coney Island, just above the World Trade Center.

The last irony: his keepsake of a song was then lost.

Toy Slips Away

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Plati and Bowie finished mixing Toy during the 2000 election, taking breaks to see which candidate had the better claim to be president at the moment. “We figured it’d all be sorted out by the time we woke up the next morning,” Plati recalled.

The completed mix, allegedly with some Tony Visconti tinkering, was sent off to EMI. On New Year’s Day 2001, BowieNet announced Toy “was already in the can awaiting release and scheduled for March.” A month later, Toy‘s release date was pushed back to May. On 5 June, in a web-chat, Bowie said “I’m finding EMI/Virgin seems to be having a lot of scheduling conflicts this year which has put an awful lot on the back burner. Toy is finished and ready to go and I will make an announcement as soon as I get a very real date.” A 4 July Bowie journal entry mentioned now “unbelievably complicated scheduling negotiations.” The summer passed.

EMI had lost 40% of its market value in a single year, thanks to the onset of digital song swapping, the mild (by today’s standards) recession and some wildly ill-considered actions. The label had bet the bank on Mariah Carey’s Glitter, a colossal flop, and wound up paying Carey $28 million to end her contract. Executives quit and were sacked, divisions were folded, the label was a mess.

So you’re an EMI executive trying to stop the bleeding in 2001. Across your desk comes David Bowie’s new album…which is mostly self-covers of songs that no one has ever heard before and which leads off with an odd six-minute song about…puppets? At a time when EMI desperately needed another Let’s Dance or at least a Black Tie White Noise, they got the most self-indulgent album of Bowie’s career. And there are stories in the music press that Bowie’s recording with Tony Visconti again, making tracks that, for all you know, could be the second coming of Ziggy Bloody Stardust at last…

Snapshot video sequence

On 29 October 2001, Bowie announced EMI was going with an album of “new material over the Toy album. Fine by me. I’m extremely happy with the new stuff. (I love Toy as well and won’t let that material fade away),” he said on BowieNet. “I won’t let Toy slide away. I’m working on a way that you’ll be able to get the songs next year as well as the newie.”

He stripped some jewels from the corpse. He refitted “Afraid’ and “Uncle Floyd” for Heathen. “Shadow Man” and “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” and “Baby Loves That Way” were B-sides. The title track was an online-only bonus; pieces of “The London Boys” were offered on his website. “Conversation Piece” was on a Heathen bonus disc. But the rest of Toy, including “Uncle Floyd,” faded away.

Bowie’s musicians were crushed (Visconti told Dan LeRoy that Bowie would never talk about Toy, but hinted that Bowie had taken it hard). Despite all of his wranglings with his labels over the years, he’d never had an album rejected before. It was a sign that the old order was crumbling, that labels had become more unforgiving (around the same time, Reprise rejected Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). Soon he’d leave EMI and form his own label.

By 2003, the idea of rescuing Toy had lost urgency. He’d parceled out about half of the album, which had “become a reservoir of B-sides and bonus tracks,” Bowie said. While the idea of releasing Toy still appealed to him, he was frank. “You know what? New writing takes precedence. It always does.” As Mike Garson said, “[Bowie] does know the meaning of the words ‘move on’,” he told LeRoy. “You bring up Toy a few years later and he’s like, ‘Toy what?’ It’s not even in his world.”

Slip Away

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Oh, sha-la-la-la-la, sha-la-la-la-la
Hey baby, come on let’s slip away

Lou Reed, “Street Hassle.”

It was as though Bowie had shot a second pilot episode, remaking “Uncle Floyd” a year later with Visconti.

No puppets here. No Stylophone, either, at first. “Slip Away” instead opens with artificial harmonics played on electric guitar. It’s the other half of the “Space Oddity” intro, a part originally played by Mick Wayne: the brittle movements of Major Tom out in orbit set against Ground Control’s droning bass signals.

Instead of Stylophone, a piano (probably Jordan Ruddess, possibly Bowie) is placed front and center in the first verse, while the second verse is in the grip of Tony Levin’s fretless bass and Matt Chamberlain’s drum loops, which offer solidity in exchange for Campbell’s dynamics (compare Chamberlain to Campbell on the refrain—the four rebukes of Campbell’s crash cymbal on “sailing over Coney Island,” the punishing snare fill just after it). Bowie sings cagily, more affectedly: he seems to be hedging his bets.

The biggest revision was to bring up the chorus to hit right after the second verse, and dispensing with the guitar solo. You can see why Bowie and Visconti did it—why hold back your biggest hook until four minutes into the track?—but the move ruined the glorious slow arc of “Uncle Floyd.” The operation wasn’t fatal, “Slip Away” still rang with mourning and triumph—you couldn’t do much damage to a melody that sturdy (there was a bit of “If I’m Dreaming My Life” in it toward the end). But there was a loss of nerve in the remake, or an impatience, a refusal to allow the song to build at its own speed. Something like what had happened to Uncle Floyd when the syndicators tried to improve it.

Pete Keppler, who engineered Toy, said he believed “Uncle Floyd” “was way cooler than the one that came out on Heathen. The mix that Mark did on that song was so much more haunting.” Still, “Slip Away” still had enough presence to make it an anchor-piece of Heathen, and Bowie made the song work on stage. As if reconsidering his revision on Heathen, his last live versions in 2003-2004 restored some of the “Uncle Floyd” framework, bringing back the puppet dialogue intro. On stage at Jones Beach in 2004 (one of his last concerts in the U.S.) he brought on the Polyphonic Spree for the last refrain to restore some of the Christmas party spirit of “Uncle Floyd.”

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On Sunday, 20 March 2011, an MP3 version of Toy (of what apparently were its rough mixes, not the final EMI mix) appeared on torrents. There are a few theories as to who leaked it and why: one logical-sounding scenario was that someone had acquired Toy through dubious means and was selling CDs of it on eBay, so someone in the Bowie inner circle dumped the album onto a torrent to essentially devalue the thief’s prize.

Toy‘s time, if it even had a time back in 2000, had long gone. It was a lost relic, one welcomed by fans although its critical reception was mixed. A few wags said that EMI had gotten it right by axing it. Toy got some press, got Bowie’s name back in the headlines after some years of silence, and wound up laying the groundwork for Bowie’s grand return in January 2013.

So “Uncle Floyd” survived after all. The New York City of which the Uncle Floyd Show was a minor flavor is long gone. Joey and Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone and Lou Reed are gone. WBTB was bought by Univision. CBGB’s, Brownies, Kim’s Video, Coliseum Books are all just lost names or misused trademarks now. Is it a tragedy? Everything fades. All that’s left of your childhood are some photos, some old toys (Stylophones, skeleton puppets) and old television signals (“just waves in space,” as per Thomas Jerome Newton (who would have enjoyed Uncle Floyd). Waves of sound and pictures that, if reconstituted, would play The Uncle Floyd Show, are out in the solar system somewhere. If some poor extraterrestrial ever picks up the signal, they can see 1982. Everything dies and everything goes away, and even Oogie will crack apart one day, but a few things live, too. Or at least television does. Uncle Floyd is dead, long live Uncle Floyd.

Recorded October-November 2000, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; (remake) ca. July-September 2001, Allaire Studios, New York. Released 11 June 2002 on Heathen. Performed 2002-2004. Uncle Floyd is still on the air on the Internet. Tune in here.

* Of course there was an Uncle Floyd equivalent everywhere in America then: some strange kid’s program or prayer service or community access talk show. Yes, New York likes to make its local amusements a national concern.

Sources: Beth Knobel’s article on Uncle Floyd just as the show entered syndication in 1982, for the Columbia Daily Spectator, was a wonderful resource. There are a number of sites run by fans and former Floyd Show alum. Mugsy’s ca. 1999, is essential, as is this one and many photographs shown here are found on Bob Leafe’s site. Unfortunately there’s almost no video footage of the Uncle Floyd Show on line.

Top: Oogie and Floyd, a life’s journey (Floyd, 2009 (Chris Marksbury); Bowie at the Uncle Floyd Show at the Bottom Line, 1981.