Stitching eloquent lyrical patterns throughout the music, Gary raised the Birdies’ sound to a legendary zenith. Most critics agree the Birdies’ true genius lies here. It is Gary’s world view—a combination of analytical self-discovery and 20th century techno-depression—that shapes the Birdie philosophy, one which basically asserts there is “nothing new.” Gary’s ability to FEEL brings life and verve to the sessions. Conversely, most critics find Jeff’s guarded emotions more suited to the musical end of the spectrum, some of his harshest critics even going so far as to unfairly label him “an armor-plated camera.”
The germ for the Birdies was cultivated in the early 1970’s during the pair’s college years at UCLA. Ironically, it was Jeff’s brother who originally teamed with Gary in the creation of stream-of-conscious “game shows,” taped live. A decade later, in January, 1983, Jeff invited Gary to his apartment to see what might happen if they played music instead. Their very first recording gave rise to the name, “Birdies,” after a blues track bemoaning the fate of a birdie struggling in the animal world. Catastrophically, parts of this recording, and all of the remaining tracks from that monumental, break-through first session, were lost forever due to a recording blunder the very next week. Art is not eternal. But the momentum seemingly was. Month by month, the Birdies grew in complexity and texture, achieving heights unexplainable even by Gary or Jeff. Like any live performance, when the groove and the karma is right, Birdie music achieves magic.
The Birdies initial run lasted seven years, the bulk of this work coming in a five-year creative surge from 1983-1988. At their height, the band met weekly on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday evening, each session unrehearsed, unplanned, and containing no previously written material. Then—to even their own surprise—the Birdie machine powered down for nine long years. There was never a formal announcement or agreed-upon decision...simply a lack of inertia.
There are many theories as to what cataclysmic events "interrupted" the Birdies reign. Burn-out...Jeff’s relocation and subsequent marriage in 1992...the birth of Gary’s first daughter. Most would agree, however, that the Birdie initial experience had simply run its course. By the end of 1988, the lyrics and music had become stagnant, bogged down under the weight of too many electronic gadgets, and, quite simply, by a lack of anything left to say. There really was “nothing new.”
But time heals. And September, 1997, signaled a new Birdie beginning. With renewed momentum the band proved to themselves—and their critics—that the magic had not yet vanished. Rather than flail into the past, trying vainly to reinvent themselves as an "oldies" ensemble, the Birdies instead pushed the envelope further. Spur-of-the-moment encounters suffer no slumps. "In Mars," recorded during that reunion session, stands as a shining statement of hope for the future—for both the band...and mankind. All told, there exists more than 150 hours of unedited Birdies material, each ten-week cycle condensed into a one-hour “Best Of” tape in an attempt to sort through the morass. There are 14 such tapes, and each offers an intimate glimpse into a particular stage of the band's development.
Two special retrospective collections, "The Birdies" and "More Birdies" offer neither a “Best Of” nor a chronology. They are, however, the Birdies at their most playful, most creative, and most listenable.
“The Birdies,” captures the band at play, Gary and Jeff cajoling one another as laughter fills the album, each member snickering at the other’s crazy, on-target lyrics. "Astronaut" chronicles the rampant angst of a lost alien as he—or it—sifts through garbled NASA transmissions and wonders, "...where is Houston...what is Houston?" "The Ballad of Fred Dody" addresses man's quest for liberty amid selfishness, culminating in the horrific irony, "...I gotta go away, I've loved you too much..." "I Think I'm Bitchen" and "Totally Heavy" continue to assault our self-centered selves. "Mistake-proof Music" needs no explanation; it stands as a Birdie anthem: “Try to laugh, try to get along. We’ll get over it someday.”
As Jeff has remarked, “It’s good to go back and hear us having fun. There was a darkness to the Birdies near the end of 1988 that has thankfully eroded with time. The songs help me now to remember those wonderful moments of true friendship.”
As gadgetry increased and fresh vision dwindled, the Birdies guarded consciously against the ultimate horror—taking themselves too seriously. The second retrospective album, “More Birdies,” flits that fine line. Serving as a flip-side to the first album, the Birdies delve into more subtle areas of insight and intellect, the tone more serious. Though still laughing a lot between songs (many of these moments are included here as surprise out-takes) Gary and Jeff get down to business, offering their vision of 20th century man. Not surprisingly, this vision exposes the psychic terror paralyzing all men and women.
“Autonomic Reaction” lays down the gauntlet from the start. Urging each of us to “fight it out,” we uncover a “stressful life” filled with “sweaty palms...upset stomach...headache,” a nervous system “sending me signs that I’m not well.” It’s no surprise this pathetic creature begins “wonderin’ ’bout myself,” the album’s second selection. Both songs are early classics, originating in the Birdies’ first year of existence.
“Nice Old Man,” the album’s third tune, skips all the way to late 1987, and the difference in texture—and mood—is obvious. Still, the outlook remains bleak. The “nice old man” refuses to watch any post-strike football, and warns us to “watch out for the things that we can’t see.” Paranoia strikes deep.
In perhaps the album’s most esoteric moment, “Usher,” Gary reflects upon a utopian future, mankind “...reaching out to employ ourselves, to feel ourselves...to practice religiosity ...the pantheism of experiential consciousness.” On a hopeful note, side 1 ends with quiet reflection: “...how did you know I was feeling a whole lot better?”
The rest of the ride takes us through dancing donkeys, artist wanna-bees, safety freaks, unemployed presidents—even scalpers hawking tickets to see the Pope. The album’s curtain call finds a future civilization uncovering buried Birdie tapes, only to burn them in disgust and horror. Again, art is not eternal.
The Birdies’ future? When recently contacted by telephone Gary assures us that, “I have a lot of tunes in me and I’m anxious to continue playing. Even my daughter fools around with me on the keyboard. Ultimately, I want to have fun again, to enjoy my life and the people in it.”
So as we land on Mars and search the heavens for intelligent life, perhaps we can pause a moment to enjoy the company of two earthlings, listening to one another, feeding off shared energy, creating joy where none existed in the moment before. Ultimately, Gary implores us to “...push onward...keep trying...you’ll find it.” The ultimate reward? “You’re on to something. Be courageous.”
©1998 The Birdies