Formed by Mark Dery and Darren Smith in 1985, in New York City, Bite the Wax Tadpole was in some ways symptomatic of ‘80s information anxiety: taking its name from the mangled tagline of a Chinese ad campaign for Coke, the duo sprang from the homebrew cassette revolution and NYC’s downtown music scene. Although BTWT played East Village art-club gigs (with Sophie B. Hawkins sitting in on drums), the group mostly toured Smith’s Jersey City bedroom, composing and recording songs—soundtracks for mental movies, more accurately—on a four-track tape deck.
In the early ‘90s, BTWT recorded an album’s worth of material (much of which appears here) with Lower East Side scenemakers Elliott Sharp, Christian Marclay, Yuval Gabay (of Soul Coughing), and Samm Bennett (of Chunk).
This was music made by men in small rooms, with all the twitchy-eyed, Lee Harvey Oswald intensity that implies. Smith, a guitar, trumpet, and synth virtuoso who had studied South Indian vocal music, Balinese gamelan, and electric banjo (with Peter Tork of The Monkees!), proved an ideal foil for Dery, a chronic word-aholic whose spoken-word performances were somewhere between William S. Burroughs’s deadpan monologues and Jack Nicholson’s scenery-chewing rants in The Shining. The landmarks on Smith’s mental map ranged from Bartok to Bollywood, Ice Cube to Meredith Monk; Dery’s foremost influences were Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and J.G. Ballard. Together, the pair made music full of dark humor and quantum weirdness, with a dream logic all its own.
Turn Me On, Dead Man—the title is taken from the backwards-masked phrase supposedly lurking in The Beatles’ “Revolution 9”—anthologizes the best of Bite the Wax Tadpole’s early years.
“We were musically omnivorous,” says Dery, “mashing up ideas borrowed from garage-sale oddities and our own overheated imaginations—hip-hop, Led Zep, musique concrete. I was writing these voiceovers for imaginary movies—not really poetry, but not exactly songs, either—and Darren was composing these mind-melting soundtracks that encompassed whupass guitar rock; loop-based electronica; and fiendishly intricate postmodern folk tunes, showcasing his two-handed tapping and hot-rodded Hexaphonic guitar. Our connection was damn near telepathic. It was a marriage made on Mars.”
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THREE REASONS YOU MUST ORDER A COPY OF TURN ME ON, DEAD MAN:
1. Sixty-nine minutes (and two seconds!) of chewy nougat and Beefheart-y goodness. It’s flavoriffic!
2. A six-page CD booklet, printed on high-quality paper, overstuffed with lyrics and commentary on the disk’s 17 songs, and featuring the ironic yet insouciant graphic design of Carlos Morera. Buy this stunningly designed artifact of the Late Caligulan phase of the Bush imperium for Morera’s work alone; sell it on eBay a decade from now, when your 401k has turned to ash and you’re spending your retirement as a minimum-wage barista at Starbuck’s.
3. Where else can you hear a full-tilt rocker about a tyrannical boss who thunders, “You’re gonna be a dissected crayfish, and I’m gonna be the man in surgeon’s greens wiping your entrails across my lapels”? A bizarre monologue by a worker on some David Lynchian assembly line (or is it a slaughterhouse?) that churns out an unspeakable product involving creatures with “sucking discs on the tops of their heads”? A musical suicide note, narrated by the Nazi nudnik Rudolph Hess? A techno elegy about the sinking of the Titanic, set to a sampled loop and sung by the ship itself (”A prunefaced corpse, his features blurring, sits crosslegged on the ceiling of my ballroom, warming his hands by the chandelier”)? We’re just saying…
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I believe in the whisper-soft. I believe in the sandpaper-rough. I believe in the fly ash dancing up the flue of the furnace, in a plume of smoke. I believe in the ripe, in the bursting, in the pocked, in the pitted, in the ossified, rotten, the bruised and the wizened. The skirl of distant bagpipes. The scree of red-hot steam pipes. Of boiling water whooshing through the elbow-joints of plumbing. And I believe in the snicker-snack of clippers shearing off the ears of topiary rabbits. And I believe in the curl and thump of waves, the caw of circling vultures, the swish of broken wipers, in dead bolts and linchpins and rail spikes and corkscrews, in the withered tiny testicles of long-dead tyrant lizards, in the tweezers, the scissors, the hose that’s knotted, swelling, splitting, scattering wet shards and slithering to and fro. I believe in the Pope’s goatee growing between the legs of a gray-haired stripper. And I believe in a God who snores. In the wink of silver fixtures on a pauper’s coffin. The surgical tool for scraping bone, the circular saw for skulls, the scalpel and the hacksaw and the trepan and the lancet. And I believe in the undone fly, the unsnapped bra, the sound of partridges departing for a better world than this.
I believe in the gravel, the grit, the grunts and gasps, the spat-out rinds, the shat-out pits, the amputated limbs. And I believe in sunlight soup made from boiled shadows, the dwarves who guzzle midgets’ milk, eat turkey stuffed with sawdust. And I believe in the nonsense songs sung by Irish schoolboys, the hirsute man with the six-inch tail in a Chinese jail cell, and I believe in the next five minutes, I believe in the end of time, I believe in the moon-faced freak, the baboon with the blowtorch.
— Mark Dery