By Christopher Arnott
4:44 PM EST, February 19, 2013
It’s just been announced that Richard Barone, leader of underrated New Wave band The Bongos (“In the Congo”) will be playing Café Nine on April 25.
This illustrious booking will be cause for further praise and analysis as the date draws closer, but I’m obliged to share here my initial reaction to hearing the name Richard Barone for the first time in several years.
Dude dug Tiny Tim.
In his exceptional rock memoir, Frontman: Surviving the Rock Star Myth, Barone provides an also-ran’s version of the typical rock star trajectory. The obligatory “advice from someone you’ve idolized” chapter digresses from the idol you’d logically expect. In most books of this sort, it’s some storied blues musician or onetime teen heartthrob or international superstar. In Barone’s universe, it’s Tiny Tim. (The book is full of such off-center celeb encounters. Barone writes of Bob Denver at a dinner theater production of Play It Again, Sam.)
Tiny Tim was a ukulele player and falsetto vocalist who was lifted to an unbelievable level of fame during the mainstream Flower Power hippie craze of the late 1960s. More laughed at than with, he was a long-haired, soft-voiced, peace-loving nostalgist who was photographed in flower fields strumming a uke and warbling “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” a song he singlehandedly revived as a ukulele standard.
Tiny Tim was a regular guest star on the biggest, hippest comedy variety show of its time, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. His marriage (to the mysterious Miss Vicki) was officiated by Johnny Carson on a special episode of the Tonight Show. His first album was produced by the great Richard Perry (who later made hit records for Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Carly Simon, Rod Stewart and The Pointer Sisters); it may be the most elaborately produced ukulele album ever. His second album, a set of songs for children, was nominated for a Grammy. Tiny Tim is legendary for playing the 1970 Isle of Wight, and for being the only act among that impressive line-up (Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Miles Davis, The Doors, Kris Kristofferson, Donovan, Joan Baez, Melanie, Leonard Cohen, Richie Havens, Jethro Tull, Sly & the Family Stone, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Terry Reid, Supertramp, Chicago, Family, Lighthouse, Procol Harum, John Sebastian and over a dozen others) to have been paid the money promised him.
Tiny Tim resonates through Barone’s book Frontman, but the key chapter is titled “Tiny Tim: Learning the True Meaning of Fame.” The men met when Barone was living in Florida and was in the habit of catching any and all “former ‘60s pop superstars” who “glided through town like invisible UFOs, playing the local rock clubs, third-rate discos, dives and hotel bars…” Barone found Tiny Tim playing at a TraveLodge in Tampa, and went to meet him after the show without bothering to see the show itself. When Tiny Tim realized Barone hadn’t caught the set, he offered to recreate it in his hotel room over a few Old Milwaukee beers.
After that auspicious beginning, Barone and Tiny Tim embarked on an intermittent years-long friendship that led to a musical collaboration, with Barone attempting to produce a comeback single for the fallen uke god (who was at this point nearly a decade past his peak popularity).
Barone cuts through Tiny Tim’s novelty-act exterior and appreciates the man’s musical and cultural devotions:
He was a complex man of extreme contradictions. Seeming frivolous, he was actually a serious musicologist, carrying with him a shopping bag full of sheet music that dated from the earliest recorded music on Edison cylinders right up to the latest chart hits. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of American pop music, and was a truly gifted song stylist with a suprising vocal range. Visually, his long hair, trademark ukulele and flower power tendencies belied his political and religious conservatism, while his falsetto and feminine demeanor both demonstrated and concealed his love for women. Imagine a man riding the New York City subway system in the late 1950s with wild shoulder-length hair and white face makeup, carrying a ukulele in a crumpled shopping bag. There had never been a pop star quite like him. And, in our jaded, post-MTV, reality show-saturated, everybody’s-in-showbiz-and-who-gives-a-fuck world of prepackaged oddballs, it is impossible that there can ever be another.
Tiny Tim is the subject of an exhaustive website, www.tinytim.org, which covers his beginnings as an East Village troubadour and his endings as a circus ringmaster and cherished ukulele. (He died from a heart attack he incurred while performing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" in Minnesota in 1996.)
But his story has yet to be fully told. Quirky anecdotes by those who knew him and worked with him add a foundation to Tiny Tim’s falsetto fairy tale, a heavy bottom to his tenor uke strums.
Here’s hoping that there are Richard Barone fans who will someday do for this articulate, astute and artistic chronicler of pop grandeur what Barone has done for the likes of Tiny Tim.
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