Guys Like Me
Was America Really Made for Dick Price?
In his song "All Grown Up and No Place to Go," Dick Price claims that America was made for guys like him:
America was made for guys like me,
with dark-blonde hair and a college degree.
It's time to take my place in the world,
It's time to marry an appropriate girl ...
Offices were made for guys like me,
with dark-blonde hair and a college degree,
who sit at our desks and wear little ties,
and play racquetball with the other guys.
This song, like many songs by Austin's Dick Price, has a jingly, upbeat melody, like something you might hear at a carnival. Perhaps because his songs tend to have such a relentlessly sweet, tidy sound, there's also something slightly unnerving about them. Actually, listening to one of Dick Price's songs isn't exactly like being at a carnival -- sometimes it's like being at the carnival in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, in which a fast-moving merry-go-round is loosed from its track and perilously grinds to a halt, nearly killing everyone on board.
Once you've listened to several of his songs, you begin to wonder what Dick Price is really like. Since he began writing songs seriously in 1978, when he was 27 years old and living in New York, he's created a body of work in which he has: prostituted himself in the name of national security ("I Was a Go-Go Boy for the FBI"), been advised by God not to wait for his reward in heaven ("God Told Me to Rob the 7-11"), and collected so many friends who have pooted in his Plymouth that he was forced -- forced! -- to write a song about it ("Don't Fart in My Car"). Some people who've heard "All Grown Up and No Place to Go" wonder what happened to Dick Price to make him think that what our founding fathers had in mind was someone like him.
He is tall and lean with large, observant eyes. He is demure but has a robust sense of humor and a quiet laugh. He is not at all the raging maniac you might expect from his comedic output. He told me he doesn't really like to talk about himself, but was polite enough to say that he didn't mind answering my questions. If you slapped a suit on him, he could easily become the sort of person he describes in "All Grown Up and No Place to Go." He also composes "serious" songs and "movie songs" in which he retells the plots of various movies he likes, but trying to categorize Dick Price is not something anyone should spend their time doing.
For at least 17 years, Price produced tapes of his music and sent them to friends. Sometimes he would perform. Other people discovered him through "Dial-a-Tune," a local community service of sorts whereby Price set up a second phone line in his home and recorded a different song of his own composition for it every day. Since he received up to 200 calls a day, he usually turned off the ringer. In typical Dick Price fashion, he has kept boxes full of the answering machine tapes that track every single call to Dial-a-Tune.
The issue -- how someone as reticent and plain-seeming as Dick Price can muster the imaginative force to adopt his musical personas -- is difficult to resolve. In 1976, when Jamaica Kincaid was writing for The New Yorker, she asked Richard Pryor how he got to be so funny.
"I go to sleep for about a year," he told her. "I wake up with cobwebs all over my face. I roll them up in a large ball with milk and sugar, eat it quickly, and then I start laughing."
Dick Price doesn't have any answers, either, but among the people who've been listening to his songs through the years, there's a certain uniformity in how they talk about him. All of them describe him as an artist. There's a conspiratorial, sometimes even rabid urgency in the way they booster him. That's partly because he is witty and funny and brilliant, but very much unknown, and they feel a need not to keep him a secret. There have been long periods when Price hasn't performed at all and though he has composed more than 600 songs, his first CD, Dick Price's Theatre of Cruelty, has just been released.
Once, when he was performing the score he composed for the classic vampire film Nosferatu, he borrowed a cape from a friend. There were candles all around the piano, and together with the cape, they were intended to complement the film's austere spookiness. But then the cape caught fire. He finished playing rather than extinguish his flaming cape.
His friend Keith Kritselis, who calls himself Price's "de facto manager" -- he designed the Dick Price Web site (www.dickprice.com) and is feverishly working to direct Internet traffic to MP3.com, where Price has recently broken into the Top 40 comedy songs -- says that he and some of his friends have been pestering Price to put out a CD for years now.
Keith Kritselis: And our first thought was doing the comedy songs -- they're the ones that the audience tends to jack into. His initial thought was not to do that. He wanted to do a themed album, so we started recording an album of film songs. He does a lot of movie songs, and so he wanted to do a movie thing that had some funny songs on it. Some of them were odd, some of them were just straight songs about a specific movie or a film director. So we started putting that together. We got all the songs recorded, and then at the last minute, he decided that he didn't want to do it. So we kind of put it aside.
Austin Chronicle: Why didn't he want to do it?
KK: [sigh] I don't know, Dick is, um, I don't know. Dick can be a pain in the ass sometimes like that. You know, the last thing that drives him is finding a bigger audience and doing those kinds of things. He's really interested in songwriting, and he kind of likes performing, but he's the worst promoter of Dick Price. He wanted to put out an album with 30 songs on it, and I'm like, "No! Why not put out three albums with 10 songs on it?" But that's just not the way he thinks.
"Happy Dinosaur" is a song on Dick Price's Theatre of Cruelty that has a bouncy, cheerful tempo. Apparently, happy dinosaurs sound like nerdy anthropologists who go around smoking pipes and wearing tweed:
I'm a happy dinosaur,
I love those kids who live next door.
Every single sunny day,
we all go off to the woods to play.
But something happened yesterday,
they brought along their dog to play.
And it was almost 100 degrees,
and there wasn't even the slightest breeze.
Oh, the kids and I were playing chase,
and the sweat poured down each little face.
Spot started licking them one by one,
licking their faces, oh they all had fun.
And little Courtney yelled, "Hey, Happy, what about you?
I think that you should lick us too!"
So I started licking little Courtney's face,
and I couldn't believe that it had such a good taste
I licked all the children one by one.
They were wigglin' and a-gigglin' and a- havin' fun.
And each one tasted oh so sweet,
I knew inside it was time to eat.
I snapped their heads off with my jaws,
and I sliced them open with my claws.
I nibbled down on their fingertips,
and I drank their blood in little sips.
Now I'm living all alone in the woods,
and I sneak into town when the time is good.
When there aren't no big adults around,
I catch a few kids and I gobble 'em down.
I love those chubby little brown bambinos,
wash 'em down with some Spanish vino.
Pills little pink and pudgy baby whites,
they really do whet my appetite.
Oh, the tender bouncy baby Blacks,
try to save 'em for my midnight snacks.
And I chomp down on little Orientals like an alligator.
For some reason or other, I'm hungry just one hour later.
Oh, I'm a happy dinosaur.
I'm even happier than I was before.
'Cause I've discovered this delicious treat.
They're so many of them, there's plenty to eat.
Exactly what drives Dick Price to write a happy song about a marauding dinosaur who eats little children remains unknown. At the risk of embarrassment, however, it needs to be said that "Happy Dinosaur" is a song of serious complexity. At the end of the first verse, the listener is led to believe that the dinosaur will be nibbling on the dog, and that seems more than just a little gross and unfair. But then Price turns the scene around: It's more suspenseful and funny once you realize that it's the children who are likely to meet their doom out in the woods playing with their dinosaur.
This dinosaur is an equal-opportunity offender, and I think it's fair to say that a song about a happy dinosaur who qualifies his meals according to the skin color of his young, helpless victims is an approach to racism that until this time has been entirely neglected in the history of American song.
What happens when a funny person becomes a provocateur? You find yourself a little stunned at the things you're laughing at, then you look for other people to laugh with you. Depending on your point of view, Dick Price is either a demented Walter Mitty who's spent too much time watching B-movies from the Fifties, or he's a clever and subtle commentator on modern American life.
"I want to be able to write a song about anything," says Price.
"I'm sure this guy could be making a lot of money doing jingles and stuff, but that's just not important to him," says Joe Dishner, a film producer who has known Price since the two attended UT together in the early Seventies.
Price grew up in Waco in the Fifties and Sixties, and it's tempting to read something like "Happy Dinosaur" as the product of a creative individual who grew up in the overwhelmingly conservative environment of a smothering, nuclear family. That's not the case, however. Price's family -- his mother Elizabeth, his father Carl (who was given the nickname "Coot" by Dick), his older brother Carl, also known as Bubba, and his oldest sibling Lynn -- seem more like a band of eccentrics than cookie-cutter figures from the Fifties.
At the very least, Price describes his parents, both of whom have passed away, as having been slightly wacky. They were teachers, his father a heralded football coach and algebra teacher. His mother taught P.E., health education, and sociology. His mother's favorite song of his was "Don't Fart in My Car." Price describes his father as "a very funny man."
"My sister was extremely grouchy in the morning," Price recounts. "She was horrible to wake up. My father would go in and wake her up first and be as irritating to her as he could, singing, 'Good morning to you! Good morning to you! We're all in our places with egg on our faces! Good morning to you! Good morning to you!'
"And she'd be screaming at him, 'Shut up! Get out!' And then my brother, well, we all had burr haircuts until we reached -- I had one until I was in eighth grade, I was the only kid for about three years who had no hair, it was just weird -- and he'd sing to my brother, 'Good morning, Mr. Zip! Zip! Zip! With your hair just as short as mine! Good morning, Mr. Zip! Zip! Zip! I hope you're feeling fine.'
"And then mine was the worst of all. It was to the tune of 'Indian Love Call' and he had little nicknames for me -- Dickie, Dickie-do, Dick-a-do-boy-son -- all of this constant wordplay, and he would go, 'Mother's calling you, Dickie-do, Dickie-do. Come eat breakfast, too, Dickie-do, Dickie-do.'
"It was silly. And he was always rhyming, things like, 'Pass the toast, you old ghost.'"
Price began playing the piano when he was six, and although he hated piano lessons, he spent hours banging out tunes -- "playing by ear, picking out stuff, and writing melodies." He was always writing little poems and stories (poems Price wrote in the fourth grade are on his Web site), but says he didn't start writing lyrics until he turned 27.
"I have this constant problem," says Price, "of cramming words into a line that's so wordy, and then I just rewrite and rewrite and rewrite to get it whittled down. When I was in college, [my songs] were all just too sensitive and creepy. I kind of grossed myself out. But that's how I thought you wrote songs."
"It's not like the bad Jimmy Cagney movie where the guy runs in and says, 'I just wrote this great song!,'" Dishner says. "It's just something that kind of evolved and Dick writing songs was always something that was just part of being around Dick, you know? It wasn't like it was front-page news, it was just this guy who had all these original tunes."
After graduating from UT in 1976 with a psychology degree (he began as a music major), Price moved to New York, where he lived for nearly 10 years. He found work at the Jonas Aircraft and Arms Company and began writing movie songs in his spare time. (Actually, he wrote them at work, too.) A Dick Price movie song typically involves Dick Price pretending to be a movie star, but it can take other narrative forms as well. Dick Price as Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo: "I saw you on the street a few minutes ago/You looked just like this girl I used to know/She recently died -- I haven't gotten over it yet/She was a blonde, and you're a brunette."
"See, the reason I wrote movie songs was, it was just to have subject matter," Price explains, "and it was an easy way to start writing lyrics. I just told the story in the song. I would try to write funny lines, but I didn't think the concept was funny."
He began sending tapes of his songs to friends. He started performing with an actor named Rob Neukirch and Kevin Cross, a guitar player, and this is how Price would begin each of his gigs: "We're the Dick Price Combo. This is Rob Neukirch on bass, Kevin Cross on guitar, and I'm Dick Price and I was a go-go boy for the FBI" and then immediately start playing "I Was a Go-Go Boy for the FBI."
In Price's apartment, where they used to rehearse, the piano was propped up against the wall and Price would be playing into the wall. His bandmates would ask him if he had written any new songs, and he'd pull out a folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket and say, "Well, I have this," and he would play it. Neukirch and Cross would look at each other and smile, because they knew it would be something wildly original, catchy, and funny -- another song the Dick Price Combo could perform.
"Dick would never say, 'I've got this new song,'" recalls Neukirch, who played stand-up bass in the combo even though he didn't know how to play stand-up bass. He says that his "visceral attraction to Dick's melodies" prompted him to learn to play whatever instrument was required of him.
Within two years, however, Price's father became ill, and Price returned to Austin. Like many artists, he's able to list a string of bad jobs, but throughout the Eighties and Nineties, he continued to write songs, perform them, and send tapes to friends. The Dr. Demento Show has played his songs more than three dozen times, and in 1994, "God Told Me to Rob the 7-11" was the fourth-most-requested song all year. In fact, this Saturday, April 7, and next, April 14, songs from Dick Price's Theatre of Cruelty will be showcased on Demento's program, found locally on KPEZ-FM (Z-102), 6-8am.
Before that, there was Konk, a show on Austin's public access station ACTV (now ACAC) that began featuring Price's music. According to its creator and host Keith Kritselis, Konk, "a sort of in-your-face-type talk show," introduced Price to a whole new audience -- much to the surprise of Price himself. Kritselis discovered Price through Ben Davis, a graphic designer and Web artist who was working for the Chronicle at the time and had stumbled across a tape of Dick Price music that had been submitted to South by Southwest.
Davis was ecstatic about what he heard and told Kritselis about it. In February of 1991, Price wrote a postcard to Konk (both the name of the show and its host while he was on the air) that had an image of Jesus Christ stumbling on his way to Golgatha to be crucified. Mary is dramatically pleading with Christ, and on the back of the postcard, Price wrote "Not now, Mother!" before getting down to business:
I met your friend Ben the other day & he told me you were working on a video of my "Tiny Little Man" song. So I thought, "Who is this guy?" Then I started watching & now I'm a big fan. I like a show that jumps from skinheads to pinheads to horny preteen girls to guys like me. And now that I like it, I hope you'll do "TLM." Also, thanks for flashing my tune-line # on the screen. I was awakened at 2am by the sound of white supremacists belching into the phone. Meanwhile, be sure to eat right, get some rest, and keep going.
Good luck, Dick
This began an enduring friendship that has led to Kritselis trying to manage Price to large-scale success.
"My real goal is by next year to have him opening for Weird Al on his next tour," Kritselis says. "I mean, it makes sense. That's my personal goal, and he's going to conform to it whether he likes it or not."
Kritselis has put a lot of thought into how this is going to work.
"I think when people are first listening to Dick, songs like 'God Told Me to Rob the 7-11' are the first ones they gravitate towards," he says. "They're really bouncy, they're really fun, they're a little bit shocking, but a lot amusing. But then if you progress beyond that level, his songs are more odd -- like the Capitol song will really hook you. And then if you pay any more attention to songs like 'Medea, My Dear' ... you kind of have to listen to the lyrics."
Which is what has attracted people to Dick Price from the beginning. Three days after I interviewed Price, he sent me an e-mail about one of his more famous fans:
At the risk of being a bore, there was one story I meant to tell you and didn't. In New York in the early Eighties, I briefly played at a piano bar that was connected to a punk club. It was in a warehouse building west of Madison Square Garden (a desolate neighborhood at the time). So the punk club was downstairs and you could take this freight elevator up one floor and there's this cavernous piano bar with trees, ferns, a bar, and me (in a tux) playing the piano. One night a man came up to me and said that Tiny Tim was there and liked the old songs I was playing and would like to sing "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now." So sure enough, Tiny (when I called him Mr. Tim, he said to call him Tiny) came up and sang. Then his friend prompted me to play "Tip-toe Through the Tulips" and I struggled through that. Anyway, Tiny Tim told me he wanted me to meet him at his agent's office in Times Square the next morning. He was planning a tour to Sun City (this was at the beginning of it being very politically incorrect to play there) and thought they might use me as an accompanist. So I played some for his scary agent (including some original "movie" songs) and he wasn't terribly impressed and that was the end of it. But meeting Tiny Tim was great. He towered over me; must have been about 6'7". Was always squirting some kind of breath freshener in his mouth, wore a pastel suit (satin?), was carrying two completely filled shopping bags both times I met him, and was extremely nice.
Sorry for running off at the mouth. Just thought I'd pass that on.
It says a lot that someone proficient at selling oddities like Tiny Tim didn't know what to make of Dick Price. But then who does?
"I think everybody that loves Dick Price's stuff has a tendency to project their ... what Dick should do, to some degree," posits Joe Dishner. "And I think that's always a part of anybody that you're close to. It's like, 'Shit, if I had that kind of talent, I would be doing this' is what people think, but that's not necessarily what's important to him."
Just being Dick Price is.
Dick Price performs at the Velveeta Room (521 E. Sixth) on Saturday, April 7, at 8pm ($5 cover) and on Thursday, April 12, at 8:30pm at Flipnotics Coffeespace (1601 Barton Springs Rd.).