The cover of Too Much Joy’s Son of Sam I Am shows 64 doodles scribbled onto a photo of Hugo, a popular children’s puppet made in the ’70s. The toy is the only hero they can count on. “Hugo” isn’t the best song on the album, but it lays out its central crisis: that of growing up and finding that humanity is fragile and unreliable. It’s a quintessential young person’s crisis, but band members came to learn that selling out isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The name Too Much Joy supposedly came from singer-founder Tim Quirk’s first mushroom trip, but look up the moniker in newspaper files from a century ago and you’ll find another story. In 1897, a New York mother of four living in an East Village tenement house fell dead after putting up the family Christmas tree. In 1904, another Christmas ended in tragedy, this time for a Chicago child “suddenly taken violently ill” at the sight of his presents; he died of heart failure. In 1906, a Mississippi mechanic, finding his relatives safe after a big storm, “[died] of relief.” “Too Much Joy” was once a not uncommon newspaper headline telling the story of extreme and fatal happiness. This suits a band whose music is exuberant and passionate but touched with mortality despite its stand-up comedy aspirations.

Son of Sam I Am (1988) was the band’s second album, their songwriting and performance miles above their 1987 debut Green Eggs and Crack. On that first album, Quirk is credited as the guy who “sings, sort of.” He tells jokes in a conversational delivery that lacks the conviction of later albums, and guitarist Jay Blumenfield is teased on the back cover for “stupid snaps and aahs we want to kill him for.” They probably really wanted to kill him for the soaring choruses of their next record, but the melodies are just part of what makes the album as urgent as it is funny.

Their lyrics seem like the stuff of typical twenty-somethings, if smarter than the usual smart-alecks. “Hugo” plays the much-loved game of chastising sell-outs: “Lou’s hawking scooters and American Express/ Guys quote Michael Stipe in bars.” Hugo can’t let them down because he’s not even human. But as the TMJ name at one point suggested drug trips and a century ago warned of excess happiness, the path they took was one that doesn’t usually make for good rock ‘n’ roll: they grew up. As much as Quirk likes to tell jokes, the sad punchline is that life hurts. This funny, catchy album is wiser than it seems: it accepts that pain is part of growing up and growing old. The untitled original that closes the album (they later called it “Train in Vain,” after another unmarked bonus track), speaks from where I was in 1988: “The Playboy centerfold is younger than me.” Back then, it seemed to me and maybe to Quirk like an amusing statistic, but it’s a joke about the onset of mortality in a barely post-adolescent frame. How else do angry mixed-up youth deal with pain?

By singing about it. “Making Fun of Bums” starts the album with an anthem that on paper sounds smart-alecky: “Bad Karma thing to do.” But Blumenfield’s riff (“Not lead guitar, not rhythm guitar. Just guitar.”) starts with power chords that ascend as if a twenty-something punk rock windmill chord man is preparing to navigate the plucked trials of a thirty-something. The singer’s dad sold their house, “Now I’m homeless too/ The world seems kind of big today.” This rootlessness is literal but also existential as he finds his place in the world where there’s no stability. The song builds to an aching chorus that still gives me chills—“Got a real cool poster/ Still no wall to hang it on/ …There’s this girl I met/ Still no room to hug her in.” “Kicking (The Gone Fishing Song)” is even darker, about a 23-year old cancer patient. It has a throwaway lyric that’s one of my favorite Quirk-isms on the album; in the hospital, the singer meets a nurse who tells him, “It’s too bad that you have cancer/ We could have been best friends/ There’s this restaurant I reco – m-m-m-mend.” It would have been a touching detail in a short story, a nurse giving a dying patient some human encouragement and reaching his musical heart in the best way she knows how: a death-bed invocation of The Who.

Quirk does more than “sing, sort of,” and if he still doesn’t really sing on Son of Sam I Am, his voice has a conviction lacking on the debut. And he came up with an even better title pun, one that plays at conflicting emotions, referencing a serial killer and Dr. Seuss, inventing a persona that attacks the void with music that comes from both a childhood innocence and an awareness of a violent world. They contain multitudes, as explained in “My Past Lives.” Quirk takes on all of the world’s good and bad people, including his mom and dad. “I’ve seen war and peace/ And war and war and war and war.” In a song that sounds like a joke (one that the Divine Comedy echoed years later on “Gin-Soaked Boy”), it’s a profound statement of the complications and contradictions of being alive, and the heroism of simply enduring; by being a hero, and by making music.

Fans cried foul when Too Much Joy joined the very sell-outs they indicted on “Hugo” and recorded a Budweiser jingle. In 2011, Quirk blogged about the difficult decision, which gave the band members enough residuals that they eventually qualified for health insurance. Health insurance enabled Quirk to think about having children; he thanks Budweiser for essentially buying his daughter Abigail. “It is possible for me to say two seemingly contradictory things: I still hate that jingle, and yet I’m very, very glad we did it. Punk rock ideals are nice. But living, breathing human beings are possibly more important.” Too Much Joy was in some ways a musical comedy act. That may not sound like it was a profound calling, but if it inspired living, breathing human beings, it is possibly more important than it ever seemed.

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2 Comments

  1. TDV

    April 1, 2015 at 11:52 am

    If Pat Padua is an Oxford comma defender, then why does he withhold it in yhe very sentence he mentions it? Otherwise, thanks for shining a light on this fantastic album from my youth.

    Reply

    • Pat Padua

      Pat Padua

      April 1, 2015 at 1:24 pm

      Thanks for writing, TDV, but it is the editorial policy of Spectrum Culture (and other outlets I write for) to not use the Oxford comma. Ironic!

      Reply

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