Having Some Nasty Fun

Too Much Joy has never been a standard one-insult band. In fact, their resourcefulness in devising ways to piss people off has kept them afloat for the better part of a decade. The New York quartet announced its existence in the late '80s by laying into a pair of American kiddie icons: Dr. Seuss and Bozo the Clown. First, they parodied the good doctor by naming their 1987 debut Green Eggs and Crack -- a reality-intensive takeoff of Green Eggs and Ham, a tale once considered untouchable by parents and children everywhere.

Then came the unthinkable: the Joy boys sampled Bozo the Clown's voice for Son of Sam I Am (another cheap shot at Seuss). One of the 1989 release's offerings was "Clowns," a hummable ditty that painted the entire clown race as a bunch of terminally depressed, makeup-caked crazies who scare little ones to death with their big red noses and "stupid floppy shoes." Bozo wasn't amused; he threatened to sue the band if they didn't extricate his voice from Son of Sam I Am.

Around the time that Too Much Joy was fielding litigation from the king of clowns, then-bassist Sandy Smallens pointed out the reasoning behind the group's apparent obsession with soiling the innocence of youth -- and whatever else came their way. "We're very into fucking with stuff everyone is weaned on," Smallens said, going on to profess the group's adherence to the invented philosophy of "Groucho Marxism." "The world sucks, so we might as well dance on its grave," he added.

Bozo wasn't buying it. He continued his threats until, in 1990, the group removed his between-song chatter on a reissue of the CD. Late that year, Too Much Joy danced their way out of life's graveyard and into jail when they performed a set of 2 Live Crew covers at the Hollywood, Florida nightclub where, weeks before, the controversial rap group had been arrested. Three of the quartet danced their way into the slammer, that is; drummer Tommy Vinton, a former New York City cop, escaped being collared because he didn't sing. When the case reached court, the jury deliberated only 12 minutes before letting the trio go.

Although Too Much Joy billed the show as a legitimate protest of Florida's censorship policies, most in the media believed the band orchestrated the whole fiasco just to garner some publicity for the release of their first major-label CD, Cereal Killers. At the time, TMJ did little to dispel that opinion. But now lead singer Tim Quirk leaps to defend the incident as idealistic in origin.

"I still think it was a brilliant protest," he says. "It was goofy and it was dumb, but it made a point."

In outward appearances, Quirk, 31, is now a grownup. He's married and has a two-year-old daughter; he shops at Bloomingdale's for living room furniture; and he has a joint checking account with his wife. He points out that adulthood wasn't his decision; it just sort of happened. "What I didn't understand about being an adult when I was younger," he says, "was that there is never a day when you say, 'Okay, I'm grown-up now and I understand everything.' "

Following the 2 Live Crew stunt in Florida, things cooled considerably for Too Much Joy. Aside from trashing a California hotel room during the making of Cereal Killers, the group stayed out of trouble through the early '90s -- aside, that is, from the expected tour antics, which, over the years, have included everything from Quirk arriving on-stage blind drunk dressed in only a ratty old bathrobe and moose antlers, to various members finishing the evening with their pants down around their ankles, to equipment going up in flames mid-set as everyone plays on, oblivious. These displays -- ridiculous as they may sound -- cemented TMJ's road reputation and helped build a passionate fan base that saw the band through the lean years following 1992's Mutiny, a time when the group was without both a label and any steady means of income.

"It never occurred to me that anyone would pull the rug out from under us, and we would have to fight and scramble to get our music out," recalls Quirk. "Once I was faced with the threat of it being taken away, I realized I had to fight for it."

Too Much Joy comes to terms with that low period in ... Finally, the group's first release in more than three years. On it, the subject matter veers from personal to preachy to political to pointless, addressing everything from sick intellects ("Poison Your Mind") to apathetic youth ("The Kids Don't Understand") to the contents of someone's pocket ("I'm Your Wallet"). As usual, the immediate tone is grumpy and sarcastic, but less typical is the hopelessness often evident underneath. "I'm so weak, the world is for the meek / I'm lying in the grass, the world can kick my ass," Quirk whines on "Weak," fending off the pick-me-up qualities of the Clash-like chord progression.  

"It was the first time that I really got passionate about what I was doing," says Quirk, regarding his contribution to ... Finally. "Everything else had been accidental before."

Life appears to be looking up again for Too Much Joy. The band has a new deal with Discovery Records and is back to its mildly offensive ways. ... Finally's cover -- illustrated by Doug Allen, a Robert Crumb imitator/enthusiast -- features a cartoon image of a teenage couple lying in bed post-coitus, while a thought bubble looms over their heads containing the CD's title. Those who get their hands on an uncensored copy of ... Finally (there are two versions available) can have the pleasure of folding down a cover flap to reveal the two teens' naked bodies.

"It was one of the first times we got exactly what we wanted on the cover," Quirk says. "We just told the guy to go ahead and draw the naked people, and we just sort of assumed all along that someone was gonna say 'no' at some point. But it never happened."

Instead, the label suggested the band offer an underwear-clad alternative for the more conservative Wal-mart crowd. "We were fighting for the penis," Quirk giggles. "And we decided that as long as the penis is available, and people have the option of that little surprise bonus, then it was okay."

Musically, ... Finally is loaded with much of the same snotty, rambunctious, deliriously catchy noise candy that Too Much Joy helped define on Son of Sam I Am. Led along by Quirk's talky, unschooled vocals and a store of memorable hooks, songs such as "Skyline," "How to Be Happy" and the single, "The Kids Don't Understand," pay respect to TMJ's '60s and '70s idols without glazing over the rough-hewn garage-band recklessness that inspired them to start a band in the first place. The CD was produced by William Wittman, who, during the '80s, recorded bands such as the Outfield and the Fixx. Wittman was also producer for Mutiny, and after that CD, when Smallens split to become a full-time music writer for the Prodigy computer service, Wittman joined the band as its guitarist.

"Bill [Wittman] was rolling in dough in the '80s," Quirk says. "When we had our first meeting with him, we kept saying 'Clash, Clash, Clash.' He said, 'I love the Clash, too. But what you guys remind me of more is the Who, which is who the Clash were trying to be in the first place.'

"So, even though we hated almost everything he'd ever done, we hired him."
Whether they want to take credit for it or not, Too Much Joy was working the pop-punk connection years before Green Day's Billie Joe and his pals even approached their instruments. The band began in the early '80s as a teenage lark. Guitarists Jay Blumenfield and Smallens decided to put their music lessons to work and form a Clash cover band, recruiting Vinton from a nearby Catholic institution. An old chum of Smallens, Quirk essentially pouted his way into the band as lead singer. At the time, Southern rock was the music of choice in the affluent suburb of Scarsdale, New York, where the band members grew up. The group quickly realized that the local market for new wave and punk covers was slim at best, and began recording demos of their original work.

After high school, everyone headed for college -- Smallens to Yale, Blumenfield to the University of California at Berkeley, Quirk to Stanford and Vinton to Iowa, then the New York Police Academy. The band continued to record on holiday breaks, and the results of those sessions became the largely overlooked Green Eggs and Crack. In 1988, a year after the members were graduated from college, TMJ managed to eke out a record deal with the tiny Alias label. They headed off to Venice, California, to record Son of Sam I Am on a shoestring budget. Teeming with twisted power-pop ingenuity, the release landed the group the big-label deal they were looking for. Then, a little more than a year later, Too Much Joy hit a wall. Cereal Killers was supposed to be the band's breakthrough, but it never really exploded; two years later, Mutiny failed to play off the little momentum generated by its predecessor.

"People liked us, but in a really dismissive way," says Quirk. "We were making jokes, and, supposedly, that was not what rock was about. There's a line on Mutiny that says, 'I'm ahead of my time, but only by a week.' We've felt that way for 12 years. It's not like we are these total visionaries. We've had clever ideas, but we didn't have the money to pull them off before someone with deep pockets got to them."  

Now, coming off a three-year hiatus that has, in essence, allowed everyone else in the music business to catch up, Too Much Joy is faced with the dilemma of having to prove themselves all over again. But do they have enough new jokes to keep things interesting? Quirk seems to think so.

"Our sense of humor was always based on the most negative emotions we've had," he says. "It was our security blanket during all of this. It keeps us going." And, he notes, "when we got the major deal, I didn't feel like we [had] paid our dues. I certainly feel that way now."

Too Much Joy performs at the Buzz Fest Saturday, April 20, at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. The sold-out show begins at 1 p.m. For info, call 968-1000.

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