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.

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Hobart Rowland