Saturday, July 11, 2009

Heavily recommended weirdness: Dion McGregor

Somewhere between Jonathan Winters and Brother Theodore on the one hand, and William Burroughs and Terry Southern on the other, there existed a totally un-famous yet incredibly imaginative failed songwriter who happened to “sleeptalk” very odd material in the early morning hours. Dion McGregor was the gent’s name, and he is about as forgotten in pop culture circles as Murray Roman.

However, those who have listened to his amazing spoken-word 1964 LP The Dream World of Dion McGregor know that McGregor was a seminally weird performer — who just happened to never have once performed on a stage (he acted in several films in his early years, but gave up the craft by the 1950s). The mythology on McGregor was that he “sleeptalked” these bizarrely surreal vignettes, which run the gamut from laidback moments of oddball discussion, to vague and hazy trips through queerly-inhabited landscapes, to incidents rife with melodramatic and cartoonish peril. The Dream World album contained 10 of these dreams, which were taped on reel-to-reel by his songwriting collaborator Mike Barr in their apartment at First Avenue and 53rd St. in NYC, from 1961-1967.

I had heard the album for the first time more than a decade ago, but wasn’t aware until about two weeks back that two CD sequels existed, culled from the same material. All three albums are available online for free (although, of course, I recommend you buy the CDs if you like the material) — but more about that below. First, let me consider the obvious question: what is this stuff? It definitely qualifies as humor of a sort, but it’s not a standard comedy LP. At times one can be convinced that McGregor is insane but, as with Brother Theodore and Jonathan Winters, this is actually a creative person *playing the role* of a crazy person — or, more appropriately, given the mythology, a creative person’s subconscious running wild, on tape.

The question of whether McGregor was for real is addressed in the best biographical article on the man ever published, which can be found here. Author Phil Milstein maintains that he interviewed several people who knew McGregor and saw him actually sleeptalk. He swears that it’s for real. As you listen to the original LP and its CD sequels, however, it’s sorta hard to believe that contention, since McGregor’s pieces, while scattershot (like the best Winters improv sessions), are developed vignettes that have specific characterizations, take their bizarre premises as far as they can possibly go, and have a weird internal rhythm that suggests they weren’t just (ahem) dreamed up out of the blue. The dreams were in fact also converted into print — Dream World of Dion McGregor book was published in 1964 by Bernard Geis, with illustrations by a very appropriate artist, Edward Gorey.

The most interesting aspect of McGregor’s life to me, is the revelation in Milstein’s article that McGregor was part of the NYC “private film society” scene in the 1950s and ’60s — the folks who where the American equivalent of the Cinematheque/Cahiers crowd, who gathered at various apartments to watch 16mm prints of old movies and attended Manhattan’s many repertory houses together to check out Golden Age classics. McGregor, in fact, had an encyclopedic knowledge of old movies, and had a very large still collection which he supplied to the Citadel Films of… series (he gets co-author credit on The Films of Greta Garbo), which at that time was supervised by Mark Ricci of the Memory Shop (where McGregor worked when he needed dough – and which he mentions in one of his “trips” represented on YouTube [see below]).

I urge you to listen to all of McGregor’s work linked to below, and yes, check the vids and the MySpace if you want a quick fix. Also, read Milstein’s article, which gives you the full story behind the recordings. The long and the short of it was that McGregor was an aspiring songwriter who wanted his work to appear on Broadway, but the closest he got was to have a few songs included in various performers’ nightclub acts and have a few shows mounted off-Broadway (one, co-written by Robert Cobert of Dark Shadows fame, actually made its bow as an “original cast album” of a show that was never actually produced!). His single biggest moment of fame was having Barbra Streisand include one of his and Barr’s tunes (“Where is the Wonder”) on her My Name is Barbra LP and TV special. Dion (his parents named him for Dionysus — little more needs be added) lived from 1922-94, was a New Yorker by birth and disposition, but lived on the West Coast in his latter years with his last partner, whom he met (surprise) at an old movie screening.

The three McGregor albums are truly unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Which is not to say they’re hysterically, laugh-out loud funny. They’re more strange than anything, and in fact, do neatly fit with both the “sick humor” of Lenny Bruce and co., as well as the “black humor” of Southern, Bruce Jay Friedman, Joseph Heller, and friends. While re-listening to the albums today, I was struck by how the stuff could easily be described as the kind of thing that drug-taking artistes would come up with, but to all accounts McGregor was a straight arrow (well, maybe not straight, but…). I wondered if maybe the gent imbibed, because at times he does sound like the later Truman Capote (who was always as sharp as a tack while he was stewed to the gills). Apparently, though, McGregor didn’t indulge in that fashion either. Milstein notes that a few tapes of his real speaking voice exist — among them, an appearance promoting the LP and the hardback book on the Long John Nebel show. On those tapes he speaks differently, so perhaps the somewhat liquored-up effect or slow speech pattern was indeed what he sounded like when he was sleeptalking. Or, of course, the last option: that the voice was just another aspect of his performing and he, along with his friends (and publisher and record producer "witnesses"), made the whole sleeptalking thing up. In any case, whatever the truth may be, the albums are worth hearing, and so we move to the audio portion of the program.

The three albums have been uploaded by Bret B. at Egg City Radio (those who are familiar with the TV scripts of Stanley Ralph Ross will notice that I didn’t go for “eggs-cellent”). I heavily recommend Bret’s blog, which also has links to Lester Bangs’ Jook Savages on the Brazos LP, as well as several National Lampoon Radio Hours. The latter are as fresh and vibrant as when they were recorded in 1973-74, with any single hour as funny as the cumulative Saturday Night Live output for the last 24 years. Lorne Michaels should thank his lucky stars that Mr. Mike existed (as should we).

But back to McGregor. The first album, as noted, is the 1964 Decca LP The Dream World of Dion McGregor. The dreams are all joined in media res, with McGregor just launching into his character, whether he be a guy reminiscing about a magical girl he knew years before, or a man lamenting “Terrible Town” and wanting to visit “Lovely-ville,” or the greedy relative who wants to write a letter to his uncle using the word “perspicacity,” which he can’t spell. Since there are no samples of this available for fast perusal, I put up the most grisly vision, “The Swimming Pool” on YouTube (“well, that lady died rather uselessly, didn’t she?”). It ends with his stock in trade, a frenzied scream:

The second album was released in 1999.It contained additional “dreams” from the original reel-to-reel tapes, which were apparently kept by Mike Barr all those many years. It is called Dion McGregor Dreams Again, and features dreams that are surreally dirty (I’m thinking Dion was well-aware of not only Lenny but Mr. Burroughs’ mid-day repast). The album is well worth your time, and has its own little website here. The album’s stranger tracks include: “Vulvina,” a visit to see a stripper/psychic who demands that Dion’s character (a frustrated husband) put his head in her vagina; a collector of mythological creatures who finally finds a gryphon (yeah sure, this stuff was all improv-ed from the subconscious); and Dion working as a tattoo artist who has to put “LOVE” and “HATE” on either side of a fat woman’s tongue.

I would recommend that you check out the page put up on MySpace for McGregor which contains a few choice cuts. Also, you can immediately hear the weirdest tracks on Youtube. This is one of the filthier flights of fancy, “The Wagon”:

This one, which mentions TONS of now-long-gone Manhattan movie theaters (and the Memory Shop), is a MUST-LISTEN for New Yorkers who remember what used to be in the way of movie palaces around this burg (“Do you want to go to the Thalia — do you want to go to the Thalia?”):

And a little “thought for the day”:

The third and final album (so far) is from 2004. It’s called The Further Somniloquies of Dion McGregor. My personal fave bit is a loooong routine called "Midget City," but he also has a wonderful trip through a mansion being offered for sale — with different implements of murder in every room. There’s no better way to end this survey of McGregor’s insane fancies than his account of a battle to avoid “the poison √©clair,” the exceedingly nutsy “Food Roulette.” And one final question: how come those loud car horns never woke our sleeptalker up?

Retrieve the albums at Egg City.

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