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Funkytown Plays Hard

by Peter Himmelman

September 24, 2012 | 3:05 pm

My band circa 1979

In 1979 there was a revolutionary new song out called Funkytown by a band called, Lipps Inc.. The damn thing was everywhere; on the radio, on MTV, in elevators, at clubs, even playing overhead in the frozen foods section of the Red Owl. As fate would have it, a local Minneapolis guy named Steve Greenberg who used to play the drums in a Bar Mitzvah band wrote Funkytown and he told me he wanted to produce a record for me.
Soon, I was going to Steve’s place once or twice a week to play him demos of things I’d written. There wasn’t a lot of pleasure in taking my stuff to him for an evaluation since it’s so easy to criticize music. All you need to do is raise your eyebrow or give a little laugh -like what you’re hearing is the stupidest idea ever. Steve was a gatekeeper of sorts or so I thought, and all my energies at the time were spent trying to come up with something I thought he’d like. One afternoon I came to his house with something I was extremely pleased with. It was an emotional song that was written about a friend of my parents named Erwin Fuff.
Mr. Fuff was an odd little man. He’d been a holocaust survivor as a young child and there were stories of him running alone through the woods after the SS had killed his entire family. Two weeks before I wrote the song, my Mom called me into her room and told me that the police had found Mr. Fuff’s wife, Riva, lying dead in the kitchen with a steak knife in her sternum. They knew Mr. Fuff had killed her, he’d told them as much and since he’d had a history of mental illness, the prosecutor felt there was no need for a trial. Erwin Fuff went straight to a mental institution where they pumped him up on so much Thorazine that he was in a semi-conscious state most of the time.
The trouble was that in the early mornings, during the brief time when the last day’s dose of Thorazine wore off and the new day’s dose was given, Mr. Fuff had gotten back some degree of consciousness and was able to feel some of the horrible grief and shame over having murdering his wife. It was in that small window of lucidity that he’d taken his own life just days after arriving at the hospital.
My Mother said he’d hung himself in his jail cell with strips of a bath towel. I wrote about Mr. Fuff in a song called, Cursed With What It Means.
She will sleep forever, you’ll be high on Thorazine she will sleep forever –you are cursed with what it means.
I raced over to Steve Greenberg’s cassette in hand. This was a whole new style of music I’d just written; dark, and spare with empathic lyrics and I knew Steve Greenberg, the writer of the hit song Funkytown was going to love it.
I put the cassette in his giant Marantz stereo and let the music fill the room. I didn’t play it too loud. Not as loud as Steve might have played his own stuff. That would have been presumptuous. When he got up off his recliner he was smiling. I smiled too because of course he loved my song. He was walking over to the stereo to turn up the volume –just like he’d do with his own songs. But instead of amplifying the music, he ejected the cassette and hiked it between his legs like a football player. It flew up into the air, end over end, until it crashed into the brickwork of his fireplace.
I stared at the tape cartridge now in pieces, wondering how it was that all my passion and enthusiasm for this song had vanished in less than four seconds…

An addendum: Though Steve Greenberg could be a tough critic, he's truly a hilarious person and he was always a real mentor to me. If memory serves me, I was probably belly laughing along with him fairly soon after the cassette hit the bricks

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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In addition to being a Grammy and Emmy nominated songwriter and composer, Peter Himmelman is a visual artist, writer and founder of Big Muse—an organization dedicated to...

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