By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
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By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
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Mr. Entertainment is Steve Toth, preparing to spread joy and mirth with the festive musical menu of 1926 Funstown Street, the first recorded product from -- sitting down? -- Mr. Entertainment and the Pookie Smackers.
"I'm not sure if I've made a rock record or a comedy record," Toth admits. Today the wiry 35-year-old is working on a blueberry iMac in the breakfast nook of his Hollywood bungalow. A self-confessed househusband, Toth's keeping the place tidy while he burns the first CD copies of 1926 Funstown Street on his computer. Instead of the typical plastic housing, the disc is packaged in a colorful greeting card. "If I put it in a jewel box, it's just like anybody's CD," he says. "This is disruptive -- it doesn't fit in the racks."
No -- Toth's album won't fit anywhere. It's always a cop-out to label music indescribable, but if you want to categorize songs such as "Plastic Dog Doodie Salesmen" or "Pete the Gay Republican," you'll have to create a new category.
1926 Funstown Street is a dangerous listen, studded with several tracks that are best approached slowly and with great caution. A prime example is "Rippin' a Whole in the Side of My Heart," and its immortal line, "You keep it up/Till you throw up/In my pickup truck/In your baseball cup." Then there's "Tour de Hotown," which cruises along to chattering high hat, toy piano torture, and Toth's skittish surf-guitar lines. "Flying Trapeze" is a giddy carnival-ride waltz with everything but the cotton candy, while "Circus Man Suits" makes a valiant stab at normal rock music and fails wonderfully. Underneath the sauntering swamp-blues backwash of "Big Al Shoeshine," a baritone sax honks like an angry resident of the pachyderm house. On "Co-Cola For Breakfast," the tape speed is manipulated to warp the tune like a fun-house mirror.
Sound effects, such as the train noise that permeates "East Coast Railway," also thread their way through the album, adding elements from Toth's suburban soundscape. "Dogs barking, cars driving by, the a/c, that's all music to me," he explains.
But the oddest oddities on 1926 Funstown Street come courtesy of Toth's mom, Sandi. Two songs she used to sing to her boy in his childhood have been resurrected: a campfire ditty called "Catalina Matalina" and an untraceable, tongue-twisting folk song, "The King of the Cannibal Island." Sandi's vocals were recorded in the bathroom of her home. "It was spooky for me to hear them again," murmurs Toth. Listeners should prepare to be similarly nostalgic: The tunes feel like finding an old record in the attic, once familiar but long forgotten.
The lean, close-cropped Toth was born and raised in Hollywood, just like his mother. His home is a virtual art gallery of rock 'n' roll artifacts, folk art, rare toys, vintage musical instruments, and obscure books and videos, rounded out by Betty Page photos, an old phone booth, theater seats, and the odd croquet set. He's amassed a collection of the primitive, religious-themed works of octogenarian outsider artist Howard Finster. An ordained minister, Finster married Toth and his wife Tina back in 1989. In every room, on every wall, there's something to study. Any fan of esoterica from the odder side of the pop-culture spectrum would have a field day at Toth's Funston Street digs. "To tell you the truth," he admits, "my house is so fuckin' cool, I don't even feel like leaving."
On this afternoon Toth has temporarily renamed his house the Communist Record Company, and he's manning the production line. As he removes a finished disc from his computer, he frets about the sod he laid in the back yard and stoops to escort a cockroach out of the kitchen with a dust mop. "I'm a pacifist and a vegetarian," he muses. "And an anarchist, antiestablishment atheist."
Easing himself into a dining room chair, Toth pops a finished CD into a paper sleeve, adds an arty insert, and places it in the gatefold card. "Another one done," he announces. 1926 Funstown Street was a team effort with a rhythm section joining Toth's guitar-and-vocal freak show. After laboring on the album, the erstwhile Smackers declined to participate in any live adventure with the group. Toth's liner notes list these players (Brandon Samdahl and Dave Pierce) as "Schlong Doggy" and "Captain Johnson McFucknuckle."
"That was kind of a dig on them for not playing with me anymore," he grins.
Toth has been a prominent fixture on the underground music skyline, plying his trade wherever strangeness is accepted. Playing toy pianos, Fisher-Price xylophones, and a Sears Silvertone guitar with its amp built into the case, Toth fronted an ensemble known as Faberge Dildo. After that project's demise, he settled into a groove with the duo who'd come to be called the Pookie Smackers.
"Everyone just likes that name," Toth explains, and the chirping finch behind him agrees. "Anyone who plays with me is a Pookie Smacker now."
True -- unless Toth's up to something with his other band, the Tiny Show. Dan Hosker (drums) and Clif Lee Roy (washtub bass) round out this equally unlikely trio, which started out playing on miniature instruments. The rules have changed now, and the band can congregate on a tiny stage, play a tiny set, or perform in front of a tiny crowd, and still uphold the charter of the Tiny Show. "It's a roll of the dice every time the Tiny Show plays," notes Toth.
With a stripped-down rig, the trio can raise awareness -- as well as a ruckus -- on short notice, in any location. "You can find us on any street corner in Broward County on any given evening," says Toth. Just last week Toth and his pals set up on the pavement outside of Churchill's, North Miami's venerable punk dive, performing twisted versions of "Folsom Prison Blues," "The Kids Are Alright," and Toth's own demented originals. The Tiny Show's racket proved inspirational to a female member of the Laundry Room Squelchers, a chaotic noise ensemble that happened to be performing at Churchill's the same evening. "She's kind of crazy and an exhibitionist," reports Toth. "She basically stripped in the middle of the street while we played and rolled around on the ground." The usually bewildered passersby appeared more confused than ever. Some even seemed scared.
The leader of the Squelchers, Miami's Frank "Rat Bastard" Falestra, occasionally collaborates with Toth. The two met while Toth was in charge of a band called the One-Eyed Kings, and they recently mixed and mastered 1926 Funstown Street at Falestra's studio. "He lives up to his name," says Falestra of Mr. Entertainment. "He's what we call the ultimate music fan. Even though there's a lot of records bought in this city and a lot of concerts attended, there's very few real music fans in this town. When 25 people show up for an interesting national act, he's one of them."
Self-proclaimed "fan-boy" Toth immersed himself in South Florida's underground music scene, befriending Southern oddballs like Man or Astroman? and Mr. Quintron and dabbling in various musical projects. Just before Toth quit his job at the phone company, which he'd held for 13 years, he and his wife purchased the Funston Street "Land of Entertainment," and made music his main priority. "I've played music down here for about eight or nine years, but I've never put any of my crap out," he explains. "Last year I took my time and recorded it all, got a really good graphic designer, and made a really freaked-out little piece of packaging."
Completely homemade with help from Toth's friends ("It was done in true punk rock fashion -- no one charged me for anything," he says), 1926 Funstown Street looks more like a handmade birthday card than a CD cover. The gaudy, fluorescent art was a gift from an artist friend, Chuck Loose. "I bought him lunch," Toth says, "and he donated about $1000 worth of printing."
Don't look for Toth's colorful debut on Amazon.com or in your local Best Buy yet. He's planning to give away most of the first pressing to friends and family. Not into the rock-star game or any of its trappings, he's eschewing a CD-release party or anything formal to announce his album. "I don't really play by the rules," says Toth, stating the obvious. "South Florida is extremely fickle. It's always a struggle; you've gotta do it all by yourself down here. It's fun -- we do it because it's art."
However, interested parties can check Blue Note Records (16401 NE 15th Ave., North Miami Beach), or just send a $7 check to Mr. E himself at 1926 Funston St., Hollywood, FL 33020. He'll also accept e-mail at email@example.com.
Contact Jeff Stratton at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org