The King is Dead, Long Live Tiny Tim
Art issues. Sept 1998
Periodically, the vagaries of popular culture open a window, and some truly anomalous phenomena enter the mainstream limelight. Subject as they are to the rigors of the free market, these hothouse delicacies more often than not wither under the heat of public scrutiny, but at least for a moment some things truly strange and marvelous are granted permission to join the debate. High art, depending as it does on a uniformly saturated frisson of exceptionality, is increasingly devoid of surprises, having sunk all too often to the mediocrities of this week's "so bad it's bad" embarrassments in vain search of such curveballs. In popular culture, by contrast, rocking the boat can still be rewarded by a transformation of the canon.
One of the curviest halls to circumnavigate the bat of public rationalist pigeonholing was Tiny Tim, who took an act and persona verging on pathology to a pinnacle of pop celebrity, topping music charts, headlining at Caesars Palace, getting married before a record television audience on The Tonight Show, and achieving a recognition usually reserved for major cartoon characters. Yet within a couple of years of his wedding to Miss Vickie, Tiny had slipped below the radar of the culture. Too recent to merit even a "Where Are They Now?" mention, and too much identified with a particular place and time (the innocent "kookiness" of the nineteen sixties) to surf the dark glam tsunami of post-Manson eccentricity, by 1972 Tiny Tim was erased from public memory, dropped from radio playlists, and left without management, a record deal, or any of the money he had generated in his brief fame. For another two-and-one-half decades he soldiered on, true to the idiosyncratic vision and passionate, encyclopedic appreciation of popular music that had circumstantially brought him fame, certain that sooner or later he'd hit the big time once again.
When he died on November 30, 1996, coming off stage from singing his signature "Tiptoe Thru the Tulips" to a Ladies' Auxiliary in Minneapolis, Tiny had reached a sort of equanimity with his position in popular culture, as with life in general. A wave of renewed interest in his work had been building through the nineteen nineties, with hip underground musicians such as Current 93, Eugene Chadbourne, Negativland, Nurse With Wound, and Brave Combo collaborating in or otherwise supporting a series of increasingly high-profile if still commercially unsuccessful recordings. His third marriage, to "Miss Sue" Gardner, the wealthy daughter of a Minneapolis industrial supplier, had stabilized his always rocky financial situation, and was reportedly providing Tim with some happy respite from the sexual dysfunction that plagued his earlier unions. But while his death and lavish funeral generated a brief revival of media interest, there was no widespread reassessment of his work, no surge in record sales, and even his classic three albums on Warner/Reprise (including God Bless Tiny Tim and its hit single "Tiptoe") remain out of print.
To decipher this aphasia, we have to reconsider the particular circumstances from which Tiny arose, the bohemian milieu that nurtured him, and the Zeitgeist that afforded him entree to the upper realms of celebrity. Born (officially in 1931, but the date is disputed) Herbert Khaiiry to a Jewish mother and Lebanese father, Tiny grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. Although his outlandish persona is generally associated with the late hippie "Freak" aesthetic, Tiny had fully evolved his personal style — consisting of long unkempt hair, copious pancake make-up, loud, disheveled, anachronistic suits, effeminate mannerisms of the Maiden Aunt variety, politeness, candor, and chipper attitude bordering on dementia, a ukulele in a shopping bag, an encyclopedic knowledge of American popular music ranging from the early eighteen hundreds to the contemporary hit parade — all by the mid nineteen fifties, a time when Elvis Presley was considered a dangerous deviant.
Of course, Elvis was a dangerous deviant, particularly at the beginning. Look at him in the early days — ghoulish mascara, dyed pitch-black hair, slutty clothes, barely contained erotic convulsions — and you wonder how it could possibly have been. Conventional wisdom portrays the nineteen fifties as a time of rigid conformity, but obviously the mechanisms of persuasion were not yet fully in place. When a generation of men returned from Auschwitz and Nagasaki to find their wives in the factories and their kid brothers all soft from a lack of proximal male role models, the scramble to restore order was fast, crude, and imprecise. Largely improvised and arbitrary, the rules of normalcy were of a loose enough weave to let through far more potent and radical hybrids than can survive today's "been there, done that" microfiltration.
Briefly, Elvis was one. Tiny Tim — who resembled Elvis in a funhouse mirror sort of way — nurtured and defended his difference unyieldingly for more than forty years, in spite of the fact that he was notoriously manipulable both as a willing victim to on-stage degradation and as someone who would sign any document put before him.
Elvis's always shaky credibility as a "rebel" evaporated at his cheerful induction into the U.S. Army, his aberrant symbolic functions increasingly contained by the traditional showbiz spin-doctoring of Colonel Tom and RCA. Tiny, a few years earlier, had also attempted to join the Army, in order to escape the confines of his childhood bedroom. Things were going smoothly, in spite of his unusual manner and appearance. But when he confided in the psychiatric examiner (in all earnestness) that he hoped to fly to the moon and establish diplomatic relations with their underground civilization, the young Herbert was classified 4-F and escorted off the premises. He tried again with the Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines. Later, when the space program began in earnest, he offered his services to the Army yet again, but once more they declined. This anecdote, with its deep and intentional cunning and bewildering stubbornness, is typical of Tiny's brushes with conventional reality.
Like Elvis, Tiny was unfailingly respectful, avowedly drug-free and heterosexual, and deeply Christian. Both artists' work is rooted firmly in the popular music of previous generations. (Elvis's hillbilly act was largely a marketing ploy; his model as a vocalist was Dean Martin.)
Unlike the King, however, Tiny held America to the tenets of its Individualist Orthodoxy, its promise that absolutely anyone can make it, by refusing to compromise any
aspect of his difficult personality in the pursuit of celebrity. What is remarkable is that it worked. Lodging himself in the cultural intestines of America like a tenacious parasitic worm, he abraded the smarmy, self-congratulatory faux-inclusiveness of the melting pot, eventually (but not finally) breaking the surface, if only for his fifteen minutes. Fame, arriving as Tiny was nearing 40, had toyed with him at length.
Trial and error had led him through a gauntlet of amateur nights in seedy nightclubs to extended engagements at Greenwich Village's Cafe Bizarre, legendary dyke bars like The Page Three, and finally Steve Paul's The Scene, where he was "discovered" by Warner's Mo Ostin. With supporters like Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan (on whose Basement Tapes Tiny made a guest appearance), it was only a matter of time before Tim's hip cachet translated into some form of public recognition, but the spectacularity of his penetration took everyone by surprise. The hippies' attraction to all things outré, and most specifically Tiny's long hair, freakish gender identity, and time-warp, thrift-store aesthetic suddenly gained context, translating into psychedelic underground currency (in spite of the fact that Tiny stuck to cheap American beer exclusively in the psychoactives department). Tiny, flown to Los Angeles courtesy of HogFarm regular Wavy Gravy, was suddenly all over TV. From cameo spots on the po-mo primer Laugh-In, Tiny escalated directly to The Tonight Show, where Johnny Carson's sniggering deadpan meshed improbably with Tiny's cringing but voluble singularity, and the rest is history, then silence.
Tiny Tim's TV presence pushed his debut single to the top of the charts, and he was soon playing to stadiums, hobnobbing with celebri¬ties, even publishing a book of aphorisms. It was on a 1969 tour promoting the latter that Tiny met and proposed to teenager Vickie Budinger. At Carson's spontaneous suggestion, their wedding was held live on The Tonight Show, garnering the highest late-night television ratings ever, with an estimated 45-million viewers in the United States. Miss Vickie soon began learning the extent of Tiny's eccentricity. He always ate alone and took up to six showers a day, some lasting two or three hours. He caked himself with exotic creams and cosmetics, gorged himself on room-service lobsters, snuck barely pubescent girls into his hotel rooms for suspicious but platonic heart-to-hearts, and spoke confessionally to the press about his spiritual and sexual life, including his reluctance to consummate relations with Miss Vickie, as well as his spiritual yet ejaculatory love for a high-school wrestling partner.
But the press started coming around less and less frequently. Besieged by lawsuits from former managers, undermined by overexposure and the loss of the novelty angle, Tiny grew more desperate. His reputation as an unreliable prima donna lost him most of his support in the industry, and his increasingly rare television exposure was tainted by his blatant craving for the vanished glare of the big time. Tiny began playing seedier hotel ballrooms and putting out his own records—often attempts to cash in on current crazes like disco or the Bicentennial. In one of his most misguided moments, he recorded that seasonal novelty favorite "Santa Claus has the AIDS this Year," which he later claimed to be "about the diet candy." Left by Miss Vickie and their daughter Tulip, and evicted from his Manhattan apartment, Tiny at one point had to move back into his mother's crumbling Washington Heights apartment, and even joined a circus sideshow for several years in the nineteen eighties. To his credit, he remained devoted to his calling as a performer and promoter of great popular songwriting, always delivering a full dose of rousing showmanship and unaffected pop scholarship, even to two or three people in the bar of a midwestern Holiday Inn. Whether swathed in the impeccable pop arrangements of Richard Perry or looped and collaged with electronic noise by Eugene Chadbourne, Tiny's musical presence rested on the foundations of his six-octave vocal range, his ear for a timelessly populist or surreal lyric, and his accomplished and enthusiastic uke-strumming, elements that were entirely self-contained and portable.
To the end, Tiny Tim never "broke character." His persona — his greatest artistic creation — was minted into the very substance of his being. Widely perceiving him as a Warholian put-on, audiences began to get nervous and irritable as he strung the joke along... and along and along. His medieval concepts on women's roles in society and his "apolitical" boosterism of Richard Nixon further depleted his counter-cultural plausibility. Faced with the possibility that this pasty visionary androgyne might, in fact, underneath it all, be a pasty visionary androgyne, the public chose to look elsewhere, to less discomfiting entertainments. And so, Tiny's narrowly avoided closure of the irony gap was, by necessity and for reasons of national security, relegated to the great Western scrapheap of unrenewed options.
Indeed, the point in his career when Elvis chose the ill-fitting closet of Mammon over the amorphous, unselfconscious, polysexual ambiguity that had been his generative locus is the same spot where Tiny Tim leapt into the void. The remarkable thing is that Tiny survived. In spite of a campaign of willed collective amnesia, negative industry support, the stigma of an indelible has-been, and even death, Tiny Tim remains lodged in our gullet, rendered invisible by our embarrassment, still awaiting the time when he will break through the increasingly curdled and smothering threshold of official culture into the light of indiscriminate and redemptive fame for fame's sake.
Doug Harvey takes up to six showers a week.