The Tinklers are the musical duo of Charles Brohawn and Chris Mason. They have been performing together since 1979. They have released more than four albums’ worth of music, much of it produced by the well respected Mark Kramer and released on his influential (and now defunct) indie Shimmy Disc label. They have been the subject of a fawning documentary, Everybody Loves The Tinklers, and have a small but passionate cult following. Alas, it also seems that The Tinklers are almost entirely unknown outside of the Baltimore arts and literary scene.
I’ve never been to Baltimore myself. I discovered The Tinklers while trawling allmusic.com for “artists similar to” Half Japanese, the willfully amateurish art-punk band founded by brothers Jad and David Fair that was for a time also based in Baltimore. The Tinklers adopt Half Japanese’s performing and songwriting approach—espousing enthusiasm over skill, sincerity over traditional notions of “talent”—but they’re quieter and more direct, semi-acoustic, as influenced by spoken word performance as rock ‘n’ roll.
I’m inclined to say that The Tinklers are not for everyone. Certainly, fans of The Shaggs, The Residents, or The Holy Modal Rounders will find The Tinklers easily accessible, but others probably find them weird and even comically bad; Everybody Loves The Tinklers recounts the deluge of listener complaints NPR’s All Things Considered received after integrating some of their tunes into their news coverage. Still, that’s to belie the persuasive thesis of the 2007 documentary. Hint: It’s in the title. As seen in the trailer below, Tinklers evangelist David Fair insists that “anyone who’s seen The Tinklers—you gotta love The Tinklers and you gotta want more Tinklers,” later offering one hundred dollars to anyone who “can find somebody nicer than The Tinklers.”
Like Jonathan Richman, The Tinklers have sometimes been mischaracterized as faux naïve or childish. With songs like “Black Dog Friendly Dog,” “Fun Fun Fun In the Sun Sun Sun,” “Cheesewolf,” “Dinosaurs Are Better,” and a cover of “One Meatball,” it’s easy to see why. It’s true that the music and lyrics are often hilariously goofy, as in this Where’s my damn flying car? Lament, “The Future”:
“Army Guys” is part of spoken-word series on classic toys:
But the duo’s openness of point of view and its earnestness can also make for startling and profound statements. “Zone Fare,” a song from 1991’s Saplings, concerns the sacrifices individuals in exchange for genius and social change:
“Van Gogh, how far did you go/ Maybe you went a little too far / Did you have to pay the zone fare with your ear? […] / Malcolm X, how far did you go? / Maybe you shouldn’t have wanted changes so abrupt / Did you have to pay the zone fare by getting blown up?”
“Samiland Love Story,” from 1993’s Crash, is a heartbreaking narrative about the contamination of reindeer meat and the deteriorating effect it has on a tribal community:
“One day a man in a government car / told of an explosion in the USSR / Invisible specks in the sky blue / sickening the lichen that the reindeer chew / reindeer, reindeer / munchin’ on the flowers on the side of the stream / the government man said the government would pay / to take the contaminated reindeer away”
In much of The Tinklers’ best work absurdity and compassion coalesce into sentiments both funny and heartfelt. In “Library Song,” an elementary Chuck Berry style riff underscores a celebration of the public library’s mundanely life-changing power.
The hypnotic repetition of “My Eyes Look Into Your Eyes” works as both a parody of New Agey folk music and a genuine rumination on intimacy:
Songs like “Don’t Put Your Finger in the Fan,” “Kid With a Curved Spine,” and “What it Wags” examine childhood with a clarity and darkness unmatched by anyone but perhaps Lynda Barry.
With their rudimentary percussion (often comprising a wooden spoon and some buckets), monotonous voices, sloppy instrumentation, and lyrics often nakedly free of irony (“If you want nice kids be nice to your kids,” they sing in one song), it would be easy though incorrect to view The Tinklers as unambitious musical tinkerers. Getting their start in the 70s visual art and poetry scenes, Brohawn and Mason have mounted a number of Tinklers-related multimedia projects. One performance, “The Tinklers’ History of the World,” had them playing songs while walking along a 50-ft painted timeline of the history of the world. They’ve published multiple Tinklers-branded books, launching them with special performances. (2009’s The Elements is available here.)
It may not be convenient to begin to explore The Tinklers’ body of work, but it is worth it. In my opinion the best place to start with The Tinklers would be with the documentary Everybody Loves The Tinklers. Unfortunately, while it was at one time available in its entirety on YouTube, it is now nowhere to be found. (Someone! Anyone! Please reupload it!) Likewise, The Tinklers’ studio recordings are unavailable on every streaming service I’ve checked, and only a few stray tracks can be found on YouTube. (There are plenty of live recordings of varying quality, but it really is worth hearing what Kramer’s production touches add to The Tinklers’ minimalist sound.) The Tinklers have a very outdated official site here and their albums can be bought used at the usual places for very cheap. A less than thorough discography is available on allmusic. (It’s missing their most recent recording, an album-length tribute to David Fair’s Coo Coo Rockin Time and this early collaboration with the Fair brothers.)