There are many advantages to throwing your old life aside and relocating overseas for several years. Believe me, I know. However, one of the definite downsides for me, as a musically attuned obsessive, was having to put my record collection in storage. My identity prior to Slovenia was so tied up in caring for and regularly augmenting The Collection that, for awhile, the only thing that kept me from missing it every waking moment was the constant flood of new images and inputs that came from, well, living in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Not that my collection was anywhere near as large as those of some people I’ve known — at its largest it probably never topped 800 LPs, and I regularly sold or just got rid of platters I decided I never had to hear again. (For further enlightenment on the subject, you might read the book Vinyl Junkies, by record collector, Boston music scribe extraordinaire and man about town Brett Milano. Brett lived across the way from me for several years on a busy street in Allston, gateway to Brighton, Massachusetts, and I’d occasionally spy him walking up the concrete hill to his lair, arms invariably laden with LPs. Brett’s a nice guy; say hi if you see him.)
And, of course, I collected music overseas — only instead of my old stereo system and turntable, I made do with a portable CD player connected to two small, cheap speakers. You make allowances for such things when living your New Life, and, on the whole, it worked very well.
And I mourned the New Life when I relocated back to the States to start my New, New Life as 2001 turned into 2002. (Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’m no fool — I know that Mrs. Pogoer is the first person to read these posts.)
Which brings us to Human Switchboard. Twenty-six years after the release of this Cleveland band’s first and only LP, Who’s Landing In My Hangar?, you may be wondering why I’ve chosen this particular time to write about them. There’s really no current news hook per se, but for one reason or another they’ve been on my mind lately — and this blog is a handy safety valve to clear the decks of old business (why else have a blog?).
I can’t remember when or where I first got my hands on Hangar, or how I’d heard about it; it wasn’t a promo copy, and I never reviewed it in print. However I came across it, I was immediately hooked. Hangar was one of those critical favorites that sold poorly, was promoted minimally if at all, and soon dropped off the radar, except that a few devotees (amounting to pretty much anyone who ever actually got to hear the LP) never forgot about it. Over the years you’d hear it mentioned in reverent tones, and in fact, still do (Check out these reams of prose about the band from one forever-altered fan, courtesy of the Perfect Sound Forever online mag. And if you’d like to see what all the excitement was about for yourself, take a look at this vintage YouTube clip of the band performing “I Can Walk Alone” at New York’s Peppermint Lounge in ’81).
The Switchboard got compared to the Velvet Underground a lot, but give Lou Reed a female counterpart named Myrna who stands up to him (the way Kirsty MacColl stands up to Shane MacGowan in “Fairytale of New York”), substitute the sturm und drang, push-and-pull of modern relationships for heroin chic, and make everybody incredibly human, and you’ll get closer to the source of their appeal. The best songs — “(Say No To) Saturday’s Girl,” “I Can Walk Alone,” and the 7:30 epic “Refrigerator Door” — employed tension-and-release rhythms as nervous, urgent energies, flowing through both music and lyrics, building to frenzied climaxes, then snapping back as the rubber band that bound the two singers/lovers, guitarist Robert Pfeifer and keyboardist Myrna Marcarian, released but didn’t break. At least not yet. These were real, recognizable people — flawed, occasionally awkward, at times insecure, but with a genuine artistic vision. They weren’t going to let something like seeming to be unlikely candidates for rock stardom stand in the way of getting on a stage, or making a record, and leading their listeners through the cracked sidewalks of catharsis city.
And one day in the spring of 2002, landed in Austin and my cartons unpacked at last, I finally got to listen again to one of my all-time favorite LPs. And what I heard when I played “Refrigerator Door” floored me.
In jaz sem zmeraj hotel vedet, kuga je s tabo,
ko sem jaz držal tebe.
In jaz sem zmeraj hotel vedet, kuga je s tabo,
ko sem jaz polubu tebe
After being away in Slovenia for five years, I was listening again to one of my favorite songs on one of my favorite albums of all time. And on the chorus, I was hearing Bob Pfeifer singing in Slovene. Hard to decipher, and not altogether correct Slovene, but definitely the language that had been filling my own ears since 1996.
My mind reeling, I posted this to the I.R.S. Records Forum bulletin board (Hangar was released on I.R.S.’s Faulty Products label):
>> I’ve just listened, for the first time in years, to Human Switchboard’s classic 1981 LP “Who’s Landing In My Hangar?” and was knocked for a loop to realize that Bob Pfeifer sings the chorus of the 7:30 epic “Refrigerator Door” in what I’m 95% sure is the Slovene tongue (I know this owing to having lived in Slovenia for several years). A good deal of Slovene-Americans live in Ohio, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Bob was part Slovene [note: as indeed, he is].
>>I’ll send a Slovenia postcard to the first person who e-mails me a transcription of the lyrics (I’ll translate the Slovene, too, once I’m certain of the words as it’s a bit hard to hear. I do know that the last line, “ker sem jaz poljubil tebe,” means “because I kissed you”).
I heard nothing further from anyone about it. For almost two years. Until, one morning in February of 2004, someone responded to the message.
Bob Pfeifer himself.
> > Yes you are right and the first person to ever figure this out. When the album was reviewed it shocked me not that anyone would get the Slovenian but that people referred to the French or German lyrics — I thought those to be relatively recognizeable lyrics: (what I was trying to say was something like (in translation) — basically what did you feel like when we made love), literally: I always wanted to know what was with you/went on with you/you felt when I kissed you… <<
And here we are. (I still haven’t been able to fully translate those lyrics, which I’m sure are the only instance of an American musician incorporating the Slovene language into a rock song — alternative, new wave, whatever you want to call it. Anyone else want to give it a try? The postcard offer still stands.)
Bob Pfeifer and Myrna Marcarian broke up long ago; after a couple of decades working a straight job, she now fronts a band called Ruby on the Vine, well worth checking out. As for Bob Pfeifer, well…it’s a strange story. In short, he released a post-breakup album in 1987 called After Words; became an A&R man for Epic Records, then A&R VP and, ultimately, president of Disney-owned Hollywood Records from 1994 to 1997. For the past few years he’s been running a multimedia company called Segnana.
And then there are Pfeifer’s recent difficulties with the law, which should certainly give one pause: he was arrested in 2006 in connection with the federal racketeering case against LA private eye-gone-bad Anthony Pellicano — you can see the Department of Justice’s press release here — and pleaded guilty to paying Pellicano to wiretap an ex-girlfriend (not Marcarian, thank Bog for small favors!).
I don’t know Bob Pfeifer, although I’d certainly welcome the opportunity (which will probably never happen) to sit down with him and have a chat, for publication or otherwise. I know that artists (and A&R men) are rarely angels. But I would hope there is still some good in him, that core of integrity that allowed him to once create some honest, moving and groundbreaking music that touched people. Not a whole lot of people, maybe, but some. A worthwhile thing still, whatever you might say about Robert Pfeifer now.
(If only they’d release Hangar on CD. Until then, there’s this. Word to the wise. Wink wink, nudge nudge. Scroll down a bit. Say no more.)
If the Great Hand that Writes has a plan for us all, maybe this was the plan for me.
I had to go away to Slovenia for five years and study the language so that I could come back and understand the lyrics to the chorus of “Refrigerator Door.”
And tell the world about it.
Bog works in mysterious ways.