Monday, July 15, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
Look at this guy go! He bunny hops to the left. He skitters to the right. He whirls in convincingly dervish-like fashion before dropping to the floor and kicking his feet in the air.
And somewhere between his torso twitches and stage flops, a question forms: Is this any way for a lawyer to behave -- outside the courtroom, anyway? That would be a hard question to apply to Dayvid Figler, attorney at law, even if, at the moment, he wasn't saying something about Jim Morrison's penis.
There must be some basic tenet of Figlerhood that requires he be more than just another lawyer. His inner beatnik wants out, wants to tell total strangers funny stories about his intestinal dysfunctions and romantic setbacks. Which is why he performs his skewed poetry regularly at coffeehouses and poetry slams. Which is why, right now, he's up there on the stage at the Whitney Library, singing strange songs with Tippy Elvis, a cultish local band.
Figler on the hoof is something to see. He began the Whitney Library show by darting in from stage right in lawyerly jacket and tie. Now, two sets of polka-punk and a gradual costume change later, he's wearing a backward cap, shorts and green-striped thigh stockings, and he's still moving.
And the songs! Figler is Tippy Elvis' chief lyricist, and "spectacularly odd" might be an apt description of his work, as might "deserving of official scrutiny," depending on your point of view. Songs ironically extolling the virtues of smoking ("If I smoked cigarettes, I'd be popular with the ladies ... I could drive a new Mercedes"), songs about women getting tattoos, songs so potent that even normally reserved weather guy Nathan Tannenbaum, in the audience, couldn't help but chant, "Go Tippy, go Tippy!" And that was before they came on stage.
Right now, Tippy is going with "Mrs. Picante's Dilemma," an old Figler poem set to a jazzy groove. It's a surreal account of a kid having an LSD hallucination and the "strange marshmallow bus station" where he boards his acid trip. As with any decent acid-trip bus station, the bathroom there has Jim Morrison's genitalia as the toilet handle.
You might want to recoil in dismay, except for the songs that came before this one. Not all of them are lowbrow romps -- some, in fact, are quite witty and knowing -- but if you were going to be offended by "Mrs. Picante's Dilemma," well, you'd have split long before, probably during "Intestinal Disorder."
That's Figler; he wants you to like him -- "I enjoy affirmation probably more than anyone," he says -- and yet he sings that kind of stuff to you. "Most of the songs are about how I have bad digestion or my travails with women," he deadpans. Love him, love his intestinal foibles.
MIDMORNING ON THE PATIO CAFE OF GOOD AND EVIL ... HERE COMES THE JUDGE? ...
"I'm trying to think of the highest-ranking legal official who's come to see us," Figler says a few days later, stretching out across two plastic chairs on the sun-dappled patio at Enigma, the alt-culture hangout on Fourth Street. With his tan jeans, nondescript brown shirt and the hairline of a man twice his age, his appearance leans more toward off-duty lawyer than punk-polka hepcat.
"There have been a number of DAs who've shown up," he says. "I'm trying to think if there's been a judge ... No, I don't think so. I think DAs are as official as we get."
It's probably safe to say that poetry, law and polka-driven novelty rock are spheres of activity that don't commonly intersect, but Figler doesn't seem to think anything of it. It all blends naturally for him. He's had the writing and performing bug since the talent shows of his youth, and he did the coffeehouse-poetry thing in Sacramento, Calif., while attending prestigious McGeorge School of Law. Prepping for the Nevada Bar exam, "I would study law for about seven hours a day, then write poetry for an hour and feel good about myself."
So if a judge does happen into a Tippy Elvis show at one of its odder moments -- such as when Figler barks "I hate Henry Winkler" during the song "I'm Angry, Grr, Grr," or if he happens to be dressed as a clown -- he's not worried about the reaction.
"It's all part of my personality and I think everyone would appreciate that," he says. "I think if a judge walked in a saw it, he or she would just kind of smile and say, 'That's Figler.'"
Anyway, he says, although he doesn't flop on his back much in court, he's no stiff there, either. "Sometimes there's very serious issues, but that doesn't mean there isn't a place for personality in the courtroom. In fact, I think it enhances your abilities as an attorney to be a human being."
Lyrics and the law may be struggling for control of his heart, but his head and his wallet know what comes first. "I'm an attorney, first and foremost," he says. "This is my chosen profession." He laughs. "It's a profession I'm now stuck in, according to my student-loan people."
He decided to attend law school in 1988 partly out of "sheer idealism. I thought I could go in and make a difference," and partly for pragmatic reasons.
"I always thought that if I had some sort of legitimate front, like law, I could always sneak around the back and get the writing done."
Since returning to Las Vegas in 1991, he's worked with several law firms, including Dominic Gentile. There, he helped defend journalist John L. Smith against the libel suit brought on by Steve Wynn over Smith's book, "Running Scared."
Figler's been on his own since February, taking on criminal defense and civil cases that appeal to his leftover law-school idealism. For instance: a 19-year-old kid he successfully defended against felony charges for "something he probably didn't do."
"Being able to do stuff like that is rewarding," he says.
He's able to live on the client billings of a semi-idealist because he doesn't have a high-consumption lifestyle. "I'm not very materialistic," he says. But he acknowledges that he may be some day. "I don't know if I'll be doing personal-injury law exclusively soon because I want things, or I need things, or people are taking things away from me," he says, wincing at the thought.
But if, God forbid, it comes to that, at least he won't be looking omnipresently down at us, like God or Edward M. Bernstein: "I will refrain from billboarding as long as possible," he says.
WE'VE SECRETLY REPLACED THE POETRY IN THIS COFFEEHOUSE WITH NEW FIGLER ANTI-POETRY ...
There's not really a typical Dayvid Figler poem, but the almost-typical Dayvid Figler poem is a punch line wrapped in clever pop-culture references and served on a bed of "Deep Thoughts" by Jack Handey.
Consider "Portnoy's Other Complaint," published on the back cover of the current issue of Exquisite Corpse, the literary publication put out by National Public Radio luminary Andre Codrescu:
a very good actor.
Or "Stunt Double," about a grandmother watching TV 40 years from now as a rerun of "Flashdance" comes on:
will turn to her grand
kids and say ...
"See that ... that's my butt.
That's Figler. None of the greeting-card existentialism that comes to mind at the phrase "poetry reading." Think of his work as anti-poems; Figler does. He started writing them in law school, where he was a frustrated comedy writer. He'd just spent three high-spirited years with a "Saturday Night Live"-ish troupe at the University of Arizona and hadn't shaken the bug.
"There wasn't a comedy troupe at law school, surprise, surprise," he recalls. There was a poetry scene, however. Never afraid to risk making a fool of himself, Figler reformatted his comedy material into poems and made for the nearest open mike.
"They were anti-poems that made fun of real poetry," he says.
Sample: "O saltshaker of despair ... each granule of nothingness..." Poetry humor. "I read them in a very serious manner, and people just busted out. I said, 'This is a lot easier than writing sketches!'"
He's not sure what to call what it is he does. "Slams" is one word. That's a hybrid monologue-poetry-storytelling form characterized by competitive readings. Figler has performed in slams around the country, most recently in Portland, Ore., this spring.
"He's a great, great performer," says Gregory Crosby, poet and culture columnist for Scope magazine (for which Figler has also written). "The really brilliant thing about Figler's poetry is that, at superficial glance, it seems like jokes dressed up as poetry. But if you read his (self-published) chapbooks, there are moments of real poetry there. It's surreal, with a kind of insight that is totally out of joint with the world."
"Stop the Cruelty," instance, is both a pointed satire of animal-rights boycotts and an attack on single-minded self-righteousness: "Gather up all your Gillette products ... and dump them in the ocean!"
"He's a very strong poet, one of the best in town," says Brian Weiss, Tippy guitarist.
THE POET, SLAMMED ...
They weren't quite that impressed when Lollapalooza came through town in 1993. That year, organizers of the alternative music tour had the quixotic notion to promote poetry on one of the side stages. They had gathered slam poets from around the country and mounted poetry contests at each stop.
To everyone's surprise, Figler won the Vegas slam and with it the right to read to the crowd. Unfortunately for him, through a series of logistical mishaps, instead of appearing on the third stage as planned, he was put on right before the main act, the Beastie Boys, a rap group whose fans aren't known for their love of poetry. And they'd been waiting all day for their band.
Let's let Figler pick up the story:
"(The announcer) shouted, 'You want the Beastie Boys?' And the crowd screamed, 'Yes.'
'Well, I've got the Beastie Boys!' The crowd screams.
'And I'm going to give you the Beastie Boys!' More screaming.
'In 30 minutes! But first, a poet.'"
Not even Allen Ginsburg in midseason form could survive an intro like that. Somewhere there exists a videotape of the moment, filmed by friends of Figler; one of them groans, "Aw, Figler's gonna get killed!"
He managed to get out a poem before he left the stage in a rain of crowd-tossed water bottles and debris, he recalls. "I had the kids going for about a minute," he deadpans.
"It was totally fun," he says now. "Ten thousand people might as well be five when I'm reading."
Figler's aplomb in the face of airborne trash prompted Crosby to dub him Poet Laureate of Las Vegas. "I think that qualified him," Crosby says.
THE TIPPY ELVIS FILE ... 'I SING LIKE A PRISONER' ... GO FIGLER ...
Punk-polka, novelty-pop-rock -- you could pile a ton of hyphenated description on Tippy Elvis and not quite pin it down. Some songs seem based on incidental music from an early '60s Dean Jones movie; some are closer to musical theater; some are downright punkish; some flirt with jazz; there are tuba solos.
It was three years ago that Tippy Elvis crawled like a strange life form from the primordial goo of Crosby-hosted poetry nights at the long-gone Cafe Rainbow. Figler was a regular performer; Weiss and keyboardist Sean Jones backed the poets.
"They were all very depressing," Jones says. "Dayv was funny."
Spurred by a sense of hey, why not?, the three began performing together, Figler doing his poetry to their accompaniment. "Looking back -- I have tapes -- it was awful," Jones says. "We realized the songs had to be more actual songs, rather than words over music."
Thus began Tippy's evolution from lark to semi-sorta-serious band. The addition of Ginger Bruner on tuba gave the ensemble a unique look and sound. Joe Malone is the current drummer, the latest in a Spinal Tap-ian sequence of come-and-gone percussionists.
They're performed regularly since then, including the quasi-legendary (and now defunct) Tippy Tuesdays at Tom and Jerry's lounge, where you might have seen a live tiger or Figler in a clown suit.
You shouldn't get the idea that Tippy Elvis is a juvenile gross-out band; the music is usually pretty smart, and Figler mixes the National Lampoon lyrics with highbrow wit. "I'm Angry, Grr, Grr" is a hilarious spoof of the dreary angst that comprises so much alternative rock:
I hate world peace and I hate the bomb,
I hate my teacher and I hate my mom.
"When it comes right down to it," Figler says, "Tippy Elvis is meant for people to enjoy themselves and to laugh. 'Cause if they ain't laughing, there ain't no reason to do this."
"What's impressive about Tippy Elvis," Crosby says, "is that something that started out as a goof turned into a real band. I can't think of any other local band with their following. Tippy Elvis is an extremely professional, hard-working band."
Onstage at the Whitney Library, though, you can detect just a wee bit of intra-band tension buzzing beneath the music.
Weiss explains a few days later: Figler was late. See, the band had agreed to meet at the library at 4:30 p.m. "We called him at 5:30 and he said, 'Well, you know, I had some friends here and I'm really tired..." He finally showed up at 7:45, Weiss says. The show was to start at 8.
"The band wanted to kill him, when it should have been a communal, happy thing," he says.
Well, that's Figler too. Anyone who professes to hate Henry Winkler is bound to attract a few negative vibes of his own.
"We all love Dayv to death," Weiss says, "but we all think he has the tendency to be a prima donna. Sometimes Dayv has a tendency to drive everyone crazy with his laissez-faire attitude toward getting things done."
Figler's bandmates agree on something else: He can't sing. "As a lyricist, he's good," says Bruner. "As a singer, bad. As a frontman, OK." Then she modified her stance a little: "As a vocalist -- one who vocalizes -- it depends."
"Dave's the frontman," adds Jones, "but he doesn't write the music. We have to remind him of that all the time."
"I have very few musical skills," Figler agrees. "Their funny joke is that I sing like a prisoner: I'm behind eight bars and I can't find the key."
Then again, since poker-faced sarcasm comes naturally to these people, it's hard to know who's zooming who in all this. And Crosby, among others, judges Figler to be a fine singer. Still, all things considered, it's probably good that the band is taking a summer-long hiatus from live shows.
Instead, they'll concentrate on recording, perhaps with an eye toward getting a record deal. Figler's not holding his breath.
"As far as getting attention outside of Las Vegas, I have a little more stock in my written-word stuff than in Tippy Elvis, just because Tippy Elvis is so far out there," he says, as if poems about Siskel and Ebert touching God's butt with their thumbs aren't out there. "I don't know if people are going to put Tippy Elvis tapes in their tape players and make out."
In any case, the break may give Figler a little breathing room, time to ... well, what do we call it? To Figlerize? To engage in Figlerhood, that curious process of alchemizing God and man and TV shows into nubbins of comic anti-poetry, of pondering as-yet-unrhapsodized stomach ailments...
"I wish there were endless hours in the day," he says. "I'm still trying to work out the balance. I'm writing as much as I possibly can. I'm performing as much as I possibly can. And I'm spending as much time as possible being an attorney. And social gadfly and man about town."
Look at this guy go!