(He’ll Never Be An) Ol’ Man River (TISM) – TISM 1995

 TISM (This Is Serious Mum) reveled in their anonymity and outrageousness when they first appeared in the mid-1980’s with their debut single Defecate on My Face, an ode to the imagined love life of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. They followed up with I’m Interested in Apathy which won the ARIA Award for Best Independent Release in 1988, followed by the equally anarchic Jung Talent Time, and the albums Hot Dogma and Great Truckin’ Songs of the Renaissance.

All were notable cult favorites combining a sharp satirical wit with a scatological, undergraduate irreverence that was equally amusing and repellent. Their bombastic, absurdist, and confronting lyrics were hard to ignore, and musically they emerged as talented techno-punks who appealed to inner city hipsters and uni students.

Recurring themes in their songs were death, violence, fame, drugs and alcohol, and the standard pop song structure of their work drew comparisons with Skyhooks, Dave Warner, Talking Heads and the American art collective known as The Residents, who were famous for avant-garde music and multimedia works, and like TISM, reveled in their anonymity. TISM has also been compared to Devo, Slipknot and others, but the most apt local comparison is probably the Wiggles on acid.


Their stage attire included black balaclavas, garish masks, Ku-Klux Klan style hoods, asymmetrical Split Enz-style “dizrhythmic” suits, and in performance they manically bounced and threw themselves about the stage – they were morbidly fascinating.

A closer inspection of their songs reveals TISM to be intelligent, articulate, and keen observers of popular culture and astute deflators of the puffed-up celebrities and commentators that occupied that vapid netherworld of the media.

(He’ll Never Be An) Ol’ Man River is better known as the “I’m On the Drug That Killed River Phoenix” song as the actual title is never mentioned, but the song opens with this chant, the lyrics then proceed to provocatively skewer a long list of celebrities whose deaths were mostly self-inflicted:

“I drank the slab that Bon Scott drank/ Injected some of Hendrix’s junk/ I booked a seat on Lynard Skynard’s plane/ Mama Cass’s sandwich? I ate the same!” River Phoenix in his death throes at Johnny Depp’s Viper Room club is namechecked “I saw his body thrashing round/ I saw his pulse rate going down/ I saw him in convulsive throes/ I said, “I’ll have one of those.”

The band members adopted such sobriquets as Ron Hitler-Barassi, St. John Peenis, Leak Van Vlalen, Humphrey B. Flaubert, Eugene de la Hot-Croix Bun, and their albums were similarly anarchic, sardonic, derisive, and humorous – Gentlemen Start You Egos, Machines Against the Rage and Machiavelli and the Four Seasons, from which this song was lifted.

(HNBA) Ol’ Man River was TISM’s only top 40 hit (#22), the Machiavelli and the Four Seasons album charted a creditable #5 nationally and the last verse of this song was prophetic, written as it was some 14 years before Michael Jackson died “Now I’m bored and there’s no stoppin’/ I need another celeb to fill a coffin/ Where’ll I get my next drug action? / Odds on it’ll be Michael Jackson.”

Apparently references to Sir Edmund Hilary in the lyrics – “Hilary had it in his veins…” initially drew howls of protest from the Kiwis in defence of their saintly mountaineer, but the completed lyric ” Hilary had Everest in his veins…” seemed to calm down those across the ditch. On the other hand Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassman Flea, real name Michael Balzary from Melbourne, objected to the treatment of River Phoenix in the song, but this may have been just a case of drug buddy solidarity.

Greg! The Stop Sign!! was the follow up single and the albums and De Rigeur Mortis also charted, to continue TISM’s uncomfortable tenure of the mainstream charts out to the end of 2001.

The identities of TISM were accidentally revealed when the band performed this song on John Safran’s Music Jamboree in 2002 as their names were included in the show’s credits. On this record were Damian Cowell (lead vocals), Peter Minak (lead vocals), Jack Holt (bass), James Paull (guitar) and Eugene Cester (keyboards), and as one of the band’s song titles asserted about their very existence “it’s novel, it’s unique, it’s shithouse”. Sadly, James Paull passed away in 2008.


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