Negativland – “Helter Stupid”: Death Wish 2 (iPhone ringtone)

The first time I heard Negativland, I was in junior high, and I’d just checked out a cassette of their 1989 album “Helter Stupid from the Beverly Hills Library. I’d borrowed it at the same time as the cassette of the Eraserhead soundtrack; I think the “Helter Stupid” tape was in the same “Experimental” or “Other” section. The full brilliance of this Negativland album was not felt by me until high school, as its masterful documentation of the band’s media prankery was easily over my head — but one highly-memorable audio sample on the album stuck with me from the beginning.

Flash-forward about 15 years, and I’m working alongside Cinefamily co-programmer Tom. I can’t remember exactly how our mutual feelings for Negativland’s devilish Death Wish 2 radio commercial sampling arose, but when it came about, it was there to stay. The office in-jokes between Tom and I often reach Joycean levels of intricacy, and are frequently built around the most moronic pieces of media possible that we stumble across. On Side 1 of “Helter Stupid”, for about twenty seconds, Negativland harps on and completely destroys the radio spot announcer’s baritone rumbling of the movie title Death Wish 2 — and for MONTHS ON END, we fixated on the announcer’s particular grave seriousness.

It started with us saying to each other “Death Wish 2″ in even graver tones at inappropriate random moments. It then mutated into us stopping each other’s conversations by taking the last thing the other had just said, repeating it back to them in that gravest tone, and adding a “2″ at the end (if I mentioned my bike tire was a little low, and grabbed a bike pump, he would say to no one in particular: “Bike Pump 2″. If the microwave went off and he said “I’m gonna grab my lasagna”, I would say to no one in particular: “Lasagna 2″.) It later went even further, as we repeated/added a “2″ in front of anything anyone else in the office said at any moment. This was a glorious, bottomless well of stupid.

The furthest reaches of this compulsion, the dumbest depth of this craze, was the time when it was Tom’s birthday, and Suki wanted us to get him an ice cream cake from Baskin-Robbins. She called up the nearest branch, and when they asked her what she wanted written on the cake, she turned to repeat the question to me — to which I of course replied: “Death Wish 2″. When he got the cake, Tom was stoked. I was stoked. And it seemed like the perfect moment to put the joke to sleep.

That doesn’t mean we’ve stopped saying it altogether. It pops up from time to time, at moments when we think the other has mostly forgotten that the joke’s legacy has evaporated. When you come to the theater next, and see one of us in the lobby — you might just hear us mumble to each other: “Death Wish 2″. Or “Popcorn 2″. Or “Bed, Bath & Beyond 2″. The list goes on and on.