Like any run-of-the-mill church-basement folding chairs, the ones in our Lifelike show are stenciled to show ownership. “NFTH” reads the black-spraypainted ID on the backrest of Robert Therrien’s gigantic steel chairs. But what do they stand for?
We’re told there’s a secret story about the letters’ personal significance to Therrien, but he’s not about to tell it. Mostly, the acronym just underscores the institutional nature of such mass-produced objects. But there’s more.
“NFTH” stands for “North Fremont Town Hall.” There is no such place, to our knowledge, but the name is a coded nod to the Fremont Town Hall, in New Hampshire, the place where the band the Shaggs played in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Now hailed by connoisseurs of “outsider” music, the band was made up of the three Wiggin sisters, who despite a deficit of musical talent were urged to form a band by their father, Austin. As Susan Orlean wrote for the New Yorker in 1999, the elder Wiggin got the idea from his mother:
“When he was young, she studied his palm and told him that in the future he would marry a strawberry blonde and would have two sons whom she would not live to see, and that his daughters would play in a band. Her auguries were borne out. Annie was a strawberry blonde, and she and Austin did have two sons after his mother died. It was left to Austin to fulfill the last of his mother’s predictions, and when his daughters were old enough he told them they would be taking voice and music lessons and forming a band. There was no debate: his word was law, and his mother’s prophecies were gospel. Besides, he chafed at his place in the Fremont social system. It wasn’t so much that his girls would make him rich and raise him out of a mill hand’s dreary métier; it was that they would prove that the Wiggin kids were not only different from but better than the folks in town.”
Of the Shaggs’ music, Orlean wrote, “Something is sort of wrong with the tempo, and the melodies are squashed and bent, nasal, deadpan. Are the Shaggs referencing the heptatonic, angular microtones of Chinese ya-yueh court music and the atonal note clusters of Ornette Coleman, or are they just a bunch of kids playing badly on cheap, out-of-tune guitars?”
Still, they found a sort of cult following: Frank Zappa reportedly said they were “better than the Beatles”; Irwin Chusid included them in his 2000 book, Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music; and their music has been re-released (spawning a tribute album, titled after Zappa’s quote, with covers by the likes of Deerhoof and the Dirty Projectors).
Here’s the Shaggs performing “My Pal Foot Foot”: