“The brain is an enchanted loom, weaving a dissolving pattern, though never an abiding one, a shifting harmony of subpatterns.”
–C. S. Sherrington
I recognize it at once. Ever so close, and yet ever so slightly different than the original.
This is the cheapest and slyest form of muzak, canned music for the elevator- and public-area-bound masses. In order to eliminate performing rights and make the music cheaper to form into easily-digestible non-interruptive 24/7 tune-fodder, some of these reproducers of music process their product as a matter of course and regular business. They hire ringer musicians to do cover versions of everything they may even remotely want to include on their services, and skip performance payment to the original artists.
So somewhere in a basement in Pasadena or Des Moines or Tottingham Court or Balham, there is a small group of five or six musicians, looking to the recording expertise of a lone 17-year-old engineer with a laptop, a large external hard drive, and ProTools software, making exact reproductions of every tune by every modern rock act to come into existence since 1964. All the better to appeal to the free-spending baby boomer generation whose ears came awake at that point, an age-centric group of humans weaned on a new music that had evolved from older deeply soulful ethnic music, and been sieved through the rhythmically regulated pablum of western teen culture. Think: Pat Boone covers Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” and sells millions.
There they are: Herman and the Hermits and the Dave Clark Five. Donovan, for godsake. Aerosmith, Foreigner, Journey, Deep Purple. Simon & Garfunkel. Stones, Beatles. No Muddy Waters or Otis Redding. No Howlin’ Wolf or Mahalia Jackson. Though faux-Michael Jacksons abound. No relation.
The cover versions are so perfect that it takes being completely immersed in them for some time to spot the tiny missed beat or harmony, the slightly late delivery of a poignant line, the one or two changed notes in an intensely-textured five-minute guitar solo. Which had been memorized in its entirety by everyone alive at the time of its issue.
I first spotted the like during my daily hour at the gym a few years ago, another doomed personal episode aimed at trying to at least physically lighten up. It was weeks into this regimen that I first noticed that something somewhere was simply wrong.
It was in the air. Something I was hearing in the background of the grunts, exhalations and machine squeaks. On careful listening, filtered between my own reps on the overhead barbells, I got it. This was not Aerosmith. This was not Iron Butterfly. This was a Holiday Inn cover band doing flawed versions of the overly favorite all-time hits of my demented youth. Reproducing the tunes with no small amount of finesse, so that some bespoke-suited licensing mogul on a glass-sheathed Manhattan sixty-second floor could get a bigger profit margin by not paying the original performers. Instead sending a single buy-out check to The Swaddled Groin, a morally-challenged, sometimes punk band from the outskirts of Manchester.
* * *
This long-held philosophical obsession has just wafted up, bringing me to the corner of Here and Now. As I listen to this music – actually para-Stones at the moment – I am nearing the end of a grueling summer dominated by the care of my rapidly-declining mother. The only possibly more taxing summer I can remember was that of my Army Basic Training. At least it was mostly spent outdoors.
But this is for my Mom. At the moment she is upstairs on the fourth floor long-term acute ward being hand-fed pureed everything by my 100-year-old father. She ingests this orally, unconsciously, reflexively, along with whatever goes in and out of her through antiseptic long plastic tubes, mostly antibiotics and pain medication and saline solution. Everything is measured, in and out, and noted on a wall chart.
Her self-awareness comes and goes, mostly goes, for erratic periods of time. A few days ago while my younger sister was with her, she woke and began singing “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now?” My sis called another sister in L.A., and held the phone up so someone else could witness the miracle. My shifts have held few moments as wonderful, but I know she is still in there, somewhere. For the time being.
And that my love for her remains intact.
Today, while my father does his thrice-daily ritual of coaxing nourishment into his wife, I am in the first floor cafeteria eating yet another of the least healthy and most fattening meals of my life. Of course that food is being served in a hospital, dedicated to health. I have gained weight and become increasingly dyspeptic over these vigil weeks. Time and time again I have given in to the least stressful food solution and as a result have eaten horrible food substitutes, products that if not for their sterile plastic wrapping and cheerful labeling would surely be considered as unfit for human consumption.
Which is, now that I think about it, something very much like what is playing over the speakers here in the cafeteria. The food at hand is not even made on the premises. Some anonymous catering company concocts it elsewhere and ships it into the institution in hourly truckloads to disseminate to the weak and unsuspecting. People here are just too emotionally and physically stressed to get back in their cars and go anywhere else. And so they are fed not the original food, but someone else’s cover version of what that food should consist of, and taste like.
This culinary situation is amplified by the recycled music. In Summer 2014 I am temporarily residing in a small city in central Louisiana, and am standing my watch in this hospital near my parents house on Bayou Robert. As I now focus on listening, I realize that I first heard these very same tunes here in the very same town as an insensitive high school nerd, almost a half century ago. They were everywhere: on the radio, on our black and white TV as a highlight of “The Ed Sullivan Show” (along with the aforementioned Mahalia Jackson), and on the wide black-vinyl disk which contained the same music and which found its sonic vent through the wooden console radio/mono-amplification device in the family’s living room.
I have just come down to perform the action of eating after another turn of feeding my mother baby food and helping change her diaper. This “lunch” tour is actually only a stopgap, a moment to breathe outside the hospital room. I am, needless to say, of little appetite. But doing the cafeteria ritual I exercise the only existing though brutal options: acquire meat byproducts and cement-like starches on the buffet line. I pay money for those choices, and sit in a plastic molded seat at a plastic laminated table. My ass is instantly wet from some fluid left by the last occupant of this seat. I don’t care and stay where I am.
And now there it is, that tiny chunk of aural memory, emanating from the drop-ceiling tiles above.
“Time, time, time... is on my side... yes, it is.”
Triggering other memories. High school, and the effect of my surviving a completely naive and unrelenting puberty. Boy values. Girl values. Constricting white jockey shorts on me and pointy bulletproof brassieres decorating the fronts of my flat-chested girl friends. Slow dancing and being pulled apart from the music-aided clinch by ever-decorously-minded nuns.
Trying to learn to drive a car, as my mother forced me to start from scratch and drive up the steep on-ramp to the Red River Bridge. Trying to not be embarrassed by the fact that I wasn’t yet skilled enough to be tooling around town in a car late on a Saturday night, and that my Mom had ended up driving me and my date to the sophomore sock hop. She commented on how cute the girl’s dress was. Reminded me she would be waiting there curbside again at 10pm to take us both home. I was mortified. Did not hold my date’s hand until I was safely inside the school gym, was seated on the back row of the folding basketball stands, and was hidden from the nuns’ scans for imminent pre-pubescent gratification. Then I held that skinny sweaty girl-palm as if my life depended on it. Which seemed somehow close to the truth at that point.
There we sat to hear live cover versions of those clean-cut Beatles’ tunes. And then a second act came onstage. We moved to the basketball court floor to lay hands on each other, dancing to actual appearances by Lee Dorsey doing “YaYa” and Irma Thomas singing “Ruler of My Heart”. This was Louisiana, after all.
Yes, I was indeed naive. And anatomically uneducated. Irma was very young at this point, but still was touring with people like Dorsey and Benny Spellman. I personally thought she was a little fat to be attractive. A perception gap. Not realizing that she was pregnant via Spellman almost every time I saw her during my teens. I was young and “protected”, and reading the world with blinders affixed. I did not connect my own mother’s pregnancies with what was happening to Irma Thomas’ body. And yet Mom indeed eventually brought five other children into this world. And nourished them all. As did Irma.
But the music of the day continued to develop, and the advent of the much raunchier Rolling Stones, basing much of their music on the same basics as their black counterparts, but getting noticed more. Ironically, “Time Is on My side” was produced originally as a trombone instrumental by Kai Winding, with just the title being sung as background by a soul trio. But Irma Thomas added lyrics, including spoken-word interjections in the chorus, a monologue in the middle of the song, and a unique lead guitar. That was the version of “Time Is on My Side” the Stones covered in two separate singles in mid- and late 1964. Both versions incorporate elements of Irma Thomas' recording. The Stones’ “Time” peaked on Billboard at Number Six, and was their first top ten hit. They performed it their first time on Ed Sullivan.
As a senior in high school, I bought both Irma’s evocative “It’s Raining”, and the Stones’ “Out of Our Heads”, the album with the then teen-life-defining lyrics of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.
And yet here it is again. Too much of a coincidence. A fake “Time is on My Side” on the overhead hospital juke box. But not a female ballad copy of the Irma version. A fake Stones.
I guess the old geezers do translate to the 21st century. Somehow. I must confess that I watched the band perform again last year at the 2013 Glastonbury Festival. In high-definition. On my phone. While riding on a New Orleans streetcar.
Irma still performs in my neighborhood. She has not been pregnant in some time. Her voice is still fabulous and beckons slow dancers.
* * *
Again I face today. I am being bombarded by chains upon chains of interlinked memories dropping from a food-service ceiling. I put my plastic cafeteria fork down. I am not really interested in even looking at the food, much less consuming it.
I think about the fact that the unspeaking, unmoving, supine female in 402D once fed me baby food, changed my diapers. Decades ago now.
Then she taught me to memorize my prayers, to spell. To drive. To appropriately curtail, somewhat, my storytelling. Ruth Bryan Gabour willingly sat by my bedside through weeks of double pneumonia, feeding me easily digestible foods, forcing me to drink liquids. Playing one side then the other of “Meet the Beatles” in the other room, loud enough for me to hear where I lay in my shared bedroom while my brothers/roommates were at school.
I remember over the years she would occasionally chide me, telling me what a difficult first birth I was, jokingly telling me that, having brought me into the world, “I am not so sure you were really worth all the trouble.” Though that was actually much too frequently too close to the truth, my early life being a roving experiment in pushing the limits of propriety, I always felt loved and protected.
And here it all comes around. I – and all the memories that life has afforded me thanks to her – are focused on letting her make her transition as she wishes.
No matter the soundtrack.