SF: I heard it on the radio when I was little. It was a long time ago, but it took me back to a time even further back, a time when I hadn’t even existed. Fats Waller’s voice sounded like a crazy uncle whispering to you as you’re falling asleep.
MIDKIN: Did you like the song, or did it scare you?
SF: A little of both. I liked being scared, because it was mysterious. It wasn’t like being scared of nuclear apocalypse, or of being hit by a car. It was more mystical than that–being scared of smoke.
MIDKIN: Smoke and mirrors?
SF: I guess so. But I liked the idea that smoke could go anywhere. It could get into your house. It could even get into your lungs. When we were young, everyone smoked. And then we grew up and we did too. And we learned that this smoke had invaded us, when we were busy worrying about the Soviet Union.
MIDKIN: And the cat paw?
SF: That comes from the smoke. In my house growing up there were smokers, and cats!
MIDKIN: But the cats were dangerous?
SF: Everything’s dangerous, if you let it be. I just heard on the radio that it’s dangerous to kiss a kitten. I think it has to do with toxoplasmosis. But that right there–my childhood, gone up in smoke! And then this feeling that memory is in a little tank of our own making, and these dangerous things can just reach in a stir things up, like a kitten reaching into a fishbowl. And the memories themselves are dangerous.
I know I’m not the only one who occasionally feels pity for those children growing up in the digital age. I like to hold a book in my hands. I like surface noise on vinyl. I like tape hiss. And I like it when children are bored and forced to come up with solutions to their boredom which involve sticks, or dirt, or lumps of clay.
One of the lumps of clay I used as a solution to my boredom when I was a child was a record player decorated as if it were made out of denim, with a pocket on the lid. It had three speeds—33 rpm, 45 rpm, and “N”.
“N” stood for “neutral,” and it was a godsend for a bored kid with an ear for strange sounds. My friend down the street and I discovered that “N” was the secret to unleashing all sorts of demonic voices on the world. Had we been of different inclinations, we might have discovered scratching, about a decade too early. Hip-hop could have had a very different face—the face of white suburban California eight-year-olds. Somehow I don’t think it would have caught on that way.
What we did instead was scare the dogs, scare the cats, scare the younger children down the street. My garage was in a perpetual state of disarray due to my long-term planning of a haunted house thrill ride which never fully materialized, and the record player was an ideal addition to the collection of cheap masks, blacklights, and thrift store wig heads.
But then something else happened. I discovered that you could play a 33rpm record on 45 rpm.
I have kids. I teach kids. And I know understand how relentless children can be. Often they are not simply kids, but a whole other state of being. They pull you out of whatever brainspace you may have happily, blissfully inhabited, into their chaotic and hyper-intense world. And that world is usually frenetic, sticky, and very very noisy.
To quote a worn-out phrase, they harsh your mellow.
But at the time I didn’t understand how potentially annoying playing the song “Have You Ever Been Mellow” over and over again at 45rpm might possibly be. Maybe that, or I didn’t care. What I did know is that it seemed the ideal voice for the pom-pom creature which seemed to be the cutest thing ever and in my imagination a constant companion on my adventures. And with his sticky feet, he stuck right to the denim pocket on the lid of my record player! Voila! A perfect way to spend the afternoon.
I don’t know how many times I played that record before my dad finally snapped. To his credit, it was more than twice. I think it may have been five or six times? Also to his credit, he didn’t direct his anger at me. No, he walked straight into my room, pulled the record off the record player, and slammed it against my desk. I didn’t know vinyl could shatter in that many pieces.
I was shocked into silence. Probably a silence that my father had wished for for a long, long, time. Maybe even since he’d had children.
Had been more prescient, I might have simply asked him the question which was on Olivia Newton-John’s mind, and which is on my mind a lot these days as we start up another year of school lunches, homework, sticky countertops, and noisy, noisy mornings: Have you never been mellow? Have you never tried?
TIP: For an approximation of a googly-eyed voice, click on the “tools” icon in the YouTube player and choose SPEED>2. For an awesomely mellow experience, choose SPEED>.5