“How to Ruin Good (Even Great) Music” by our resident skeptic, James R. Cowles
Actually, the title should be “How to Ruin the Experience of Listening to Good (Even Great) Music,” but that was too long. I suppose one could argue that the experience of listening to good music, as far as the listener is concerned, is the music. But let’s not quibble about ontology. In any case, I know at least two ways of forever ruining both the music and the experience thereof. Please understand: in what follows, for anyone who loves music, as I do, these are practices to be avoided at all cost if you love good music, especially great music … or just music, period. Please understand, also, that I did not avoid these practices, and so much – not all, but much – good, even great, music is now forever accompanied inside my skull by a parallel sound track of the “music-as-ruined”. I cannot hear one without hearing the other. So I am not an example to be emulated. On the contrary, I am a counter-example, or an anti-example, to be avoided. Anyway … with those caveats here goes … in order to avoid ruining (the experience of listening to) music …
o Never watch Warner Brothers cartoons, especially Bug Bunny cartoons, from the “classical” years of the 1960s.
Contemporary WB cartoons are probably mostly OK. But cartoons from WB during that earlier, “classical” era are deadly. For example, you will never be able to hear “pure” Wagner again. Instead, overlaying the sound track of, e.g., The Flight of the Valkyrie, you will ever after hear
Which is hardly the same thing, and least of all “music to invade Poland by”.
Nor will Rossini escape. Instead, The Barber of Seville will be dogged by the alternative Bugs Bunny libretto of The Rabbit of Seville:
Come into my shop,
Let me trim your mop,
Let me shave your crop …
Caaa-aa-aa-n’t you see that I’m much sweeter?
III-III-III’m your little seniorita!
You-uu-uu-uu look like my kinda guy,
Let me loosen your tie,
And I will sing for you!
This aria is followed by Bugs’s four-footed massage of Elmer Fudd’s scalp, performed to Rossini’s Barber score, which is guaranteed to cause potentially catastrophic laundry problems, especially when you see an actual performance of Barber in a grand opera house, because, even as you watch the performance onstage, you will be seeing and hearing the parallel Bugs-Elmer version of Barber in your mind’s eye and ear. In fact, you cannot avoid seeing and hearing the Bugs-Elmer parallel. Barring a case of acute and profound amnesia or aphasia, The Barber of Seville will henceforth be lost to you.
And speaking of Rossini, we can write off The William Tell Overture right now for reasons having nothing to do with WB because of its close and unavoidable association with the Lone Ranger. But Warner Brothers compounded this pernicious variant of déjà vu in a cartoon about a little flea nesting on the back of a Doberman pinscher. Along toward the end, the flea drives the dog to such distraction that the Doberman starts galloping hither and yon in desperation, hoping to dislodge his tiny tormenter … whereupon the little flea, riding the dog like “LR” rode Silver, shouts out Hi-yo, Doberman! Now, every time I hear Rossini’s stirring Overture, I not only think of the Lone Ranger, but in place of the Ranger’s iconic cry, I hear the flea’s Alvin-the-Chipmunk-like voice shouting Hi-yo, Doberman! And so … “another one bites the dust”.
o Never read Mad magazine from the 1960s era.
I grew up with Mad. I still read it from time to time. Call it a guilty pleasure, if you will. But the contemporary version is musically harmless compared to the “classical” Mad of the ‘60s, which was positively lethal, not to classical or baroque music, but to music that was “classical” within the context of US popular culture, e.g., show tunes, movie music, Christmas carols, etc.
Consider the beloved song “The Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady … which Mad transposed from the key of Pygmalion-like romantic love to that of nuclear terror with:
I have often walked down your street before,
But there once was pavement underneath my feet before;
Now as I walk by I see rubble fly.
Boy it’s rough on the street where you live!
People stop and stare.
They don’t worry me
Got lead underwear, and I am safe as safe can be
All the air is filled with radioactivity
Or think of that wonderful song from the 1920s by Gene Donaldson and George Whiting, “My Blue Heaven,” which Mad warped into an anthem of nuclear apocalypse entitled “My Blue Shelter”:
Whenever I hear an H-bomb is near
I hurry to my blue shelter.
A hole in the floor, a six inch lead door
Will lead you to my blue shelter.
A lovely place
Without a trace
Of coming doom!
A cozy place that’s nestled
Where the H-bombs boom!
Just Molly and me!
Let’s see … that makes three!
We’re happy in my blue shelter!
Even Christmas carols were not sacred, least of all Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Mad took the Star of Bethlehem and replaced it with fireworks:
Boom! The cherry bombs explode
Blowing potholes in the road.
Midget sticks of dynamite,
Sure can give a guy a fright.
One went off by Irving’s mamma.
Poor thing damn near had a trauma.
God, what simple-minded jerks,
We turn loose with fireworks!
Many Christmases, Diane and I go to Victoria, BC, for high tea at the Empress and to hear the wonderful Christmas carolers in the lobby of the hotel. I always light the candle on the table, discreetly genuflect, and utter a silent prayer in English, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Sanskrit, Arabic, and High Church Latin to Yahweh, Allah, Odin, Zeus, Athena, and Cthulhu and Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones that the carolers will not perform Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, for fear that I will make a public spectacle of myself by dissolving into gales of helpless, howling laughter from hearing Mad’s parallel sound track in my head.
But the entire fault for the loss of music cannot be laid at the feet of Warner Brothers and Mad magazine. Entire oeuvres of poets have been lost to me, not by WB or Mad, but by a chance passing remark from someone whose name I cannot even now remember. Several years ago, someone – I think it was on a radio talk program – mentioned in a tone of oh-by-the-way breeziness that most of the poetry of Emily Dickinson can be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”. Well, I give you three guesses – and the first two don’t count – how the following Dickinson poem reads to me now, the one that begins …
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me.
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality …
… and, conversely, what poetic text flashes to mind whenever I hear the tune “The Yellow Rose of Texas”.
On a much more somber and sinister level, let us not even reference the slobbering fascist sociopaths who took the heart-breaking tenderness of the second movement of Haydn’s Emperor Quartet (“String Quartet in C-major, Opus 76, No. 3”) and gang-raped it into the jackbooted crudity of “Deutschland Ueber Alles”. One of the advantages, arguably the sole justifying advantage, of being an ex-Christian is that I am under no obligation to forgive such crimes against high culture.
And we shall leave similarly anonymous the company that, back when phone-answering machines used tape, marketed an answering-machine microcassette where some guy with a (seriously, really) beautiful baritone voice sang “Nobody’s home! Nobody’s home!” to the tune of those four iconic notes that begin Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The effect of that is still enough to make me want to drink a fifth, because now, every time I hear the opening of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony … but … really … need I finish … ?
Kids’ Sunday School songs are no less insidious. There is a little ditty I learned in “kiddie church” when my age was in high single digits whose words fit all-too-perfectly with the first movement of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik:
One … two-three … the Devil’s after me!
Four … five-six … he’s makin’ me feel sick!
I once was unwise enough to start Nachtmusik playing from my i-Phone over my car’s Bluetooth system, and honestly thought I was going to have to pull over into a parking lot until I stopped laughing. O Wolfgang! Wolfgang! Meiner beliebte Freund! Es tut mir leid! Ich werde niemals das tun!
But … ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh … GAWD! … It occurs to me that I owe you, my Constant Readers, an apology as well as Wolfgang. I’ve been blithering on about this issue, and you’ve been reading my blitherings … which means that you are now infected! I’m worse than Typhoid Mary! At least Typhoid Mary herself was never sick when she passed the disease on to others. But I’m both sick and infectious. Maybe I’m a musical zombie! Maybe I belong on an AMC TV series called The Walking Tone-Deaf! And I’ve “bitten” you, passing on the Plague! Or maybe I’ve listened to so much Bach, I’m now in a “fugue” state. (Yeah … yeah … OK … awright … apologies awready! … sheesh!)
Please … I beg you … stop reading right now! Forget you saw this post! I’m just so … so … so … so very … sorry!
© 2017, essay, James R. Cowles; header illustration and following two illustrations, Elmer Fudd and archenemy, Bugs Bunny, © Warner Bros; Theatrical release poster for “My Fair Lady original illustration by Bob Peak Bill Gold and © Warner Bros.; red cherry courtesy of and © of blog.naver; sheet music, Eine Kleine nachtmusick, Wolfgang A Mozart, courtsey of MûsesCore.com; public domain photograph of Ludwig van Beethoven painting by