Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Musical Compost

Last week I was under an unfortunate sonic spell -- for several days I could not cleanse my mind of the lyrical line “fat man with a little jacket”. I didn’t know where it came from, or what came after it or before it, or if it was a song. I just knew that I had to sing it, to sing it all the time and often to accompany it with a little fifties-style soft-sole shuffle. I had to sing it when I woke up in the morning and at work. I had to sing it out loud through my mouth of toothpaste and I had to sing it in my head during sex. If I couldn’t sing it, I had to hum it. Whatever else was going on, I just had to sing about the fat man with the little jacket.

Eventually, Mark told me it was a Chris Farley line from the movie Black Sheep, a movie which I have never seen. These are the mysteries of the human existence.

My brain is a place of refuge for earworms, those snippets of song or sound that wriggle through the pathways of your mind and out through your mouth, and that no amount of mental pesticide can put an end to. I often spend weeks with these kinds of itinerant lyrics and melodies taking refuge in my head, crowding out the actual thoughts that rightfully reside there.

In addition to the top-40 hits and the TV jingles and the Christmas carols, for about two years now I’ve also been housing the word “Spanish”. Whenever I’m struggling to gather my thoughts, or to hone in on an idea that’s hovering on my mind’s outer edges, out it pops. “Stop a moment,” my brain might say to me, “there’s something you’re trying to remember. Something very important. Something you really need to know. Something like….SPANISH!” And then I’ll either remember that tomorrow is my very good friend Sam’s birthday and that I absolutely must call her, or I won’t and I’ll just be stuck with Spanish.

Does this make me sound crazy? Well consider this: when I was ten the song Tom’s Diner almost gave me a mental breakdown. For real. I don’t know how or why, but when we moved from New York to Hong Kong, I packed that song into some tiny, unsteady corner of my mind and brought it with me across the Pacific. My strongest memory of the first three months of my new life on a strange continent isn’t of the new food or new weather or new accents or new school or new house--it’s of the American song that tortured me.

Actually, it wasn’t even the whole song, it was just the first two stanzas of it, which were all I knew. Every unfilled minute of every hour of every day for those three months my brain would come to rest on those two stanzas, and it started to scare this shit out of me. My brothers learned that they could win any fight just by humming the song’s first line.

One day, like every earworm has so far, this one just one day shriveled up and died of its own accord and freed me! And, then, of course, there was room in my brain once more for new Canto-pop and the ad for Sincere shampoo, and, eventually, the fat man in the little jacket, who will surely be replaced by another insidious invertebrate soon enough. In the meantime, I am trying not to think about the worms regenerative powers and the spectre of Tom's Diner.