THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED by Carlton Herzog
I feel bad about cutting out your tongue, but you knew the rules, and even if you didn’t, ignorance of the law is no excuse. Besides, it could be worse. My own brother had his eyes burned out for trafficking in books. Now he walks around with two grisly craters where his peepers used to be.
I wanted to help him but couldn’t without looking like a collaborator. And if I couldn’t help him, how could I, in good conscience, help you.
The worst part is that you were singing in public. You weren’t humming to yourself or tapping your foot to rhythms only you could hear. No, you put it out there for everyone to hear. You’re lucky the music police were nearby otherwise that crowd of Loyalists would have torn you apart the way a pride of lions does a gazelle.
I call someone like you an “encrypted soul” because your motives are opaque. But I like a good mystery as much as the next person. And it’s my job to discover what you hoped to accomplish by your public display of dubious talent.
You’re dribbling blood all over yourself. Wipe yourself. I know it hurts. But relax, we’ve perfected the art of elinguation, so you’ll bleed some, but not entirely. Think of the procedure the way you would a tonsillectomy—the removal of inflamed tissue but without the ice-cream afterwards.
I’m going to share some things with you. You have no tongue, so you can’t speak to anyone about it. And if you put it on paper, I’ll cut off your hands.
I feel your pain, I really do. Life would be so much easier to swallow if it were accompanied by a peppy soundtrack. If you ask me, music is the language of the heart. It doesn’t need words to make its meaning clear. I suppose that’s why the old church choirs could be infinitely more moving than anything the preacher would say. In the end, we may find God is more Gaga than Newton, more Beyoncé than Einstein, and a lot less tight-assed than his earth-bound representatives.
Music made me feel good. It got me out of myself. I saw it as a temporary reprieve from my sentence of life. An existential Maalox, if you will, that relieves the bloating and nausea that comes with living in this world for too long.
Like you, I liked the idea of singing my way through life. I liked the idea of bursting into song anywhere, anytime. But even before the Music Prohibition was enacted, there was that silent dictatorship forbidding public displays of glee particularly when they were set to music. I wanted to do it. I needed to do it. But I never did.
Besides I got to witness first-hand what happens when someone gives their inner song bird free reign in public. I was standing in a line—a rather long one at that—of Manhattan-bound travellers. We were at the Toms River New Jersey bus terminal waiting for the New York Express to arrive. It was a cold wet day and the bus was already an hour late.
Suddenly, someone burst into song. And not just any song mind you. It was the Backstreet Boys “I want it that way.”
When he did, I scanned the line to see who among us had broken protocol. I was surprised to find the warbler a clean-cut well-dressed young man of twenty or so. He didn’t look crazy. There was no drooping lip or idiot grin, no fisticuffs with invisible assailants, no smell of excrement coming from his pants. There was only that broad smile displaying the whitest, brightest, most symmetrical teeth I had ever seen in my life. For a moment, I thought he was a wind-up toy that would run down and stop unless someone turned his key. He kept keep singing the same line “I want it that way” over and over.
At first, I didn’t mind. I, the eternal romantic, wanted to join in the refrain. But I had become a realist, such that spontaneous displays of any sort were no longer in my nature. Whatever fire I had for some acapella antics burned itself out the way a rising ember does above a fire and is seen no more.
He kept singing as we boarded the bus. Some passengers snickered, some snarked, and others heckled him, but no one told him to stop, not even the driver. I suspected that he would sing all the way up the Parkway, then onto the Turnpike, through the Lincoln Tunnel and into Port Authority, and that would make my head explode.
Then it hit me. He wasn’t singing along to music on his phone, piped into his head with earbuds. He was free of gigabytes and bars and apps and likes and emojis and swipes and tweets. Somehow, Maya Angelou’s caged bird had incarnated as this young man and broken free, free of our depressed, violent, suicidal, drug-addicted, social media obsessed tribe, and had taken flight, leaving all the expectations and rules and prohibitions and codes and requirements and mores behind.
Of course, that would never do. What happened next came as no surprise. Two burly young men of the red-neck persuasion, wearing Wrestle-mania tee-shirts and Budweiser caps, walked up to the bus singer, and ordered him to stop under penalty of a ‘whuppin’. When he smiled, and kept on singing, they rained punches onto his face and head. Nobody intervened. The driver kept us on schedule, and the passengers kept their heads in their phones, talking, texting, listening.
I’m sure you saw the feed about the case. It took place around the same time vigilantes began torching libraries and bookstores and art galleries. It wasn’t long after that the white mobs rioted, burning homes and businesses in black, Hispanic and Muslim communities. And after that, the gay, the lesbian and the transgender communities had their day in white hot heterosexual hyper-Christian Hell.
The State turned a blind eye, not because it was lazy. Rather it had its hands full enforcing the new Parasite Control Law, which called for the eradication of the infirm, the handicapped, the addicted and the aged to conserve our diminishing resource base—a downside of catastrophic climate change.
After that the music had to go because it got hyper-politicized into protest anthems and code for anti-government action. The administration went after rap and hip-hop first, then moved to ethnic tunes. But the opposition started coding their messages into rock and pop so those had to go. And when they did, classical gospel carried the message of protest until they too were eradicated.
It seems harsh. But just taking away books and civil liberties is a half-measure. If they still have music, then they have a way to bond and share information outside officially approved channels. Take away their music and you keep them fragmented and ignorant, and in that state, they are no threat to anyone.
I’ve talked way too much. Let’s get you into some street clothes. What you’re going to do is walk up and down the block outside this facility carrying this sign which reads: “I AM GUILTY OF MUSIC CRIME IN THE FIRST DEGREE.” You won’t be alone. There’s a half dozen or so already out there doing the tongue-less walk of shame. Around noon, we’ll bring you in for some soup. This is all for the best.