This afternoon, procrastinating on the Internet, I found a Kotaku article about the “Lavender Town” level of Pokemon Red and Green, and the urban legend that its haunting, dissonant background music inspired a rash of child suicides in Japan. It reminded me of a man I once knew, who taught me a very memorable lesson about the darker powers of music.
The only formal music education I ever received came from taking intro to music theory at a local community college. We began the class with approximately twenty students, but by the midpoint of the semester, we had dwindled to a group of three; the middle-aged professor, myself, in my early twenties, and an elderly jazz trombonist. For a 100 level general education elective at a commuter school, such an attrition rate is not as uncommon as you might think.
After the first week of our class functioning as a power trio, the professor abandoned any semblance of following curriculum, or running the class as an actual class. “I mean, fuck it,” he told me and Donald (the trombonist, not his real name), “the only people who care less about this class than the students are the administrators. Now that it’s just the three of us, let’s just talk about whatever we want.” So that’s what we did.
The first few weeks of that time basically functioned as private music lessons. Whatever questions Donald and I had about music, Todd (the professor, also not his real name), was happy to answer them, and without the pesky limitations of graded assignments or having to follow a curriculum, we could spend an entire hour exploring a single concept, with no pressure to move on until we were ready. I learned a lot about music during that time, and it stuck with me, and made me a far more effective and well-rounded musician once I moved to Richmond and started playing in bands more seriously.
After about a month of productive yet exhaustive two-on-one study, Donald and I were a little burned out on learning the technicalities of music, and Todd was a little burned out on teaching them. For the last month of that semester, every day we talked less and less about music, and more about our lives. Our class gradually morphed into something that was half NBC’s “Community,” half “Waiting for Godot,” in which a young man, a middle aged man, and an elderly man sit in an empty community college classroom, cataloguing the trials and tribulations of their lives, each of us awaiting death with varying levels of anxiety and acceptance. It wasn’t as dark as it sounds. Sometimes, there were muffins.
In all seriousness, it was frequently very dark. Between the three of us, there was a hell of a lot of baggage in that room. I was approximately one year removed from undergoing an experimental stem cell transplant that nearly killed me, and I was struggling to reintegrate into society, failing miserably, and quite severely depressed. The elderly jazz trombonist had grown up in Ireland during the height of the IRA bombings, which he did not like to discuss in detail, and was having difficulty acclimating to his new home in a rapidly gentrifying northern Virginia suburb. When he was 19 years old, our instructor Todd had lost his 15 year old brother to cancer, following an excruciating and then-experimental treatment that accomplished little more than making the last six months of his life more torturous than necessary (when I told him that I had recently gone through chemotherapy, he gave me this indescribable look and told me that from the first time he saw me, I’d reminded him of his brother, and it was just the most goddamn heartbreaking thing). Todd’s faith in God died with his little brother, but that hadn’t stopped him from spending the last three decades of his life as a professional church organist, playing the sacred music of a deity in which he no longer believed.
In light of all that, you might reasonably assume that we spent most of our time together comparing notes on our formative tragedies, but you would be incorrect. If you were to poke your head in on our party of three at any given time, I think you’d be really surprised at how much laughing we did. We might talk about some heavy shit for a few minutes, but then we’d spend the rest of our hour together telling filthy jokes and playing hammy Marx-brothers piano and even talking about some of the things in our lives that had actually gone well. I soon came to admire my older friends, and see them as role models when it came to the balancing act of acknowledging the darkness in your past without letting it eclipse your present. Also, and I feel this bears repeating, there were frequently muffins.
During our time together, Todd told us a lot of stories, but one of them made a particularly strong impression on me. After a few decades as a heretic church musician, he experienced a midlife crisis, and embarked on a quest to see how many psychedelic 60s organ riffs he could sneak into church services before he got fired.
“Let me show you what I did,” he said, plugging his keyboard into the class PA system, and began playing “Ave Maria,” only with each pass through the main motif, it became a little less “Ave Maria,” and a little more “In A Gadda Da Veda.” It was the most beautiful synthesis of technical skill and mischievous subversion I’d ever seen in a musical setting. As much fun as it was to listen to him showing off his masterpiece, it made me deeply sad when I walked out of class that day and had time to reflect on what I’d witnessed. I wondered what somebody that talented and creative could’ve done with his life if he’d spent it engaged in projects he was actually passionate about.
“I tried so hard to get busted, to get fired,” he told us, at the end of his performance, when Donald and I had finished applauding. “And you know what? It never happened. You know why? Because nobody gives a shit. Nobody pays attention. People go on and on about how devout they are because they go to church every week, then they walk right past homeless people on the street. None of them read the Bible. None of them notice when you completely change the music. People say they want to study music, they sign up for this class,” he said, gesturing at the sea of empty seats surrounding us, “and they stop coming halfway through. People are all talk, and no action. Even if God does exist, it’s no surprise he wants nothing to do with them. I know I don’t.”
Whenever Todd was feeling especially bitter, he would reference one of the reviews he had on ratemyprofessor.com that called him a “burnout.” “Well, how do you think I got that way?” he asked us rhetorically. It was true that from watching the way he walked, talked, and carried himself, you could tell he felt the weight of every year he’d spent dealing with hypocrites at school and at church, to say nothing of the cognitive dissonance of his day job. But if you got him started on the right subject, he’d get this youthful glint in his eye and start moving and gesticulating like a man half his weight and age. I unwittingly triggered this side of him one day when I asked him about musical modes. “What exactly are they, and how do they work?” I wondered aloud. He was so glad I’d asked. The history of musical modes dates back to the days of ancient Greece, and apparently had always been a pet interest of Todd’s. Before we even got into the mechanics of how to play the modes on the keyboard, Todd launched into a comprehensive lecture about the various properties the ancient harmonic scholars had assigned to each mode. “The Mixolydian mode was a battle mode. The Greeks believed it literally drove fear from the hearts of soldiers, and replaced it with courage,” he explained, banging out a driving, triumphant modulation on his keyboard. “Whereas the Locrian mode,” he went on, seamlessly transitioning into an eerie, discordant piece, “was associated with perversions, mainly sexual.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean the ancient Greeks thought that if you played this mode for a troop of soldiers, they’d basically get possessed by gay demons and be powerless to resist having sex with each other.”
Donald and I laughed. “Oh sure, it sounds funny,” Todd said, “but it’s something I think about a lot. Bear with me for a moment; what if it really worked? I don’t think anybody would deny that music is a powerful tool for influencing the emotions of people.” Donald and I nodded. That was easy enough to agree with. “Well here’s something else to consider. We have no idea what the Greek modes actually sounded like. After Western music switched to equal temperament hundreds of years ago, the sounds of the old modes were eventually lost to history. There was no recording technology back then, and if anybody ever bothered to write down the exact mathematical ratios of the different pitches, those archives have never been found. What if the modern form of music we play today is a just a watered-down imitation of a more pure, powerful predecessor? Sure, equal temperament is more convenient for shmucks who just want to learn three cord acoustic guitar songs to impress girls, but maybe music in its original, primordial, exactingly precise form was so powerful, it could actually change you, make you do things you otherwise wouldn’t, open up your soul and let something truly unearthly inside, for better or for worse?”
Donald and I sat in silence. Todd was making good points, and also, kind of freaking us out.
“You know, the Greeks were always building these insane super weapons, like mirrors a hundred yards in diameter you could use to focus sunlight and set ships on fire, the same way you can use a magnifying glass to burn ants. You know, I really wouldn’t be surprised if when they burned the Library of Alexandria, they destroyed the blue print for some kind of ancient acoustic subwoofer, and the accompanying sheet music for a song that could instantly make an invading army quite literally too gay to function.”
While reading that “Lavender Town” article, I thought about Todd for the first time in a while. We lost touch after I quit community college a semester shy of my associates degree and moved to Richmond to attend a four year school. To my knowledge, I’ve yet to write any music powerful enough to make somebody any more suicidal or homosexual than they would be otherwise, but playing in bands has definitely led to me forming relationships and having experiences that have made my life far more vibrant and interesting. Now when I think back on the euphoria of my favorite shows I’ve ever played, those memories are tempered by the thought of a forty year old Todd, sneaking Iron Butterfly riffs into the Sunday service, tempting an indifferent God or an apathetic congregation into calling him out. The day that he gave us a demonstration of his subversive abilities, I asked him what he felt in the moment after, when he was looking up at the audience to see if anybody had caught on.
“I felt nothing,” he said. “I was playing music for an audience, which was what I thought I’d always wanted to do. I was blatantly profaning the most allegedly sacred thing in these people’s lives, risking my career, my livelihood, my ability to provide for my family. And whatever came next, I was completely numb. I didn’t even care.” With one hand, he absently sounded a single, lonely note on his keyboard, and let it die away. “And real music, played the way it’s supposed to, should never allow that to happen.”
Jake Ziemba lives in Virginia. He is the subject of an ongoing medical experiment funded by the federal government. He is watching you as you read this. He likes what he sees. His first novel, The Yukon Glory, is available from Sink Swim Press.
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