Archive for August, 2008

Choking on WFMU

WFMUFor those with ears, I will be making a brief “return” to WFMU as a guest on Michael Goodstein’s excellent and intricate “Choking on Cufflinks” program, this Saturday, August 9th, from 9 pm - 12 midnight.

H.

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The University of North Texas’ Bruce Hall vs. The Phone Sex Tape Bandit

Bruce Hall

Imagine if you will…something I remember hearing. It’s not a memory of a sound, but of a moment — one that happened once, will never happen again, and could never be recreated. Put it into words? We’ll see.

It was my freshman year at University of North Texas, in Denton, Texas. I was living in Bruce Hall (above), which was, and still is, the official/unofficial music and art dormitory at the school. UNT has a famous music school and a rather prestigious jazz program (it was the first university to offer a degree in jazz studies, in 1947). Therefore, a high majority of the Bruce Hall’s residents were college newbies from far and wide who were dead serious about studying music.

The rest of the residents at Bruce Hall were art students, or maybe professional partiers who’d drop out after their first semester. But there were other misfits living there too. These were people who happened to fit right in amongst the rest of the music and art riff-raff there, for whatever reason. One guy who’d lived in the dorm for years was a blind jazz pianist, African American, overweight, around 40 years-old, who always wore a Fedora hat and dark glasses and carried a long cane to help him get around. He was way too old to be there, but made friends quick because he had a loud, boisterous laugh, and was friendly as hell (yes he was a cliche, but a good one). He also l-o-o-o-o-v-e-d the ladies, and wasn’t shy about being as friendly as hell with them either, which made those resiliently sweet Texan gals well-just-never-did-you-mind. He was a charmer, and everybody liked him.

Besides odd characters, the real catch about living in an art and music dorm like Bruce Hall was the noise. And it didn’t come from the artists or the riff-raff. The music students loudly practiced their instruments, non-stop. Any freshman budding career musician worth their weight in student loans practiced, practiced, practiced that first year until the tips of their exposed nubby finger bones were whittled clean. And then they practiced some more. How else could they prepare for careers as full-time lounge band members on cruise ships? Practicing your instrument was a Cruel Bitch God that you sacrificed your dreams to. Music students at Bruce Hall = GOD AWFUL RACKET.

In contrast, any freshman budding career artist worth their weight in their parent’s money spent all their time that first year smoking pot, smoking pot, smoking pot and debating with other pot heads things like…the design merits of Factory label record album covers. How else could they make those all-important connections with “art folk” they would run into years later during their careers in the gallery world…or the booby hatch (or Hell). Art students at Bruce Hall = not any racket above the level normally associated with a freshman dorm.

Categorically, Bruce Hall is an ugly building. It’s old and made mostly of concrete, tiled floors, plaster (walls and ceilings), and fluorescent lights. I swear the pointy roofs were made of tin, but that’s probably not right. The outside walls are made of thick, sound-bouncing brick, and the structure itself (three very tall stories) has three long wings jutting out into a three-pronged fork shape, which creates two large courtyards that resonate like echo canyons (or perhaps like ozone-piercing megaphones on really, really loud days). Can a building be an instrument? There was no air conditioning at Bruce Hall so windows were always open, and any sound in the building carried everywhere and anywhere, in and out.

For musicality practicing, practicality, politeness and the eardrum-and-sanity-of-other-studying-students reasons, there were weird science fiction-y practice spaces provided inside the school’s massive music building: sealed sound-proof pod rooms that had their own separate air ventilation systems and lights, all lined up in eerily-glowing rows in even larger rooms in the building’s basement. But why use those? Most music students just used their dorm rooms to practice in during Bruce Hall’s scheduled daytime practice hours, which were something like 11 AM to 8 PM.

But with everyone in different rooms with different watches and clocks, and anxious about getting started…when exactly was 11 AM? At 10:59, every music student would be alone in their room, ready to pounce, frozen motionless in front of their instruments and not wanting to waste a single second of practice time: bows held over violins, drums sticks held motionless in midair, mouths open ready to vocalize. Whomever was brave enough to start in a bit early would signal that day’s noise-fest beginning, kind of like a tiny piccolo solo at the beginning of a boisterous symphony. It was unpredictable every time: the squiggly low notes of a bass? The blarp of a horn? A tinny violin screech? A vocalist doing scales? Or the blast of drums (drums were the loudest)? But once the floodgates creaked open by whoever was brave enough to start, the sound then instantly came crashing out of every room all at once. From coffin-quiet to World War XIII in seconds flat.

This sound was light years away from the sound of an orchestra pit warming up, way beyond the most amphetamine-fueled free jazz, even beyond the worst Japanese noise music. It was the assaultive clamor of HELL CRASHING UP THROUGH THE EARTH’S MANTLE, all done with music instruments manipulated by overly-eager and un-resting young hands — a billion fusillading, clashing soloists each in their separate, decidedly non-sound proof rooms, who refused to quit until they were forced. Each player in each room was unaware of one another, but also kind of aware. How could they not hear each other? Everybody else could…for miles. One or two instruments bleating away would have been a racket, but the sound of several hundred instruments blasting away independently of one another inside a humungous stone building with open windows, well… it created a new kind of migraine-y endurance test. Being inside the building itself was like walking around with two constantly-running jet turbines strapped to each ear. Walls vibrated, skulls crushed, people clamped their palms to their ears and screamed to no avail. Conversations became shouting matches, phone calls became absurd. I’m surprised there weren’t more heart attacks. Every hall you walked down was a new kind of nerve-kill. Each stairwell tried to simultaneously pummel and swallow your head with involute sound, and the loudness assembled itself around you as you moved inside or outside the building (dissonant versions of moments you heard clustered inside the hallways would be projecting out the windows on the other sides of the rooms, and bounce off the brick walls in the courtyards, repeating themselves). New students who weren’t musicians were horrified that first week. Angry parents pulled non-art/music students out of Bruce Hall and into one of the quieter “business school” dorms. How could academe thrive in such an environment? Even if you were just sitting in your room with the door closed (and window open — again, it was real hot and there was no A.C.), you could alter the sound by turning your head. Sometimes people would temporarily snap and stand at their dorm room windows and scream “SHUUUUTUUUUP!!!” out into the loud, muggy air. It added to the madness.

Everyone just got used to it.

Even though I was an art student, my inner circles and outer circles were peppered with musicians. My roommate that freshman year was a guitar player named Kelly (now of the jazz vocal duo Davis & Dow). Our room’s window faced inside one of the deafening courtyards. About a week and a half into the first semester, on a typical evening as the Bruce Hall practice hours were sputtering to a close (which was another weird moment, where suddenly it became incredibly quiet and you realized you could hear your veins throbbing against your skull). My roommate and I heard the distinct sound of a husky woman’s voice echoing loudly outside, it seeming to come from somewhere across campus, like it had been broadcast through an amplifier. Her voice was saying something in a campy, sensual voice, something attention-grabbing like “Ohhh…your bulge is to DIE FOR!” Just as we sat up to listen, she then boomed, “I want your BUSINESS in my MOUTH!” Huh? It literally echoed. Many of the instruments still playing in some of the other rooms stopped, and laughter could be heard coming out of some of the windows.

“What in the hell was that?” Kelly and I wondered.

That night at dinner, this woman’s voice became the topic of conversation. Everyone in the dorm, even around the campus, seemed to have heard it. The woman’s voice had sounded overly-hoarse, like she was a heavy smoker, or just old. Kind of like Mercedes McCambridge. And what she’d said was obviously inappropriate for a Texas university campus in the middle of the evening, in the 80’s. But even though it was X-rated, it was corny. It was like she was reading lines from a 70’s soft-core porn movies. She sounded like Kathy McGinty crossed with Cookie Monster. The only voice I can think to compare it to is the one heard accompanying the films Travis Bickle goes to see alone in the porno theaters, in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (just more gravelly).

And why had it been sooooo loud? It hadn’t just been someone’s stereo, this was much bigger. Some people guessed that she had been broadcasting from the campus bell tower (which also played automated, chronological tape recordings of tolling bells every half hour to mark the time, tapes which every once in a while would get stuck and then broadcast warbling, warped bell sounds psychedelically over campus — but that’s a whole other story). The sound system in the bell tower was the only thing in place powerful enough to broadcast something like that over the entire campus. Should we go over there and investigate? Would we meet some crazed dominatrix performance artist sneaking in and out of the tower’s ground entrance? Perhaps she was a disgruntled elderly university employee getting her revenge? A sorority girl gone mad? Who the hell was this woman? What was her story? The theories began to form.

The next day at around the same time, our chain-smoking, nymphomaniacal independent broadcaster struck again. Well over the roar of the loud-as-usual practicing instruments she could suddenly be heard clear as day, as if she was thundering out of the very clouds. “Now!” (echo, echo, echo…) she started, “Put your testicles over my eye sockets! Mmm…feels nice!” (echo, echo, echo…). Once again, most room-practicers stopped playing to get a better listen. You heard laughter and catcalls in the distance. Then came: “Grawrr…give it to me now HORSE MAN!” More laughter and cheers. Somewhere in the distance a tuba let out a low tone. Then: “Give it to me HORSE MAN! Give it to me HORSE MAN! Give it to me HORSE MAN!” repeated in a loop. It was obviously a pre-recording of her voice, sampled, coming through a sound system from…somewhere. The loop continued. Those that had stopped began slowly playing their instruments again. You could make out some people around the building actually playing along with the rhythmic sample, loosely but discernibly. Percussionists began to join in and get a real rhythm going. A loud violin created an alternate rhythm. Instruments were played louder out their open windows, people yelled in response. Meanwhile the sample loop kept grinding, “HORSE MAN! HORSE MAN! HORSE MAN!” It all began to build into some kind of demented crescendo and then, at the peak of the frenzied jam, in a squeaking growl the woman’s voice screamed even louder “FUUUUCCCKKK MMMMEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!” as the instruments squealed to new heights, and stopped. Everything erratically quelled to a halt. Guess what? It was 8 PM, time for practice hours to end. There were rounds of applause in our courtyard that night.

What…the…hell?

Adding to the excitement, the next day there was a small item about the incident in the university’s newspaper, The North Texas Daily. More than just Bruce Hall had heard it (and maybe joined in). The paper mentioned the “obscene” recordings being broadcast from somewhere on the west side of campus, and under what Texas law they were deemed illegal. The university administration used the paper to apologize to any students who had been offended, and reassured them that campus security were on top of it, as were local police, and that they would soon apprehend whoever was responsible.

So, not surprisingly, the next day the woman’s voice didn’t come. It didn’t for a couple of days. Everyone assumed the woman’s strange stunt had been a spontaneous fluke. Student life commenced.

Then the following Monday…she struck again. Perfectly unexpectedly. This time it was not at the end of practice hours, but smack in the middle of the bright, sunny daytime. “Mmm…I’d say naughty boys like YOU need to be taught a lesson by THIER MOTHERS!” came the first booming round. Her voice seemed to be coming from outer space. I mean this was LOUD, like rattle-the-walls-loud. People in Bruce Hall howled with approval through their open windows (yay! she’s back!), instruments began to strum and blow louder. Then she dead-panned with a resounding echo “Oooooh-Mmmmm…but when I saw that DONKEY DICK of yours I began to suspect that you probably taught YOUR MAMA a thing or two! Mmm-hmmm!” People screamed with laughter. Horns and oboes squawked at the ready, drums began altering their patterns. The woman had a willing audience. And campus security or no campus security, she obviously had balls. Then came the sample loop, “DONKEY DICK! DONKEY DICK! DONKEY DICK!” and the players began to chime in rhythmically, especially drummers. The whole building seemed to jam along, all lead by the god-like voice of donkey dick lady. French horns in wing A of Bruce Hall created droning undertones while she enthusiastically stated “Ooooh yeaaaa…I could wet my whistle while you DRAIN YOUR WEASEL!” and several drummers at the far end of wings B and C created non-stop drum solos as she screamed “Heeeeyyy! There’s something sticky in my hair, and I think it’s your LOVIN’ SPOON FULL!” Instruments played faster and louder, people yelled and roared with laughter. Then, as usual, it was over…just like that. Sixty seconds, if even. The practicing instruments continued to play, perhaps with a bit more spunk.

Over the next few weeks, she behaved like a good serial killer: striking repeatably but unpredictably. Never the same day, never the same time, never the same span or pattern. The student body’s loud, sweltering masses learned to expect her when they least expected her, but it was always with open, sweaty arms. And each time she struck, the blasting instruments of Bruce Hall’s practicing students would seamlessly alter course and weave in her direction, joining in enthusiastically. It would always be over quickly, and then the day’s autonomous noise would continue.

Did she have dissenters amongst the student body? Short and simple answer: no. Was what she was doing “art?” Long and complicated answer: yes. She put everyone in tune with one another, even if just for a moment.

The last day she did it was on a Saturday, a time at Bruce Hall when typically people practiced in their rooms especially loud and boisterously. One reason she’d been able to stay undercover so long was that when she struck, it would always be for an extremely short time. Clever? She never broadcast her porn-y rants long enough for campus security to pinpoint exactly where she was doing it from. At least that was the rumor. But on that Saturday, she let the show run a little long. It went something like this:

“My nipples are ON FIRE!” (loud intro) (echo, echo, echo…)

*Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat!* (drums) (cheers of approval as instruments temporarily get quiet)

“That’s right bay-beeee! Mmmmm…take the Nas-Ty plunge!”

*Loooom-llooom-loom* *booooom-bom-bom-bom!* (xylophone joined with a piano in the distance) (screams)

“Hey hon, I’ll pee in a champagne glass if you want!”

(echo-y whistling and cat-calls) (more screams)

“Hey, oh, did you just step on a duck?”

*la-la-laa-la-la-la! I haaave-a-dooonkey-diiiick!* (female vocalist on top floor imitating woman’s voice in her vocal exercises) (distant laughter)

“Oww! My ass is sittin’ on a hot plate!”

*BLAAAAARP!!!* (tuba solo missing the duck cue by a beat) *Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat!* (more drummers join in) *clung-clung-clung!* (someone begins pounding another far-off piano) *weeen-ween-ween-ween*(a violin stars joining in) (more whistles)

“Hey…mmmm… what’s that back there?”

*Boom! Crash! Braaaarp! Yodel!* *BLAAAAARP!!!* *Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat!* *clung-clung-clung!* (more and more instruments join in, getting more and more frenzied) (more distant yelling)

“Ohhhh… I think someone’s knocking…”

*Boom! Crash! Braaaarp! Yodel!* *BLAAAAARP!!!* *Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat!* *clung-clung-clung!* *Loooom-llooom-loom* *booooom-bom-bom-bom!* *Boom! Crash! Braaaarp! Yodel!* *BLAAAAARP!!!* *Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat!* *clung-clung-clung!* (even more instruments join in, guitars, flutes, more drums, a gong, people start whistling and yelling, even louder, building and building…) (screams of laughter and clapping)

“…knocking at my B-A-A-A-C-K D-O-O-O-O-O-R!!!” (louder)

*Boom! Crash! Braaaarp! Yodel!* *BLAAAAARP!!!* *Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat!* *Z-z-z-z-z-z-t-t-t-!* *clung-clung-clung!* *Loooom-llooom-loom* *booooom-bom-bom-bom!* *Boom! Crash! Clung! Braaaarp! Yodel!* *BLAAAAARP!!!* *Rat-a-tat-llooom-loom-braaaarp-a-tat-a-tat!* *clung-clung-wheeee-clung!* (the instruments peak and peak and a frenzied pace, in pace and volume, people scream and holler out their windows, the instruments continue to play on and on like that…)

If there wasn’t the usual racket going on all around us, we might have heard that her voice was stopping this time because campus security were literally busting open her dorm room door. She’d been found.

The room in question ended up being (surprise!) in Bruce Hall and, (double surprise!) the twist was that the room was located on one of the men’s wings because (triple surprise!) it wasn’t a woman doing it.

The security guys (no joke) busted the lock of this poor schmuck’s door open and came blazing in like they were hunting the Zodiac Killer. They found him sitting there in front of his keyboard, a Fairlight synthesizer programed with samples he’d recorded from a live chat on a phone sex line (this was the 80’s and pay phone sex lines were still a wild new concept, especially for Texas), and huge outdoor sound amplifiers (the kind used for a small outdoor concert) laying on his floor, pointed up and out his room’s windows (not too unusual for such students to have that kind of gear). Reportedly he just looked at them with a huge grin on his face, and red hands.

And I say “looked at” meaning he just faced in their direction. Because guess who it was? Yep. Mr. blind piano player. Apparently, they had a good idea he was the culprit, and were just waiting to catch him in the act. It turns out that, in addition to adding spice to the cacophony of hundreds of musicians blasting at full-volume out of hundreds of rooms of an echo-y building with porn samples, he was also able to hide his porn samples behind the cacophony of hundreds of musicians blasting at full-volume out of hundreds of rooms of an echo-y building. Also, obviously many people on his wing could tell it was coming from the floor right above or below them, but didn’t say anything. Even though the campus security treated it seriously, and the local police were involved, apparently he got nothing more than a stern talking too (at least that was the rumor). At any rate, he stayed right on living in the dorm, now a hero, and more super-popular than ever. He was the dirty old man with a heart of gold (and a kick-ass sound system).

I lived in Bruce Hall for the remainder of that year, and half of the next. And that first week of the following year at Bruce Hall, guess what? Yep. He did it again.

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