Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Vocalise

By John Bridges

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  Women think they know what adolescent terror is. They will tell you about it, with only the slightest provocation. They will tell you that adolescent terror all about bad skin, small breasts, and getting your first period in the middle of social studies class.

I am not one to argue with women, but I can assure you that, at least in this regard, they are wrong. They are wrong because the vast majority of them, as far as I can tell, have never been a 14-and-a-half-year-old boy. More specifically, there is hardly any woman in the world who has ever known what it is like to be a 14-and-a-half-year-old boy whose voice has not yet changed. They cannot know what it is like to start getting hair under your arms, to discover yourself waking up under a damp bedsheet in the morning, and to learn that you are still expected to sing "Tit-Willow" in the ninth-grade talent show.

There are a great many things that an adolescent girl can lie about. There is a great deal that a tampon, a roll of toilet paper, and a tube of Clearasil can fix. But there is no hiding place for a boy who knows that, even though he is almost old enough to have a learner's permit, the next time he answers the telephone, even if he says nothing more than a grumpy little "Hello," a chirpy voice will come back at him with, "Edna, honey, I think I found your green earbob."

There is no comforting a boy who, for almost 15 years, has been having to say, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Poxley, this is Ernie." There is no healing the scars left by almost 15 years of hearing Mrs. Poxley give a gurgly laugh and say, "I swear, Ernie, sometimes you could just pass for your mama." In all the vast, anguished, persecuted span of the female experience, there is no parallel horror for this one. For even one of those telephone calls, much less for seven of them in a row on a single Saturday afternoon, there is no just recompense.

It was not as if I had not prayed for my voice to change. At age 12 I had cancelled my boy-soprano voice lessons. At 13 I had stopped piping along with the melody line in church. When a preacher had showed up at my family's house on a Sunday afternoon, carrying a reel-to-reel tape recorder and asking me to sing "Beautiful Dreamer" into his hand mic, I had decreed that my lyric coloratura days were done. I had figured that, if I kept my mouth shut and thought really evil thoughts, my voice would start cracking. But it did not work. I went to gym class, just like all the other boys in the eighth grade. They came out of the showers sounding like Johnny Cash at the Folsom Prison concert. I came out sounding like Frankie Valli with a case of jock itch.

In the mid-'60s, of course, it did not help that you could turn on the radio at any moment and hear the Beach Boys or the Four Seasons or Gene Pitney singing, in falsetto, about having sex in the back seat of a car. A 14-and-a-half-year-old boy with a good upward extension could be lured into singing along with such things. At parties, in fact, other 14-and-a-half-year-old persons might sometimes even express admiration for his accomplishment. However, the problem was that any boy who could sing along with the Beach Boys could also sing along with Barbra Streisand. Years later, at a class reunion, I can promise you, some Barcalounger salesman in a golf shirt and a pair of relaxed-fit jeans is not going to remember the time you sang along with "Good Vibrations." Instead, he is going to remember the time an assistant coach made you sing "Happy Days Are Here Again" in front of a health and hygiene class.

At the class reunion the recliner salesman will glance down at your name tag and say, "Hey. Woah. It's coming back to me. What was that song you used to sing?"

Blithely, you will suggest, "Oh, you must be thinking about 'Good Vibrations.' And, as best I remember, I think I did a rather successful 'Surfer Girl.' "

Then the salesman, who is also a former defensive lineman, will stare down at your chest again, checking to make sure he's got the right name tag. He will glance back up at you for a fleeting instant, and a look of uneasiness will come over him. Then he will rock back and forth in his pretend-Gucci loafers, he will stare down at his half-full glass of scotch, and he will say, "Hey, looks like it's about time I got me another drink."

Even when you are only 14-and-a-half years old, if you are still singing along, at pitch, with your mother's Vikki Carr albums, you sense that you have this sort of moment ahead of you. That is why, when the telephone rings, you shout to your mother, "I'm in the bathroom. Somebody wanta answer the phone?" That is why, when your mother finally asks you, "Young man, just what are you doing, spending so much time in the bathroom?" you cannot come up with any possible sort of answer. The truth, you know full well, is far worse than anything she could possibly suspect.

You know that even decades later, unless a doctor gives you shots, people will still be trying to find nice words for the way you sound on the telephone. They will laughingly come up with words like "distinctive," "unique," "musical." They will try to avoid "wimpy," "whiney," and "sort-of-squeaky-like."

They will not need to know that, sometimes, if you answer the phone during the lunch hour, you are still mistaken for the receptionist. They will not need to know that, when a grown man has known the words to "Tit-Willow" for more than three decades, he stopped trying to defend himself to anybody. They need not know that, once in a while, it does not bother him to answer the phone and hear a voice gurgle, "Trixie, is Mr. Varpel in?" They need not know that, once in a while, he goes ahead and simply answers, "No, Mrs. Poxley. May I take a message?" They need not know that, once in a while, such a moment is a man's only vengeance on the world.

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