Saturday, January 28, 2006

That Old Quack Magic

The week our show was scheduled to air, I opened the weekly TV listings and read the following:

Vox Populi! 7 pm

The Ballets Rude, a musical group, play songs they’ve created in “music-for-fun” sessions.

“Music for fun”? What did that mean? Was that what we did?

It was an early lesson in how the media are always ill-equipped to explain art to the public.

In point of fact, from the moment the last few chords of the taping had died away, there was considerable doubt as to whether or not the show would actually air.

The producer explained to me later over the phone that there’d been some debate in the office as to the seriousness of our intent and whether the time spent airing it couldn’t be spent on something more constructive.

I did, and do, resent this. Part of our intent had been precisely to punch a few holes in the popular notions of what could and could not be allowed on television and what did and did not constitute music. To that extent, we had been as serious as a heart attack.

Had these philistines never heard of Cage’s 4’33” ? Or Duchamp’s Fountain ? Were we doomed to remain unappreciated in our own time?

In fact, had we been more po-faced and solemn about it, I doubt there would have been any trouble about it at all. But there was probably something about a guy screaming into a microphone about a duck that made them question our intent.

In the end, they decided the fair thing to do was to air it. After all, the show was called Vox Populi! And we were some of the populi.

What fascinated me about the whole “music-for-fun” business was that in order to air the show, they had to create a description in order to justify showing it. They needed to have an explanation at the ready should someone question the purpose of it. It simply wouldn’t do to say we let these maniacs run around the studio for half an hour.

I’ve since learned that people get very nervous about something when they can’t compare it to something they already know. So whoever came up with “music-for-fun” probably made the difference between the show seeing the light of day or the inside of a trash can.

The night of the scheduled broadcast we gathered around the tube and carefully set up a tape recorder to capture the show. This was, of course, before the invention of the VCR, so the only tape of it that exists is on an ancient audio cassette.

We could scarcely believe our eyes as the title card I’d drawn came up, multi-colored by their technicians, and I launched into that opening instrumental. This was going into people’s homes, not just here in Pennsylvania, but New Jersey and Delaware. Would they ever make a contribution to public television again?

As the Master of Ceremonies for the evening, I introduced the rest of the ensemble and talked a little about what we did. I had my ubiquitous gray Stetson on (it would be years before I managed to jettison that security blanket) and I wore a t-shirt that read simply Ballets Rude. There was some good-natured banter, the peanut gallery held up signs, and we went into another number whose name escapes me.

Well, this all seems to be going pretty well, I thought.

About halfway through the proceedings came the acid test, though. I introduced A Little Duck Quacked At The People, a vocal number with no instruments to fall back on which started out slow and got progressively faster.

The laughter of the cameramen was audible. My mother stared at me as if I had two heads. Miles away, my father was watching it on a mini-TV as he rang up customers at a local supermarket.

I hadn’t noticed it during the taping, but at some point somebody snuck around to the piano and kazoos were broken out to accompany me with quacking sounds.

It all sounded better than I’d remembered.

Some time ago, Philadelphians like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Rydell had probably stood where I was standing, crooning about the moon, the stars, and true love. Now here was I, making strange percussive sounds with my tongue meant to approximate an orchestral crescendo, while people quacked behind me.

Surely this was progress.

Conclusion: American Handstand


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