Unanticipated Benefits

How Mom, Spike and Bugs Saved Me From the L.A. Rioters

The things you own and the things you do will influence your children.  Don’t assume you can predict what kind of impact it will have, though. Les Paul, who died last August, did more to shape the modern music industry than any other ten guys.  He took a few piano lessons and the teacher told his mom he had no aptitude.  Mom ignored her and got him a harmonica and a guitar.  He taught himself to play them.  Little Lester also had a habit of taking household items apart and re-assembling them.  Mom allowed it.  How would you react if your pre-teen kept taking your TV, stereo and computer apart to try to make new things out of them?  Les wanted to have his hands free so he could play harmonica and guitar at the same time.  He made the first neck-worn harmonica holder from a coat-hanger.  They’ve been based on that design ever since.  He took the player-piano apart and figured out how to punch the holes on the roll to make music, the “tracking” concept that led to his later invention of multi-track recording.  To amplify the sound of his guitar, he dismantled the record-player and inserted the needle behind the strings.  When that wasn’t loud enough, he took the magnet and coils out of the telephone and put them under a guitar string attached to a piece of railroad iron he had found.  That evolved into the solid-body electric guitar.

My mother had odd taste in music.  We didn’t have a stereo, just a portable player and a select few records, mostly 78s.  Though I heard people singing ballads and love songs on the radio, Mom’s records offered something different.  She had classical recordings and comedic music, significantly by Spike Jones and his City Slickers.  I played his 1948 “version” of the William Tell Overture over and over obsessively.  I could not figure the thing out!  It had incredible energy and a constant stream of bad puns and 1940s in-jokes.  Simultaneously, the musicians were playing at the same skill level I recognized from the classical records.  To my pre-school brain, this was an object of inestimable value that must have come from Mars, or heaven, perhaps both.

The recording begins with the Storm portion of the overture.  The band plays this accompanied by barking dogs and clangs. After a gunshot used for musical punctuation, we proceed to the Call to the Cows first on normal instruments, then on tuned pots, pans and bicycle horns, then via gargling and a gulp.

The part of the overture everyone knows from The Lone Ranger if nowhere else, the Cavalry Charge is then played as an underscore to race track commentary by Winstead “Doodles” Weaver (Sigourney’s uncle).  The racehorses have joke names like Dogbiscuit (Seabiscuit) and their field positions are told as rapid puns (“Girdle” in the stretch). Trailing the field at 20-to-1 odds is the horse “Feitlebaum”.  Feitlebaum is always intoned in a deep, two-note “foghorn” cadence.  As the race nears completion, Doodles parodies broadcaster Clem McCarthy who had covered the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race, as well as the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling boxing rematch. The song concludes with Weaver announcing the (IMPOSSIBLE!) winner… “Feetle-baummmmm”.

Here’s a link to the song, if you have three minutes to spare:

It took me about five years of incessant grownup-pestering to peel back the layers of stuff that was going on in this record.  As a result, by age eight I had a pretty good foundation for understanding things like music arranging, sound fx, comedic timing and 40s pop culture history.  I moved on to an appreciation of Warner Bros. cartoons, especially Bugs Bunny.  Mom had prepared me for Bugs by way of Spike Jones.  Bugs taught me courage and adaptability, and the usefulness of being smarter than your opponent, or if not smarter, then having quicker reaction time.

LESSON from BUGS – If someone is after you, they can be diverted through misdirection, as long as you do it before they have time to think about it.  This is one way to manipulate the behavior of a predator, assuming you and the predator speak the same language.  If you can’t paint a fake tunnel on the side of the hill, just indicate to your pursuer “They went that-a-way!

It was shortly after sundown on Wednesday, April 29th, 1992.  I had been doing errands for several hours and was driving to pick up some proofs from a photographer friend in South Central Los Angeles.  My car radio wasn’t working.  Because I had not heard the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial, I did not know I was driving straight into a riot zone.  When I pulled up at an intersection near Normandie and Gage, I saw a group of five or six young men on the corner by a small market.  Some had what looked like 2 x 4s, and one carried an aluminum baseball bat.  They advanced toward me, looking very angry.  I don’t understand where the impulse came from, but in the adrenaline-filled stress of that moment I did something straight out of Bugs Bunny cartoons.  I frantically gestured with both hands and pointed around the corner as if to indicate “THEY WENT THAT-A-WAY!

The men stopped cold, looked at each other in bewilderment for a moment, and charged around the corner where I had pointed.  I turned the car and drove away in the opposite direction.  It wasn’t until I got home to Burbank that I learned what news story I had avoided becoming a part of, due to an unanticipated benefit of my mom’s odd taste in music.

What unanticipated benefits have you had in life?

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4 Comments

Filed under Music

4 responses to “Unanticipated Benefits

  1. Phil Monk

    Wow! Can’t think of anything close to this but you do make me want to go through the old 78’s I inherited in my dad’s estate. I seem to recall a Spike Jones or two in his collection. I think we wore out the hole on Tex Williams’ “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette”. Hmmm. I wonder if that song had anything to do with my decision not to smoke? Maybe I just found my unanticipated benefit! :D

    p.s. Amen to your comment about Les Paul.

    • I liked it when some of the Les Paul obits credited his mom with creating the music industry. The Williams song does have the energy too, because it swings. I think I heard it done by Phil Harris on TV first, and later by Commander Cody.

  2. Dang, that’s crazy. Who else would have thought to do that? Wow.

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