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Assignment: A column about answering machine messages and music for World Famous Crazy Wild, a Los Angeles based webzine dedicated to the film and television industry. (March 2003)

Music, Subtext, and the Modern Outgoing Phone Message

More attention needs be paid to outgoing voice messages. Think about it, each unanswered call is your opportunity to set a 15 second mood—an opportunity to direct (finally) your own personal dolly shot.

Want to alarm the person you gave your phone number to last Saturday night and make sure they never call again? Easy. Manipulate by being pensive? Done. Turn circumstance into comedy? Abracadabra. Spotlight your faves? Voi-fucking-la.

Scene 1, Take 3: Scaring A Potential Suitor

Problem: You’re out Saturday night and in fine form. But somehow your scarily witty defenses are misinterpreted as charming and self-effacing. Carried away, you give out your phone number along with a self-deprecating smile. The clarity of the next morning requires you take action and change your phone message.

Solution: One Less Bell To Answer, The Fifth Dimension.

Bones Howe, who would later produce the early Tom Waits albums, produced One Less Bell To Answer in 1970 and it is sure to scare the bejesus out of anyone contemplating asking you out on a date. The lonely tocking-sound of a wood block, along with a minor-key string and woodwind arrangement lead up to the hushed opening lyrics: One less bell to answer/One less egg to fry/One less man to pick up after/ But all I do is cry. In other words, an ironclad guarantee that the only thing you’ll have to deal with is your caller ID.

Opening Montage: A Day In The Life

Problem: You haven’t changed your outgoing message in weeks. Torpor is everywhere. You feel like Seymour Glass in a Perfect Day For Bananafish. Teaching 11th grade English to kids who watch Cribs and shake their heads at the strength it took for Li’l Kim to go on after Biggie’s death has left you stranded. And as much as you appreciate Sandra Cisneros, you have become immune to “stories of pure discovery, filled with moments of infinite and intimate wisdom.”

Solution: Hawaiian Two-Step, John Fahey.

You need music by someone who imploded along the way and lived to tell about it; someone in touch with the transcendent and the meek; someone with matted hair who might sit on his hands in church and then go home and play a hymn on his guitar with such complexity and depth that for miles around, sunning cats on summer porches, weep. But instead of one of his hymns, you put on Hawaiian Two-Step and stand three feet from the phone to shout your greeting over the opening bars, as you sway and jump around on a hardwood floor in a pair of flip-flops and contemplate quitting.

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