Earworms, Musical and Otherwise

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Earworms, Musical and Otherwise

Blue Jay Way, by George Harrison, sung by the Beatles (1967), encountered 1967

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I had expected that my freshman experience at college would full of good things, and it did not disappoint.  But I started to find out quickly that it was also full of things that were difficult, frustrating, and sometimes downright horrifying.

Settling Into a Harder Place

For instance, within a week of my arrival, a young man who had just matriculated with me, and whose face was on the same page as mine in the face book,[1] was tied up and beaten to death by a campus tobacconist whose shop stood just a block away from the dorm where I slept.  Although I was not quite unfamiliar with violent death occurring in my immediate vicinity,[2] it had never before happened to someone of whom I could plausibly say “that could have been me.”[3] More mundanely, my courses proved harder than I could have guessed (I pulled a first-semester GPA of only 2.8), and I wrote a friend, and meant it, that “everybody here’s smarter than I.”  My study habits clearly needed upgrading, but I didn’t have a clue how.  There was also chronic homesickness, and not doing spectacularly well with the girls, although I wasn’t really complaining too much about that: every near-miss at a relationship (and there were a lot of different ones) truly was a learning experience, and I felt it as such, whatever I may have said.[4]

The city itself was challenging, too.  I wanted to explore.  Philadelphia yielded itself up, but not easily.  There was lots of dirt, neighborhoods where it wasn’t safe to go, unpredictable train schedules,[5] distances that were a little uncomfortable to walk (and this was before backpacks, wheeled briefcases, or any technology for miniaturizing the information you needed to have available for your studies).  The air was full of soot that would collect on your record grooves (and you’d best believe I noticed something like that.)  Frequently there were sulfur dioxide and other smells from the nearby oil refineries.  People were harder than in my hometown.  The barber at the student union practically cursed me out when I didn’t tip him (not knowing better).  I got into a fight with the petty tyrant who checked to assure we were wearing ties for dinner at Freshman Commons, as required.[6] There was even a certain kind of pressure I had to come to terms with, being Catholic in a predominantly Jewish environment.[7]

George Harrison’s Earworm

So as exciting as it all was, there was a queasy underside to it that kept me off balance.  I came up against the quintessential episode of that the day I bought the Beatles’ next album, Magical Mystery Tour.  Per the experts at AllMusic, the release date was Monday, November 27th.  By then I had completely absorbed the complexities of Sgt. Pepper, which I’ve already discussed, and I was more than ready for whatever the Beatles were about to dish up next.  The first few people I’d heard talking about the follow-up album were disappointed, but I just had to have it.  I bought the album on Saturday, December 9.[8] I was finished with all my courses then, and studying for finals.  (Complaining to my parents the previous day that “I should be out wenching and getting topped, but I’m going to be reading Kierkegaard.”)  Magical Mystery Tour was probably a present to myself for getting through the semester and an encouragement to myself to study hard.

I think on my first couple of listens, I found a lot to like about the album, but there was one totally creepy song, George Harrison’s Blue Jay Way.  My Beatles vade mecum, Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head objectively describes the song:

Written in the fog-bound Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles on 1st August 1967, the blurred harmonic oscillation between C major and C diminished which is almost the entire musical matter of BLUE JAY WAY all too successfully conveys its author’s jet-lagged dislocation while waiting for publicist Derek Taylor to arrive.  A four-minute pedal-drone laden with ADT,[9] phasing, and backwards tapes, it numbingly fails to transcend the weary boredom that inspired it.

Subjectively, I found the song scary.  It seemed like a descent into some kind of languorous madness. (To be fair, probably not what Harrison intended.)  Not only was the song unattractive, but it wormed its way into my head and I couldn’t get it out.  It’s not just the songs you like that do that to you.  By the third play-through I deliberately lifted up the tone arm and skipped that song.

Here Be Dragons

Predictably, I was far from the only person celebrating that day.  The fraternities and sororities were doing their end-of-semester thing.  I was no frat boy, and would not have been invited or welcome to their festivities.  But a block from me, at the Delta Tau Delta house, a dance was in progress.  Around 1:30 on the Sunday morning, someone mishandled a cigarette near some combustible Christmas decorations. The ground floor was promptly engulfed in flames, which then quickly spread up the one stairway to the second floor.  People on the second floor were trapped.  Many jumped from the window, some were pushed from the window by frantic partygoers behind them, and some injured themselves in the fall.  Three died, two frat brothers and a high school girl.  (Heavens only know what she was doing there at that hour.)

The word was all around campus, of course, when I awoke that Sunday morning.  I was dumbfounded.  That frat was, if memory serves correctly, at or near the east end of the fraternity row, on the main campus block.  I passed it every day.  And now people had died there!  I was scared.  I was horrified.  I tried but failed to get images of people on fire out of my head.

When I first walked on campus after that, I stole a glance at the charred entrance with the tape around it.  Then I looked away.  And for the next several days, I wouldn’t look that way.  Even though I didn’t attend frat bacchanals, I knew that what had happened was a sample of the random disasters that come along from time to time.  The next time might not be frat party, but something else I hadn’t even thought of.  People die in disasters, and there was no telling when one of them might involve me.  There but for the grace of God, I was feeling.

It’s obvious, then, why the song is the Theme Song for the experience.  I didn’t want either to look at the one thing or to listen to the other.  But I had to keep encountering them.  And I couldn’t get either one out of my head.

Growing up was, thank goodness, a process of becoming exposed to all kinds of things, only a few of them traumatic, but traumatic surely was part of it.  And I was growing up.

Denial to a New Level

I had not been the only person celebrating, and then I was not the only person avoiding.  The following summer I received the yearbook (actually the only one I ever sprang for while I was a collegian).  On the Delta Tau Delta page, it’s as if the event had never occurred.  “This was a good year for Delta,” the page informs us, “as brothers remained active in every major aspect of University life.”  Football heroes are mentioned, and service clubs.  Toward the end, remarkably, this: “Social activities were climaxed in the fall with the annual Christmas formal and the spring semester was full of promise as we gained another outstanding pledge class.”  That’s it?  That’s all that’s worth mentioning about the “Christmas formal?”  Nothing about the three lives snuffed out and the desperate people being pushed out the window, and the charred entrance, and the trauma for the entire campus?

I kept hearing George Harrison’s refrain in my head, Please don’t be long/Please don’t you be very long, like a plea to the missing, as if George were invoking them to delay no further their return from the dead.  But George was too spaced-out for his voice to reach them, and so they wandered off further into the land of shades.

[1] I am now speaking of an actual face book, distributed by the University, with pretty much everyone’s photo and some identifying information in it.  I still have mine.  So successful has Facebook become in preempting the sense of these morphemes that this bit of etymology will probably soon be known only to philologists.

[2] In a fit of road rage, a next-door neighbor of mine had slain the father of someone I went to school with.

[3] In reality, it probably couldn’t have been me.  There were strong overtones of homosexuality about the whole incident, which would have ruled me out as a victim, but I hadn’t quite got a fix yet on what all that was about.

[4] For instance, one concrete lesson I learned was that after a bad date, even if the girl said she’d go out with you again, she wouldn’t.  I think I grasped that one quicker than some guys did.

[5] Although I talked with bravado about the transit system.  And it was a fact that I could enter the maw of the 37th Street underground trolley stop, and emerge near my father’s apartment at the 116th Street and Broadway IRT station in New York without going outside once, which was pretty cool.

[6] I wanted to wear a turtleneck sweater one night, and thought a tie under it would be silly.  He insisted on checking, found that I had no tie on, and refused me admittance until I went back to the dorm and secured a tie.  The following night I presented myself with a turtleneck again.  He again insisted on an inspection.  This time there was a tie, but taped to my collar above the tie was a sign that read “Fuck You.”  This needless confrontation with authority got me into some kind of trouble, although the details are hazy.

[7] Which Penn was at the time.  The resulting rules could get damned confusing.  For instance I’d been a stage manager of the Penn Players’ big musical which had played the weekend preceding the weekend I’m about to discuss.  There had been a pretty member of the crew who had kissed me several times amidst the scrum of sexual friction that always happens backstage.  After the production, I had asked her out, and was told she only dated Orthodox Jewish boys.  I found it strange – then – to be treated as a person in one context and as just a member of a category in another.  Acceptable to kiss but not to date was a new one on me.  Then.

[8] The incident I’m about to discuss occurred in the early hours of Sunday, December 10.  (See this newspaper account, dated the Monday, which supplies the date by implication.)

[9] Artificial double-tracking.  Says MacDonald: “It consists of taking the signal from the sync head of the multitrack, recording it to a variably-oscillated loop, and sending it back to the multitrack about a fifth of a second out of phase.”

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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