Understanding life via three-minute pop songs

Telephones, Thomas Edison, And Top 40 Tunes

I’m at a payphone trying to call home, all of my change I spent on you.  –“Payphone” by Maroon 5

When technology changes everyday life, language responds with new words to help us navigate new experiences. Thus, the history of the telephone and the greeting “hello” are intertwined.

Telephone derives from the Greek tele- “afar” + phone “voice, sound”. Imagine how much brainpower it took to make the transmission of voices over wire possible. Still, when the first telephone was unveiled in 1876, one question remained: what should people say when answering?

There were two schools of thought, led by two technology titans. Alexander Graham Bell advocated “ahoy”, while Thomas Edison thought “hello” was the answer.

“Ahoy” is a nautical term derived from the Dutch hoi, which means “hi”. “Hello” is a modern word, dating back only to the early 1800s when people shouted it to get attention. Etymological cousins include hallo, holla, hala, and hola.

The lines are scrambled on why “hello” won out over “ahoy”. According to one source, the first phone book ever published told people to answer with a “firm and cheery hulloa”. Subsequent phone books echoed this instruction, and early adopters complied. Soon, telephone operators were called “hello girls”.

When technology changes everyday life, pop songwriters respond. So we find references to the telephone, in the service of lovers and lonely hearts, in legions of Top 40 tunes:

“Telephone” (Lady Gaga): Stop callin’, stop callin’, I don’t wanna talk any more…

“Sylvia’s Mother” (Doctor Hook): Sylvia’s mother said Sylvia’s busy, too busy to come to the phone…

“867-5309/Jenny” (Tommy Tutone): Jenny, don’t change your number…

“Telephone Line” (Electric Light Orchestra): I’d tell you everything, if you’d pick up that telephone…

“Hanging On The Telephone” (Blondie): If you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall…

And then there’s Todd Rundgren’s 1972 smash, “Hello It’s Me”. Edison would have loved the title, of course. And it’s a good thing his phone greeting prevailed. Somehow “Ahoy It’s Me” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.


Thirty-Four Years Later, Who Loves You

Among my most memorable concerts is one I didn’t see: The Who at the Providence Civic Center on December 17, 1979. Thanks to my brother Robert and my roommate Mark, we had great seats: Lower Arena, Section 109, $11.50 a ticket. Rob and Mark had “slept” outside the Civic Center the night before tickets went on sale. None of us had seen The Who before.

But two weeks prior to the Providence show, eleven people died at a Who concert in Cincinnati when general admission seating resulted in a stampede at the gate. Mayor Buddy Cianci cancelled The Who’s Providence date, citing public safety, even though the Civic Center show had reserved seating. Rob and Mark and I spent our refund money on pitchers of beer at Hope’s on Washington Street, as Who songs played on the juke box. We have lamented that missed show ever since.

I’ve been a Who fan since I was thirteen. That’s when my father gave my brothers and me Tommy. During high school, I listened to Who’s Next while shooting pool at my friend Jimmy’s house. I remember thinking “Bargain” was a great song, especially the bridge that Pete Townshend sings: “I’m looking for that free ride to me/I’m looking for you.” The cover was cool, too: four guys peeing in a slag heap. Rock on.

In the summer of 1978, I scored my teenage dream job: part-time cashier at Midland Records on Thayer Street on the East Side. One of my duties was to play music non-stop on the store’s sweet audio system. Who Are You came out on August 18th and immediately went to the top of the store playlist. Keith Moon died three weeks later. After that, all The Who albums were in heavy rotation.

And that’s when I discovered Quadrophenia. Released in 1973, it was a rock opera like Tommy, but with less pretense and more of the band’s signature sound: Daltry’s soaring vocals, Townshend’s grinding guitars, Entwistle’s melodic bass runs, and the relentless drum assault that was Moon. Quadrophenia also had a compelling narrative arc, centered on a young Mod named Jimmy who is a teenage everyman: alone, misunderstood, angry, looking for the girl, and trying to figure out how to fit in. I played the double-album non-stop. And when a film adaptation came out in 1979, it made me love the story and music even more.

Fast forward to 2012: my news feed reports that The Who are going on tour and the last date will be in Providence in February. What’s more, they will perform Quadrophenia in its entirety. The Dunkin’ Donuts Center, formerly the Civic Center, announces that anyone with tickets from the cancelled 1979 show can trade them in for seats at the February concert. Remarkably, fourteen fans emerge with their tickets.

It’s an early Thursday morning at work. I pull up the Ticketmaster site on my computer… The Who: Quadrophenia and More… Dunkin’ Donuts Center… February 26, 2013… Section 107… Row E… Seats 1-2… Boom! Two tickets for Rob and me – not too far from our original seats.

And then I blast “The Punk and The Godfather” from Quadrophenia: “The numbered seats in empty rows/It all belongs to me you know.”

LPs, Braces, And The Generation Gulf

My son Peter held the vinyl LP in his hands. It could have been a dinosaur bone.

“Wow,” he said. “This plays on both sides!”

I was amazed by his amazement. And then I thought, why should I be?

Peter had never seen an album before. He grew up listening to CDs, which only play on one side, of course. As he marveled at the grooves in my musical artifact, I felt Age tap me on the shoulder, look me in the eye, and wink.

Generation gap? It’s more like a gulf. Show anyone under age 20 a typewriter or TV rabbit ears or a wooden tennis racket and they look at you as if you were from a different planet. Which in some ways you are. Life today is not what it was a generation ago.

Consider orthodontia (from Greek orthos, “straight, true, correct” + odontos, “tooth”). While I dreaded getting braces, my three kids couldn’t wait to get rigged out. In my sixth grade class, I was one of only two students out of 25 who had tinsel teeth. Today, according to the American Association of Orthodontists, 70 to 80 percent of teenagers in America have or will have braces.

My path to braces began with a retainer in second grade – a futile attempt to corral the toothy Stonehenge that had emerged from my upper gum. Soon it was clear: I had too many teeth and not enough room. So when I was in fifth grade, my dentist extracted four of my bicuspids. Then an x-ray detected a rogue tooth in my palate. That had to come out, too. This time I went to an oral surgeon. For a week afterward, I lived on lemon sherbet, which is forever linked in my mind to an aching mouth and dizzying medications. When my stitches were gone, so was my appetite for lemon sherbet.

The braces were the easy part. My orthodontist, Dr. Prescott, was kind and assured. The nurses were sweet. The appointments were quick and painless.

As my twelfth birthday approached, I received a card from Dr. Prescott. The front showed a bunch of buck-toothed, braces-laden cartoon characters, with the caption “Lots of people have them…” Right, I thought. Then I looked inside: “BIRTHDAYS WE MEAN!”

I broke into a silver smile.

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