I think that being a janitor is noble. I also believe dishwashing, too, is a noble profession. I've done both now.
A couple of months ago I moved to Boston and got a job as a janitor at MIT. You need a Masters to be an MIT janitor. It was good, honest work. My charge was the liberal arts faculty building. I always dumped my dirty mop water in the sink in Dr. Chomsky's office bathroom. But a janitor can't be a janitor forever. Or can he? There is inevitably the call of something greater. I became a janitor to avoid the work-a-day world that swarmed outside my small Cambridge efficiency. MIT paid well. I even got dental benefits. Every Friday afternoon I'd cash my check and walk down to Mystery Train records across the street from Harvard and blow half of it on records.
After about a month of sweeping, mopping, and the weekly record trip, I had doubled my collection and gotten some nice calluses. The band I was in, Prison Pen Pals, wasn't working out. I once brought them a copy of Donald Byrd's Street Lady so that we could learn "Lansana's Priestess." They told me to go to hell.
I was slipping into depression. Dr. Chomsky had gotten wise to my water dumping and had me reported. MIT docked me half a week's pay. That meant no records. I went down to Mystery Train anyway to see if anything new had come in. The previous week I had picked up all of Brian Eno's Music For Airports and an SWA album for kicks. To my horror, the rarely seen, shamrock green House of Pain Sub Pop Singles Club 45 was in. No cash. It was torture. But at that same moment -- my moment of obscurist's defeat, I realized that I was a grade A raging jackass. Who the hell really needs the House of Pain Sub Pop Singles Club 45? Or a Steven Reich boxed set for that matter? What if I all I needed was just one record? That got me thinking.
Mystery Train often attracted music professors from Harvard. It's easy to spot them with their tweed sportcoats and graying academic facial hair. On that afternoon one of the fellows was chatting with the clerk about an experiment his friend in the psychology department was doing. It involved sleep and food deprivation on human subjects. I paused a moment, wondering what poor people were wailing away in the depths of Harvard's ivy dungeons as research slaves -- then an idea hit me. I too would conduct an experiment ... an experiment the world had never seen before.
The next day I phoned up the dean of the computer science department at MIT I presented my case. It was, in my opinion, a great windfall for both the worlds of psychology and popular culture. The dean seemed a little wary of my using human subjects and told me, "Take that stuff across the street, son."
In a week, I had a meeting with a doctoral review board at Harvard. I outlined the experiment for the seven professors present. I called it the "Musical Purity Test." I hypothesized that a human subject, under increasingly strenuous conditions, will pair down musical listening habits to the point that, under the worst of conditions, the subject will ultimately be reduced to one final musical piece that can then be called "the best record in the world." I ended my presentation, drop-ping to one knee and raising my hands in my best Al Jolsen. The professors were silent for a few minutes. Then they needled me with questions and criticism ...
"Too subjective. The record will be different for each subject. It will prove nothing." "What kind of conditions are we talking about here? And who will the subjects be? Will their age, gender, race, reli-gion ... matter to your findings?" "What will it all cost?"I knew this was coming and was prepared.
"Ladies and gentlemen," I said. "There is, now as we speak, a professor in the biology department recreating the Nuremberg war crimes trial with Florida oranges and brine shrimp."
The professors scratched their chins and mumbled to each other.
"You can have lab space B13 in the psychology building."
They promised me a doctorate as long as I reported the findings to the American Journal of Psychology for publishing and didn't say any-thing about Dr. Edmunsson's "historical re-enactment." Also on slate for publishing from the Harvard psych department were Dr. Sydney Hirsch's article, "Father, I Want to Kill You: the Freudian motif in Charles Schultz's Peanuts." And "Skinner's Children: the Mechanicsburg Gerbils 1955-58," by Dr. Alice Wellbe.
Lab Space B13 was appropriately dark and dingy. I took a quick stroll and found that B12 was used for the storage of Dr. Eric Metzler's Alfa-Romeo convertible. The door to B14 had a large red, 'Do Not Disturb' sign on it.
I now had funds and a space. I needed some test subjects. For this I turned to my life outside of academia. I called in sick at MIT with Legionnaire's Disease. I figured I would need two weeks tops to conduct the experiment. Don Caballero and Golden were playing at the Middle East -- I decided to catch the show.
In between bands I surveyed the crowd. I needed four people randomly chosen. It didn't take long to find them. I approached a group of four kids standing in the back. They seemed a little put off by my proposition, perhaps thinking I was some sort of pervert, but when I donned my tweed sportcoat with its brown elbow patches their demeanor changed. I also had been cultivating a beard on my face. To prove my goodwill and solidarity, I would write them all excuses from school, work, etc. and buy them dinner. Not a bad haul. The subjects were:
Eric, 22, a white male who worked in a hipster pizza joint and played "synth" in a local band called Mascara.
Sherry, 20, a black female who worked at the Boston public library and published Budget Boy, a music zine
James, 24, an Asian male and operator of an indie label, Bluffer Records.
The fourth subject bailed. Time was short. I volunteered to do the experiment myself. I enlisted the help of a copy editor from the Harvard Lampoon, named Fred, who I paid in beer. My cursory research on other experiments of this type provided me with some guidelines for procedure and safety. I told the three subjects to bring in their record collections. We would all be sealed for five days in separate soundproof cubicles. Each would be furnished with a bed, washbasin, commode, and phonograph. My assistant from the Lampoon, Fred, would then monitor our behavior with video and audio equipment. I hypothesized that, by the end of five days, the desired effect of "Prime Record Selection" would occur.
Fred was also responsible for feeding us. We were to subsist on a meager diet of pasty gruel and water. Fred would give us fewer portions adding to our physical and mental stress. That was coupled with psychological stimuli that I had concocted before the experiment. Fred would announce to each subject, over a loudspeaker, the things they were missing and losing by being isolated in their cubicles. For example, he told James that 5,000 copies of the Bratmobile tribute album his label was doing were sent to East Africa by mistake.
The following is a rough synapses of the events that followed. It includes the theories that were either proven or dismissed.
Day 1: The pressure is applied early. There is no clock in my room. Time becomes a fleeting illusion. Breakfast is administered. My first record is Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. We are allowed no pens, pencils, or crossword puzzles. Our records are the only stimulation we have. I pace the small room listening to Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, and Deodata. Jazz-funk proves soothing. For a change, I put on The Weinberg Method, an early electronic music record. I arrive at my first theory:
Theory #1: Breaking the Kitsch Barrier. After six hours of isolation, any desire to play records of any novelty, kitsch, or joke nature disappears. Thus, the subjects who have late 1980s hair metal, Martin Denny, Rice, Serge Gainesbourg, or Moog instrumental records dismiss them. I was worried about hitting the kitsch barrier -- that some sort of dementia might have resulted in which subjects clung to such flaky pieces out of some sort of comfort and security. Luckily, this did not happen.
Day 2 ... Fred applies more pressure. He reduces our food portions and begins intermittent blasts of psychologically perturbing announcements. I am told that my ex-girlfriend has sent me an invitation to her wedding. She is getting married to one of the Shellac roadies. Todd Trainer will be the best man. The lack of any other stimulation begins to get to me. I stop listening to music for awhile, but my inner thoughts grow louder and more distracting. Was Fred really making that up? I knew he was ... or maybe not. I put on Dub Housing, hoping to find some comfort in its quirkiness. I instead find my second theory:
Theory #2: The Avant Garde High Watermark. By day two, the brain's capacity to decipher and appreciate higher and more complex forms of music breaks down. I could no longer handle any of my jazz or Pere Ubu records. Corollary: Greg Ginn solos. They're hard to stomach anyway -- impossible to listen to at this point in the experiment.
Day 3 ... I can tell Fred is giving us less food. He increases the jarring announcements. I can no longer tell if they are real or fabricated. I am told that Dr. Chomsky is going to have me arrested for stealing the bananas out of his lunch every morning -- which I actually did. I begin talking to myself. I have no concept of time. My internal clock is askew. With my record collection as my only solace, I put on Out Of Step, thinking that sing-a-long choruses might help my mental state. The third theory surfaces:
Theory #3: Hardcore. By day three, hardcore records of any kind are virtually intolerable, driving subjects to crying fits.
Day 4 ... A slow descent into madness. I try eating my own shoes. Oddly, I become fixated on biker rock. I play a Pink Fairies record for three hours straight before I break it. Fred informs me that my little brother's straight edge metal band, Grimace, has just gotten a deal with Victory Records. Snapping seems close. I begin talking to my records. I construct a mock board meeting for Dischord Records by arranging the sleeves of my Fugazi, Fire Party, and Warmers albums. We discuss the possibility of releasing a 7" by Bartok.
Day 5 ... The final judgement. Fred opens my sealed cubicle and finds me naked in a pile of smashed records and torn sleeves holding a copy of the Beach Boys All Summer Long in my trembling teeth. It is all that I can stand to listen to. I have discovered the prime record.
As it turned out, all the subjects picked different records in their final stages of isolation. My Beach Boys selection was not much of a surprise, but the other subjects' choices shocked me. Eric picked a Donna Summer greatest hits LP. Sherry was found clutching Frankenchrist and James had the House of Pain Sub Pop Singles Club 45, much to my dismay. The results were inconclusive and didn't make much sense. Then again, the whole experiment really didn't either. I was the only one who owned All Summer Long.
I appeared before the doctoral review board three days later and presented my findings. The seven professors didn't say anything. I was a little dumfounded and asked what they thought of my experiment.
"Your findings are inconclusive and inconsequential to the world at large."
I assured them I could conduct more refined studies.
"Did anyone touch my Alfa-Romeo?" asked Dr. Metzler.
"No," I replied.
"Well then," he said. "Thank you for watching it. Here is your degree."
A doctorate in psychology from Harvard. I was taken aback. The profs offered to buy me a drink at a local academic watering hole, The Meno. I politely declined and went home. The next day they offered me a professorship, complete with an office overlooking the tennis courts. I told them to hold it for me -- I was going on sabbatical. I went down to Mystery Train, sold my entire record collection and hopped a plane to Mexico City. I soon got a job as a janitor in a hotel.