Monday, January 7, 2019

The day the Muzak died

Shared musical interests were one of the things that first drew me to the woman I was to marry.

Joe Ely, Todd Snider, Steve Earle, Delbert McClinton — we both reveled in the alt-country music that originated in mostly Texas and Nashville.

She eventually became the paper’s country music writer providing lively interviews with luminaries like Alan Jackson and George Strait under her picture and the generic “Country Connections” header.

I found the title uninspired and lacking the appealing zing of her column. I suggested they use something more provocative, something like … 

“Fiddlin’ ‘round with Val!”

So I always pay attention when ever she makes a point about music which is what I did when she wanted to know what happened to Muzak. “You used to hear it everywhere,” she said, “then it just disappeared.”

Careless readers will be confused by that last paragraph. Note: We’re not talking  music.

We’re talking Muzak.

Music of all forms is appreciated by someone, even if it’s the cheerleader moms or clueless groupies.

Despite being heard by tens of millions of people around the world each and every day, Muzak had no fans. It had no mothers, no groupies. It was utterly unloved. 

Queens College music professor Gary Gumpert described Muzak in a 1990 interview: “It’s a kind of amniotic fluid that surrounds us; and it never startles us, it is never too loud, it is never too silent; it’s always there.”

They’d take popular mainstream music — think “Ruby Tuesday” — play it with muted stringed instruments and record it through amplifiers that must have been deadened with three feet of wet Kleenex. The result was “Ruby Tuesday” sounding as distinctive as “Yesterday Once More” played at the bottom of one of the SeaWorld whale tanks.

It was, to me, an infuriating artistic affront to a band that included all-caps listening instructions on its monumental “Let It Bleed” album: “THIS RECORD SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD.”

While bands like The Stones, The Who and The Beatles were dominating FM radio, Muzak was in control of everything else. The service reached millions of unwitting listeners — aural hostages, really — each day. It was played in countless office buildings, waiting rooms and grocery stores. On the launch of Apollo 11, Mission Control piped Muzak into the capsule on the belief it would calm the astronauts.

Yes, Muzak was our national anesthesia. 

“Muzak fills the deadly silences,” went one of the company’s own promotional slogans.

And it was played almost with out exception in elevators, thus earning the widely repeated pejorative that Muzak was “elevator music.”

What happened to Muzak?

Clearly, I needed an expert on both music and elevators. Luckily, I’m pals with a two-fer. He’s Jim Beattie. I’ve known him almost 25 years. 

Or to be precise, I knew him for two hours in 1995, lost complete track of him until August and now spend three or four nights a week getting gooned up with him right here at The Tin Lizzy.

He in 1995 was running The Gaelic Shop in Ligonier. I was at the time doing wacky features for National Enquirer. That was the year Mel Gibson, then one of the sexiest men in the world, released “Braveheart.” Enquirer editors wanted to see how regular folks would react to a commoner (me) in a kilt.

Shopkeeper Beattie gave me the kilt off his, er, back.

It was a fun day as you can see here. Lots of people wanted to know if I was wearing anything under my kilt. I was told a gentleman would not dignify the question. But I will say this: If you had a list of the five people you’d most want to moon in Westmoreland County, I got three of them.

I returned the kilt and never expected to see Jim again. And for 24 years I was correct.

Then he out of the blue last summer called to tell me he had some Arnold Palmer stories that might be good for my book (he was correct). I asked if he could meet me here at the bar. He stopped by and now it’s like he never plans on leaving. I’m fine with that.

So what was he doing the previous 24 years?

He was an Otis elevator repair man! He was all over the country ensuring Otis lifts operated safely. And he and I share the same exquisite tastes in music, primarily deep appreciation for mostly both Van Morrison and Mark Knopfler.

Certainly, my buddy could give me a good blog-ending zinger on the fecklessness of elevator music.


“It was never on when I was in the elevators,” he said. “Never heard it. If it was on I just tuned it out.”

So, alas, in the end, this blog is like Muzak itself, cloying, innocuous and utterly pointless. Utterly pointless save for this final note. The company that ran Muzak buried the service February 5, 2013.

Sorry Don McLean, but that’s the day the Muzak died.

I suggest we all commemorate the upcoming date by playing some authentic rock ’n’ roll REALLY LOUD.

Because unlike sounds that pretend to be music, true silence isn’t deadly and it often beats the alternative.

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