If you take a culture and subtract the entirety of its Culture – all its galleries and theatres, its record companies and movie studios, its universities and museums, its television networks, newspapers, publishing houses and magazines – what is left are those actions and artefacts which make up the spontaneous attempts of its people to account for their experience and entertain themselves. Whence come tall tales, hootenannies, blacktop basketball, jokes, and the like. You can call it folk art if you like, but the term is at once too patronising and too grandiose: the first word misrepresents its origins, and the second misrepresents its ambitions. Because it’s not as if all this stuff comes out of naïveté, nor as if it’s sort of like Art, only not as good. Sometimes it's very clever, and better.
I should confess that I’m a sucker for anything samizdat, because I find it continually surprising, and I value surprise, and the laughter it inspires, above all. So it was with great pleasure that I was introduced last summer to Phone Tapes. The cassettes were marked ‘Weird Shit’, and I picked them up from a friend in Texas, who had dubbed them from a buddy of his, who had gotten them God knows where. The principle behind them was a simple as can be, and familiar enough to anyone who remembers the sillier stages of childhood: a tape recorder is attached to a telephone, a number is chosen form the phone book, and whoever picks up the phone at the other end is drawn ito whatever drama his tormentor can devise. It’s that simple – that obnoxious, that infantile, that stupid, and that funny, if you happen to think this sort of thing is funny.
There is, for example, a group from Pittsburgh, who have perfected a technique whereby they phone someone at random, and immediately say ‘Hang up the phone.’ The victim would naturally ask why. ‘Because I said so,’ he would be told. ‘Hang up the phone.’
And that was usually enough to keep tem on the line for a long time. To be sure, the caller was simply parroting the instructions the phone company prints at the beginning of the White Pages: If you receive a prank call, hang up. But they managed to twist it into an extended paradox about realism and authority which any performance artist ought to envy.
And then there’s Whup-Ass, an apparently middle aged man in Tennessee who calls stores around Knoxville, demanding refunds for things he never bought and threatening, in an impossibly thick hillbilly accent, to ‘Come on down there and whup some ass’ if he doesn’t get it. And Persimmon, a woman who can entangle her victims in enormously complicated sexual come-ons while answering a classified ad for the sale of a watch. And of course the famous Jerky Boys, a couple of guys from Queens, so called for their favourite epithet, who have just released a CD of their Greatest Hits: Optician, Plumber, Law Office and so on.
Thus one of the Boys applies for a job as an auto mechanic over the phone. That is, he demands it, in increasingly belligerent tones, claiming along the way he’s currently out of work ‘because of differences with my fucking boss.’ It is an admission that comes as no surprise to the garage owner, who suggests with remarkable patience, that he call back the next day. Our man gets nasty:
Jerky Boy: Should I bring my fucking tools?
Garage Owner: What?
JB: Should I bring my tool box?
GO: Why don’t you call me tomorrow?
JB: I’ll tell you what. I’ll come down tomorrow, I’ll start work tomorrow…I’ll work circles around you. I’ll rap your fucking head in with a ratchet. You don’t have anyone down there like me. I’ll be down tomorrow.
GO: Yeah, right
JB: So I’ll see you tomorrow with my tools. fuckface.
Are you grimacing yet? This stuff grew spontaneously as weeds, via a network of pranksters, separated by thousands of miles of geography and the deep societal divisions of a none too homogenous America. It is spread on cheap, dubbed cassette tapes by the most mundane means, in the mail or through the hands of travellers: truck drivers, touring bands, middle-class itinerants. It is traded with all the fervour of museums trading Matisses, but if all of Culture were gone tomorrow, they’d still be at it. It is part of what the painter and film critic Manny Farber once termed ‘termite art’: profligate, cranky, blink and obsessive. It gnaws away at the beams in the ceiling, behind the walls, under the floor, with no other purpose than to feed a hunger which only those who somehow engage in it can even recognise.
Perhaps I’m taking this too seriously. It is, after all, no more than an adolescent gag taken a little too far. But I swear I hear a dangerous brilliance on some of these tapes, a throwaway talent for making the world a little stranger, with no materials more elaborate than a tape recorder, and no motivation deeper than a desire to fuck things up. And I like it even better for the fact that no one, anywhere, ever asked for it.