I grew up in a fairly musical family. My father not only plays guitar and sings but is also a local songwriter. My brother, too, is an accomplished guitarist. Heck, I even sort of slap at the strings and howl along myself from time to time. In my family, musical talent is something that is deeply appreciated. We may be amateurs ourselves, but the fact that we make the effort at all means that we feel justified in turning our noses up at those who make “music” by pushing buttons and turning knobs. Isn’t a drum-machine just cheating? When I was a kid if you scratched up one of your parents records they got pissed off. Now club DJs scratch them up on purpose and people not only pay to listen, they even dance! Many people would say that this still counts as music. But in my family, if you don’t hit it, pluck it or blow through it, it ain’t music. Period. Even the piano we regard with suspicion. I mean really. I see your feet going up and down on the pedals, but this does not distract me from the obvious fact that your “playing” actually just involves pushing buttons. And anyone can do that. Try keeping time while a room full of drunken fishermen sing “I Saw the Light” in the wrong key. Then get back to me.
Given the total snobbery I harbour regarding any form of pseudo-music, you can imagine how much I love the automated barrel organ that gets pushed up and down the streets of Middelburg every market day. Now, I’ve nothing against barrel organs per se. I mean, in the old days there was even a certain charm about them. The organ grinder wore a bow tie and had a handlebar moustache, its tips neatly waxed. He dressed in a crisp white shirt and a vest and maybe a top hat. He always looked vaguely exotic. Sometimes there would even be a little monkey (also wearing a bow tie) who the organ-grinder had trained to dance along. Fun was had by all, except perhaps by the monkey.
My local organ grinder wears a cracked leather jacket and faded jeans and looks exactly like Lurch from the original The Addams Family movie. There is no monkey, and, since the barrel organ in question is a push-button affair, this organ grinder doesn’t even grind. He’s more of an organ button-pusher. He might as well walk around town with a large multi-colored CD player on wheels.
I am convinced that my organ grinder recognizes me by now from my scowl, which he has had the pleasure of seeing twice a week for the past six years. Indeed, secretly I think he shakes his stupid little begging cup extra hard and extra close to my face whenever I walk by him, seething with my particular combination of musical superiority and irritation.
And I’m sure it’s not just me. The only people who do seem to genuinely enjoy his push-button music box are toddlers. And let’s face it, they don’t know any better. I’m convinced the rest of the adults would be only too happy to see him eat his cup.
The barrel organ is not a sexy instrument. How many women would still have fallen for Elvis back in the day if his instrument of choice had been the barrel organ? When was the last time you saw a leather-wearin’, Marlboro-hackin’, motorbike-ridin’ stud hit the pavement with a barrel organ slung over his shoulder? Yes, you may be a two-wheeling chick-magnet, but take up the barrel organ and pretty soon you’ll be towing that sucker behind you down the highway actually repelling the opposite sex for miles around. The barrel organ is so very un-rock n’ roll.
It’s bad enough that I have to listen to the racket of the automated noise machine twice a week, but they can’t even load the thing up with barrel-organ-appropriate music. Thursday I was in town doing some shopping and as I walked past the organ, Lurch's cup of coins clickety clacking in my face all the while, it started playing a version of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ that seemed so incongruous to me I wanted to pay just to make it stop. I don’t even like ‘Thriller’ much, but I still think it’s disrespectful to the memory of Michael Jackson, or any musician whose numbers were not originally composed for bagpipes or cow bells, to play their songs on this contraption. I mean, just try to imagine how it sounded. Words almost cannot do it justice. Cling cling cling clang clang clong clong, Cling cling cling clang clang clong clong. Now moonwalk.
On the way home, with the memory of the disturbing Jackson tribute still fresh in my memory, the carillon player in the church bell tower treated us to a rousing rendition of ‘What do you do with a drunken sailor?’ I’ll tell you what you do. Put him in front of an organ grinder with a Michael Jackson penchant. That’ll sober him up.