Transcript

90:

Telephone
Transcript

Originally aired 01.16.1998

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/90

Prologue.

Ira Glass

I had the strangest experience last night. I have these tapes, recorded on my answering machine 10 years ago. Tapes that I had not heard in a decade until last night. And I don't think I can play these tapes for you. I don't think that the people on them would give the permission. On one tape, there's a brief conversation between me and this woman who I lived with for seven years, accidentally recorded by the answering machine just as we were splitting up.

And on this tape, she's calling me from the street to say that she's going to a movie with a friend. And I tell her I'd like to come along. She's Gotta Have It is the movie that they're seeing. And she indicates no, that I'm not welcome. And then I tell her, "Well, I guess maybe I really do have too much work to do and some laundry that I have to get done." And later in the conversation, she asks if I'm going to be up late, and I say no. And she says, "Well, I thought you said you had all this work to do," like she's catching me in a lie. I mean, she is. She is catching me in a lie. But you know, a lie that I kind of made at her bidding. And then she asked me if I'm absolutely sure that I'm going to get her laundry done that night. And I tell her I'm sure.

It was hard to listen to. I can hear myself being so scared of her in this tape. And in this same conversation, she talks about this guy who, just a few weeks later, she got involved with, her next serious relationship after me. And I talk about this woman who I was just about to start seeing in this serious way, after her. And that part of the conversation is very awkward, very awkward.

And before I heard this tape, I could not have remembered much about that summer, that summer where we were splitting up in 1988 after seven years. But hearing the tape, it all came back. Where we lived, what was in the apartment, what we used to wear, how we talked to each other, and how I felt all the time when we were together, this way that I don't feel anymore. And it messed me up.

And it wasn't like looking at photos. Pictures are posed. Pictures are these tiny little-- they're tiny. You can hold them in your hand. They're 3-by-5. You can crush a picture. This was not posed. And it was not small. And part of that, I think, is just the power of recordings. And part of it was the fact that we were on the phone. There is something about being on the telephone. It's just so intimate. Talking to a person on the phone, you are right there. You are so close. It's like you're whispering in each other's ears.

There are these tapes of Lyndon Johnson on the telephone in this audio book called Taking Charge by historian Michael Beschloss. And Beschloss makes the argument that without these recordings of Lyndon Johnson on the telephone, an important part of Johnson would be completely lost to history. These tapes are so raw. We hear him operating on people in this way that is so-- Beschloss makes the argument that it rarely comes through in transcripts of meetings or public events, him just trying to charm people and flatter them and play on their weaknesses and strong-arm them.

And he's more honest on the phone than he was in public. In public, Johnson said that he believed the Warren Commission report. On the telephone, he admitted he didn't believe in it. He didn't believe that a lone assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, acted alone killing JFK. In public, Johnson supported the Vietnam War. On the telephone, he admitted his doubts.

Lyndon Johnson

I'll tell you, the more I just stayed awake last night thinking about this thing, the more I think of it, I don't know what in the hell-- It looks like, to me, we're getting into another Korea. And it just worries the hell out of me. I don't see what we can ever hope to get out of there with once we're committed.

Ira Glass

He's talking to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy.

Lyndon Johnson

I don't think it's worth fighting for. And I don't think we can get out. And it's just the biggest damn mess--

Mcgeorge Bundy

It is. It's an awful mess.

Lyndon Johnson

I look at this sergeant of mine this morning. He's got six little old kids over there. And he's getting out my things and bringing me in my night reading and all that kind of stuff. And I just thought about ordering all those kids in there. And what in the hell am I ordering him out there for?

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is Laos worth to me? What is it worth to this country? Now, of course, if you start running the communists, they may just chase you right into your own kitchen.

Mcgeorge Bundy

Yep, that's the trouble. And that is what the rest of that half of the world is going to think if this thing comes apart on us. That's the dilemma. That's exactly the dilemma.

Lyndon Johnson

But everybody I talk to that's got any sense in there, they just says, "Oh, my god, please [UNINTELLIGIBLE]" But it's damned easy to get in a war, but it's going to be awfully hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in.

Mcgeorge Bundy

It's very easy. I'm very sensitive to the fact that people who are having trouble with--

Ira Glass

On the telephone, we are who we truly are, some of the time, anyway. Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, telephone stories, what we reveal about ourselves on the phone that we do not reveal any other way.

Act One, When the Wall Came Tumbling Down, the story of a teenager, illegal drug use, lying, stealing, and a kid's life completely changed when he heard how he sounded on the phone. Act Two, When Your Telephone is Your Medium. Sure, you can try to get your pop songs onto records, onto the radio, onto MTV. But what if your medium of choice is the telephone? We offer a case example, the band They Might Be Giants. Act Three, Telephone as History, moments from a normal human life saved on answering machine. Stay with us.

Act One. When The Wall Came Tumbling Down.

Joshua

I failed English. I failed PE, even, which is difficult to do, unless you're running off getting stoned whenever you're supposed to be running around the track. And I just did whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it.

I stole money from my parents kind of regularly to finance my marijuana habit. I did break into my parents' tenants', basically, house a few times, mostly to steal drugs, not money. But that was the only stealing that I did. I never actually stole anything except for drugs and money. And the money, I only stole from my parents.

Well, I noticed my dad started to punish me for things that I hadn't done, or at least things that he couldn't have possibly known that I had done. And I would have a great weekend planned. For instance, we were going to go out and do whatever sorts of craziness would come up. Maybe we'll go take some LSD or something like that, or mushrooms. And my dad would ground me the day before for no particular reason. And it was very strange. The timing was uncanny.

And one day, he was driving me down to school, as he did every morning. And on the way to school, he told me that the administration of Beverly had contacted him and that they had narcs in the school that were posing as students. And they were going to run a sweep of the school and basically bust everyone who was involved in this. So he told me that the administration had contacted him because they knew that I was involved in this whole faction of bad eggs. And they also knew that I was not a dealer. Basically, they were calling him to warn him to basically give me a chance to get out of the bust. So he told me I'd better get it together because it's going to happen very soon.

And then, in the same conversation, he started naming all of the names of the kids that were involved. And they were names that there was no way he could know. And so the story was very credible the way it was laid out. And I believed it 100%. And I went to school that day, I remember, and of course, I told all of my friends that there was going to be this major bust happening at Beverly Hills High School very soon. And so everybody better quickly go undercover. And people became much more careful.

About a month later, I was in the backyard. And there had been a windstorm the night before, a really big wind. And a panel on the side of the house had come off. And I was in the backyard with my friend. And we were smoking a joint like we always did. Every day after school, we would come home and smoke a joint. And my friend noticed this panel down.

I'll never forget this one, actually. He said, "Dude, what is this? Come here, dude. And I'm standing on the other side of the backyard, smoking a joint, looking at the trees. And he's like, "Come here, dude." I walked over. He's like, "Look at this." And it didn't dawn on me. I looked at it, and I was like, "What is it? Strange piece of machinery inside of wall." It made no sense to me whatsoever. And he looked at me. He said, "Dude, your parents are taping your calls." And that meant that dad knew everything. No wonder he was grounding me at such crucial moments in my party life.

I'm getting some buds and some coke delivered here tonight.

Boy

Really?

Joshua

Yeah, so listen, if you guys want to come, just call me before you come. Well, you can come over here if you want.

Boy

Really?

Joshua

Yeah. Because they're going out, so--

You don't have five grams.

Boy

Dude, what's the big deal?

Joshua

I'm bumming hard.

Boy

You're getting an eighth for $25 and a gram.

Joshua

All right, I guess I can--

Boy

Is that cool?

Joshua

An eighth for $25 and a gram for $10?

Boy

Uh-huh.

Joshua

All right.

Boy

The only weed he can get you is the same weed I can get you. But dude, it's [BLEEP].

Joshua

When I saw the tape recorder, it was disbelief. I was in a state of disbelief. Pure shock.

Joshua's Dad

This is what happened. My son was a very good student. All of a sudden, his grades started collapsing. His school things started collapsing. He started acting like a complete fool. Now, he's ready to graduate from Beverly High. And his attitude is becoming a total [BLEEP] box. He's becoming an asshole everywhere.

So I thought, you know, the only way I can figure out what's happening with him is-- because he comes home every day and he's alone a long time at home, got a lot of time on the phone. Right? So I figure, well, what I'll do is that I'll tape record his phone calls.

So I went to a lot of people who knew about this kind of stuff. And I said, how can I do this? They said, well, what you have to do is get a voice-activated tape recorder. And you have to hook it up to the phone. So I removed an outside wall of my house, which was a bunch of boards. Removed it, built it into one situation where I could clamp it back on with magnets. So I could take it off and put it back on. I put this tape recorder inside the wall outside of my kitchen. The wire went down, and then it went through the wall into the tape recorder. I figured, nobody's ever going to notice that because it's way down on the bottom, way under everything. And who's going to look for the goddamn wire where the phone goes?

[DIAL TONE]

Joshua's Dad

Working. Working.

[CLICK CLICK CLICK]

Joshua

Unbelievable. I can't believe that this is going on. It was a multiple emotional cascade because on the one hand, I'm being incredibly violated by my father.

Joshua's Dad

But we gave him whatever we could give him, everything we could possibly give him. And then, I felt real violated by the fact that he thought that was nothing. What meant something to him was that he wanted to do these things that he wanted to do. He wanted to be with these people he wanted to be with.

Joshua

Dad, I went home today during fifth mod.

Joshua's Dad

Yeah?

Joshua

You turned my room upside down, didn't you?

Joshua's Dad

All I know is that there was a note on our front door from Annie.

Joshua

That said?

Joshua's Dad

That said someone has been in her apartment again, taking certain things.

Joshua

What? What was missing?

Joshua's Dad

Some drugs.

Joshua

There was a note on it--

Joshua's Dad

Have you been going into Annie's again?

Joshua

No. I just got that one bud from my friend, and that's all.

Joshua's Dad

I want to know, did you go in her apartment again?

Joshua

Dad, I can't get in her apartment.

Joshua's Dad

I want to know, did you go in her apartment?

Joshua

Yes. And I took one minute bud. I didn't take drugs. I took one small bud, and I left.

Joshua's Dad

OK, you go to work. But tonight, I want to have a little discussion with you, because I'm going to have to try to find out where you're coming from, and--

Joshua

Dad, I'm not coming--

Joshua's Dad

I just think I've got you figured out when something else happens.

Joshua

No, Dad. No. [BLEEP]

Joshua's Dad

He never came to my work during the day. When he was going to school, never. He'd start coming to my work at lunchtime. And he would say, "Hey, I just came over to see if you guys needed any help or had anything I could do or whatever." And then he'd leave. And there'd be like $100, $200 missing from the drawer.

Joshua

[BLEEP]. I hope Scott didn't score that stuff.

Boy

Why?

Joshua

Because I want my money back.

Boy

Because you want to buy blow, or you just don't want to--

Joshua

No, I have to give that $100 back to my dad.

Boy

He knows?

Joshua

Yep.

Boy

How'd he find out?

Joshua

I don't know.

Joshua's Dad

The tapes were horrible, redundant, stupid, dull.

Joshua

He goes, "Check this out." And he just hit the accelerator, and the thing took off, man. It was so fast. It's so rad.

Joshua's Dad

You know, a teenager gets on the phone, they stay on the phone for a long time. Hours. I would come home, and I would have to listen to three, four hours of tape of him on the phone, saying nothing. I mean dribble, like, "Hey, hey, man. What's up? What are you going to do?" "Hey, what are you going to do?"

Joshua

Hello?

Boy

Hey.

Joshua

Hey.

Boy

What's happening?

Joshua

Not much. How was Palm Springs?

Boy

All right.

Joshua

Really?

Joshua's Dad

But the interesting part was that things would come around, like, what are we going to do tomorrow? Hey, why don't we do some coke? Why don't we do some-- But what I tried to do was that, whenever I heard something on this tape that was a direction he was going to go in, I would say, "Could you help me at my shop tomorrow at 4 o'clock? I really need you." And he'd go, "Oh, well, I'm busy." And I'd say, "I don't care how busy you are. I really need you. This is important." And he would shut off the plans. And he would come and help me. So what I tried to do by listening to the tapes was to redirect whatever he was going to do. And I did that. And it worked. It worked.

Joshua

This doesn't have anything to do with parents, man. We're talking serious matters.

Boy

Dude, what happened?

Joshua

Like Beverly Hills Police Department.

Boy

Dude, why? I'm not going to tell anybody, don't worry.

Joshua

Because of my known--

Boy

Involvement?

Joshua

--involvement with drugs at Beverly Hills High School. They've been calling my dad and asking him if he's ever-- You know what they said to my dad?

Boy

What?

Joshua

My dad named so many names to me that I've never even said to him.

Boy

Dude man, they've probably been following you.

Joshua

Dude, it's everybody. They've got about 50 undercover narcs at my school now.

Boy

What you should do is just stop abruptly.

Joshua

That's what I have--

Boy

Dude, don't even talk to those people.

Joshua

I have been. I've fully just stopped.

Joshua's Dad

There was no way I could possibly confront him and have a truthful situation come out of it. No. He would never admit that to me. Never.

Joshua

Seeing the tape recorder made me realize, wow, what am I going to do? What's the way out of this? Because I was a conniver. I was going to come up with the best solution to escape. So after some thought, I decided that the best road of action would be to continue my lifestyle, of course, while simultaneously becoming perfect on the telephone. In other words, I would just clean up my act on the phone.

Girl

You're quitting.

Joshua

I swear. That's it. It's caused me too much trouble.

Girl

Aren't you going to miss it?

Joshua

No way. Fortunately, pot is one of those things that you like outgrow, kind of. It's not like you mature out of it, but you get bored of it.

Boy

Yeah, did you get the acid?

Joshua

No, dude.

Boy

When do you get it?

Joshua

I'm not going to do it, dude. I'll get it for you. But I'm not going to do it.

Boy

You're not going to do it?

Joshua

No.

Boy

Why? What's wrong with you, man? What are you on? What are you on?

Joshua

I'm not on anything. I'm just tired. Dude, I'm going straight, man. I'm quitting.

Boy

OK, well, I want my [BLEEP].

Joshua

Now, all I have to do is regain the respect of my father.

Well, that went on for about a month. It went on for about a month of me being perfect on the telephone. And it worked. He stopped busting me at crucial moments. I was able to go out and do everything I wanted to. I alerted everyone at Beverly that, in fact, there wasn't going to be a sweep, that it was all part of this scandal perpetrated by my father, and much to their relief. And so that went on for about a month, of this counter espionage, I guess you would have to call it. And it worked.

It had gotten to the point of deception upon deception upon deception, multiple lies on both sides. So I was very disturbed by the fact that my relationship with my father had so apparently deteriorated. My father means a lot to me. And he did then, and he always has. And I realized the degree to which we had grown apart, basically.

So one night, I went out with a couple of friends of mine. And we took some LSD, some very strong LSD that we had bought down in Hollywood from a dealer who was down there at that time, a guy by the name of Strange, was his name, actually. He was an albino. I think he's dead now. But anyway, in the throes of this LSD realization, enlightenment, that I was going through, I realized that the situation with my father was completely unacceptable. And it had to be remedied right away. I had to do something immediately about it.

So I told my two poor friends, who were also right in the middle of their trip, getting involved in whatever was going on in their minds. I said, "We have to go to my house. We have to go home right now." So we drove here. And Dad was having a party. There was a party going on. And I walked into the party rather nonchalantly. And I looked at my father with a very serious look. And I said, "I have to talk to you about something." So we walked outside to the yard out front. And I said, basically, "Dad, I know you're taping my calls. And I know you've been taping my calls."

It was such a strange sort of accusation I was making, once again, because simultaneously, I was admitting to him that I knew that he knew everything that was going on. So on the one hand, I'm saying, "Dad, how could you be so horrible as to invade my privacy like this?" while simultaneously realizing that he knew that I had been stealing money from him to support my pot habits. And he said, "You're right, I'm taping your calls. I've been doing it for quite a while, as a matter of fact. And I'm not going to do it anymore. I'm not going to tape your telephone calls anymore." He said, "There's something you don't know yet, but I'll tell you now. And perhaps you will not understand what I'm saying. But you think that because I'm your father and I'm in this role of the disciplinarian, that it's between you and I. What you haven't realized yet is that your actions have far more impact on your own life than they will on mine. I've already made my life. You have to make your life. And you don't know it yet." He said, "I'm going to take the tape recorder out tomorrow."

And I was waiting for the punishment at this point, because there must be some amazing punishment coming down. Because he knew everything. Military school, or what's he going to do? He said, "I'll take the tape recorder out tomorrow. And there's only one thing I want you to do." And I said, "What?" And he said, "I have about 40 tapes, about 40 90-minute tapes of you. I'm going to give them to you. And I want you to listen to them. And that's all I ask. No punishment. This is over. This chapter is over. But the tapes are now yours."

[DIAL TONE]

Joshua

Hello?

Girl

Hi. What's the matter?

Joshua

Nothing.

Girl

All right, well, you don't have to talk.

Joshua

It was embarrassing. I was embarrassing myself, listening to myself.

Girl

Can I ask you something?

Joshua

What's that?

Girl

Are you awake enough to answer?

Joshua

Yeah, I think I can, if I try real hard.

Girl

I get the feeling that you've changed the way you feel about me. And I don't like that.

Joshua

Oh, really?

Girl

I mean, obviously, there's nothing I can do.

Joshua

Nah, nah, nah.

Girl

Nah, nah, what?

Joshua

I don't know what you're talking about.

Girl

Well, then, how come you haven't called me in so long?

Joshua

I've been busy.

Girl

Well, that's really the truth?

Joshua

Yeah, I hope so.

It was about a week afterwards, and I couldn't really listen to them. I had a very hard time listening to them. In a way, it was kind of surrealistic because I had no idea what I sounded like. And I didn't like what I sounded like at all. I thought I sounded really kind of unkind, self-serving, mean, basically, and totally uncaring.

Hello?

Boy

Hey, dude.

Joshua

Hey.

Boy

What's happening?

Joshua

Not much.

Boy

Do you have any finals tomorrow?

Joshua

Yeah.

Boy

What?

Joshua

English.

Boy

Really?

Joshua

Yeah.

Boy

I still don't have any.

Joshua

I'm kind of busy right now.

Boy

I can tell. It sounds like people are in the background.

Joshua

They are.

Boy

Parental units?

Joshua

Huh?

Boy

Parental units?

Joshua

No, no, no. Friend units.

Boy

Oh, that sounds radical.

Joshua

Yeah, it is. Bye.

Boy

Great.

[DIAL TONE]

Joshua

I was very self-centered and egotistical and uncaring of other people. It was about me. I was the star of my own stage. And everybody else could basically go to hell, as far as I was concerned. I had never realized that aspect of my personality. I didn't know how mean, in that sense, I had gotten.

Hello?

Man

Hello, is it possible for me to speak with Mr. Or Mrs. O'Hara?

Joshua

No.

Hello?

Man

May I speak with Novella?

Joshua

What?

Man

Novella.

Joshua

Who is this?

Man

My name is Crawford. I'm with the VFW.

Joshua

What is it in regards to?

Man

The National Veteran Wheelchair Games.

Joshua

Well, can I take a message for her?

Man

No, I'll call back later.

Joshua

Well, listen. Hello?

Man

Yes?

Joshua

She's dead.

Man

Oh, I see.

Joshua

So, you know, I think-- What is it in regards to? Do you owe us some money?

Man

No, we were selling and delivering heavy-duty plastic trash bags to raise funds.

Joshua

So you wanted money.

And I remember listening to that on the tapes subsequently. And again, it was just like, my god, I'm a monster. This is outrageous. Look at the way I'm treating people. Because I don't feel that way, and I'm not that type of person. But at the time, I was, very much. And I didn't know it. I didn't know how little I valued friendship or other people's feelings.

Boy

Then we went to this dance club, and we just met some people. There was these girls. But we weren't going to scam off them. We were just friends.

Joshua

Uh-huh.

Boy

We waited for like a half hour to get our table--

Joshua

And did you scam off them?

Boy

What?

Joshua

Did you scam them? Or no?

Boy

No.

Joshua

They were just nice?

Boy

Yeah. They were just like-- It was just conversation. It was--

Joshua

Bleh. Dude, if I was there, that wouldn't have happened. We would've done some [BLEEP].

It took me about five or six years before I managed to listen to all of them. My course of life changed dramatically because of that event. And a lot changed. I still partied. But I put it back, as far as the importance, where it was on the hierarchy. It was like smoking pot ceased to be number one. And lying, deceiving, cheating, stealing, all of that, I just stopped. Stopped it all.

Joshua's Dad

It was amazing. He understood the entire thing that he was doing that was so-- and believe me, it was stupid.

Joshua

Because I never had the opportunity to hear myself. I didn't know. I didn't know what I was doing. The tone of voice of my quote-quote "friends"-- I could hear in their voice on the tapes, pain because of my actions and my uncaring. That was an awakening.

Girl

I haven't heard from you for a while. Ouch.

Joshua

I haven't heard from you for a while.

Girl

Yes, you have.

Joshua

Oh yeah, when?

Girl

Last time we talked, I called you.

Joshua

Oh, you mean you actually keep track?

Girl

No, I just remember that.

Joshua

Really?

I became the watcher of myself while I was acting simultaneously. And I still do that to this day. I see, I'm intensely aware of my effect on other people. That's one thing that definitely came out. It's like I know what other people are feeling about me.

That was an interesting look you gave me today.

Girl

Oh. Ha. I know.

Joshua

So what's the problem with you? What are you pissed off at me for?

Girl

I don't know.

Joshua

Is is that time of the month again?

Girl

No. [INAUDIBLE]

Joshua

Well, then, what's wrong?

Girl

Well, I guess the basic thing is I don't like your fluctuation in attention towards me.

Joshua

What are you talking about? If I'm not going somewhere, if I have not got a set place that I am off to-- and I'm probably usually late-- then I stop and talk to you.

Girl

Uh-huh.

Joshua

And well, forget it then. [BLEEP].

Girl

Wait. Hold on. Mom?

[DIAL TONE]

Joshua

It was valuable, very valuable, to be able to witness myself in that way, although painful. I got to see myself. It's a rare gift, in a way, to be able to see yourself from the outside, from an objective point of view. I think it's probably always going to be difficult to watch yourself. Given an opportunity, I think most people would probably not want to see themselves that clearly.

Ira Glass

Joshua and his father talked to Dave Kestenbaum, who's a writer for Science magazine, and to Julie Snyder.

[MUSIC - "I'VE GOT A NEW HOME" BY PILGRIM TRAVELERS]

Coming up, telephone as an artistic medium, telephone as muse. What a songwriter can learn from the telephone. That's in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. When The Telephone Is Your Medium.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of reporters and writers and performers to tackle that theme. Today's show, things we learn on the phone, who we are on the phone, things we find on the phone that we can not find anywhere else. We have arrived at Act Two of our program, When the Telephone is Your Medium.

Well, the band They Might Be Giants do not have a song on every episode of This American Life. But I have to say, most weeks, at some point, contributing editor Sarah Vowell suggests a song of theirs that might work in the show. And that's because they are not only prolific. More than other bands, they write about an astonishing number of things in this surprising, funny way.

Also, although they are an actual pop band with actual pop hits, it is hard to think of any band in the last 20 years with more inventive arrangements. They just have this sound, this sense of how different instruments go together. They bring pre-rock instruments into the rock universe in this completely charming way. John Linnell of They Might Be Giants, he is the Keith Richards of the bass clarinet.

And at the heart of their artistic practices-- you know we have a theme to the show every week. We have a theme to this show. And you know what the theme is. So you know where I'm going with this-- At the heart of their artistic practice is the telephone. It was, anyway. Still sort of is. Sarah Vowell visited them in Brooklyn.

Sarah Vowell

What if art cost a quarter a pop? What if it offered home delivery? What if it was short, but sweet? What if art was just a phone call away?

[TELEPHONE RINGING]

John Linnell

Hello, everybody. This is John of They Might Be Giants. Thank you for calling our Dial-a-Song service. We hope you like it, hope it sounds good over your phone. Thank you for calling. Call back anytime.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "DR. WORM" BY THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS]

Sarah Vowell

It's a simple, beautiful idea, that anyone, anywhere, anytime, can phone a number in Brooklyn, listen to one of They Might Be Giants' wonderful or wonderfully weird songs, and it doesn't cost anything more than any other normal call. Dial-a-Song's motto, "Free, when you call from work."

[TELEPHONE RINGING]

[MUSIC PLAYING]

When John Flansberg and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants started their Dial-a-Song service 15 years ago, they didn't have a record contract. All they had was an answering machine and a dream. And that dream was to get people besides their friends to hear their music. Then they got a record deal. They were on the radio, on MTV, even.

They considered dismantling the democratic empire of Dial-a-Song. But they were afraid their fans would accuse them of selling out, of turning their back on the people-- and by the people, I mean the people. And you can understand that the first year, the first five years, even. But it's been 15 years now. This funny little idea that they had back during the early Reagan administration, now, it's just who they are. Ladies and gentlemen, they rock the stage, they rock the records, they rock the phone lines.

Sarah Vowell

Do you remember the first song, the first Dial-a-Song song?

John Linnell

I do. Because John said, I set it up. I was living in a different part of Brooklyn, so I phoned him up. And it was "Toddler Hiway." And he recorded it really quietly because we had this problem with the phone machine, where a loud sound with this particular model would actually tell the machine that that was the end of the message.

John Flansberg

It would think it was the beep.

John Linnell

It would think it was the beep. So almost all our songs had to be kind of tamed. And that particular note was completely off-limits.

John Flansberg

Yeah, anytime there was a long note sung, we would have to break it up. We would actually sort of pop it out of the mix. So it would just be like, "I've been ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah," to kind of keep it from just returning.

Sarah Vowell

Sure, there are some adjustments you have to make if the telephone is the medium through which you express your art. But there are certain advantages to this system. You can monitor individual audience response in a way that's unavailable to more successful recording artists who restrict themselves to concerts and radio and TV-- you know, media where more than one person at a time can hear the song.

John Flansberg

Well, I think up until Dial-a-Song, we were the kind of guys who had a four-track recorder in their bedroom. And we would just overdub our voices or our instruments 5 million times, and go like, "Oh, listen to what the guitar sounds like if it's been overdubbed 5,000 times." And it would just kind of be, wahhhhhh. "Oh, that sounds really cool."

And then, doing Dial-a-Song actually made us realize, you're playing the song, people hang up in the middle, you can tell right away if they don't like-- you just sort of play your 5,000 guitar symphony over the thing. And two seconds into it, it's like, click. And you know that they hated it. So it really was-- it was definitely like rock school.

John Linnell

It definitely moved us in a particular direction of really clarifying what we were doing, and also clarifying the arrangement, making it really simple sounding so that you could hear what was going on over the phone.

Sarah Vowell

Right now, somewhere in this nation, there's a music student spending thousands of dollars to learn a discipline that he might master more quickly if he'd just invest in a decent voicemail system.

Sarah Vowell

Has it changed your ideas about where art comes from? Because I was reading that New Yorker article on Frank Sinatra. And there's this part where Ava Gardner runs out on him and breaks his heart. And he helps write "I'm a Fool to Want You." And then he stumbles into the recording studio and does it in one take and stumbles out in tears.

John Linnell

But he actually always stumbled in and out of the studio.

John Flansberg

But also, if you talk to Billy May or talk to the people who put the arrangement together or the person who wrote the song, they might disagree about where the greatness of any given song comes from. They're involved in the process, too. A lot of people like to think of inspiration as being, you're lying on the side of a hill, and you're waiting for the clouds to cover and then the lightning to strike you. It's this really elaborate, long process of kind of waiting for it to happen. And sometimes, I think you can jump into the sky, grab the cloud, and grab the lightning yourself.

Sarah Vowell

Many, perhaps most, of the tunes on Dial-a-Song won't end up on a They Might Be Giants album. But all the songs on the band's albums have been previewed on Dial-a-Song, which means that their fans are in on their process. Here's how one of the band's best known singles, "Don't Let's Start," sounded in its initial Dial-a-Song form.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "DON'T LET'S START" BY THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS]

And this is the final, more compelling rock and roll "Don't Let's Start" that ended up on the album.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "DON'T LET'S START" BY THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS]

The best lyrics in the song are ones they added over what had been just an instrumental bridge in the Dial-a-Song version.

They Might Be Giants

[SINGING] No one in the world ever gets what they want, and that is beautiful. Everybody dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful. They want what they're--

Sarah Vowell

John Flansberg says he's often surprised by how much They Might Be Giants fans keep track of a song's evolution.

John Flansberg

There's a song that's actually a bonus track on Factory Showroom. It's before track one, this song called "Token Back to Brooklyn." And I was talking to someone about this yesterday. And it was like this real-- It's the kind of thing that makes me feel like we are freak magnets because the guy was going, "In the song that was on Dial-a-Song, you said you wanted to kill your parents. And then you changed the lyric on the record--"

John Linnell

To "tell our parents."

John Flansberg

"To 'tell our parents.'" And I was just like, "Well--" And he was like, "And like, the reason you did that was, like, why?"

John Linnell

Because my mom was going to hear the record, maybe.

John Flansberg

Yeah, and I explained to him that I really just didn't want to have any more songs about killing my parents.

Sarah Vowell

Any more songs?

John Flansberg

Any more songs. Yeah, we've had songs about killing our parents before. And it really doesn't go over at holiday time. And so he was really disappointed. It was like finding out that Marilyn Manson--

Sarah Vowell

Was a nice guy?

John Flansberg

--takes the makeup off.

Sarah Vowell

One of my favorite They Might Be Giants songs isn't a song at all, but a mysterious recording on the album Miscellaneous T, of two unidentified callers discussing the merits of Dial-a-Song, whose number they found in the band's ad in the Village Voice.

Female Caller

What do you make out of that recording?

Male Caller

I don't know, [? Laurie, ?] I just don't--

Female Caller

Some kind of singing. They sound like all kinds of people, right?

Male Caller

Yeah.

Female Caller

And then it says, "Another child is born in India every time you call this number," right?

Male Caller

Yeah, right.

Female Caller

Does that make any sense to you?

Male Caller

No, it doesn't make no sense--

Female Caller

And the guy that spoke, I don't know who he is.

Male Caller

Yeah.

Female Caller

But it doesn't sound like no answering machine, right?

Male Caller

No, it ain't an answering machine, because they're not saying anything. They're just--

Female Caller

But what does he get-- how does he make money on this, whatever he's advertising in the paper? This is the part that don't make no sense. That's where the--

John Linnell

No, that was a woman who phoned up. And the reason why we had this long recording of her was that she was on a conference line with somebody else. This is another early--

Sarah Vowell

Oh, and they were listening to it together?

John Linnell

--pop technology. Yeah, she and this guy she had phoned to tell him about Dial-a-Song were listening together. And then, when the machine finished its song, they had this conversation. And they had no way of disconnecting the third line. So we had about 45 minutes of them blabbering on.

Female Caller

They've got the craziest things in that paper. But this one here, There Must Be Giants, it's called. And it says, call machine. And they've got the phone number.

Male Caller

Yeah.

Female Caller

But what kind of money does he make? It don't make no sense.

Male Caller

[INAUDIBLE]

Female Caller

Well, he don't make any money, right?

Male Caller

No.

Female Caller

Then he's a nut, right?

Male Caller

Yeah, [INAUDIBLE].

Female Caller

Do you see any sense to that, There May Be Giants? That recording I have on [INAUDIBLE], did you hear it?

Sarah Vowell

Well, I used to call it-- I would call it-- what's the motto? "Free, when you call from work."

(SUBJECT) JOHN FLANSBERG: "Free, when you call from work." Yeah, a lot of people do call it from work.

Sarah Vowell

But I used to call it when I was really depressed, like so black and blue. And normally, in those situations, I'd try and feed it, and just get drunk and listen to Neil Young and cry myself to sleep. But on the healthier occasions--

John Flansberg

Wow. You should hang out with my downstairs neighbors.

Sarah Vowell

On the healthier occasions, I'd go like, "I'm going to kick this thing and call Dial-a-Song." And I remember once being just so depressed and in tears. And I called it, and there was a song about how there was an ant crawling up my back. And it really-- it worked. It really cheered me up.

John Linnell

It made you feel better. Yeah. See, some people wouldn't have that response to some of those songs. But I always felt like there was something at least happy about the music. For something so impersonal as a machine that you'd call up, that at least it was sort of merry in the music.

Sarah Vowell

It's better than that because it kind of includes both. Because it's very darkly merry. So it's kind of that sort of happiness that recognizes the dark side. So there's a whole other level. You had some new song at your show a couple of weeks ago that was very bright and happy, and it was about death, the death man or something like that. That's how I remember it.

John Flansberg

Yeah. Yeah, the death man.

Sarah Vowell

I was picturing sickles.

John Linnell

That applies to most of our songs.

Sarah Vowell

There's another reason besides this black humor that I call Dial-a-Song when I'm sad. I used to agree with John Linnell. I used to think it was just the deliciously dark They Might Be Giants music that cheered me up during those darkest hour Dial-a-Song calls. And that's part of it. But the thing that's just as reassuring about Dial-a-Song is the idea behind it, namely, that art, like life, doesn't always have to be a big production.

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell is the author of the book Take the Cannoli. The often busy Dial-a-Song number-- get out your pens-- 718-387-6962.

[MUSIC - "I'M SICK" BY THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS]

Act Three. Telephone As History.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Phone as History. Well, we think of our phone calls and phone messages as so transient, as throwaway moments. Here is another example of a personal human history captured by phone machine, in this case, by Barrett Golding in Bozeman, Montana. The messages were about his father.

[BEEP] [BEEP] [BEEP] [BEEP]

Bea Levine

Hello, Ralph. This is Bea Levine, Janette and Ben Brooks, and Lester and Charlotte Bloom. We're all here having a little afternoon tea. And we wanted to talk to you, but I guess you're out. We want to know how Ralph is. Would you try to call us back one day and let us know what's going on? We all want to know how Ralph is doing. We hope he's doing well. Let us know. Bye.

[BEEP]

(SUBJECT) WOMAN 1 Mr. Golding, this is [? Dr. Spark's ?] office, confirming your appointment for Tuesday, July 12, at 4:00. You don't need to call us unless there's a problem. Thank you.

[BEEP]

Rose Bernstein

Hi, this is Rose Bernstein. Just calling to welcome you back, and hope you had a very good time. And we'd like to say hi to you. Bye-bye.

[BEEP]

Leah

It's Leah. I'm just heartsick over what happened. I'll get in touch with you later. [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

[BEEP]

Liz

Hi, Mrs. Golding. It's Liz calling from Dr. Casey's office. I wanted just to give my condolences and tell you how sorry I am. I think we should touch base at some point. And I'll try calling you again later today. Bye.

[BEEP]

Woman 2

Hello. It's 12:30. I just got a call in reference to Ralph. Please give me a call whenever you can. Thank you.

[BEEP] [BEEP]

Woman 3

--going and is there anything I can do to help? We could--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

We're all very confused. So give me a call.

Liz

I wanted just to give you my condolences and tell you how sorry I am.

Leah

It's Leah. I'm just heartsick over what happened. I'll get in touch with you later.

[TAPE STOPPING]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced by Alix Spiegel and myself, with Julie Snyder and Nancy Updike. Senior editor, Paul Tough.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Lyndon Johnson tapes are in stores everywhere. They are from Simon & Schuster. Joe Skyward did the music in Barrett Golding's story in Act Three. If you would care to buy a cassette of this or any of our programs, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago. The phone number, 312-832-3380. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who describes his job overseeing us this way.

Joshua's Dad

I would come home, and I would have to listen to, like, three, four hours of tape saying nothing. I mean dribble.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.