Loose Strife

An MP3 blog

Thursday, August 11, 2005

#13-Big songs by little people, a shrinking father

“The Trouble With Boys” – Little Eva
“I Call It Pretty Music But The Old People Call It The Blues (Part 1)” - Little Stevie Wonder
“I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus”- Little Brenda Lee
“Hillbilly Fever” - Little Jimmy Dickens
“Get Down With It” - Little Richard
“Shut Up Bitch” – Lil Kim
“Play Around” - Lil’ Cease feat. Lil Kim
“Bow Wow [That’s My Name]” [Going Back To Cali Remix] ¬- Lil Bow Wow
“Purple Drank” - Lil’ Flip
“Superwoman Pt. II” – Lil’ Mo
“Get Low (Merengue Mix)” – Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz Feat. Pitbull
“Flying on 747” - Kid Loco
“Basin Street Blues” - Kid Koala
“Curly Locks” - Junior Byles
“Police & Thieves” - Junior Murvin
“Meet Me In The City” – Junior Kimbrough
“N’Sel Fik” - Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui

A lot of music, I know; you’re welcome. Am I afraid the RIAA will come after me? Fuck those bitches.

So: why is it that so many musicians have used diminutives in their moniker? What is the marketing appeal, exactly? Some adopted them as kid acts and kept them, while others, like Stevie Wonder and Brenda Lee, dropped them, presumably when they wanted to be perceived as grown-ups and have sex. Still others---like Lil Kim (who was clearly having sex from the battle-rhyming get-go) or Lil Bits (Quincy Jones’ nickname for the teenage Lesley Gore, who never used the nickname professionally), and Little Jimmy Dickens (under 5 ft tall!) got their nickname by being petite. But what’s the story with Little Richard, who wasn’t really a kid star (he began as a teen, and didn’t hit with “Tutti Frutti” until he was in his ‘20s) and isn’t that little (I mean, his pompadour was 6 inches high)? I guess it just sounded better than Richard Wayne Penniman. The strategy even works in other languages. The world of Algerian/French rai has for a couple of decades been full of singers named Cheb and Chaba---male and female Arabic titles, respectively, that are akin to “Kid” and connote “young and charming,” functioning as romantic-outlaw sobriquets just like Kid Cody or The Sundance Kid (insert indie-film industry punchline here). Note: the 7-minute original version of Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui’s “N’Sel Fik” included on Rai Rebels (see above), not to be confused with the shorter, rather flaccid Bill Laswell-produced remake featured on the LP Walli, is among the greatest dance tracks of the ‘80s. This is the real punk funk, kids.

Anyway, I’m thinking about all this for two reasons. One is that Lil Kim was sentenced to a year in jail recently for lying under oath in a trial involving a shoot-out at a New York radio station between some of her crew and the affiliates of sometimes-rival rapper Foxy Brown. Like fabled Philly mobster “Little Nicky” Scarfo, her moniker didn’t get her treated like a junvenile by the court. (It’s worth noting that her former Junior Mafia cohort, Li’l Cease, testified against her in court; she is now suing him for $6 million in damages for using her name to promote his DVD. There is clearly little loyalty among Lils)

The other reason is that I am a junior; my birth certificate has me as Robert James Barbara Jr. I never use the Jr. if I can help it, because I’ve never liked the idea of being defined as a smaller version of my father.

But recently, for the first time in my life, I have become larger than my father. That’s because he is shrinking.

I’m not a big guy: 5’ 8” in well-trammeled Converse All-Stars. At one time, my father was 6’ 8”. No, he didn’t play ball, weirdly. But growing up, he was (like most fathers, I suppose) awe-inspiring. He was like a character from a Japanese monster movie: unthreatening and sometimes even helpful if, like the miniature twins in Mothra, you knew the secret combination of words that would unlock his nobler instincts. Otherwise, he would lay waste to villages, crockery (especially dinner plates and wine glasses), furniture (usually lamps and end-tables, but sometimes larger pieces and once even the credenza---I remember the mirror remained attached to the wall when he up-ended the chest of drawers; it still has a broken handle on the right-hand cabinet where my parents keep literally hundreds of small yellow Kodak boxes full of 35mm slides taken on family trips to Cape Cod and Mystic, CT, as well as tablecloths, coasters, trivets and placemats), and toys (most notably the intricate HO train set my father assembled for my 14th birthday, with trees and houses and small oval ponds of silver mylar and an ample figure 8 of track nailed lovingly onto a 3 x 5 plywood panel, presented as a birthday present about 6 months after the recipient, yours truly, had, unbeknownst to his father, lost interest in the HO train sets he had been so obsessed with for about a year and moved on to more grown-up pursuits like record collecting, habits which moved him, shortly after receiving the gift of the train set, to sell the engine and tank car to Randy Hurwitz down the block---whose father had years before built him an HO set 5 times the size of this one---an admittedly shameful action that prompted the destruction of the entire assembly; sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a thankless child).

But now things have changed. No longer is he removing cobwebs from the ceiling corners of rooms without a chair or cleaning gutters with a step-stool or punching lightbulbs out of ceiling fixtures with a bloodied fist. In a mystery of medical science, he is now 4’ 3” fully upright. Although he is never fully upright; occasionally he’s hunched over a child-sized walker, more often he is sitting in a chair or wheelchair (making him roughly 3’ 4”).

This has made him a bit of a medical celebrity. Some loss of bone mass and compression of the skeleton is natural as people age, but very few have shown such an extreme transformation---as one visting doctor put it, it’s like the bone mass has telescoped in. They can’t figure it out. Even weirder, the skin has not followed suit, leaving my father draped in wrinkles of elephantine proportion. Washing, which he cannot do himself, is difficult: there are endless folds that must be cleaned lest he develop abscesses, not to mention a very foul stench. Shaving is virtually impossible without bloodshed, even by the most diligent home nurse. And these are mightily hard to come by, since my father tends to drive each one away: cursing, hurling insults and racial epithets, refusing to take his cocktail of Alzheimer medications, refusing to eat, making everything from going to the bathroom to bathing more difficult that it already is (which is very).

I have tried doing what these nurses do for an hour or two at a time, in between the departure of one and the arrival of another. It is appalling. My guilt over not wanting to do this sort of intimate caring for my own father---cleaning his behind, clipping his thick yellow toenails, trimming his ear shrubs---is only slightly, but still distinctly, outweighed by my revulsion at the task. I suppose he cared for me this way once, as I do for the kids at my job: wiping asses, rinsing pee-soaked clothes, milking snot from noses, spoon-feeding applesauce. But the latter is all much easier. That’s because one involves you with youth and its unlimited promise, the other with old age, mortality, and your own shrinking pool of options.

Instead, I hide out in my basement apartment with thousands upon thousands of songs and type messages to you, Rudy (to quote The Specials). Whoever you are.


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