July/August 2011
Hua Hsu

Ain’t I Worth A Dime

Phone Calls, Broken Connections, and Busy Signals in Song

Occasionally, you will still find a seller on eBay who will play you records over the phone. Often it is someone with a patchy internet connection, possibly dial-up, who simply can’t be bothered to learn the science of Sendspace or digitize thirty seconds of a forty-year-old soul single, and so their phone number is right there in the listing, and you can call and they will play you the record over the phone. It’s very hard to hear the difference between VG and VG-plus, and crushing your ear against the receiver only worsens matters. I’ve experienced many records this way first, only to rediscover them in fuller resplendence weeks later and lament the ostentatious guitar solo or ill-advised flute that went unnoticed the first time around because the other person hadn’t held the phone close enough to the speaker. There’s something very tender about this kind of thing: two strangers silent on opposite ends of a wire, sharing a song, possibly one about love or betrayal. Over the phone, every soul singer sounds more tortured, every poorly recorded ’80s rap record that much more desperate an exit strategy. Because, pin-drop or no, the telephone was not designed for fidelity. Its purpose was to allow us to throw our voices across great distances to communicate with each other. Fidelity was but a luxury.

Early on, the effects could be otherworldly. In his wondrous 1910 book The History of the Telephone, Herbert Newton Casson described the “MYSTERIOUS NOISES” that accompanied turn-of-the-nineteenth-century telephone calls. These noises were attributed to the fact that the Earth (“which is really a big magnet”) drew all manner of strange and uncouth sounds to the telephone wire. Early calls were vexed by “noises! Such a jangle of meaningless noises had never before been heard by human ears. There were spluttering and bubbling, jerking and rasping, whistling and screaming. There were the rustling of leaves, the croaking of frogs, the hissing of steam, and the flapping of birds’ wings. There were clicks from telephone wires, scraps of talk from other telephones, and curious little squeals that were unlike any known sound.”

The service improved; we grew accustomed to the occasional kink; one day, cell-phone latency will join this list of old-world problems. But there are moments when our calls are interrupted, either by Casson’s “MYSTERIOUS NOISES,” or by a dropped connection, and we are reminded of the vast machinery that enables our conversations. We are reminded that our connections figurative and literal are not as secure as we first hoped.

Perhaps this is why the telephone has long been such a wonderful plot device for song. A rival for our ears, the phone draws attention to what so many songs are actually about: the problem of communication. They remind us of distance, not just between lovers or intentions, but between the person listening to the record and the source of the sound, or perhaps of all sound.

“Hello?” R. Kelly utters in the opening seconds of 2004’s “3-Way Phone Call,” with the weariness of someone who has been ducking this call for far too long. His sister, voiced by Kelly Price, is calling to gauge his spirits. The friendly check-in is merely prelude to an intervention, as she three-way summons a fellow believer, Kim Burrell, to help lift Kells’s spirits. He is helpless to refuse and eventually accepts His higher calling. “You just gotta hang on,” Price affirms.

What follows are nine episodes, corresponding to the phone’s nine positive integers. These are moments of reaching out and touching someone the industrial aim of the phone, the sole purpose of music. These are unwanted invasions, connections broken without warning, busy signals, cranks and pranks, missed calls, and unanswered phones trilling toward infinity.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Hua Hsu teaches at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.

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