I wrote a ballad about a particular village in a particular region of the country. I distributed the song throughout the region via cassette tapes stuffed into the morning newspaper. Most people threw the cassettes away, but a group of neighbors got together one night to listen to my song. Someone brought too much whiskey. One wrong assumption led to another, and these neighbors misinterpreted the words I used, the tone I created. They declared the song an insult to their heritage. Someone piled the tapes in the street, and then the people who misinterpreted the song—the Misinterpreters—took turns running over the tapes with their bicycles.
Another group in the region held on to their tapes. They played my song at home. They played it on boomboxes while tending their backyard gardens. When the song played over the speakers at a coffee shop, they tapped their feet and watched the Misinterpreters storm outside.
The Misinterpreters picked fights and argued with this other group, and they began to refer to them as The Listeners. Confrontations at the grocery store, accusations at the post office. The Misinterpreters stirred their followers into a frenzy during organizational meetings, and kept a copy of the song for recruitment purposes.
One Monday evening, a group of musicians covered my song in a tavern. As word of this act spread, The Misinterpreters packed the tavern, yelling and threatening the musicians. A pair of men stepped outside, and then the men became a swirl of fists and kicks. Several dozen Misinterpreters marched down the street in front of the tavern, brandishing rifles. Someone threw a rock through the tavern's front window, and then The Misinterpreters climbed inside the tavern like the tavern was a castle.
Someone set a building on fire. Someone called the fire department. The mayor called the National Guard but the National Guard did not arrive in time. In the morning, the newspaper showed a whole city block destroyed by flames.
After the fire, The Listeners moved to an abandoned ghost town on the other side of the highway. They gathered in their new homes and listened to my song, and sometimes they took turns describing their former village. Their favorite streets and shops. The alleyways and the river and the lights on the river. Bicycle rides along the wide avenues lined with maple trees.
When they thought of their former neighbors, they understood it wasn't that the Misinterpreters had the wrong idea of the song, but rather their entire vision of the village was skewed.
The tapes passed down through a generation and then another. My song became the primary memory of the village for the people in the ghost town. No one in the ghost town could remember which of the surrounding towns my song was about and no one really cared. Children of the town didn't believe the village existed, except in song.
I wrote a song so good it made people wreck their cars. I never intended to destroy Kansas City. I wanted to create a simple rock song using guitar, bass, and drums. I harnessed the caveman part of my brain and came up with something fairly stupid, three minutes and forty seconds of stomp rock.
I considered the song an unremarkable addition to my work.
I had promised a song to a friend, so I sent my caveman song off to her for a compilation CD to benefit victims of a powerful new disease. A music writer at a KC weekly praised it as "the only listenable song on the entire compilation."
The song altered the impulse-control part of the brain. Inhibitions vanished somewhere between the fourth and seventh time people heard my song. The desire to drive fast became the listener's primary concern. If you weren't already in your car, you jumped into your car, put the CD in, and you drove so fast you lost control. Cars and trucks and vans smashed into walls and bus stops and cafeterias and abandoned storefronts. It wasn't a suicide thing. It was a this-song-sounds-best-while-traveling-as fast-as-you-can thing.
A whole category of kids—kids without cars, kids too young to drive—took to strapping headphones on, blasting the song, and then running around outside very very fast.
It seemed incredible then, it seems incredible now: there weren't any deaths. Not one.
The police said four out of ten accidents in Kansas City that winter could be attributed to my song. What's remarkable is that no one has been killed from this song, a TV reporter intoned. Ban the anti-Kansas City song, the protestors chanted. Send that termite to jail before her ruins our city, the mayor ordered. On what charges, the chief of police asked.
Entire sections of the city crumbled… neighborhoods wasted… random car parts in the street, doors and mufflers… telephone poles toppled over… severed power lines… collapsed houses… citizens afraid to walk outside for fear of the drivers… citizens turned corners, heard a car driving at full speed down the avenue… the drivers in ecstasy behind the wheels of their cars… the drives stumbling from their cars with contented looks on their faces… the drivers crawling away from their wrecks… the drivers pushing themselves out of their toppled metal machines, giving birth to themselves…
Many citizens of our city suffered from a contagious insomnia. The insomnia passed through entire neighborhoods in a weekend, leaving the non-sleepers restless, wandering the streets wrapped in blankets and comforters until Sunday night turned into Monday morning. As a gift to our city and to help combat this affliction, I hooked up with a collective of musicians, a bearded horde of disorderly men who dressed like lumberjacks and acted like twelve-year olds. We rented out a grange hall, dedicated ourselves to making the insomniacs fall asleep to our music. We refashioned and refurbished our songs in preparation, discarding anything with a shuffling rhythm, aiming for guitars that soothed and comforted.
The young insomniacs arranged their blankets and pillows on the floor in front of the stage. Along one side of the room a concession sold hot cider and cinnamon donuts, a variety of milks.
Our first song was forty-seven minutes long. What we thought would relax agitated the crowd. When they began to dance in jittery half-steps, I guided the band into the next song with the help of a pre-arranged hand signal. We turned the volume down on our amplifiers. Our drummers replaced their sticks with brushes. One by one the audience settled. A hot section threatened, but with another signal, I led the lumberjacks in another direction. When I noticed our bass player's eyes getting heavy, I marched across the stage and stomped his foot. We watched the audience shut their eyes. They rested on the floor, breathing deeply, gathering blankets around them. Our song began a long slow fade, the drummers gently tapping their ride cymbals, the guitars chiming. Soon we had a hall of sleepers, and we watched the chests of the audience rise and fall and rise again.