The first time it was Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talking at Me. Two or three days of Harry Nilsson, the part where he can’t hear a word they’re saying, only the echoes of his mind. It’s a good song — it reminded me of Midnight Cowboy.
Later it was Elvis Costello’s Everyday I Write the Book, that part where he’d still own the film rights and be working on the sequel. Three to four days of Costello. And I’d still own the film rights and be working on the sequel and I’d still own the film rights and be working on the sequel and I’d still own the film rights and be working on the sequel. The video of the song is pretty good: Prince Charles and Lady Di, young and beautiful, trying to get their relationship to work; Elvis, with his oversize glasses singing of love as a practice that works pretty much like writing. And I’d still own the film rights and be working on the sequel. I could relate to that, to the writing and the film rights, and to Charles and Diana.
Then came Van Morrison (It’s All Right: how can I say so many words and so many syllables), Susanne Vega (Luka: it’s not your business anyway), When in Rome (The Promise: when your day is through and so is your temper), Falco (Jenny: Jenny quit living on dreams, Jenny life it’s not what it seems), and even a section of Coltrane’s solo in the fourth movement of A Love Supreme (five bars only). To name just a few. Of course it’s always irritating. It’s mostly about the fragments but it’s also about the duration: sometimes they go on for days. But as long as the songs are OK it’s not end of the world.
Until one day: Cyndi Lauper. And not only Cyndi Lauper, but Cyndi Lauper’s part in We Are the World: wow wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come, wow wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come, wow wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come, wow wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come. Her screeching voice drilling into my brain, reminding me of all her bracelets, her 80s hair, her shiny yellow teeth, all the nonsensical rags hanging from every part of her body, Cyndi, that trashy Madonna. Wow wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come. Wow wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come. And so on.
It was sunny. On my way to the surgery I stopped at Holland & Barrett down Upper Street to get some St John’s Wort. Then I ended up at the Caffè Nero at Exmouth Market and Pine Street, round the corner from Dr. Segar’s. It was nine thirty: I had two hours to kill.
Everyone around here prefers the fashionable indie-deli-cafés where they serve organic coffee and organic pastries and they charge an organic price but I prefer the Nero. The place has a tall ceiling, big windows, a decent space between the tables and the guys working the espresso machine are Italians and you have to concede that most Italians are racist but they make a killer espresso. Many others must feel the same way because the café was pretty busy — there was a long queue all the way from the till to the door. And all this time Cyndi was wow wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come, wow wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come, wow wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come
There comes a time with them when you learn that the worst thing you can do is resist. By the time you’ve realised this you’ve very likely stopped playing the song in ‘real life’ thinking they will go away. And by now you know pretty well that listening to other songs won’t help either. You can’t fight them no matter how mad they drive you. Your only chance is being with them without becoming them — it sounds like some Zen bullshit but that’s what you have to do. You learn to live with them and with all the other tics; they might even stop bothering you, most of the time. But this day something weird was happening: everything felt different, as if filtered through an existential flanger pedal. At the time I attributed this to the mix of 5-htp, Rescue Remedy, and Valerian pills. Everybody says it takes time for the brain to accommodate to all this new chemistry. What can I get you sir?, a latte and a croissant, regular or large?, regular, please, to have here or take away?, to have here, sure, sorry can you not use a transparent cup?, yes, could you use a normal cup?, sure sir. He might have found it peculiar but I’m not the only one who hates those cups — they look like the glass where shitty artists wash their watercolour-stained brushes. In any case, he didn’t say anything and just made my coffee — inside he was probably concocting some xenophobic slur in Dantespeak.I left the exact money on the counter, no I don’t collect stamps, and went to sit in a quiet spot. The table was full of paper water cups; I put one inside the other, careful of not touching the rims with my fingers and then pushed them to the farthest corner. And I stayed there watching the tired people come into the café and leave with a coffee cup and a light smile and a lot of foreboding for their shit jobs.
St John’s Wort. I had never taken St John’s Wort before. I was on Bach Flowers for anxiety, White Chestnut for the intrusive thoughts, Cherry Plum for the fear of going schizoid, Pine for thoughts about guilt, Crab Apple for fear of contamination, Valerian to aid sleep, 5-htp to bump serotonin levels. Some other things too, like Omega 3, Iron, Magnesium, for other reasons. But never St John’s Wort. The girl on the forum had said it would be good if I went on it, that it could help with the songs and with the other tics, that she had killed twenty days of MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This thanks to the St John’s Wort. It seemed worth a try.
Just when I became aware of Cyndi one more time, a lady, circa 1990 walked to my side of the café and sat on a nearby table. Wow wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come. I have no particular fetish for (young) women but she was something else: blue eyes, fair skin, tall, nice legs beginning and ending on a pair of high heeled ankle boots, not too hard on the makeup, nice waist — a fine young human being, ready to be pleased and to give pleasure before sinking into bitterness and regret, an uneventful middle age, unavoidable decay and death. But there was time for that. And she was looking at me with more attention than I normally get from any woman. Wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come, wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come. She was looking at me, every now and then she was looking at me, and then her phone, pretending to be looking around but looking at me, and then her phone and then me again. There wasn’t anyone or anything else around to be looking at. Wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come. She was texting, she was probably texting someone about me. This was fab fuck yeah! but there was a slight problem: she had the nails on one of her hands painted in red, while the nails on her other hand were slightly unpainted and this really upset me. I knew it was possible to revert the situation, that it would only take a couple of minutes, but it upset me anyway. So I decided to play not interested for a while and concentrate instead on my daily list. Maybe that would give her time to tidy up her nails.
An orange Rhodia notebook, made in France, eighty sheets measuring three point three by four point seven, in which I do my lists. Meditation: crossed. Latte and croissant: crossed (I actually crossed it just then). Buy St John’s Wort: crossed. Dr. Segar, certificate?, referral?, medication, acupuncture, drop books at the library, do the laundry, write five hundred words, all uncrossed. I wrote “look at the blonde” and crossed it. I wrote “talk to her” and put my notepad away in my coat pocket. When I raised my head she was no longer there: she was gone and I was left alone with Cyndi and an item impossible to cross from my list and almost two hours to kill. The only thing left to do was rewriting my list; that’s what I did, adding “forget about the blonde” and I felt better — I even ticked it. Then I read the newspaper and learned everything I needed to know about Prince Williams’s wedding, the latest treatment for cellulite, and a workshop on how to make any woman want to sleep with you, ran by some bearded misogynist wanker with a name like an onomatopoeia.
“Yes?” said the woman — she was new. Mid thirties, probably recently divorced. Slightly large with puffy cheeks; she had a beautiful round face, very symmetric. The telephone was ringing aloud in the background and she was already trained to ignore it — it must be the first thing they teach receptionists.
“I’ve come to see Dr. Segar.”
“What time is your appointment?”
“You are slightly early.”
“Yes, half an hour and three minutes. I don’t mind waiting.”
“He’ll call you earlier if possible,” she said smiling.
“I’d rather he calls me at eleven thirty,” I said and she didn’t reply, probably didn’t hear me. Or probably I didn’t say it, just thought about it.
Name. DOB. By now she might have seen a note on my file.
“He’ll call you at eleven thirty,” she said. “Have a seat.” Wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come, wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come. “And turn your mobile phone off, please,” she said.
“Sure,” I said, without even trying to explain that my mobile phone was turned off already, and walked to a waiting area at the back, where it’s normally empty. There were five or six people this time. Luckily there were some guys pruning the bushes outside and the noise was enough to keep Cyndi more or less inaudible.
They have this muted telly there, playing adverts about quitting smoking, the need to do exercise and how not to get STDs. Always without exception the telly is on. And there’s also this rather big electronic sign with flashing LEDs, that every now and then lets out a loud beep — this one is normally busy admonishing people about the need to book in advance, or about calling at eight fifteen am for same day appointments, and about prescriptions, and giving blood and and and. And then a loud beep: John Rattagan, please go to Room 3 with Dr. Segar, said the LEDs. One of the guys, a tall, skinny and bald middle aged man with a shiny skull got up and left through the side door, following the orders from the big sign. Wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come.
And then there were two guys on the telly, a puffy black bloke and a taller pale one discussing something that will escape me forever. Adrian Williams, personal trainer, the puffy black guy. Maybe he was saying something interesting. At some point both of them just ran out of the screen and the camera followed suit until they disappeared behind some trees in what looked like Hackney Marshes. Loud beep: Kevin Mullen, please go to room 3 with Dr. Segar. Gosh, only ten past eleven. That was quick and is everyone Irish here? This one was a young guy with very dark hair, very skinny and with a big lump on his neck. He stood up and left through the side door. A couple of seconds later, when the door was still swinging, the other patient crossed to this side and then walked towards the main entrance. How long was he in there? It seemed as if Dr. Segar was having one of his fast days. What’s the point in booking for a certain time if you can be called whenever he finds it suitable? What if he called me before eleven thirty? Let’s say eleven fifteen, eleven twenty. Would I have to start coming one hour earlier instead of just thirty-three minutes before the appointment? Why would someone do this, to me? Would he do this to me, after so many visits, after knowing me for so long, would he dare call me fifteen minutes earlier? Perhaps he was having a bad day. Perhaps he was trying to teach me a lesson: be in control and teach him how to behave in my office — a power thing, an ego trip. Or maybe it was part of his therapeutic approach. No way of winning here — he could call me any minute, for whatever reason, and then I would have to rewrite the list a second time. It wouldn’t be: Dr. Segar, 11:30hs — it would be something different. And to make matters even worse another loud beep and Martin Dean Quinn, please go to Dr. Tarik, in Room 2. That left only two more people in the room with me. And Cyndi and the guys outside trimming the bushes.
He called me right on time: eleven thirty, sharp, and my name was flashing on the electronic sign. I got up, opened the door and started up the stairs when the other guy, this Mullen bloke, came down and we crossed paths without barely looking at each other. Soon I reached Dr. Segar’s office and knocked at the door.
“Coming in,” I announced and I came in.
He was looking at me from the depths of his chair, all hunched over his desk. It was really noisy, almost as if the electric hedge cutters were inside the room or my head — as if Cyndi was pruning bushes while singing.
“Hi Doctor, good to see you,” I said and took my jacket off and left it on a chair. I sat.
“Hi. How you’ve been?”
“So so. My eye is still twitching and I’ve got Cyndi Lauper stuck in my head since last Wednesday.”
“I see… We’ve got an answer about your referral.”
“What did they say?”
“They need more time to evaluate your case.”
“Yes,” he said and pressed a few keys on his computer keyboard. “I’ll print the letter out for you. You can give them a call and see if they can fast-track you. I don’t think it’ll work. But it’ll keep you busy.”
There was a noise on one of his shelves and the printer started shaking. Wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come. Wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come.
“It’s so noisy here,” I said, “how can you bear it?”
“It’s doing my head in!” he said and laughed. “Do you need the other prescription?”
“The one for the rash.”
“I thought you said it was a matter of stopping scratching…”
“Right. I forgot. How is it, then?”
“Bad: I’m still scratching.”
“I’ll give you some cream. But stop scratching, please.”
“OK; I’ll try.”
He pressed some more keys and then there was another noise and a different printer started doing its thing and my prescription came to life.
“Right,” he said. “Let me check your blood pressure. Raise your left sleeve.” I did as he asked and he put that inflatable thing around my arm and started pumping. Some time later he said it was OK. He uttered some numbers that didn’t mean anything and that I didn’t register at all. Then he put the stethoscope around his neck, the earpieces where they belong, and came closer to me. He rubbed the chestpiece against his arm, and then placed it on the top of my head.
“Wait a minute… I know this one… We Are the World!” he said.
“WOW WOW WOW YOU’VE WON A TV SET!” I joked.
“I used to love that song.”
“Yeah, me too! I bought the cassette when it came out.”
“How funny: I did as well!”
“Still… It’s the worst part of the song,” I said. “I hate Cyndi Lauper.”
“I can see why.”
“Screeching ginger cunt,” I said and he looked at me with minor shock on his face. “Sorry. She’s been in my head for too long.”
“It’s fine. How long has it been going on did you say?”
“Almost a week.”
“Any other symptoms? I mean new ones…”
“The usual. Although my penis and my testicles were hurting this morning and earlier I was experiencing life as if filtered through an existential flanger pedal.”
“Have you been having too much sex?”
“Not much. None at all, to be fair.”
“Do you masturbate?”
“Every now and then. If I put it on the list I do it.”
“Well, try to wear looser fitting underwear… Masturbate more… Have you thought about the possibility of trying with medication?”
“Yes. I don’t think it’s a good idea. I want to go a bit longer without it. I’m taking 5-htp now, to boost my serotonin levels. I read this thing could be the result of low serotonin levels. I’m still taking Cherry Plum, Pine, Crab Apple, Valerian, Iron, Omega 3, and Magnesium. I’ve read I should also take St John’s Wort to facilitate the flow and the retention of serotonin.” He nodded and hit some keys on the keyboard.
“Who told you all this?”
“A girl on a forum. She’s got them too, the songs. She said she’s better now, since taking 5-htp and St John’s Wort in combo. At least she gets to listen to the whole song. And she’s stopped listening to MC Hammer. Anyway… I don’t mind them — it’s the fragments that kill me. Listening to the whole song would be an improvement, even if it’s We Are the World — Michael Jackson’s parts are quite good.”
“I see. Is she the same one who prescribed you the other things?”
“She seems to know what’s she’s on about.”
“I guess so.”
“St John’s Wort…”
“What do you think?”
“I guess it depends on the person. Try it for a couple of weeks. But don’t mix it with alcohol.”
“For no reason, really. But we tend to say these things.”
“Oh, I see, well I’ll quit. I thought I might also try acupuncture. I’ve booked an appointment already — today,“ I said preparing myself to make my way out of his office. He raised his head and stared at me gravely.
“Forget about acupuncture!” he said.
“You don’t like it?”
“I do! But you’ll start freaking out about HIV or Hepatitis C,” he said.
“True,” I conceded.
“Yes. Cancel your appointment. Cancel it now! As soon as you leave my office.”
“OK,” I said. I felt a bit deflated — another list to rewrite.
“Have you had any sessions yet?”
“Because if you’ve had I would like to get you screened and tested, before you lunge into one of your panics and start coming in every day!”
“I haven’t had any sessions yet…”
“Good. What about work?” he asked.
“I don’t think I can go back to work,” I said.
“Right. I’ll sign you off for two more weeks. I’ll forward the letter later today.”
Wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come.
“Thanks a lot,” I said.
“But go somewhere.”
“Yeah. Go anywhere. Anywhere where they don’t have acupuncturists. And far from here.”
“And don’t fly.”
“Flying is pretty safe,” I said. “I don’t have a phobia about flying.”
“It’s not about that! You’ll interfere with the instruments.”
“You’re right,” I said.
“At least until we can get rid of the songs avoid flying.”
“Where can I go?”
“Go to Bournemouth. Paris. Scotland. Blackpool. Anywhere you can reach by train.”
“OK. I’ll take some days off.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you?”
I thought for a few moments.
“Is there anything I can do to get at least the whole song stuck in my head? Any ideas?”
He thought for a few moments.
“I would try listening to the same song over and over again all day long.”
“Yes. I would actually put it on repeat and go to sleep. It might help. In the worst case you won’t lose anything, would you?”
“I guess not.”
“Also, I would probably wear a woolly hat from now on.”
“Would it help?”
“It’ll muffle the sound.”
“That’s a good idea. I’ll buy one today.”
“Right… Anything else?”
“No. That’s it.”
“OK. Call me in two weeks, when you come back from wherever it is you end up going, to discuss whether you’ll go on the medication. CALL ME. You don’t need to come. Just call me. OK?”
“Actually write it on your list right now.”
“OK. What should I write?”
“Write “call Dr. Segar when the time comes.” Underline call. Then put “DON’T GO TO HIS OFFICE, JUST CALL,” in underlined caps.”
“Perfect.” I wrote what he told me.
“And write “get laid.” Write it for today.”
“I’m not sure about that one.”
“What happens if I can’t get laid. I might end up calling a prostitute home…”
“You won’t — too squeamish. But anyway, just write “get laid or masturbate, read a book, go for a run, etc. Keep options open, it’s all about keeping your options open.””
“I see what you mean.”
“OK. Speak to you in two weeks.”
“Perfect. Bye Dr. Thanks, for everything. I hope they finish with the bushes soon.”
I left his office and closed the door behind me. And soon I was in Spa Green. I sat on a bench to get some air and gather my thoughts. There were some office workers on their lunch breaks scattered around on the grass, and at least six of the members of the local drinking club, with their Special Brews, next to the swings, chatting and joking. No sign of the girl from Nero — I never bump into people, nobody ever does in London. Wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come. It was sunny and it was about to stop being sunny any minute. It was windy and there was a rotten smell in the air. I played with my phone for a while. And then checked my list for today once more. Meditation: crossed. St John’s Wort: crossed. Latte and croissant: crossed. Dr. Segar, certificate?, referral?, medication?, I could now cross them. Acupuncture, drop books at the library, do the laundry, write five hundred words, get laid or masturbate, read a book, go for a run, etc, keep options open, it’s all about keeping your options open. Wow wow wow let’s realize that a change can only come. Another wasted list.
Suddenly it started to rain. I had to rewrite the list standing at a bus shelter. When I got home a while later Cyndi finally stopped singing and everything felt completely silent.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to email@example.com keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Fernando Sdrigotti is a London-based Argentine writer. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, Numéro Cinq, 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Gorse, Open Democracy, Analog Magazine, among many others. His first collection of short stories in English, Dysfunctional Males, is forthcoming in late 2016. @f_sd.