Some incoming message tapes are quite boring (perhaps not unlike the lives they document), others yield a memorable moment or two. But the prize cassettes are packed with humanity, surprise and mystery. And they come in many flavors. Some tapes are wild. Some funny. Others are sad. Some are just a collage of voices and situations. But the very best unfold through a compelling series of events and offer narrative rewards. Such are the four answering machine tapes I’m offering here.
More than most home recordings, incoming message tapes are often candid documents. And they can provide some of the most intriguing red meat in the found sound business. While there’s an inherent awareness of being recorded that comes along with leaving a phone message, the more urgent or emotional the message is the less likely the caller is going to have posterity on his or her mind. Immediacy trumps self-awareness.
The overriding theme of these four recordings is bad behavior, specifically female misbehavior born of hurt feelings and rejection. Of course, exhibiting bad judgement in the middle of getting dumped is universal beyond gender (or just about anything else). It makes you kinda stupid.
Okay, let’s meet Mark. Is there any doubt this guy has just about everything going his way? He has a new birthday, a new abode, and he’s preparing for a London holiday where a sweet bird awaits his arrival. And more to the point– this guy is just popular. All the voices on this tape sound to be fresh, free and female. Even if they’re not all hot, Mark has options.
Mark’s Answering Machine 6:25
About three minutes in the tone shifts drastically. It’s incoming wrath from a spurned girlfriend. Or perhaps just an episode of serial dating gone all wrong. I suspect that the first half of the tape with all the birthday joy may have been recorded at a later date. The first onslaught from her you hear starts in mid-sentence. Rewinding the answering machine and then letting new messages collect from the beginning would cause this effect. Some moving moments may have been lost.
While Mark’s ex only flogs him with raw hurt, the wronged woman on tape number two shoots with real ammo. This answering machine kept messages for a guy named Kevin and a few others (Tara & Debbie). I believe one of the ladies runs a nail care business. This tape stumbles along in a rather humdrum fashion until you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a ripping feud between Kevin and his girlfriend.
Kevin’s Answering Machine 8:58
It all started at some social event. Apparently in some small way she gave him some grief about not spending enough time helping her out with her kids (or something like that). And then he “totally and completely yelled” at her in front of “a whole bunch” of their friends. Not a good idea, in retrospect. But it does engender some cogent dark comedy for the record.
I don’t want to spoil the plot before you hear the tape, but let’s just say that she’s so unflinchingly merciless that it’s hard to imagine Kevin would ever take a call from her again. And the end of this tape is sadly telling. Perhaps there are people you can win over lovers by shoving them away, but I’m not so sure they’re the ones you’d want to stick around. Cooler heads and nicer folks move on to more friendly and fertile territory. And while it’s good to be direct, cruelty is problematic. And isolating.
This tape is a murky affair. One nice bonus is that it starts with an outgoing message from the owner of the machine. It’s the only time you hear his voice. And is it my imagination, or does everybody on this tape sound chubby and black? The first caller is a horrendous mouth breather, almost impossible to understand. He calls the owner of the machine by name, but I have no idea what that might be. All I can glean from the message is that the caller is going to help him out sometime soon with something. Then there’s an invitation to come over and see “the fight.” That’s the first minute of the tape. Then the fun begins…
Pussy’s Answering Machine 5:28
Apparently, the guy is in some financial trouble and having trouble keeping up with some mortgage payments. And again, there was some type of a break up scene or argument providing the catalyst for this series of messages. And the woman who can’t stop calling does say “If you need me, I will help you,” in reference, I assume, to his financial woes. Or at least she’s willing to look out for his “part of the end” [sic]. But not only were her feelings trampled in the recent skirmish, but she seems to be at loss as to what is was all about. He just doesn’t like her? She did something to him? Or perhaps it has something to do with her drinking problem.
Okay, maybe she doesn’t usually drink herself into oblivion. But as the salvos start coming in, each message is sloppier and nastier than the last. It occurs to me that she may have a speech impediment as well, but with each call there’s more slurring and more spittle. By the end of it you gotta wonder if all that anger and hurt is the only thing keeping her on her feet and attempting to talk. You can almost smell the rank sweat and acetone breath.
Like Kevin’s girlfriend, the hammered hussy takes aim at the manhood. Only she derides his prowess in the profit column instead of the bedroom. And her insults are vulgar schoolyard stuff. Shamelessly crude and a lotta fun. You might wanna shoo all the small children and bible bangers out of the room before you listen to this one.
And to wind things up, we have Frank and Bess. And this incoming message tape is a little different than the other three. It’s longer and you actually get to hear several of their conversations between them. And there’s none of the belligerence and backbiting so evident of all the other tapes here. Yet, I find this rather sedate and relatively uneventful recording the most depressing of the bunch.
The star of this tape is the resonant self-absorbed voice of Frank himself. As it’s recorded from his phone line, he’s louder and clearer than all the other voices calling in. And besides talking about a lot of nothing (mostly weather and processed meat products) he just groans, sighs, yawns and exhibits an extremely annoying fake laugh over the course of his conversations with Bess. But all he really wants to do is get off the phone.
Frank’s Answering Machine 31:28
Instead of the coda to a meltdown, the repeated calls from Bess follow a more sedate and ambiguous break-up. The details aren’t readily easy to discern, but the main point is that he’s just moved far from her neighborhood and that the separation coincided with the conclusion of an intimate relationship they’ve shared. And perhaps they lived together. I’m not sure. And Bess? Nice. She sounds very nice. So how did a nice girl like this end up in a matching set of ugly break up tapes? It’s the cruelty.
And it does get ugly, in a low-key slow motion fashion. The best example comes near the ten minute mark. Bess emits an “I love you.” as a men’s underwear commercial blares in the background on Frank’s TV set. And then Frank offers the same reassuring affection she’s waiting for, with a caveat. “I love you," he responds followed with a big greasy pause– "… for what it’s worth.”
“That kind of devalues it,” she says, unhappy that he can’t be nice too.
“Yeah, I know,” he says. An indignity she ignores. Not only that, but a minute or two later she starts to get worked up in the other direction and mentions that she’s all wrapped up in Frank’s bathrobe, luxuriating in his odors. “Your SICK,” he squirms, finding her intimate affection patently offensive.
Seems to me, that would be the perfect moment to challenge Frank’s manhood, let alone his emotional depth. But unlike the wronged women on the other tapes, Bess never lashes out or takes him to task. And you know, if she just would have ripped into the moron it would have made this tape a lot more entertaining, and probably would have provided the best results for all concerned.