When Paul McCartney sang “Hey Jude” at the opening of the 2012 summer Olympics, he unintentionally displayed the profound and humbling power of the human voice. As McCartney and his backing band fought their way through an admirable performance of a song that once set international airwaves on fire, true music aficionados, not blinded by McCartney’s legend, could not help but shake their heads discreetly.
After all, the seventy-year-old man is not the singer he once was. Were the McCartney of 1962 propelled into the future, he would have laughed, achingly, in his melodious and flat-less voice. Lennon would have made a caustic crack about Paul looking like a grandma.
Hitting the high notes, or not hitting them, is not necessarily the point of Elena Passarello’s incisive debut essay collection Let Me Clear My Throat, but the way a human voice shapes our conception of the world is a driving force behind her diverse offering.
The voice, which is Passarello’s obsession as a writer and as an actor, can lift individuals to angelic heights, as was the case for eighteenth-century castrato Farinelli; or it can simply kill: witness the powerful C note that tore apart the throat of tenor Enrico Caruso in 1921. Less simply, one accidental shriek can torpedo a presidential bid, like it did Howard Dean’s in 2004. As an actor herself (having performed in regional theaters throughout the country), Passarello understands the enigmatic instrument that is a voice—and as a writer, she can manipulate words like vocal cords to conjure the mental images she uses to navigate centuries of science, history, and popular culture. For the book, she interviewed singers, actors, an auctioneer, a politician, and even an Elvis impersonator, to convey the myriad incarnations of a voice and what it means for a vocalist, and a listener, to carve reality from the twin infoldings of mucous membrane.
“Double Joy: Myron Cope and the Pittsburgh Sound” is one of the nimblest of the essays in the book, a lingual tour of the Pittsburgh dialect, which is the equivalent of a car built from the smoldering wreckage of a dozen other forgotten automobiles. Of the singular, recently deceased Pittsburgh Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope, Passarello writes, “His trump card came not in ugliness, but in joy . . . Cope’s sound was a happy-ending narrative of hard knocks that led to a heyday, because each ripped-to-shit phoneme was paired with his noted joviality.” Cerebral cursing is a specialty of Passarello’s, one that is not easily learned or mimicked: the word “fuck” is peppered throughout her otherwise breezy yet academic language, a reminder that the segregation between written and spoken word needn’t be so severe.
Once an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, Passarello describes an awakening to a Pittsburgh dialect unlike any other, including her southern twang that continually amused classmates. As she notes, the Pittsburgh dialect is the “Galapagos Island of American dialects,” a stew of Irish verb forms, Yiddish vocabulary, and Slavic vowel changes born in factories that deposited hundreds of cultures into the Steel City. Cope, though folksy and incomprehensible to most, embodied a proletarian Pittsburgh that had long faded away by the time he was announcing games in the 2000s: the mills had closed, the immigrants had assimilated, and Pittsburgh was in its second act as a high-end service economy, still losing population but staving off disaster. Cope, for Passarello and Pittsburghers everywhere, was a reminder of what their city would always be; his bizarre idioms like “double yoi!” froze midcentury Pittsburgh in sonic amber.
Certain essays, like a meditation on the appearance of crows in popular twentieth-century songs, feel less weighty. While “And Your Bird Can Sing” delves into a numbing game of this-crow-reference-happened-here-and-here’s-why, Passarello redeems through her warmth—her writing voice is akin to a brainy friend escorting you through meandering, foreign back alleys—and journalistic aplomb, opening each essay with an unnamed narrator (names can be found in the bibliography) who describes his or her particular use or encounter with the human voice. Passarello writes like a young, gifted writer is supposed to: lustily and undaunted. Rather than fall prey to sweeping generalities, she is scientific writer who also happens to amuse. Her essays are imbued with meticulous research, trawling the depths of topics as diverse as cinema history and the meaning behind the “rebel yell.” In a sense, Passarello is the swaggering professor that formerly disinterested students flock toward by the end of the period. When she writes of Frank Sinatra that his “weary pain, on the other hand, is a Beau Brummel pain,” referencing the legendary eitghteenth-century dandy, her gifts are on full display. The metaphor, pointed and chuckle-worthy, quickly captures the essence of the crooner.
“My dear, the voice is like a small dog. Sometimes is good dog, sometimes is bad dog. That is all,” a renowned Russian vocal coach tells a scuffling singer at the beginning of an essay, “The Soprano.” The lesson is vaguely terrifying, a violation of the American ethos we know so well: self-improvement is possible if we work as hard as we can. The voice, though, conforms to no national myth. Passarello recounts in lucid detail a 1961 performance Judy Garland gave at Carnegie Hall, one that moved the acerbic and equally-doomed Lenny Bruce to tears.
Thirty-eight and less than a decade from her death, Garland sang in a way that was “a disturbing emotional vertigo,” her voice free from the ravages of her drug and alcohol addictions. According to Passarello, Garland said, “I don’t ever wanna go home…” during a rapturous encore, further underscoring the memento mori nature of that night. “Home” for Garland was not an escape. It was the day in 1950 when she locked herself in her master bath, smashing a glass and sawing at her neck with the shards. It was her dismal English apartment, far removed from “Swinging London,” where she swallowed too many Secanol, dying an anticlimactic and ignoble death. The stage was her home. More accurately, her voice was her home. Slipped rather effortlessly from her body during the autopsy, Garland’s voice box was placed next to her corpse “so that it hovers outside her body like a droopy balloon.” A near half century of stardom, reduced to a dead heap of muscle—Garland never got McCartney’s privilege of croaking out watered-down versions of her forty-four-year-old hits. The voice, when all was falling apart around her, was always perfect.
Passarello’s name is not yet batted around high literary circles, but Let Me Clear My Throat is as effective a first salvo as any young essayist can hope for. In Tropic of Capricorn, Henry Miller wrote, “The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” Passarello is an imperfect writer, but her multifarious reach and genuine joy would make the old pariah proud.
Ross Barkan is a journalist and essayist from Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in the Rumpus, L Magazine, the Brooklyn Rail, the Coffin Factory, Words, and a short story of his will appear in the upcoming issue of Post Road.
Let Me Clear My Throat
Sarabande Books 2012
Hardcover $22.95, Paperback $15.95