Wednesday, March 20, 2013

W is for...

W is for... Whittaker.

 Roger Whittaker.

Nemesis of my childhood, voice of my nightmares, demon of the dinner hour.

In case you aren't aware, Roger Whittaker was "a Kenyan singer-songwriter and musician. His music can be described as easy listening or perhaps best as ballads. He is best known for his baritone singing voice and trademark whistling ability." Yowsa. Whistling ability. Yeppers.

When I was little (and perhaps before he knew better) my dad insisted on having calm, relaxing music playing while we had dinner together. His definition of 'relaxing music' veered closer to 'elevator music' than, say, something spiritual, transcendent or even classical. Instead of Enya or Debussy, we had Roger Whittaker.

I never knew how my dad had discovered Roger Whittaker. It's very likely he just picked up the cassettes at a gas station checkout on impulse. For the most part, my dad had some pretty awesome taste in music. Growing up, the cool kids next door would come over to borrow my dad's Who albums. I grew up recognizing the R. Crumb artwork on Big Brother & the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills album as much as any of my children's books. But he had a dark side. In his record collection amidst the Derek & the Dominoes, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Paul Simon, Blue Oyster Cult, James Taylor, and Grateful Dead albums sat anomalies like the Sandpipers' Guantanamera and that creepy Orleans album featuring the whole hairy, shirtless band. So apparently my dad had a subversive, easy listening side which led us to Roger Whittaker.

Eww. Just.... ewww.
I will always associate Roger Whittaker with the taste of brussels sprouts- two things that were forced on me at dinnertime that I loathed with the very fiber of my being and am totally unable to reconcile with now as an adult.

Eww. Just.... ewww.
Yes, I've tried brussels sprouts since. Prepared in many different ways, skillfully seasoned and cooked. I still think they're gross little cabbages, and I still hate them. One of the benefits of being an adult is that I no longer have to eat brussels sprouts and I exercise this right vigilantly. I hated them so much that I used every weapon in my arsenal to avoid eating them. I would lodge one in my cheek, ask to go to the bathroom and spit it out in the trash. (I had a very round face and there was little you could do to make me more chipmunky.) I would slowly over the course of the meal slide one off my plate and onto the floor (even the dog wouldn't touch them). Using all the slight of hand I could muster, I would palm one into one of the tiny little drawers in the hutch in our dining room. (This tactic had poor end results for me, as my mother would have no idea until the offending vegetable alerted her to its decomposing presence with a stink that made you worry someone had died in the floorboards. Upon finding it, I would be instantly blamed.)

And along with the sulphurous, cabbagey taste of brussels sprouts was Roger's oily, creepy voice singing old folk songs and new songs that he sang so laboriously they sounded like they were hundreds of years old. I hated "Dirty Old Town" the most because it seemed to me the most depressing tune in the history of the world, and this coming from a kid who would burst into tears over "Somebody Come and Play" from Sesame Street.

I was not alone in my loathing; my siblings shared my repulsion for Roger and his crooning. Although united in our purpose to rid 50 Russell Street (as well as the world) of Roger Whittaker, we employed different strategies. My brother Kevin's method combined misdirection and denial. He would pop every cassette we owned in the stereo- except Roger Whittaker- and feign confusion at his mistake.

"Kevin, this isn't Roger Whittaker."
"What? Are you sure?"
"This is 'Hot Legs' by Rod Stewart. Find the Roger Whittaker tape."
Close enough, right?
"This is not Roger Whittaker."
"Yes it is."
"No, it's not. It's 'Oye Como Va.' Come on, now, focus. You know what the Roger Whittaker tape looks like! Just find it and put it on so we can eat our damn dinner."
"This is the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Kevin."
"Same thing, right?"

Katie employed a tactic that was later adopted by the military in dealing with drug kingpins and middle eastern warlords. She would enjoy the music so loudly that in effect, my father would be punished for playing it. She'd sing along with Roger at the top of her lungs, mangling the French words to "Mon Pays Bleu," braying the chorus of "River Lady" with all she had, building gusto and volume with each successive song. My dad would drop his head, shake it in mild disgust and mutter, "Jesus," under his breath until side one finally snapped off and left us in quiet.
"Do you want me to flip it over and play side two, Dad?"
"God, no. Just leave it."

My role in all this was to hide the cassettes so Kevin didn't even have to pretend he couldn't find them.  Inevitably, old Roger wound up in the same drawer with my orphaned brussels sprouts.

Eventually, the tapes were lost for good, to our great relief, and except for Christmas Eve dinner, my dad gave up on playing music while we were gathered around the table. Years later, my sister and I were poking through the bargain cds in a display at a grocery store and came across The Best of Roger Whitaker on cd. We exchanged one horrified look and hid it deep amidst the Celine Dion karaoke tracks and Michael Jackson compilations.

I thought Roger's music existed solely to torture me and my siblings, but apparently, he has a devoted fan base. They post reviews like this on Amazon:

Yeah, Roger took us to other thoughts, too, most of which were not utterable amongst decent folk.

No. You were wrong.