Klarinet Archive - Posting 000613.txt from 1997/09
From: "Dan Leeson: LEESON@-----.EDU>
Subj: BASSET HORN BLUES!! (A short story)
Date: Fri, 12 Sep 1997 02:30:47 -0400
To my friends on the KLARINET list.
I don't know if any of you are aware that I do a great deal of
short story writing, and quite a lot of it is published. Once in
a great while I do one on music, such as the one I did for Benny
Goodman at the time of his death.
Anyway, I am doing a series of autobiographical short stories, and
the one below just popped out without me realizing it. It is
supposed to be funny (but may not be). Excuse the vulgarism, but
when I write, I write.
I thought that no one in the world would appreciate this story more
than a group of clarinet players. So here is one of my
autobiographical short stories, this one entitled: "BASSET HORN
BLUES." (And it is copywritten! So just read it, but don't copy
BASSET HORN BLUES
Daniel N. Leeson
In 1948, when I was a teenager, we moved to Suffern, New York. The
most significant advantage (for me) of living in Suffern was the
opportunity to learn a valuable lesson about human behavior, one
that affected an aspect of my behavior for my entire life.
Paradoxically, it had to do with the pronunciation of the town's
When asked where I lived, I would give and even spell the name of
the town, "S-U-F-F-E-R-N," and an astonishingly large number of
people responded with the identical statement, one intended to be
an example of their shoot-from-the-hip humor.
"Suffern?," they would say; "are you suffering?"
Now this doesn't sound like much. It's a small attempt at comedy
derived from observance of a similarity of pronunciation, a sort of
harmless homophonic humor. But repetition of it soon began to
drive me crazy as I discovered that constant duplication of the
same tired play on words was some sort of a human genetic flaw.
Was that the way I spoke? When people gave me a fact on some
subject, did I independently create an unoriginal and not
particularly clever joke based on the words of that fact? I didn't
think so but it was time to pay close attention to how I spoke.
The first 100 "Suffern? Are you suffering?" statements grew to the
level of a major irritant. After that, its exasperation quotient
spiraled upwards like the H-bomb cloud. Then my paranoia took over
and I began to believe that meetings were being held while I was
asleep to encourage total strangers to say that dumb line to me
and, thus, drive me into ever-deepening schizophrenia.
"Okay everybody. Let's keep it down to a quiet roar. Now
listen. I know its late, but we just found out that this
idiot from Suffern is going to be driving through here
tomorrow and he'll probably stop for gas. So we have called
this town meeting at 2 am to alert you to the visit and create
a faster slope for his descent into insanity.
Now listen up, all you gas station owners. He is going to
need gas and if you happen to be the one he goes to, be sure
to ask where he is from. Then, when he says 'Suffern,' you
all know what to do. But be careful. Don't get fancy. Just
say the standard line: 'Suffern? Are you suffering?' You got
it? Don't deviate from orthodoxy. Keep it simple.
And Elsie, he'll probably want to eat something about that
time so if he goes to your diner, get a couple of customers to
ask him where he is from. And put him at Helen's table.
Now Helen, make goo-goo eyes at him while you're taking his
order. Let him see a little cleavage. He's a sucker for
that. Then, when he is defenseless, ask him where he's from.
That's when you do a number on him. OK?
We figure he's half crazy now what with raging hormones and
his lousy gene pool. By constantly using this same dumb,
trite, threadbare, ragged, shaggy, moth-eaten line, we can
have him in the rubber room at the funny farm in, say, four to
Hey Tom, listen up here. Is the town's patrol car fixed? It
is? Good. Well, be sure that you stop him on the road with
flashing red lights. That way, you can scare the hell out
him. Then ask for his license and, when you see it, ask if he
is really from Suffern. Then you zing him. I don't care if
he isn't speeding. Just stop him and do the Suffern bit. OK?
Folks. Let's get ready here. We don't want any criticism
from the governor and we certainly don't want to miss this
grand opportunity. You all know that last week he was in
Syracuse and they zinged him about three dozen times. Let's
see if we can jab him a gross or more times, OK? It will be
good for business and tourism. We can put a sign on the spot
where he goes bezerk and it will say that it was there where
he attempted to have carnal knowledge of a passing mail truck.
I'm telling you that they were out to get me. It became a state
effort and the governor himself got daily reports on it.
I was thinking about injuring the next person who came out with the
Suffern line, an injury that would take the form of a knife in the
eye. I read somewhere that courts would dismiss murder or mayhem
charges on anyone who offered the defense of provocation through
multiple repetitions of the same tired, old joke. It was called
the "Joe Miller" law. And if that story is not true, it should
certainly be legal grounds to do some significant bodily injury to
anyone who so provokes.
But despite my bravado, I only occasionally retaliated. I just
turned up the corners of my mouth to let the joke teller know that
I wasn't entirely brain dead, and then put a hatch mark on the
total count of repetitions. We moved away from Suffern at 15,763
reiterations. Thank God we didn't move to Intercourse, PA.
My mental health got better. As I got older, I stopped being
furious at people who they asked me where we I lived as a teenager.
I married a lovely woman who never once asked me if I suffered when
living in Suffern. I began what became a successful business
career, played a great deal of clarinet at a professional, long
hair level, and moved to Paris where jokes about suffering in
Suffern would make no linguistic sense. Life was good. I was
playing a lot of professional gigs in France and even one of the
finest French players, Louis Cahuzac, once told me that I should
broaden my horizons by investing in a few of the rarer kinds of clarinets.
Cahuzac said, "there is always a need for players of the cor de
basset. If you own one of them, you play a lot, but if you get
two, you will never stop playing." It was the best musical advice
I ever had.
The name "cor de basset" didn't strike me as particularly funny.
I had heard of the instrument, but in French, there is little room
to make a pun on the name. It was the English translation that
would take me to the pit of hell. It was not until we moved back
to the United States and I was invited to play the Mozart Requiem
(which calls for two "cors de basset") that the magnitude of my
colossal error became apparent. (That was Cahuzac's gift to me.
When you had two of them, they had to hire you. At one point I was
the only professional clarinet player in the United States who
owned two cors de basset. And since I owned the bat and ball, I
was hitting to left field at every opportunity!)
The contractor engaging me said, "We need you to play basset hound,
... er, I mean basset horn (heh, heh) for some performances of the
My blood suddenly ran cold. What had he said?
"Basset hound? Basset horn??
My God. It was "Suffern? Are you suffering?," all over again.
But it was even worse with the basset horn jokes. The homophonic
possibilities opened up undreamed of opportunities.
"What long ears your instrument has." (Better to hear your
imbecilic directions, said I, silently and to myself.)
"What big teeth your instrument has." (Better to bite your goddamn
head off, you stupid bastard!!)
"What big eyes your instrument has." (Better to see you with, in
your complete inability to conduct even a Sousa march you
"Basset hound," the conductor would say during a performance of
Strauss' "Frau Ohne Schatten," your entrance "barked" too much.
And then he and the entire orchestra would laugh at his cleverness
until they all wet their pants. The corners of my mouth would turn
up in appreciation at his humor. He was, after all, the conductor.
That didn't mean he was smart, or knew anything about music. It
meant only that he exercised control over your finances.
Only retirement and the selling of my basset horn pair preserved
what was left of my sanity. And I can, at this juncture of my
life, look back and examine the lesson that I learned at age 16 and
that I kept to throughout my entire life.
Verbal puns that are thought up on an instant's notice,
particularly those built on homonyms, were probably thought up
by at least 50,000 people before the current person's attempt
at originality. Realizing this fundamental law of nature, I
never did it. And in this way beautiful women were attracted
to me because of my brilliant social dialogue, one that was
completely without puns based on homonyms. Several wealthy
women set me up in private apartments in New York because of
my skill at avoiding such homonymic humor, and not an evening
went by without me becoming sexually exhausted as a result of
this knowledge, which I pass along to all those who continue
to use such shoot from the hip dumb jokes and who are getting
damn little nookey because of it.
One of my last jobs before retiring, was to play Mozart's Gran
Partitta (which also requires two basset horns - thank you again
Monsieur Cahuzac). It was in Reno. And there was this 98 year old
lady who was there, and she came up to me after the concert and
asked me if I enjoyed playing on a dog. So I stabbed her. And,
due to the notoriety of the 1948 NY State law that gives permission
to maim anyone who makes homonymic jokes, I wasn't even arrested.
However, the body of the 98 year old lady was left propped up in a
casino by a slot machine. She may still be there, for all I know.
She may even be winning, but she no longer makes basset horn jokes.
(Postscript: after writing this story using my word processor, I
did a spell check on the entire document. When it came to
"Suffern," the spell checker suggested the alternative "suffer."
I tell you those bastards are still trying to get me.)
Dan Leeson, Los Altos, California
Rosanne Leeson, Los Altos, California