John Carlson: Too Late To Be A Troubadour

If you could read my screech, love, what a tale the notes would tell...Photo by: Nancy CarlsonIf you could read my screech, love, what a tale the notes would tell...Photo by: Nancy Carlson

By: John Carlson—

The other day I heard a terrible screeching, kind of like a cat in heat, that made my proverbial skin crawl.

Then I realized it was me, singing.

This amazed me, because there was a time when my voice was pretty good. Back in high school, for example, I considered joining the choir, but didn’t because I feared it would cut into the 10 minutes a week I devoted to studying. Later, even well into my adult years, I’d lather up in the shower and suddenly burst into a Beatles classic like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Eleanor Rigby” or the romantic ballad “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” Then I’d hop out dripping wet and excitedly inform my wife that, believe it or not, I sounded exactly like Paul McCartney.

What’s more, Nancy agreed with me!

“Uh-huh,” she’d always answer. “Sure you do.”

So it was a shock not long ago when we went to Emens Auditorium for a performance by 1964: The Tribute, an excellent Beatles cover band. At one point in the show they asked the audience to sing along with them. Taking a deep breath, I launched into song, then couldn’t believe what erupted from my vocal cords.

Frankly, I have heard prettier tunes coming from people getting the Heimlich Maneuver. Happily, what with the amplified guitars and drums and the other audience members singing nearby, the only person subjected to my tortured wailing was me.

It was even worse in church. Let’s face it, church is a place where the singing should be soothing, inspirational and beautiful, or at the very least, human sounding. On a responsive Lutheran singing, um, thing, our amazing minister, West Point grad and math wizard Pastor Jerry O’Neal, was up front making music in his usual dulcet tones. But when it was time for the congregation to join in, I began bleating like a goat. Suddenly the folks nearby turned to gape at me, as if Beelzebub had just plunked into their pew. Mothers held their hands over their children’s ears. I had to wave off an usher who went running to the vestibule to fetch the defibrillators.

All I could think was, what happened?

The answer probably lies in all the cigarettes – including thousands of unfiltered Camels – that I chain smoked back in my stupid years. Make that my stupider years. Plus the cheap bourbon I drink now, which is soothing to my psyche, but less so to my throat. Then there’s all the Mexican food I snarf, loaded with jalapeño slices and doused in hot sauce. For me, a week without a dozen fiery tacos is like breakfast without  Hostess Twinkies. Given all that throat trauma, what did I expect to sound like? A 67-year-old phenom with the Vienna Boys Choir?

But embarrassing as my voice now was, I knew there was a bright side to my utter failure as a singer.

After all,  at one time I had considered a career as a guitar-strumming troubadour. This was back when, while singing in the shower, I sounded exactly like Gordon Lightfoot. But one day I had a troubling vision of myself as that guitar-strumming troubadour at my present age. My once-beautiful voice? Now it could be the soundtrack to an Indiana Pork Producers video about harvesting mountain oysters. Considering that, what would I then do to earn a living?

Instead, I had become a newspaperman.

As it turned out, this was a wise decision for me, since it required relatively little singing. Even now, though, I sometimes think about the singers who have “made it” despite not being able to sing very well. At least not being able to sing very well by the traditional definition of the term. I dearly love Bob Dylan, for one. But I’ve heard him sing on televised concerts where I actually thought he was playing the  kazoo. And, hey, he won a Nobel Prize!

So maybe all is not lost. Say I stay off cigarettes, as I have for the past 30 years. And say I give up rot-gut bourbon for milk or Dr Pepper. And say instead of a dozen fiery tacos a week, I slurp down a dozen bowls of lukewarm oatmeal. Is it possible that I’ll regain my wonderful old voice and finally launch the singing career that was so cruelly denied me by life and fate? And is it possible that I’ll even win a Nobel prize? Well, is it?

Um … naaah.


A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.