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Crime Against Monk 

Thursday, Oct 30 2003
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Illustration by Mitch Handsone

For inspiration, I bought a poster of Thelonious Monk to put over the grand entrance to the bathroom in the palatial two-car garage that is my home. Just a big monochrome Monk head on a bright-yellow background, his name in the lower right overprinted in a fairly benign typeface, large enough to read from 20 paces.

Tacked the poster into place and stepped back to admire, to ingest the first dose of revelations. Ah, Monk. Lifelong friend. The first time I heard his music, I was 10 years old. My brother, Danny, had bought a copy of Thelonious Monk Quartet Plus Two: At the Blackhawk, Monk’s 12th record on Riverside, and we listened to it on his brand-new $30 hi-fi from Kay’s Merchandise Mart. Danny’d been into swing for a few years, and now, at 14, he’d found his way to bebop. I’d never heard of Thelonious Monk, never heard anything like his music before. It was so stubborn, funny, complicated, confrontational even, but in a friendly way. By the end of the first side, I was hooked.

(“That’s just . . . I can’t . . . Isn’t it . . . it’s just so weird!”)

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My brother never paid much attention to rock & roll; wasn’t weird enough for him. I liked rock just fine, and often dosed up on the Beatles, Elton John and Five-Man Electrical Band (“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign/Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind/Do this, don’t do that/Can’t you read the sign?”), but now I was starting to enjoy the weirdness, as well.

In the basement, I’d put together a mismatched, jury-rigged trap set, where I could spend time alone after playing basketball at Hessel Park; spend an hour or so, almost every day, playing drums along with records. Ringo Starr, Nigel Olsson, Floyd Sneed, no problem. But when I tried to keep up with Billy Higgins, the drummer on At the Blackhawk, not even close. Way too complicated.

So I just kept time, and listened.

As seasons passed slowly and money came pouring in from my paper route, I began listening to other jazz artists, bebop and otherwise, but never felt the strong connection I felt to Monk. Maybe because my friends didn’t listen to him. Or because my brother had shared it with me almost like a secret. Underground; Brilliant Corners; Straight, No Chaser; Monk’s Blues — each album was different, but all had this unspeakably powerful . . . glee, and an awkward confidence that I could somehow relate to.

So I grew up and got a job and lived indoors and tacked up my brand-new Thelonious Monk poster with pushpins, stood across the garage to feel the effect on the room. Just as I was about to feel inspired, I noticed a small problem. A misspelling. A large problem. Monk’s first name was misspelled, missing the second o.

Feeling orthographically violated, I made the long, long drive back to the record store. On the way, dozens of misspelled signs attacked my windshield like locusts — permanent signs, with businesses offering “barbeque” accessories, “banguet” rooms, “rot” iron, a restaurant called “Antartica,” “vidio” rentals, “stationary” supplies, “vallet” parking, “sangwiches,” “capaccino,” “capucinno,” “cappucino” and “expresso” — and I began to simmer in a sour stew of petty bitches: The education budget’s slashed, nobody cares about anything but money anymore, no one gets the connection between art and evolution, country’s gone to the dogs, etc.

I don’t speak or write, for example, Dutch. But after Bush is re-elected, I’ll make sure I can spell “Will teach English for food or hash” in Dutch on my cardboard sign before I go panhandling through Amsterdam. Likewise, if your business is selling barbecue grills, at some point prior to incorporation you may want to fucking look up how to fucking spell b-a-r-b-e-c-u-e. (Granted, some desperate publishers have been marketing dictionaries listing the -que version as a legitimate alternate spelling, but . . . they’re wrong. They just want you to buy their fucking dictionary.)

Because who’s going to trust someone who can’t spell his own business/product/service? Other people who can’t spell, that’s who. And so it behooves the business/product/service people to keep the education budget low, so we don’t know how fucked up their signs are.

But if you don’t care about the devastating effects that misspellings are having on your own generation, then for God’s sake, man — do it for . . . the children! The children are our future! And our children’s children are our future’s future! And their children’s futures are our future future’s future! (And we’re all going to be quite stupid enough, thank you, without misspelled “rot”-iron signage 20 feet high on the side of every multinationally misconglomerated Barbequed Expresso Sangwich Korporation Hedkorters.)

At the record store, then, the man at the Returns counter nodded coolly and said he’d give me a credit slip for the price of the poster. Started doing the paperwork.

“Thanks,” said I. “But do you think you could maybe tell the manager? Or maybe I could talk with the manager? Because, you know, Monk’s name is spelled wrong, and when it’s on a poster and everything, maybe some people might use it as a reference — especially, you know, kids. Maybe you can get your money back from the distributor . . .”

Returns-counter man reacted not, but silently slid the slip of paper my way. Twelve dollars plus tax in store credit.

“Thanks,” I repeated. “But, so . . . would it be possible for me to talk with the manager about the . . .”

“I’ll tell the manager, okay?” the man spat back, clearly insulted and annoyed as hell. “I know who Monk is, and I know how to spell his name, all right? I’ll tell the manager.”

“Okay, thanks,” I said, taking the credit slip. “Sorry. I just wasn’t sure you’d heard, and I was . . .”

“I’LL TELL THE MANAGER!”

(He’ll tell the manager.)

 

Epilogue: One Year Later

No. He didn’t tell the manager, or else he did, but the manager didn’t do a goddamn thing. The fuggin poster’s still there, same price, same spot on the wall. Someone, please, I beg you — take it down. Take it down for the children.

REFERENCES:

Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz

Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee

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