Illustration by Mitch Handsone

Genuine Gary dreamed he was coughing. Dreamed that he was lying nude on a conveyor belt at a Wal-Mart checkstand, belly up, with his hands clasped over his heart to conceal what he assumed, in the dream, to be a bar-code tattoo. He assumed this in part because to his left and right, as far as he could see, dozens of identical Garys lay in identical predicaments, and some of their chests were getting scanned in to the system. High above, one enormous ceiling-mounted monitor provided real-time video of overseas carnage, the latest welcome bouquets from Iraq.

Instead of bombs, though, it was shopping music that burst the Garys’ ears. As loud as loud can be, The Captain & Tennille performing Willis Alan Ramsey’s “Muskrat Love.” Like a station-ID watermark, a happy white sailboat appeared in the lower right corner of the monitor. Daryl “The Captain” Dragon took the tiller and Toni Tennille leaned against the boom, singing. Or not actually singing, but coughing, in a dimly melodic but mostly robotic way.

Now Genuine Gary found himself in the boat, between The Captain & Tennille, smiling and bobbing his head and coughing along to the music.

(And they whirled and they twirled and they tangoed
Singin’ and jingin’ the jango
Floatin’ like the heavens above
It looks like muskrat love)

Down below, on the checkstand conveyors, all the naked, tattooed Garys began coughing along. Coughing along with “Muskrat Love.”

It was all too perfect to be real, Gary thought, and so he woke up, still coughing along with the clock-radio alarm.

Genuine Gary was a songwriter, and was used to integrating wake-up music with whatever he was dreaming. Usually the dream faded away too quickly to remember how the music fit in, but not this time. Gary took this as a sign and continued coughing along, just as he’d done in the dream, using two distinct coughs: short hacks and long aHEMmns.

It occurred to him that the rhythm of his coughs, broken as they were into only short and long, with nothing in-between, was taking on a Morse code–like quality. The only Morse code he’d remembered was S.O.S.: dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot. He tried it out:

hack! hack! hack!

aHEMmn! aHEMmn! aHEMmn!
hack! hack! hack!

It was Sunday. Gary had the morning to himself. He stopped coughing, got out of bed and went down to his studio. Looked up Morse code on the Internet and was pleased to find that it included not only letters and numbers but punctuation. Printed out a chart of Morse characters, and sat down at his G5 to compose.

As you might guess if you saw the number of platinum records hanging in his studio and the size of the house that surrounded it, Genuine Gary had made a fortune selling mindless bubblegum pop songs to drug-free, wannabe-Republican 14-year-olds (“like, not into politics”) since the late ’80s. His were the songs sung on television by Top 40 bucketheads of all denominations, sold by the storeload to offspring of the overworked and inattentive, who gladly shoveled millions of dollars each year through their children’s purses and into Gary’s bank account. Gary knew well his real audience: Whatever would make their kids happy, right now (“As long as it’s turned down after 9 p.m., kids!”), Genuine Gary could write it.

It didn’t take long for Gary to convert the chorus from his current work-in-progress (“Oooh baby yeah that’s what I’m talkin’ about”) into the traditional dashes and dots used by Samuel Morse back in 1838:

—- —- —- ….
-… .- -… -.—
-.— . .- ….
– …. .- – .——. …
.— …. .- –
.. .——. —
– .- .-.. -.- .. -. .——.
.- -… —- ..- –

All that was left was to launch Pro Tools 6, set the sound input and cough into the microphone.

aHEMmn! aHEMmn! aHEMmn!
aHEMmn! aHEMmn! aHEMmn!,
aHEMmn! aHEMmn! aHEMmn!
hack hack! hack! hack!

aHEMmn! hack! hack! hack!
hack! aHEMmn!
aHEMmn! hack! hack! hack!
aHEMmn! hack! aHEMmn! aHEMmn!  

aHEMmn! hack! aHEMmn! aHEMmn!
hack! aHEMmn!
hack! hack! hack! hack!

Gary coughed up the “that’s what I’m talkin’ about” just as easily, and the chorus was done. Piece of cake. For verses, he converted random generic smarmsicles from the CNN Headline News crawl playing in the background; the music, of course, he’d already written, many, many times before.


After six months of negotiations, the latest of the half-naked 16-year-old singers with boob jobs was coughing Gary’s new pop song, “2X Dick Jonez,” on Saturday Night Live, and Hack Pop was born. Gary’s quarterly BMI check was enormous. Never bigger. He even called Kathy in accounting to make sure the decimal was in the right place.

Yes, Genuine Gary had written a cash cow. Kids all over the world learned Morse code, and as Hack Pop’s commerce grew, so did its scope of influence. Subversive Hack Pop songwriters wrote ever more sexually charged coughing fits, which American parents hadn’t the time or patience to decode. The bluegrass band Pan-Fried Nixon performed a Hack Pop song on The Tonight Show that included the phrase . . .

hack! aHEMmn! hack! hack!

aHEMmn! hack!
aHEMmn! aHEMmn! aHEMmn!
hack! hack! hack!

hack! hack! aHEMmn!
aHEMmn! hack! aHEMmn! hack!
aHEMmn! hack! aHEMmn!
hack! hack! hack!

. . . and no one — not even the Department of Homeland Security, which was certain that terrorists were using Hack Pop to expose American youth to subliminal recruitment messages — took any notice. No notice at all.


Morse code generator

Morse code translator

Official home page for Ms. Toni Tennille

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