A song about something ~ Joe Roche

January 31, 2008

I have a strange relationship with whistling.

When I think of whistling it reminds me of a couple of things. The first is my dad. He used to whistle all the time. All the time. To the point where it would annoy the hell out of me. He was a musician and I think that his mind was continuously ticking over with notes, chord progressions and key changes, even when he was consciously focusing on something else. The outcome of this inner struggle was a constant whistling. Whenever he was doing something mundane like making a cup of tea in the morning or loading up his gear before a gig, he would be whistling. Sometimes I’d recognise the melodies from certain songs; sometimes I even heard sections from songs that I’d been listening to, which he must have just heard in passing and absorbed like a crazy musical sponge. Most of the time, however, I wouldn’t recognise the songs, and if I asked what they were he would simply reply with a dazed look and something like, “Oh… I don’t know,” or “something or other… hmm, haven’t heard that in years”.

His whistling became a joke within our family because I’d get annoyed when he’d do it in public. It was stupid but what can I say, I was young. After that, perhaps to teach me a paternal lesson about respecting your elders or not letting trivial things get to you, or perhaps just because he wanted to spite me, he would do it on purpose, catching my eye as he did it, waiting for a flush of anger to cross my pock-marked teenage face.  

I learnt to whistle at about the age of fourteen. Perhaps that’s late for learning to whistle but I’m not really sure. I can remember though that most of my friends could do it by that point. So could my younger sister who was only seven. I spent ages trying to make the right sounds come out of my mouth but I never could. People would show me and say “Just do this!” but it’s one of those things that you can’t teach, isn’t it? Just like rolling your tongue in the centre, folding the two sides upwards and hooking the tip under your teeth so that it looks like… well, I don’t know what it looks like. That’s the point, I guess. That’s something I’ve always been able to do but when most people see it they can’t understand what the hell it is that I’m doing. They think I must have a fucked up tongue or something.

But whistling is supposed to be easy; most people can whistle, it’s something that people can just do. So I was confused as to why I couldn’t.

Then, just as easy as it was to not whistle, I could whistle. After that I would whistle all the time. Looking back I was probably really proud of myself, not realising that I was doing the exact same thing that pissed me off about my dad. I must have done it for ages and to an unacceptable degree because it got to the point where my best friend at school said “Look mate, seriously, stop fucking whistling”. I stopped whistling after that unless I had to.

Not that the average person is called upon to whistle in any day-to-day or emergency situations; I’m just being melodramatic. 

The other thing that whistling reminds me of, apart from my dad, a couple of specific songs and maybe The X-Files theme tune, is my old boss. I worked in a bakery when I was younger and still lived at home. I worked there for three summers. It was a pretty small shop so sometimes it’d just be me working with the boss. It was because of these days that I learned to despise his whistling. I don’t know if it was an unconscious habit similar to my dad’s or if he did it to break the awkward silences there sometimes were between us, what with spending ten hour days together in a cramped kitchen with thirty-five years of difference. I used to complain about my dad’s whistling but at least that was somewhat tuneful or meaningful. My boss’s whistling was neither of these things. It was the same six notes over and over and over again. I don’t know what they were or where they came from but I hated them with a passion. I’d dread hearing that first note like it was the harbinger of my own personal minimum-wage doom. If I saw him purse his lips I would grind my teeth and clench my buttocks. It became like nails on a chalkboard to me.

It was always the same. He never whistled a different tune and not a day went by working with him when I wouldn’t hear it at least once. I’d leave at the end of the summer thinking that I wouldn’t be coming back the next year, as, aside from the whistling issue, it was a pretty terrible, low-paid job. But then, nine months later, I’d realise that I’d left it too late in the year to find another job and I’d have to start back in the bakery. I always thought to myself, oh well, maybe he’s learnt another tune, but he never had. It would usually be my first day back when I’d hear those familiar six notes emanating ominously from behind the kitchen door. 

After the shocking realisation that I had become a fully-fledged annoying whistler I started doing something else. I started to just blow instead. If you blow you can still make a pitch but nobody can really hear it apart from you. It satisfies all the basic needs of your good ol’ whistle without anyone being aware of it except you.

I realised what I was doing the other day in the shower. I’d had a Weezer song stuck in my head all morning and, as I was washing, I was blowing the tune out of my mouth. I could hear it inside my head but I knew that there was no sound being made.

I realised that I had been doing this for years and had never really thought about it. 

I once asked a friend of mine who worked in the bakery with me if he hated our boss’s whistling as much as I did. My friend was a fair bit older than me and had been working in the shop full-time, all year round, for five years. He just looked at me with a puzzled look.

“What whistling?” he said.

I was stunned and explained the infamous six notes to him.“Oh,” he said. “Yeah, I suppose he does whistle sometimes. I’ll listen out for it.”   

My ex-girlfriend sent me an email recently. It had been about a month since we’d broken up and we hadn’t seen each other since but I couldn’t help but be amused by her P.S. It read:

“Oh, and another thing, that blowing/whistling thing you do sometimes is really fucking annoying.”  



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