[This story was written in the Spring of 1984. It concerns a stringed instrument of low tonal range. It does not concern a fish, even of a different stripe.]
[Below is a slightly edited transcript of Mr. K’s remarks to the Cabinet Meeting, 8 April, 1984]
Mr. President, Members of the Cabinet:
For those of you who, perhaps, do not know exactly what a bass might sound like, picture the scene which was S’ own first introduction to this stringed instrument. It was remembered clearly, and reported to the Commission by his surviving parent:
The round screen of the primitive Crosley television fuzzily framed a now-forgotten jazz combo. A close-up of fingers bouncing over the piano keyboard. Fat lips sucking a saxophone. The familiar rattle of the trap-drums, the glossed drummer eyes staring into the rhythm. Then – suddenly – a driving, insistent, deep pulsation, a beat with just a throaty hint of melody, a base-line for all the musical explosion; a sweating black man pumping his right arm, pivoting from the elbow, plucking with great authority, creating the thrust that drove the music forward into the room.
S had expected the piano, and the sax, and certainly the drum solo; he could hear their tones and beats through the mixture. But the bass was a hidden thing, its texture was woven so deeply in the fabric that its effect, although integral, was almost secret. To hear its bare body, stripped of protective clothing, apparently was a sensual – almost sexual – shock to S. He gazed into the screen, mesmerized well after those fifteen seconds had passed. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that S knew even then what must be done, but the task was so large, so hard to visualize, that S kept it to himself.
After all, it’s not the kind of thing you mention to anyone, when still just a young man, and when your – strangeness – might cast a pall over even the most reasonable of prospects.
Much is known of S’s High School years, but little of it seems remarkable. An above-average if undistinguished student; amiable but not a sharer of deep friendships; manager of the swimming team. S dated, but was described as asexual in several interviews. He evidenced no interest in music, and played no instrument.
As a scholarship student in the City College, S lived at his parents’ large suburban apartment and commuted by bus to school. He earned Bs and a few Cs, and did not draw comment. Junior year he suffered a one-semester freezing of his stipend due to weak grades. During this period he began a life-long habit of involvement with only one woman at a time. Relationships drifted to the platonic, and then evaporated into indifference.
But at the College, S also began to attend jazz concerts, and to frequent rock-and-roll clubs and record stores. His gray, battered Plymouth became something of a fixture at Jumbo’s, out on the strip; he was often seen late on week-nights, alone, in a V-necked sweater and no shirt, his eyes closed as his lips strummed along with the bass.
Gentlemen, I think some perspective can be lent to this bizarre scenario if I digress for a moment or two. One of the sorority sisters at Lambda Chi, a certain LW, was S’s constant escort through much of his senior year. I personally interviewed her rather extensively, based upon the length of her association. I have used only her initials for obvious reasons.
LW remembers S as reserved, always polite and, indeed, bland. He studied enough to get by, but no more. He was always smiling, and never seemed moody. He held a modest scholarship, supplemented by monies sent by his parents, summer jobs and part-time employment in the music library. LW told me, when her husband left us during my interview to look after their grandchildren, that S had kissed her a couple of time, but never tried to pursue his intentions. He was always pleasant, but deflected greater intimacy and declined to discuss the matter. LW left for home that summer and resolved not to renew her relationship with S after graduation. Once, slightly drunk on beer, LW had placed her hand in S’s lap, and S had smiled as he removed it.
LW did recall that S attended rock or jazz concerts at least twice a week. He did not appear obsessive in the practice, but always seemed to schedule their dates in that fashion. While LW enjoyed the music, she did think it strange that while S was consistent in his attendance he never seemed to have a favorite group or artist or song, and his stylistic preference seemed random. He would, however, always inquire as to which side of the stage the bass would occupy, and insisted on being seated nearby. Understandably frugal in most things, S nonetheless often tipped the maitre-d’ in order to sit closer.
During the music, LW was forbidden to speak. Often after the first three or four dates, she would bring her knitting, and S never objected.
Once, when an experimental jazz group from New York played Jumbo’s, they arrived with two drummers, a piano player and two horns. When S found that there was no bass player he wanted to leave, but LW implored him to stay. She was surprised to find that S promptly fell asleep when the lights dimmed, and had to be awakened at the end of the performance.
Now, Dr.Lionel R_______ of the R_______ Institute has carefully studied much of the Committee’s findings, and was particularly intrigued by LW’s account. He personally traveled to San Diego at his own expense to learn of S’s attitude towards the music he heard at this early period of his life. It was only after much prodding the LW, at lunch one day, admitted that S often would close is eyes during any bass solo, hum softly and attempt to masturbate. Dr. R_______ has concluded that such deviant practice was a substitute for true and normal sexual development, and that the deep strings were penile substitutes resounding in the dark vaginal cavity of the instrument.
Upon graduation, S moved into the center City and became a trainee at the National Insurance Company. He lived alone in a modest studio apartment, and bought his clothing at Sears. He always paid cash. S made only casual friends, and appears to have stopped dating women at least for several years. At about this time, he received training in computer sciences, a new business discipline at which he excelled, leading to his assignment to the processing data support unit for group policies, which cohort included such long-standing National clients as the Musicians’ Association and the Theatrical Performers’ Alliance.
Although S seldom entertained throughout his life, we were fortunate to obtain some photographs of the interior of his apartment, taken by a friend attending an all-male party during 1968. In your folders, gentlemen; exhibits 17 through 28. S is the fellow in the V-necked sweater. Notice the walls of the apartment; photographs and posters of jazz groups and particularly there and — there in 24 – on several walls, reproductions of Picasso’s The Musicians. Notice on the left the prominence of the bass. Now our people tell me that the artist painted two versions of this work, but only this earlier piece appears in S’s collection — seven different copies, actually. In the earlier version, all elements including the instruments are presented in more representational formats and, consequently, are more easily recognizable.
At about this time, S met the one apparent serious “love interest” of his life, T. T refused categorically to be interviewed by us, nor were any of T’s acquaintances very helpful. According to GG [redacted]. But from letters, casual observers and the recollections of S’s father we were able to piece together a fascinating if superficial sketch of the S-T liaison.
T was a risk management clerk specializing in the music and arts group at National Insurance. A morose, tall and brooding woman a few years older than S, she seemed suited to what apparently was a close but wholly platonic situation. After several months of attending concerts with S and eating lunch together at a table for two in the far corner of National’s cafeteria, T moved her few possessions from her residential women’s hotel into S’s apartment. Although S had only one bed, it has been reliably established (reference GG) that during the entire three-year period S and T never slept together; S seems to have slept on the couch or, on rare occasion, curled up at the foot of T’s bed. Several times the father observed that S and T would walk around the apartment completely nude except, or course, for T’s prosthesis — oh, sorry, Exhibit 31.
Although at the time of S’s death they had completely disappeared, around this period S’s enormous collection of records of bass performances, actually more accurately of groups with prominent bass components, was growing at the rate of several per week. Disc jockeys at local stations recall regular visits by S, accompanied by T on occasion, inquiring whether any recordings were being slated for disposal and, if so, of what sort.
It was also at this time that S actually struck up his only personal acquaintance with a living bass player, a man whose stage name was Roland Xanadu. Roland, whose true name is unclear, was a friend of T’s former lesbian lover, and played bass for a now-long-defunct jazz group called the City-Zens. For about a year, the combo played a third-class bar on the West Side called Jazz Junctions, and S and T often were in attendance. The owner, now retired and living in Clearwater, Florida, told our investigator that S would offer to invite many of his friends to the club to hear Roland, provided that the group featured more bass solos. For a while, the owner attributed this suggestion merely to friendly promotion, but he ceased to press for more bass solos by Roland, which bored most other patrons, as S became more and more insistent. Besides, S never seemed to have any friends to bring to the club, other than T.
As for Roland, he now tunes pianos in Fort Worth, Texas. He refused to say very much about S, other than to observe that S was a weird honkey who knew nothing about music. Roland also mentioned that, when he needed new strings, he would let S buy them and install them. To the suggestions of a sexual contact between them, Roland replied with a reported snort that the investigator should “put his own house in order.”
While this next part is by no means clear, it is our best judgment that the monetary component of the plan took shape by the mid-1970s. S had become chief financial control programmer for National, with full-time access to the key terminals. We may never know the full extent of it, but at least seven hundred verified fictitious insurance claims were paid in respect of non-existent “decedents.” The methodology is not important to our inquiry but, I note in passing, was exceptionally subtle and belies an intense intelligence. S seems to have kept all this money in the form of cash in several safe deposit boxes under his own name, but he never altered his Spartan life style even when the total exceeded many millions of dollars.
It was during this period, just after T moved out, that S took his only real vacation trip. One night, in New York City, he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly when he was found just after store-closing in the string section of Sam Goody’s West 49th Street music store, lying on his back with several bass instruments resting against his body. Officer [redacted] never included this in his report as he thought it irrelevant, but he is certain, in retrospect, that S was clutching a package of strings for musical instruments in each hand. S was released in his own recognizance and after twelve months the case was “filed” and dismissed.
The mailing itself — exhibit 66 is an original letter in each of your folders as we were able to recover many of these from the decedents’ effects — seems to have been coordinated through an outside contract commercial mailing firm used by National for some of its advertising campaigns. The labels of course were generated for the most part by addressograph machine. The invitations were printed — engraved actually – at great expense by Tiffany and Co., whose Miss M clearly recalls the order for 75,000 pieces as decidedly the largest such engraving order ever received by that firm. Payment was made in advance in cash.
But the most intriguing and remarkable thing of all was the lengths to which S went, working alone, to supplement the lists he took from National’s insurance records, which already included contact information for most of the professional and many of the more accomplished amateur American bass players, but certainly by no means all in either category. The depths of S’s research were truly amazing. He wrote to virtually every High School, University, municipal orchestra, band, night club and jazz venue in the continental United States. At the time of his death, S’s second bedroom contained four typewriters, all but one completely useless through wear, and almost three hundred telephone books. His desk drawers contained two thousand as yet unused postage stamps.
We have discovered his advertisements, soliciting addresses of bass players under numerous pretexts, inter alia in publications as diverse as Variety, Christian Science Monitor and Swingles Sex Party Newsletter. One month, his telephone bill alone was over nine hundred dollars.
The mechanics of the invitations actually were easy. The travel agent was told that airline tickets and hotel rooms were to be booked, confirmed and prepaid, with tickets delivered to the mailing service, to facilitate attendance at a mass convention of all of National’s sales agents, employees, and former general employees. Yankee Stadium was handled on the same basis. All arrangements were confirmed on stolen National Insurance letterhead; all facilities were prepaid by several bank checks.
A direct marketing sales company was retained to telephone as many invitees as possible. Prepared text explained that a nation-wide convocation of bass players was to be funded by some vaguely identified foundation endowed for such purpose; reference was made to the prepaid flights and hotels, and to the certified checks of $1,000 for each actual attendee. By the time the press picked up on the story, the date for the convocation was only two days away; the PR firm promised that all would be explained by the host organization on the appointed evening. Speculation as to a gigantic media hype was rampant, estimates of apparent expense soared into the tens of millions.
National, confused by the linkage of its company and a cello convocation, did not have enough time to derail the event, issuing that very afternoon a disclaimer of sponsorship which failed to intercept the thousands of attendees already having arrived in New York.
Now, no matter how bizarre all of this might have been, OUR involvement of course would not be indicated if it were not for the –device. Please, gentlemen, let me finish.
First, the device was definitely not home-made. It is of the so-called “clean” or class I-4 variety of tactical devices, with an intense but contained firefall range and virtually nil fallout. Clearly a professional weapon, carefully chosen.
Second, it is not possible to be certain of its exact provenance, but our people hypothesize that is is not, repeat NOT, Eastern Bloc. The classified bases of this supposition are set forth at length in – uh, yes, number 51 in your folders.
Third, it was secreted under the platform, neither launched nor dropped. How transported? We truly do not know. The construction company for the staging and platform appears above suspicion; its owner was even in the Stadium that evening. Although we cannot located the company that supplied the large overhead banner — the one reading “WELCOME BASS PLAYERS OF THE AMERICAS,” there is no particular reason to assume their complicity. The short of it, incredibly, is that we don’t know how it got there, but you are reminded that its overall dimensions were likely no larger than a steamer trunk.
Fourth, the “who!” Where does one go, particularly if you aren’t a dealer in ordinance, to — well, buy a device such this? There is of course an active underground market in such things — and yet, none of the normal sources seem to be implicated. Wam Pow in Hong Kong has, indeed, disappeared and his local bank cleared an enormous credit through his Panamanian corporation at about this time, but we cannot match it, as yet, with any transfer from S or any contemporaneous visit by S to any bank vault. The suggestion of Arab complicity, on the basis that twenty-one percent of those bass players were Jewish, or of NATO involvement because an equal number were Chinese, seems untenable – and even a greater proportion were Afro-Americans.
So what DO we know? Ten months ago, S walks out onto a stage. The lights dim, a spotlight finds him, in a light drizzle, just in front of the pitcher’s mound. He announces with some pride the actual attendance of in excess of 45,000 bass players from every part of the United States, by far the largest gathering of its type in the history of the world! Flash guns flash. People, inexplicably, stand and applaud and cheer and then, when the thing is at its loudest, S seems to play with something under the speaker’s podium and then – well….
Yes, one may ask, what does it all mean? A random, audacious, senseless act? Part of a broader conspiracy? But, to what end? To destroy America through removing rhythm from its pop and jazz music? Hardly a serious suggestion; the Hegelian dialectic should be made of sterner stuff. Once the area is cleared, down to 164th Street, what will we have learned, so as to avoid this kind of thing happening again?
That of course depends on the “why” of it all. Oh, I know it is easy to say “S was sick” “S was a pocket Hitler,” “S was a sexual deviate,” “S was historically unique”? But your Commission is fearful. Perhaps this is just a precursor. This device was, after all, in many ways, the most logically utilized device in man’s history. Oh, not that all tuba players must now beware, but, just think, what if—I mean, “what if”?
Of course all of this is just speculation, and on that note we conclude our formal report. We’ll take questions now.
[Formal remarks concluded 10:22 am]