My Daddy, Slim Whitman, and Mars Attacks!
I became possessed with the idea that since one of the last things my father ever did on earth was order this albumâ€”and my father was not given to ordering things "off the T.V."â€”I listened for secret clues hoping to get to know him better.
I was living at home again when my father died; my two year stay in Nashville left me homesick and in debt, so the folks let me move back into the trailer and start over. I found a job in a metals fabrication factory and started paying them weekly rent. I couldn't really articulate yet what I would be doing with the rest of my life, and I enjoyed this pleasant parental purgatory. It was February, and Daddy had helped me fill out my income tax forms. I mailed them the morning he died, called home at lunch and jokingly asked him if I'd received my refund yet, and got home after work to find my mother kneeling beside where he lay on the couch, dabbing his forehead with a damp cloth. He had collapsed seconds before I walked in and was dead before the ambulance arrived.
After the funeral, the guests, the food, and the flowers came the lonely business of trying to live again. My sisters spent time with Momma during the day until I got home from the factory to take over. I couldn't replace her companion of over 40 years, but I made sure she wasn't alone. Slowly the conversation came, and we even managed to watch a little television together. I had no social life whatsoever, so we clung to each other in our individual periods of adjustment.
About three weeks after the funeral, a package arrived for Daddy. He had ordered a record album "off the T.V.," Momma explained. It was Slim Whitman: All My Best. I'd never heard of the dude, and his picture on the album's cheaply thin cover did little to recommend him: long face, crooked and overlapping teeth, bandanna knotted jauntily about the neck, a garish Western jacket. Momma would play it on their "home entertainment center," and while Slim wasn't unlistenable, I didn't understand the allure of his loping melodies shot through with vestiges of Texas swing and his unearthly yodel. Yes, he yodeled. Think of Buddy Holly's signature "hiccup" vocal inflection. Slim Whitman would, at least once in each song, negotiate an octave with a yodel. It seemed to be his trademark. "Indian Love Call," "Rose Marie," "Secret Love," "Rainbows Are Back In Style"â€”I involuntarily grew familiar with the songs, and, in the way that the best gospel songs evoke a childhood in church, I began to like them. It would be years before I understood how massively popular Slim Whitman had been worldwide, once knocking the Beatles out of the number 1 spot in England with "Rose Marie." I became possessed with the idea that since one of the last things my father ever did on earth was order this albumâ€”and my father was not given to ordering things "off the T.V."â€”I listened for secret clues hoping to get to know him better, albeit posthumously. Thus began my love of Slim Whitman's music which continues to this day.
Tim Burton's movie Mars Attacks! was released to mixed reviews, but I was anxious to see it. I didn't know that not only was Slim Whitman's musicâ€”"Indian Love Call," in particularâ€”integral to the plot, but also the very same album that Daddy had ordered prior to his death was featured prominently in the movie . . . goofy teeth and all! Those who have seen the movie will remember that the modulated yodeling of Slim in his massive hit "Indian Love Call" would be what saved Earth because Whitman's ululations would literally make the Martians' heads explode within their bubble helmet like garish green paintballs in a fishbowl. The unspoken explanation was that the frequency of Slim's song couldn't be tolerated by the hostile invaders, and his voice killed them. Of course, I felt the pull of mixed emotions: I had grown to really love Slim's music (and NOT in a kitschy, retro way), and I was thrilled to see the album cover used as a prominent movie prop, but I didn't really like the idea of people unfamiliar with Slim laughing at his music . . . music that had meant so much to my father. I thought the movie was great, and thus began the struggle to appreciate both the movie for its creativity (even though Mr. Burton was making fun of my dead daddy's favorite artist) and Slim Whitman for his inimitable contribution to the American songbook. I can't say I have it completely worked out yet.
That said, whenever I listen to Slim Whitmanâ€”and I do . . . often!â€”and "Indian Love Call" comes on, I don't see Martian heads exploding. I hear the haunting sounds of the first song on a record my father thought important enough to order "off the T.V." and I hope that somewhere he is smiling knowing that his son understood.