Project Space: MIS(S)UNDERSTOOD: Liner Notes on Difference, Aggression and Love
by Andy Campbell & Margaret Meehan
Margaret Meehan, Landon O’Brien and Mark Garcia, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (Nina Simone), 2011. Collaborative sound piece.
“[Hypertrichosis] is a congenital defect of unknown origin. These people are the hairy men and women of the circuses. Perhaps some of you remember Jo-Jo, the “dog-faced” boy"1
In 1959 Annette Funicello, she of Beach Blanket Bingo fame, released two singles. The first, for Disney, was called “Tall Paul” and detailed the narrator’s love for a guy named Paul. Likened to a “mountain” and a “tree” the narrator of the song is googoo for Paul because, well, he is so tall. “Tall Paul” was the first time a female vocalist landed on the top ten rock and roll charts, paving the way for Funicello’s subsequent successes.
That same year Funicello also released her first non-Disney single, “Jo Jo the Dog Faced Boy”. A teeny-bopper echo of Elvis Presley’s (nay, “Big Mama” Thornton’s) “Hound Dog”, Funicello’s song is a narrative account of the hasty arrival (and departure) of a teen pop-singer whose face hangs down like a “Boston bull” and rolls around on the stage like a “Pekingese”.
Tall Paul wins the girl’s heart with his “great big eyes”, “great big smile”, “great big kisses”, and great big… should we continue? Annette didn’t, but the implication is clear.
But Jo Jo, a character patterned off of the very real “Jo-Jo, the ‘dog-faced’ boy” (née Fedor Jeftichew), a Russian-born male with hypertrichosis, was not so lucky. While he drove “the crowd / stark raving mad” and “the gals lined up / for his autograph”, ultimately he “roared away / in his Cadillac” a star, but alone. The narrator in this tune is the distanced observer of a crowd whipped into a frenzy, instead of the invested lover.
Some excesses are privileged over others. Some fights worth fighting. Some sources clearer.
HARRY HILL’S NOTORIOUS VARIETY THEATER AND CONCERT SALOON FOR SPORTING GENTLEMEN
A FIGHT ARRANGED BY PROFESSOR JAMES CAMPBELL, MANAGER
NELL SAUNDERS (WIFE OF PUGILIST JOHN SAUNDERS) AND ROSE HARLAND (UNMARRIED)
FEMALE BOXERS AND GREAT SHOW!
ONE WILL TRIUMPH! THE OTHER, FALL!
A NOVEL AND NONSENSICAL EXHIBITION!
$200 AND A PIECE OF SILVER-PLATE!
(beer served by Waiter Girls)
“Mr. Hill introduced the lady contestants to the audience. Miss Saunders wore a white bodice, purple knee-breeches, which she had borrowed from one of the negro performers, red stockings and shoes. Miss Harland wore blue trunks and white tights. Both appeared exceedingly nervous, were very pale, tried to blush, and partially succeeded. Time was then called, and the female boxers shook hands. Miss Harland did not know what to do with her hands, but kept her head well back out of the way. Miss Saunders had a fair idea of attack and defense, but could not carry it into practice.[…] Miss Harland endeavored to get square and was again worsted, but finally succeeded in disarranging Saunders’ back hair by a vicious blow from the shoulder. Both women then smiled […] The exchanges were lively and hard […] Miss Saunders was the winner by a point, and she accordingly received the prize and the applause of the audience. Some gentleman handed Miss Harland a ten-dollar bill, and the two female boxers left the stage arm in arm.”2
“Baby you understand me now
If sometimes you see I'm mad
Doncha know that no one alive can always be an angel?
When everything goes wrong you see some bad
Well I'm just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh lord, please don't let me be misunderstood
Ya know sometimes baby I'm so carefree
With a joy that's hard to hide
Then sometimes it seems again that all I have is worry
And then you burn to see my other side
But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood
If I seem edgy
I want you to know
I never meant to take it out on you
Life has its problems
And I get more than my share
But that's me one thing I never mean to do
'Cause I love you
I'm just human
Don't you know I have faults like anyone?
Sometimes I find myself alone regretting
Some little fooling thing
Some simple thing that I've done
I'm just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood
I try so hard
So don't let me be misunderstood”3
Margaret Meehan picks up on these historical conditions of Otherness; lubricants to keep culture moving smoothly. Histrionics, feelings of empathy, titillation and the horror that accompanies the display of live human bodies… Meehan pries them open in arranging a boxing match. You’re a combatant.
Prying: that form of looking at once curious and intrusive.
A chalk circle marks the path of the combatants. The ring has four sides. In mining Meehan’s archive we return again and again to unfamiliar familiars. The Circassian, a mossy-haired girl, whiter than white – the jewel of the Caucus. Or the hypertrichotic with an excess of hair like a werewolf. Most recently in Meehan’s corpus, this second character is also the pugilist.
This fighter never meant to take it out on you… but you see she had to. She was bloodied up before the match even began. The sharp iron taste, a product of the viscous tracings from nose to chin, informs her every move. In this arena there are many metaphors for desire.
In the end, though, she’ll smile and walk out arm and arm with you.
This is a fiction.
Some good-for-nothing reporter won’t be able to read between the lines of this final chameleonic act. He’s just happy to report what he sees, without pursuing the intimate knowledge of feeling.
“That was a real barnburner!” he says. “No, c’mon, you were great!” he says. “Ohmygod I love Nina Simone!” he says. Besides, he’s drunk.
It is precisely because of his particular shortcomings that I’d like to remind you that Meehan’s boxing gloves are lined with glass. You and your sparring partner leave the circle-squared arm in arm, yes, but also with millions of little lacerations covering your hands. So small are these cuts that they are invisible to any paying observer – no blood pools. Still, a throbbing cocoon swamps your hands and impedes your fine motor skills. The gloves are off, but you might as well still be wearing them.
And so: large gestures have to stand in for the more subtle movements you originally practiced.
In the midst of this ambivalence (sweet celebration and basic ache), we might want to sing a popular song, laden with unfulfilled promises of liberation. We hope to land on the top ten rock and roll charts.
Ding Ding, motherfucker.
Andy Campbell is a Senior Lecturer at Texas State University in San Marcos. His interests include: queer theory, historical feminisms, the meanings and processes of community, and creative nonfiction.
Margaret Meehan lives and works on the fringe. Sometimes in Austin and sometimes in Dallas.
1. Lulu Hunt Peters, “Diet and Health: Superfluous Hair, No. 1” The Los Angeles Times, July 7, 1924, pA6.
2. “Female Boxing Match: A Novel and Nonsensical Exhibition at Harry Hill’s”, The New York Times, Mar 17, 1876, p8.
3. Nina Simone. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, 1964.