Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Canary in a Coalmine!


Funny story this.

When I worked at Saatchi & Saatchi about ten years ago, we had this absolute tool of a Lebanese art director named Eli: talentless, petty, quick to take credit for work and vain as can be. He was hated by everyone, none more so than the guys who worked under him in the studio. Now, these guys were young, brash, super-talented and not the type to take this kind of oppression without unleashing their own particular brand of passive-aggression.

They played plenty of practical jokes on him but one subtle form example stands out as my all-time favorite and to this day, I can't hear the song in question without chuckling. Basically, they realized that the hook to the song 'Canary in a Coalmine' by the Police, could be sung with, shall we say, alternate lyrical take: they replaced the words 'Canary in a Coalmine!' with 'Eli ya kos omak!' ("Eli...fuck your mother!")...and the words fit perfectly. I mean, it was perfect.

First to fall over when the atmosphere is less than perfect
Your sensibilities are shaken by the slightest defect


They would play this song 24/7: when he wasn't around, they'd all stop working, gather in the middle of the room, bob up and down, leering maniacally at each other and when the chorus would start, so would they:

Eli ya kos omak!
Eli ya kos omak!
Eli ya kos omak!
Eli ya kos omak!


When he'd show up, they'd work without looking up from their desks, contenting themselves with letting the song play without their little interpretive dances, doubtless singing the alternate chorus in their heads, sniggering at his puzzlement at why they always played the same song, day or night, rain or shine.

"Shoo ya3ni...why is this fucking song so popular" he snapped, one day. They'd say nothing and laugh even more.

You live your life like a canary in a coalmine
You get so dizzy even walking in a straight line


Pretty soon, their rebellious anthem took another form: they'd print out the words 'CANARY IN A COALMINE' on pieces of paper and hang them up all over the agency: in the kitchen, in the bathroom, on their walls...they'd even mail anonymous postcards to him with canaries on them. And it drove Eli CRAZY. He was astute enough (or vain enough) to think it had something to do with him...but what?

Now if I tell you that you suffer from delusions
You pay your analyst to reach the same conclusions


And how could he prove it? How could he get it to stop? They took it up a notch, as even the receptionists, innocent little veiled-girls who would never mouth the words in the alternate-chorus, would take to humming the song, whenever Eli would walk by. He'd stop dead in his tracks, turn and hurl a withering death-glare at them, which only succeeded in making them giggle.

You say you want to spend the winter in firenza
Youre so afraid to catch a dose of influenza


Eventually, Eli went to management and tried to get the song banned. The General Manager, aware that Eli was unpopular but unaware of what exactly was going on, tried to accommodate his senior employee but at the same time, was canny enough to recognize he couldn't ban a song, without a theory as to its meaning. He was pretty certain Eli wasn't paranoid...but he was equally certain that if he tried to act on something he didn't understand, he could very well be at the butt of his own joke. He advised Eli to calm down and to try and come to terms with it.

You live your life like a canary in a coalmine
You get so dizzy even walking in a straight line


My own contribution to the story, is almost a footnote and in a way, it hurried this crazy story to its premature conclusion. I had no love for Eli myself and didn't like the way he treated his people. I also wasn't clever enough to come up with something like this and while I was liked by the studio enough to be told about the subtext of the song, I played no part in it other than the amused onlooker.

A few weeks later, Eli and I got into an argument and he called me something (I forget) and I lost my temper, used the alternate chorus on him, repeatedly (and apparently rhythmically) to the point where he made the connection. You could see the flicker of recognition in his eyes followed by relief followed by rage at the realization of what he'd been unwittingly subjected to by his own subordinates.

He tried to get past me to go upstairs to confront his people...and I hit him.

Now if I tell you that you suffer from delusions
You pay your analyst to reach the same conclusions


Why? Well, the obvious answer is he pissed me off and had it coming, but that's not the whole truth. A truthier version is that I was pissed off at myself for letting the cat out of the bag (the cat who ate the canary, so to speak) and lashed out in order to make myself the butt of his rage, not those guys.

As is always the case in life, there lies a deeper truth: I didn't like Eli, I wasn't clever enough to come up with ways to torture him with the subtle and delicious scathing viciousness of 'Canary in a Coalmine'...and I took out my frustration on him.

First to fall over when the atmosphere is less than perfect
Your sensibilities are shaken by the slightest defect


He went to management, of course, and 'Canary in a Coalmine' became a secondary issue to the tall, mad account person who beat up creatives. Management gave me a stern rebuke and told me I might have to resign. Eli retreated into a shell and never displayed the same menace or blatant injustice towards his people, again. Meanwhile, the proles greeted me as their hero, someone who had the balls to strike down the tyrant and deliver them from their oppression. I was lionized by them and even the veiled little reception girls started batting their eye lids at me.

Six weeks later, Eli left the agency, unable to bear the double burden of ridicule by his workers and the prospect of saying or doing another thing to earn him a beating at the hands of the obviously deranged account person.

You live your life like a canary in a coalmine
You get so dizzy even walking in a straight line


Whenever I used to see those guys, they would bring up the story of how I dragged Eli through the agency and gave him a beating he'd never forget. I'd laugh, slightly embarrassed by the notion that I could be regarded with any esteem for something I'm kind of ashamed of. But something else would make me more embarrassed and ashamed: they would mention the 'Canary in a Coalmine' story only in passing.

As if it wasn't the point of the whole story. As if it wasn't the best story ever.

Eli ya kos omak!
Eli ya kos omak!
Eli ya kos omak!
Eli ya kos omak!

2 Comments:

Blogger Amnesiac said...

Loved it loved it loved it - although I felt sorry for Eli a bit. Nicely written.

6:40 AM  
Blogger Basil Fawlty said...

Thank you..I'm not in your class when it comes to writing but I know a good story when I see one.

Yeah, I felt a bit sorry for Eli as the years rolled by but at the time, I didn't have the slightest sympathy for him. A combination of the kind of pratt he was and the kind of absence of empathy a 25-year old like me would not have had back then.

I'm really happy you like it!

12:48 PM  

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