text by Peyton Burgess (for Max Ross)
Most people don’t know this, but David Foster Wallace, under the pseudonym Vincent Impastato, published an essay titled “The Simple Pleasures of the Kazoo.” It appeared in the 2007 Italian anthology Mangiare Con Le Orecchie, a book about nontraditional instruments in Rome’s early 90s punk rock scene.
Don’t ask me how I know this. Simply put, I used to want to be a writer, and he was one of the writers I followed intensely.
Anyway, in the essay he was able to express a genuine sentimental appreciation of the kazoo’s membranic response to a player’s subtle intonations, that is, the hum, without subjecting himself to the lofty expectations of a new, adoring but probably jealous fan base. In using the pseudonym Vincent Impastato, he relieved himself of the three-name byline, although interestingly enough, both his real name and the pseudonym are six syllables.
The thing is, I think we would have loved him for the kazoo essay. At least I hope we would have. I’m sad he didn’t feel he could trust us with it.
I think the kazoo was the first instrument I played. My sister gave me one for my third birthday. She had wrapped it herself with a couple of pages torn from Rolling Stone, her favorite magazine at the time. It was made of dull red plastic, and I loved it.
I thought I was supposed to blow real hard on it, but my sister showed me the importance of the hum and how to be subtle and to even roll my Rs, to use it to actually convey emotion, which was something I didn’t think you could do with a kazoo. I thought it was just a toy.
My sister grew up to be a famous punk rock musician. You can probably guess her name. She was, still is actually, that famous.
Our relationship was always weird because of my expectations of her as my sister versus my expectations of her as a rock star. By weird I mean when we saw each other things would go well for a bit and then it would end bad.
The last time we saw each other she invited me to three days with her in a fancy suite at the Casa Del Mar. She spent a lot of time pacing back and forth in a big, white cotton robe, smoking cigarettes in our nonsmoking room.
I felt like I was hanging out with my sister the rock star the whole time and not my sister from, say, 1989 in Staunton, Virginia, during the old basement concert party days.
One morning after a late night of drinking, she stood out on the balcony in bra and panties, drinking coffee and flipping off the paparazzi. Although I felt pretty uncomfortable, I donned briefs out on the balcony with her, but I didn’t see any paparazzi, maybe because I just didn’t know what to look for, but I laughed and flipped off the people on the beach anyway.
As my laughing died down and I wiped away a happy tear, I looked at my sister, feeling closer to her and hoping to see her smile at me like the old Staunton days, but instead she was gazing out at the Pacific, her lips pressed tight against each other, and then she dropped to the floor and started shivering. I went and got her robe.
I wrapped her in the robe and held her tight. “Just come back home,” I begged.
“I can’t do that,” she said.
In Wallace’s kazoo essay, he says that he mostly admired the punk musicians in Rome for embracing the kazoo because none of his favorite American musicians ever played the kazoo, none except for my sister, who he writes, “was the only musician to ever make me cry with a kazoo.”
He was referring to one of her solo tracks released posthumously. After my sister’s death, her label released a ‘home recordings’ kind of album. It features a track in which she plays the kazoo, breaking every now and then to breathe and sing a few slow verses about beating up Bobby at the bus stop when he pushed me into a storm ditch, about not being mad at me when I made her a collage from London Calling’s album jacket, and about how I wasn’t such a bad writer, but I could still use a little practice.
I wasn’t aware of the song until I heard the album for the first time, about six months after she died. The critics claimed the album consisted of mostly nonsense and rambling. It bombed, nobody bought it, and I love her for it.
Peyton Burgess received an MFA degree in fiction from New York University. While at NYU, he taught undergraduate creative writing, curated the KBG Emerging Writers Reading Series, and worked as fiction editor for Washington Square Review. His first book, The Fry Pans Aren't Sufficing, came out in May 2016. He also works at Loyola University's Monroe Library in New Orleans as a Learning Technology Developer.