Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Tumbling to One's Timbre

Listening to Frank Deford intone—and that’s really the only word for it, as he serves up that nut and honey voice of his you can tell he’s so proud of—on Morning Edition today got me to thinking how easily people seem to get seduced by their own voice. This is true not just for Deford, but think about Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully, whose homey tone I actually quite like…as a sound. Alas, its gosh-darned-avuncularness leads him to share personalizing nuggets about each baseball player that seem moments Thornton Wilder had the good sense to edit out of early drafts of Our Town. Or think about Orson Welles and that sly baritone that finally, sadly became his sole commodity. What irony that he would join his early career foil John Houseman in the end as perhaps best being known for ad taglines about selling and earning. All that creativity, fire, authority and brio turned into something old-fashioned and wasted before its time.

But it’s the trap that Deford’s mellifluousness leads him into I want to consider here. It’s clear he wants to speak like the wise soul at the bar engaged in a conversation other than yours that you end up having to listen to anyway—he simply commands your attention with a richness that’s both confident and cajoling. Today he even started off his column with an anecdote about sitting in a bar. Where he ended, however, was in a dark alley taking some cheap shots at every sports columnist’s favorite target, Barry Bonds. Ever eager to be casually erudite, Deford let his voice linger over accusations in description’s clothing—Bonds’ “mysteriously lingering ailment” (he had an infection in the bones of his knee!), about Bonds “moving surreptitiously about” (as if he should have hourly updates on his rehabbing on some blog)—only to build to a distinction about Bonds being innocent until proven guilty in the court of law even if he’s been found guilty in the court of public opinion. Of course, Deford’s own declaration is part of that guilt-finding, but when you’re just a regular guy with a slightly above average vocabulary and the rich voice to exercise it, what the hey. After all, you’re defending “the bosom of baseball,” a phrase whose alliteration and vague “Battle Hymn of the Republic” echoes feel so good on your tongue that you hope it makes people tingle with patriotism more than look askance with puzzlement. That’s even before you get to the part where you pronounce, “Even if the fog of steroids didn’t hang around his big head,” in a way that congratulates the clever writer of these words—oh, that just happens to be you, too, doesn’t it?--that can put the fog by the San Francisco Bay, the steroids in Bonds, and that big head at work as both proof of his arrogance (a subject you should know something about) and his chemically altered ways (although Bonds’ hat size in his years in the majors has never changed, but why let the facts slow down your aspersions).

Early in the segment Deford laments a mixed cocktail that “ruins perfectly good gin.” To end the piece he himself offers up a cliché with a twist, starting, “Records are made to be broken,” but then pausing, showman that he is, and savoring, as if tasting a sip of some choice cabernet sauvignon, the phrase “but oh my,” letting it loll on his tongue and catch air and be fully flavored, before spitting out, “couldn’t we have record-breakers more to our own taste.”

Mr. Deford, you put the self in self-righteous. By now you’d think we all would have got over the idea that only the virtuous succeed in this world, that only the pure in mind are the strong in body, that a bit of a devil can’t make angelic art. Or perhaps we have all got over that claptrap of simple moral equivalencies, but that clear-headedness doesn’t sell, not with a voice that insists on its own insistence. Why have a voice like that if you can’t use it to pretend you’re blameless as a burning bush?


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