One of the major advents of the cellular phone is the elimination of the answering machine. Yes, voice mail is virtually identical to a cell phone in context, but there’s something empowering in a cell phone that’s not present in an answering machine. With a cell phone, the moment you hear a person’s voice, you have the authority to quickly respond to the message, save the message, or trash it. What’s more, since it’s on a cell phone, only you can hear the message whereas the answering machine lets any stray roommate/boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife listen into a private communication.
What’s more, there was something physically intimidating about an answering machine. The physical presence of the device. The warning-sign flash of the red light. Even the number of messages displayed could be alarming. But most troubling was the actual sound of the playback. Filtered through the machine, the voice on the other end always seemed to be more foreboding than it did on the phone. This made a call from a jealous ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, a boss, or doctor’s office that much more unsettling.
Tool, no stranger to exploring sounds of anxiety, took advantage of the answering machine effect on “Message to Harry Manback”. The general consensus is that the message is legit and was aimed at a friend of singer Maynard James Keenan. The message, spoken partly in Italian and partly in broken English, cryptically warns someone that “You know you’re going to have another accident? / You know I’m involved with black magic?” The fact the man admits to his weaknesses, saying he doesn’t have the courage “to kick your ass directly”, before wishing death on the person, only makes the call more menacing.
The piano playing in the background bears a striking resemblance to Sonic Youth’s “Providence”. But in that song, the depression-filled piano chords went up against a humorous story of a guitarist getting stoned and losing something important. The inclusion of “Message” could have been placed for similar effect. After all, for all of Tool’s seriousness, the group has repeatedly shown it’s not above taking the occasional piss.
It’s the kind of thing that only happens in promotions: a band writes a song about a fan. Unless you’re intensely self-deprecating, having yourself immortalized in a song on a high-profile album would be cause for celebration. But the inspiration behind “Hooker with a Penis” will probably never step forward, even though he is responsible for one of Tool’s most beloved compositions by fans.
Compressed to a mere four-and-a-half minutes, “Hooker with a Penis” aims to shock with the song title and features some of Keenan’s most ferocious singing on the album. It may not contain the themes of change, metamorphosis, and enlightenment shared throughout Ænima, but it’s arguably the song least open to interpretation on the album.
In terms of straightforwardness, the opening lyric could have been lifted directly from Keenan relaying a fan encounter to a friend at a bar: “I met a boy wearing Vans, 501s and a / Dope Beastie-tee, nipple rings / New tattoos that claim that he was / Was OGT . . .” For the uninitiated, OGT means Original Gangster Tool, or fans who have been in the ranks since the quartet’s first EP Opiate. In the story/song, said fan makes the unwise choice of criticizing the band for some of its decisions on Undertow (it could have been the decision to do videos, or the sound direction the band took; the song doesn’t deal in semantics).
As a listener, I like to envision the event behind this song taking place in two different settings. The first would involve taking every word of the song literally, making Keenan’s absolutely incendiary response entirely justified. The second setting I’d like to imagine would be for said fan to politely approach Keenan and passively tell him while he enjoyed Undertow, he thought the album may have been slightly overproduced, possibly as a way to achieve airplay. In the second response, Keenan’s anger comes off as incredibly dickish, especially since he’s wasting a full song for the sole purpose of berating a fan.
Just as answering machines are a thing of the past, so is the concept of selling out (at least selling out according to this fan’s standards). In the Undertow era, the parameters for selling out were far more inflexible than today. In the early ‘90s, selling out could mean the simple act of doing a video. Heaven forbid allowing your material to be used in a commercial. Today, with slumping sales, radio consolidation, and virtually no videos being played on MTV, “selling out” is a widely-accepted practice. Be it Grey’s Anatomy or a Toyota commercial, most fans now accept the realization that artists have to get their music out and get paid. If that means allowing it to be used in a Kmart commercial, so be it.
Keenan seemed to foresee this new landscape. In “Hooker”, he proudly declares that in the ongoing fight against “the man”, he is “the man” and in some aspect, the fan is “the man” as well. In short, we are all part of the system. Zoo Entertainment pays Tool, Tool makes fans pay for their music, and if enough fans reject what Tool gives them, the band could be dropped from Zoo’s label.
“Hooker with a Penis” is a great song to play when you’re pissed off. Danny Carey’s drum fills provide the fangs to the track while Keenan’s screams supply the bilious venom. Unfortunately, in terms of the album’s carefully-plotted concept , the track seems tacked-on, much like how “Ticks & Leeches” felt like a tacked-on track in Lateralus to appease the fans who want their Tool fast and relentless.
No doubt Tool had the brains to elevate it from the other 99% of metal bands back in the 1990s. That’s why “Hooker with a Penis” may certainly feel good to blast out of your car stereo after a crap day at work, but in the end, you know Keenan is capable of more than telling that fan in 501s to “point that fuckin’ finger up your ass”.