Evolution Calling: Tool - "Message to Harry Manback" and "Hooker with a Penis"

An "original" Tool fan inspires the band to create one of the angriest (and most beloved) moments on Ænima.



Label: Volcano
US release date: 1996-10-01

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".


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

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