I realize there is something I haven’t yet told you about the Republic of Cancer, which is that it consists almost entirely — all right, largely — of waiting rooms. There are lobbies, which are ante-waiting rooms; there are the places frankly called waiting rooms; and then there are apres– waiting-rooms, designed to make you feel that you’ve actually made some progress, but really are nothing more than, well, waiting rooms.
I bring this up at all only to say that in every one of these hundreds of waiting rooms, there is piped-in music. But here’s the peculiar thing, and it took me some time fully to notice it: There is no vocal music in Cancerland. All the music is instrumental. It is elevator music, pretty much, but tamped-down even by that standard: Kenny G would be too exciting for a Cancerland waiting room.
Anyway, you need also to know that there is no original Republic of Cancer music. In other words, there are no Cancerland composers. All the music is from elsewhere, much of it is American, and most of it is familiar. But, as I say, it is all instrumental.
This puzzled me for a time, but then I realized why: Music is supposed to be soothing, but words can be a problem. You can’t have Lightnin’ Hopkins serenading a room full of pale people with See That My Grave is Kept Clean. Not that such a number would even be considered. But then songs that might otherwise be innocuous could conceivably be a problem for a Cancerland audience. Irving Berlin’s beautiful What’ll I Do
What’ll I do
When you are far away
And I am blue
What’ll I do?
What’ll I do with just a photograph
To tell my troubles to?
When I’m alone
With only dreams of you
That won’t come true
What’ll I do?
might cause communal weeping.
So the Cancerland Ministry of Music wisely decided (or so the ministers thought) to forego words altogether and let only the music through.
There is, however, a problem. As I said, the melodies tend to be familiar. Listening to Yesterday there in one of the Cancerland waiting rooms, you do not need actually to hear John, Paul, Ringo and George crooning the words. You automatically sing them to yourself.
Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.
Now I need a place to hide away.
Oh I believe in yesterday.
Thus the exquisite sensitivity of the Cancerland Ministry of Music is almost always, and sometimes comically, undone.