In 1987, Eddie Lee “Sausage” and Mitchell Duprey, freshly graduated from university, moved from Wisconsin to the lower Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. There they took up residence in apartment four, 237 Steiner Street – a pastel-pink, three-story complex with thin walls and cheap rent. The building housed a diverse array of tenants who were also drawn to the place’s affordability. Eddie and Mitchell settled into their new apartment, ready to enjoy their lives in the city. However, their domestic tranquility was soon shattered. Late at night, their home would become filled with incessant screams of “Shut up little man! Shut up little man! Shut UP little man!” coming from the adjacent apartment. These yells, sometimes punctuated with mumbled angry responses or embellished with sarcastic insults, poured through their walls and their windows, dominating the soundscape of their apartment.
Days, weeks, and months passed, and the sounds of these continual arguments did not cease. Their neighbors, Peter Haskett and Raymond Huffman (two white men in their sixties, both unemployed, veterans, and alcoholics) fought each other for hours every day. Confronted with their sonic assaults, Eddie and Mitchell begged and pleaded with them to be quiet. But their pleas were in vain, eliciting only contempt and angry threats from their neighbors. Out of fear and frustration Eddie and Mitchell decided to secretly record Peter and Raymond’s fights. And what began as self-defense quickly transformed into something else. Through taping their neighbors’ squabbles, Eddie and Mitchell began to actively listen to them. They found humor in the toxic dynamics of Peter and Raymond’s idiosyncratic verbal performances. In time, Eddie and Mitchell began to intervene in their neighbors’ fights, prank calling Peter and Raymond in an attempt to provoke conflicts for their recording devices. They began to include clips of their recordings on mixtapes that they gave to friends who, like them, were mesmerized by Peter and Raymond’s perplexing domestic life. These tapes were passed around and traded until, eventually, entire albums of their fights were made available for purchase. They inspired a comic book, a play, and several attempts to land a movie deal. Peter and Raymond became underground audio stars – stars whose fame was built on recordings that were made, circulated, and sold without their informed consent.
In this article, I examine the fraught desires and contested politics inherent in the “Shut Up Little Man!” recordings, the history of their creation, and their popular cultural legacies. I base my analysis on both a close listening to the recordings themselves and an examination of the documents, interviews, and histories found on Eddie’s “Shut Up Little Man!” website as well as the documentary Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (Bate 2011). This analysis is also supplemented by contextual research into the popular discourse on noise in apartment buildings, drawing from extant sound studies scholarship and my own examination of American historical newspapers. In my study of these sources, I unpack the nuances and politics of Eddie and Mitchell’s listening and recording practices and analyze the tapes as media texts.
These two elements – the act of recording and the recordings themselves – are undoubtedly interrelated, the existence of the latter contingent on the practices of the former. Yet they remain separate objects of study. The “Shut Up Little Man!” recordings do not transparently reflect Eddie and Mitchell’s listening practice. They mediate and remediate it, transforming it in the process. The act of eavesdropping is turned into a media object with distinct meanings and textual properties that must be analyzed in their own right. The recordings are divorced from the experience of day-to-day life at 237 Steiner Street. They are edited, partial, and decontextualized. Detached from its site of origin, “Shut Up Little Man!” is presented as comedy. Through this remediation, Peter and Raymond have been – to draw upon Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin’s foundational text, Remediation: Understanding New Media (2000) – reformed. Their vocal performances offer listeners a range of pleasures, amusements, and meanings distinct from those experienced by Eddie and Mitchell.
It is this dynamic that helps make “Shut Up Little Man!” an important addition to ethnographic studies of urban noise. As Sandra Lori Petersen’s research (2019) on apartment dwellers in Denmark has revealed, the boundaries of domestic soundscapes are porous. The sounds in one’s residence are not limited to those produced by the individuals dwelling within its walls. “Sonic traces” of external and neighboring worlds penetrate domestic interiors, providing privileged access to the lives and routines of neighbors (Schulze 2018: 111–135). Eddie and Mitchell’s audiotapes offer a compelling case for analyzing these multilayered domestic soundscapes. They embody an audible tactic in the struggle for “acoustic agency” within the home (Cusick 2013: 275–291). Not only do they exemplify the seemingly ever-present desire to listen in on the lives of others, but they also force us to confront the ethics of mediated eavesdropping. They allow us to interrogate what happens when sounds are extracted from the private sphere, transformed by recording technologies, and circulated publicly as media commodities.
I argue that the “Shut Up Little Man!” tapes offer an audio poverty tourism of a distinctly unhomely or unheimlich dwelling – a space that violates the sense of safety and comfort essential to idealized notions of domestic life. The unheimlich qualities of Peter and Raymond’s vocal explosions, toxic exchanges, and audible drunkenness are a large part of what gives the “Shut Up Little Man!” recordings their power and popularity. The soundscape they present – a partial and selective soundscape edited for comedic effect – is strange and compelling, offering audiences an unusual and perhaps exotic glimpse into lives that would be inaccessible without the tape recorder. The sonic tourism inherent in these tapes emerges, at least in part, through Eddie and Mitchell’s simultaneous proximity to and distance from Raymond and Peter – a situation rooted in a specific intersection of class and location. Through a practice that simultaneously draws from field recording, ethnography, and prank calling, they transform their apartment into an exotic sonic field in which they record their neighbor’s vocal performances and domestic dysfunction. By editing and compiling albums of their recordings, they transform Peter and Raymond’s conflicts into an audio comedy of the grotesque for the listener’s pleasure. Eddie and Mitchell’s “Shut Up Little Man!” tapes mediate a distinct listening practice that emphasizes the modes of proximity and even stronger modes of distance between the eavesdroppers and the eavesdropped in the unheimlich home.
As is so often the case with tourism, and poverty tourism in particular, the ethics of these recordings are troubling at best. In examining the “Shut Up Little Man!” tapes, I attempt to unravel this by analyzing how their production, distribution, and popularity has been enabled by systems of power and privilege. In the following sections I examine the creation, remediation, and popular cultural legacies of the “Shut Up Little Man!” recordings in an effort to illuminate their meanings and politics, both of which offer distinct perspectives on age-old histories of class control, domesticity, othering, and exploitation. I begin my discussion with an analysis of the history of noise, connecting sound studies scholarship with cultural history. I then move on to a more direct analysis of “Shut Up Little Man!” in which I explore the conditions of the unheimlich present within the tapes, the modes of proximity and distance essential to their creation, and the politics and ethics attendant to their subsequent popular cultural life. I conclude with some reflections on the present and what “Shut Up Little Man!” might reveal about sound in the home today – at a moment of perhaps unprecedented domestic confinement.