Monday, March 08, 2010

I made a fire and watching burn thought of your future

So the kinda-about John Hughes thing I wrote…I found it. Another lost piece, this time for HIOQI in 2002. I was on an anti-80's kick…and who knew it would get so much worse over the years? The Faint was just the beginning, it turns out.

Actually, I was on an anti-nostalgia kick. Or just a kick. This was written on the fly, "last minute for an issue that's going to press-style", so take it easy on me, eh? The style is an oh so obvious homage to Jay McInerney, I know. And the thematic elements practically beat you over the head. And Donnie Darko seems to loom large in there, somewhere. Fuh.

The Eighties Never Ended. You Did.

The 1980's are back with a vengeance, you've realized, and the basic synchronicity of this fact now emerging in every seemingly important facet of your life is disquieting, the acquiescence to it and embrace of it by others is making you want to wretch, although you are trying your best not to pass judgement. It started meekly enough: pretty much every rock band you've gone to see in the past six months has an instrument that makes either a squawk or a beep. Rock music in the 70's did NOT squawk or beep. Moaned, maybe. Or shuffled. Boogied. The 90's didn't squawk or beep much, either, unless you were into techno. But you weren't, and rock pumped. Thrashed. Made a grind. Ground you into dust. Regardless: squawk, squawk, squawk. Beep, beep, beep. Thump, thump, thump. These are the sounds that fill your ears right now, and you can't help but feeling that they are sounds from the past.

This has been happening for a long while, and you were kind of amused at first, even a little glad to play along, to go and see bands that prickled and connected with this nostalgic part of you. In fact, just recently, at a party where you were DJ-ing, you played "Relax" by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and then "Some Like It Hot" by the Power Station, right in a row, partly because you honestly like both songs, but mostly as an experiment, to see what would happen. People stopped dancing immediately. This was not exactly the desired effect, but you let both songs play all the way out, and then gave up the booth to the hip-hop dude, trying your best to ignore the audible sighs of relief from the dancers around you. At least they had liked the ESG and New Order songs. Then again, you knew they would. ESG and New Order were already in the record collection of everyone at that party, in addition to hundreds of new records from new bands that sounded just like them. This was obvious by the way the kids at the party were dressed, which made you wonder why you'd bothered playing any records at all. But then, you were dressed like they were and you probably had the exact same records. So, why not play the fucking songs?

But that's not all, not nearly the end of it. A brief film clip of Ronald Reagan, giving a press conference in the East Room of the White House, showed up on your TV the other night, hidden deep in the recesses of late night cable for you to find. What he was saying doesn't matter so much. What matters is that later, much later, your ears burned red with shame because for a nanosecond, and really nothing more than that, you loved him again like you once had in those long ago years, loved him completely and blindly. Trusting in his voice for that instant, you had totally fallen under his spell again. But after you had blinked a few times and really thought about him, he was just another illusion from two decades past, a brown suit and Brylcreem man in a long, unceasing parade of other men, the president of your united childhood. They passed quickly, those feelings of love and shame, because you feel asleep in your chair.

In what is obviously a dream, everything a candy coated red, white and blue, you are playing. It is the summer of 1983 or '84, and there is no school. You're in your front yard, the neutral brown house on Sheffield Drive, playing with your Star Wars toys, under big trees. There are other kids around, but you don't hear or see them. There is a murmur, though, a human sound slowly getting louder, spreading across the clean suburban lawns. Front doors are opening and cars are stopping in the street. You're flying an X-Wing Fighter through the air above your head, making the ship do mighty swoops, when you see white trails splitting the liquid blue sky past your hand, and hear the crushing roar of the rockets. They are not from your toy spaceship. You know what's coming next because this is what happened at some point of every dream you ever had when you were a child, and your heart starts to hammer in your chest. Thump, thump, thump. Dimly at first, low mournful wails rise above all sound, growing louder and shorter and higher in pitch. The sirens, rusty yellow civil defense sirens at the tops of water towers and every tall building, are squawking to life. Time is short. Ten minutes, maybe. People start to run inside their houses, but yours is locked, blank, empty, and your parents are nowhere to be found. You are in a desperate frenzy now, running from house to house, street to street, lungs burning with effort, trying to get inside anything, garages or tool sheds, following the other children, but they're so much faster than you, and doors close before you can get to a safe kitchen or living room. The horrible certainty of what is to come keeps you running: the flash that will roast your retinas and take your sight, the inevitable, inescapable wall of fire that will cook your flesh alive and and turn your arms and legs to cinders, the invisible radiation, the long winter of ash and smoke that will never end. The news has shown you the certainty of these horrors over and over, drilled them into your head since before you learned to speak, and in your childish mind, the news never lies.

The inbound missiles are within sight before you know it, and because there is no better place to die than your own front yard, you watch their fearsome arc to earth, until the huge red hammers and sickles are right above your head. But instead of dying from instant heat death, you are amazed to find yourself in the auditorium of your junior high school, surrounded by risers filled with your classmates, who, implausibly enough, are singing the same song, in one clear and united voice. It is "Head Over Heels" by Tears For Fears, and it sounds ridiculously perfect, almost frighteningly so, as if the Leon J. Lundahl Junior High School Fighting Lions were really the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in disguise. You are invisible, so you don't have to sing along, are free to glance into faces forgotten long ago or crane your neck and look up to the roof of the auditorium, which is as clear as glass. You see the missiles exploding into fiery mushrooms thousands of miles high, right above the heads of you and your classmates, but you are safe here. In the way of dreams, it is certain that their song, and nothing else, is protecting you. But before their song ends, before you read anything in their faces, or start to sing along with their perfect sound, the ceiling becomes a normal roof and the bombs disappear. The entire class blooms into their adult selves and keeps on aging right in front of you, just like in time-lapse movies, growing elderly and decrepit every single one, bright voices papery near-silent whispers, but no song now, and you are awake in your chair.

Later that day at work, after those dreams are mostly forgotten, the Tears For Fears song booms in your ears. No matter where you go, the hook turns your brain into pudding because it is so banal and so lovely. You get an MP3 of it and put it on repeat at your desk, and play it for co-workers. Hey, remember this? They kind of laugh and move on. Not everyone has an innate respect for the banal and lovely, but the song becomes your four-leaf clover. You listen to it about 25 times that first day, and even more as the week progresses, over and over again. It must have fused with your DNA, somehow found a friendly spare helix to coil with, because eerily enough, you can't remember having heard Tears For Fears as a kid. How did it get in your head? You didn't listen to the radio much or have MTV back then, so music was something you inherited from your parents. For lack of anything else you listened to your Mom's tapes: Eagles, Gordon Lightfoot, and Fleetwood Mac's Rumors. Honestly, your childhood was one of extreme meekness, even more geeky than this emerging adult Tears For Fears fetish might first indicate. In other words, when you were ten, you thought Huey Lewis and the News were very cool, but had no money to buy their records.

Here are a few facts that should neatly sum up your 1980': the first record you bought with your own money was the Ghostbusters soundtrack, favorite TV show was Knight Rider, favorite athlete was Harold Baines, favorite video game was Pitfall. You knew more about the President's cabinet that most other kids, or even most of your parents' friends. Of course, this list of crap doesn't do that decade any real justice, much less sum up even your small part in it. For instance, your Mom's Dorothy Hamill haircut lasted most of the decade, through untold cycles of fashion, and it's still the way she appears in your mind's eye, still the first vision you cling to when afraid, because back then, in the 1980's, fear loomed large in your world, a mighty and immobile fact of life. In fact, fear is most of what you remember from that time. Russians. Red Dawn fantasies of running into the woods. Imminent fantasies of hot nuclear death, obviously. Even if the other kids were outside playing, or were watching TV for the joy of it, you had to make sure nothing went wrong in the world, so you watched TV for hours at a time. Morning cartoons were often interrupted by adult news: the British invasion of the Falklands in 1981, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, the invasion of Grenada, airline hijackings in Tel Aviv, the bombing of Libya, the shooting down of Korean airliners. You were the only kid who didn't mind the news, were probably on better terms with news anchors than you were with the Smurfs, anyway. There was an Evil Empire to be watched. If the missiles should ever be launched from their silos, there would be plenty of time to hide, and in front of the TV you would know instantly, even before the yellow sirens sounded. There would be time. The news kept you abreast of trouble, and so you would endlessly sit through episode after episode of Alf and St. Elsewhere and Head of The Class, ever watchful.

Obviously, yours wasn't the 1980's of ankle boots, tube tops and hot pink lipstick. But being poor and uncool made you covet material goods so far above and beyond normalcy that a part of you never recovered. A BMW when you were old. Every video game ever made. Every Swatch watch ever made. Every everything. You wanted it all. You'd seen Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous many times and were deeply embarrassed to be without riches. This wasn't the same fear as dying from the fire of a Russian-made AK-47, it was more subtle and difficult to comprehend, but you saw it in the faces of adults every day. It was their special adult fear, the fear to compete, to have more than their neighbors and their relatives, and it would infect you in the years to come. The desire for glamour whether cheap or expensive would never go away. This, you think, is what people in bands have in mind when they reconsider the 1980's and attempt to remake it in their own image, even when they're just clinging to kitsch, especially when they're clinging to kitsch. They can wrap their minds around the unshakable ugliness staring you right in the face, and see as still water the fear still running like a current through your dreams.

Sure, your 28 year old cousin traded commodities in the Manhattan of the 1980's…made a miraculous fortune on junk bonds, ate at fusion restaurants, had mutually satisfying oral sex with short-haired representatives of both sexes, looked suave wearing a a skinny baby blue tie with a pink Lacoste shirt to various nightclubs well-known as impossibly hard to get into, voted for Mondale/Ferraro out of a fleeting pang or two of duty to his rapidly dissipating sense of post-collegiate liberalism, drove a DeLorean and went to prison for fraud; basically for a while there was Jay Gatsby Part II, a cocaine-leaned dynamo, lifestyle supercharged by copious amounts of readily available credit and a utilitarian Midwestern grudge. But now close your eyes to picture the 1980's as they really happened and mostly what you see is Grandpa Nelson dying alone at his house in Grantsburg, Illinois. You weren't there, but you're certain he was watching Hee Haw, a show you made sure to tell him over and over again just exactly how much you hated. He was clutching at his chest with fingers outstretched, thinking this was indigestion again. Take the time to look inside his body; see his heart literally exploding, his veins becoming empty tunnels, oxygen all gone, his favorite pipe falling unlit and settling harmlessly in his lap. Four days later, your Aunt Ruth, your Grandpa's sister, went to sleep in a nursing home in Ames, Iowa and never woke up. It was her night of nights after wasting away slowly over the decades, her mind surrounded by a permanent fog, her wrists grown thin and brittle like reeds. Aunt Ruth likely never laughed at the multifaceted and hilarious familial machinations of the Cosby Show or felt nervous twinges of sympathy for the endlessly rifting upper-middle class families of Thirtysomething. Aunt Ruth wasn't the TV sort. During the entire decade she never once heard the pre-fab party metal crunch of Twisted Sister or tasted the saccharine oil slick of New Coke.

The only time you and Aunt Ruth had shared a pop culture moment of any kind is when your twin sister had made her take the two of you to see the Breakfast Club earlier that summer. Aunt Ruth, of course, repeatedly nodded off most of the way through the movie. Repeatedly jolted from sleep by the crying and yelling on the huge screen, random flashes of light from raccoon eyes dripping makeup on cue and the glint of braces on white adolescent teeth crossing her face, she hadn't seemed to enjoy it much. Why were all the kids in the movie crying all the time, doing nothing but yelling at adults, she had asked that day, just after the three of you had left the theatre. Neither you nor your sister could honestly answer that question and didn't really bother to try, uselessly shrugging your shoulders in response. Truth was, you both felt good, empowered, and Aunt Ruth's dumb questions were the furthest things from your minds. A new and intoxicating tightening had begun in your chests, a feeling almost approaching smugness, for this particular movie had secrets to bestow on you and your sister. You felt like you knew a good deal more about the endless sea of older kids waiting for you in high school and beyond, about how they acted towards each other when you weren't around, and how they talked about their own parents. This presentation of symbols you could read on the movie screen, just like subtitles, was tantalizingly prescient knowledge. After all, there were distinct teenage roles to be filled: a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal, and you and Sis were both so eager to fill even just one of them. Who knew which one would be yours? The Breakfast Club. It had shown you so much! It wouldn't be long now. Marvelously alive in the stabbing glare of a sun grown bright from dead movie theatre darkness, fates for the young and old having been already long decided, there was nowhere else to go now but, up, down or away.


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