Monday, October 8, 2012

Ric Ocasek Gave Me the Chills in the Weirdest Possible Way

I’m offering something personal today, though not about my private life so much as something deeper than that — a little insight as to how my mind works. I don’t completely understand it, honestly, and in putting this out there, I wonder if I’m telling more than I realize. Don’t care about me? That’s cool, because this odd little story happens to hit all the pegs — music, a movie, an obscure video game. They just intersect in a way I didn’t expect… in a way that took twenty years.

You may not find this significant. I do.

Scene One

I’m a kid still. I can’t be more than seven years old. I’m riding in the car of neighbor lady, for some reason, and she’s singing along to the radio. She’s younger than my mom, so the soundtrack skews younger than the Simon & Garfunkelly easy listening my mom listened to. It’s new wave. I don’t know what that is at this point, but I know this music sounds different. I can distinctly remember one of the songs being “Send Me an Angel,” and it might have been the first time I heard that song. I can picture not-my-mom dancing to the chorus, and I guess that’s why I always liked the song, despite the ripe cheesiness of it. But there’s a second song. For the longest time, I wasn’t able to remember the lyrics — just the intro, which I can hear clearly but which defies description. It’s just sounds, really, not even a melody. For years, I’d wonder what that song was.

That’s it.

Scene Two

I’m in high school, maybe in my third year. I’m sick — at-home sick, and for real, too. This goes on for several days and eventually my mom pulls out a gift from her present closet, where all Christmas and birthday give-’ems wait to be given. Feeling bad for her bedbound son, my mom hands me a Super Nintendo game, and I’m shocked that it’s Earthbound, one of the more notorious cult hits of the 90s. It’s by Nintendo but not one of the company’s more commercially successful releases. My mother had no reason to think I’d even heard of the game, and I hadn’t asked for it. I guess she had just picked randomly and lucked out.

I’ve played video games throughout my entire lifetime, but Earthbound stands out for two reasons: It’s surreal and it’s funny. Most of it takes place in Eagleland, which functions like a oddball version of the U.S. — a parody of American culture as devised by a Japanese man that veers between folksy-dorky-funny and disturbingly David Lynch-y strange. It has crazed cultists and corrupt policemen and zombie attacks, but most importantly it has Fourside, a kinda-sorta stand-in for New York City. At one point in the game, the hero passes from Fourside into Moonside, a bizarre mirror world in which where skyscrapers are replaced by negative space outlined in flashing neon. Passers-by speak in backwards talk — “no” means “yes” — and among the enemies that attack you is the melted clock from Dali’s “Persistence of Memory.” It’s pretty weird.

That’s it.

Scene Three

I’m in college now, and brainstorming for a final project in my Flash animation class. I’m at a loss, so on a whim I decide to do something involving dreams. I’ve always thought that dreams work like movies, in a way, and my admittedly limited experience with Flash has allowed me to “make a movie” in the loosest sense of the term. So I decide to adapt a recent dream in which I found myself in a city composed of negative space, neon-flashing skyscrapers. And just as in the game, this strangeness is rooted in a glowing statue that is evil — just evil. I don’t know what made my subconscious dredge up memories of Earthbound so many years later, but in a way it’s appropriate: Dreams and video games are two of the few opportunities a person gets to “be” someone else and control their actions in a type of alternate world, however superficial and temporary.

So I make the little movie. It looks crude today, but I was pleased enough with it to turn it in. I eventually uploaded it to YouTube, not because the world needed to see my feeble attempt at filmmaking but rather because it took a fuckload of time to arrange the various sprites in the fashion I wanted, and I couldn’t let that work go to waste. Here it is:

You’ll notice that there’s no sound. In the version I turned in, there were two songs that played: First, there was “Sixteen Megatons” by Funki Porcini, which I picked for itsdistinctive and likely intentional David Lynch quality. (In an older post I made about Earthbound, I noted how the transition from Fourside to Moonside reminds me of a similar scene in Fire Walk With Me. I told you this game was Lynchy.)

For the other song, I actually picked a track from Earthbound itself: “Theme of Moonside.”

It… weirdly doesn’t sound like video game music, mostly because it’s not so much melodic as atmospheric — and the atmosphere. It teeters toward cheerful, but it’s the wrong kind of cheerful, especially when it falls apart around the forty-second mark. And yes, that is the Little Rascals theme you hear sampled, albeit it a manipulated, off-key version.

The project got an A. It wasn’t graded on artistic merit.

That’s it.

Scene Four

It’s about three years ago. I’m working from home at night, waiting for a late story to come in. I’ve been waiting for a while, and so I pass time by listening to music, stumbling from one playlist to another in search of something new — by which I mean something old that I haven’t heard yet. It was actually this process that introduced me to Hüsker Dü, a band that got me through more than a few terrible, late nights. I don’t know what it is about deadline nights that make me listen to old music.

Eventually, a Cars playlist gives way to some of Ric Ocasek’s solo work, and one song stops me in my tracks: “Keep on Laughing,” from the his 1986 album This Side of Paradise. This is the song I remembered from when I was a kid, the one to which I could only remember the indescribable intro. That intro is also strikingly similar to the “falling apart music” that starts in around the forty-second mark in the song from Earthbound, the one I picked for my video.

I think it’s unmistakable. Here, try for yourself with the two clips side-by-side:

I may be one of those people who hears similarities between songs that those with more musical know-how either dismiss as being coincidental or nonexistent, but this one I feel especially confident about. In fact, the guy who composed Earthbound’s music used a lot of Western pop music, and other people hear the resemblance to “Keep in Laughing” too.

But isn’t odd how this song took almost twenty years to make its way back to me, from the first time I heard it to the first time I was able to identify it? And considering that noise was bouncing between my ears all that time, isn’t it curious how my brain latched onto this segment of video game music without ever realizing the connection my subconscious was making? And finally, is it maybe a little unsettling that the dumb little Flash project I made and the video game that inspired it both concern liminal states and some colorful, strange place between being awake and letting the other parts of your brain take over?

As I said in the first paragraph, this may not seem significant to anyone else. And I regret to admit that this all doesn’t lead up to one clear, stunning conclusion. It’s just a mess, in the end, of memories and pop culture. But I own this mess, apparently. And that’s something.

I guess I’m eager to find out if there will be a Scene Five.

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