Little. Yellow. Different.

May 24, 2010

Thirty years ago, my friends and I were still living in a pinball world – pay your quarter, release the plunger, and hope you didn’t watch the ball drain straight through the flippers as you furiously and helplessly caused them to pummel nothing but air.

Some of us had primitive home systems such as Pong, but our experience with video games was limited.

Space Invaders had been released in 1978, but none of us had played the game until the new decade had arrived. Sometime as the winter snows melted in early 1980, Space Invaders appeared, sitting there against the wall near the small music department in the rear of the Danners Five & Ten.

It quickly became the place to find most of the kids our age after school and on weekends, pouring quarters down the machine’s gullet.

Later, that summer, Asteroids appeared, nestled next to the pinball machines and near the pool tables at the bowling alley and getting a chance to play was about as likely as getting a table at the trendiest bistro in Hollywood.

On May 22, 1980, we were likely counting down the final days of the school year.

Some ten thousand miles away in Japan, twelve-year olds there were being introduced to a video game that would soon be separating us from our hard-earned allowances and change how we would waste our free time for the next several years, ushering in the video game era.

It was Pac-Man.

(actually, it was Puck-Man, but – upon export to the States – someone had the foresight to realize that young vandals such as we would likely alter the “P” to an “F” to the chagrin of more upright citizens)

The first time that I ever heard of Pac-Man was a year or so later when a new girl, Molly, arrived at our school. Sitting next to me in class one day, she began recounting some plot involving a jaundiced little fellow, babbling about a maze, ghosts, eating dots, and fruit.

As video games were not a part of our consciousness despite Space Invaders and Asteroids, I thought that she was describing some movie she had seen.

“We should play some time,” she suggested.

I nodded, having no idea what the hell she was talking about.

Molly and I never did share a game of Pac-Man. The game soon arrived at the bowling alley, but she had been recruited into the group of A-list girls in our class and I was, on a good day, strictly a B-list kid.

However, my friends and I spent a lot of time trying to master the game and memorize the patterns and, with its phenomenal success, new video games began to sprout like weeds. Each would cause initial excitement – “You have to check out Defender” – before being supplanted by the next big thing until there were enough of them to be herded into an gaming menagerie.

Here, in a belated birthday nod to Pac-Man, are four songs from the charts during the week it was introduced to the world. I wasn’t listening to much music, yet, but I might have heard them playing on the juke box at the bowling alley as I played pinball, hoping for a chance to get a shot at the Asteroids machine…

The Brothers Johnson – Stomp!
from Light Up The Night

Smooth and funky, The Brothers Johnson’s Stomp! has an irresistible, anthemic chorus. Disco might have been dead by the end of the ’70s, but it didn’t keep the song from being a mammoth hit during the spring of ’80.

Air Supply – Lost In Love
from Lost In Love

The Top 40 station that I listened to in the first few years of the ’80s was relatively unhindered by its format. They’d play Rush’s Tom Sawyer or something old by Van Halen. There was a lot of Journey and Styx.

But there was also the hits and hits in the early ’80s meant Air Supply.

Lost In Love is pleasant enough, a bit mawkish, but breezy and engaging. I think I thought was Starland Vocal Band when I first heard it.

(I hadn’t listened to much music up to that point)

Billy Joel – You May Be Right
from Glass Houses

Billy Joel seemed edgy to me in 1980.

Maybe it was because when I thought of him I thought of songs like Big Shot or Sometimes A Fantasy before I thought of She’s Always A Woman or Honesty.

And, at eleven or twelve the line about dirty jokes in You May Be Right seemed rather adult.

Christopher Cross – Ride Like The Wind
from Christopher Cross

Early on, I noted the prominent place that Christopher Cross’ debut occupied in my childhood.

And I really have nothing more to add.

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Happy Birthday, Excitable Boy

January 24, 2009

That’s right. If it hadn’t been for a miserable little tumor, Warren Zevon might be having cake and wearing a silly hat today. Unfortunately, Mr. Bad Example couldn’t be with us today.

I suppose my interest in him began with his 1987 album Sentimental Hygiene. I was in college and the fact that the members of R.E.M. served as Zevon’s backing band legally mandated my curiosity.

The album left me slightly underwhelmed but intrigued enough to snag a copy of the compilation A Quiet, Normal Life: The Best Of Warren Zevon. It was a revelation as I discovered there was much, much more to the man than a single song about werewolves – beheaded mercenaries, diplomats, duplicitous waitresses, and innumerable other, colorful ne’er-do-wells populated the lyrics.

I was hooked.

Paloma gave me a copy of his biography, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, this past Christmas which I inhaled in about two days. Compiled by his ex-wife with instruction by Warren to leave nothing out, there’s not a dull moment, although it is so candid that it’s a bit exhausting at times.

The man did lead a full-grown life that would make for a good screenplay. If you can start a story with a sixteen year-old kid stealing a Corvette which his Russian father – who is a professional gambler – has won in a card game and taking off to New York to be a folk singer in the late ‘60s even though he aspires to be the next Igor Stravinsky (under whom he has studied)…

By the time I graduated from college, I had listened to a lot of Zevon and had seen him live at The Vogue in Indianapolis. I’d continue to listen to a lot of Zevon and I’d see two more of his shows.

I also once had a bizarre dream where Warren had been sentenced to some community service work. He was to take underprivileged kids camping.

Instead, this motley collection of kids ended up in sleeping bags on the floor of some posh hotel suite; the carnage of dozens of room service trays everywhere (certainly at least one pot roast).

And Warren? He was standing amidst the wreckage, cigarette in hand as he growled, “We’re roughing it now, aren’t we kids?”

Wherever he might be on this day, I hope he’s enjoying a sandwich.

Warren Zevon – Desparados Under The Eaves
Leave it to Zevon to make the hum of an air conditioner sound like a spiritual event.

Warren Zevon – Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner
Chris, one of my best friends in high school (and college), accompanied me the first time I saw Zevon live. As Chris liked to declare, “I’m part Norwegian” and I think he took particular pride in the exploits of “Norway’s bravest son.”

Warren Zevon – Play It All Night Long
Life is hard and apparently more so in the rural South. Possibly the only song in the history of mankind which mentions brucellosis.

Warren Zevon – Reconsider Me
Warren was a black-out alcoholic and could be a rather prickly fellow. I suspect he had to make the titular request more than a few times to the ones he loved.

Warren Zevon – Splendid Isolation
Warren had an eclectic group of fellow musicians who guested on his records, ranging from R.E.M. to Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan to George Clinton. Neil Young makes an appearance on Splendid Isolation.

Warren Zevon – Heartache Spoke Here
Dwight Yoakam adds harmony vocals to this twangy track. Makes one wonder of the hijinks which might have ensued had Warren gone country and ended up at the Grand Ol’ Opry.

Warren Zevon – Searching For A Heart
“They say love conquers all. You can’t start it like a car. You can’t stop it with a gun.” Perfect.

Warren Zevon – Mutineer
Near the end of his life as he was dying from cancer, Warren made an appearance on long-time fan David Letterman’s show (the only time Letterman has devoted an entire show to one guest). Part of the interview and a rather poignant performance of Mutineer can be seen here