Celluloid Heroes Part I: The Power of Love

(This is the first in a series I’m calling “Celluloid Heroes” (HT: Ray Davies) in which I take a look at the movies that made me, or at least had a very outsized influence on me growing up. This installment will be followed by two more, running through this summer, and I hope to continue the series through the years ahead.)

So without further ado, “when this baby hits 88 mph you’re going to see some serious shit.”

Iconic

You could argue that of all the movies of the 1980s, the one that stands above all others is this one. Back to the Future. Released on July 3, 1985, easily the most 80s year of the decade, it was a massive commercial and critical hit. It stayed in theaters for months, making money hand over fist. 

I also think it holds the crown for movies most about the decade they’re actually set in and BTTF is 100% 80s. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox, as if you didn’t already know) wants to get back to his year, 1985, the year of the film which automatically dates it, as though a “dated” film is a bad thing when few films released are remembered a year after release, let alone thirty-eight (it’s true; look it up. Also, sorry). 

But what makes Back to the Future the 80s movie? Why not Ghostbusters or Gremlins, why not Robocop or E.T. or Die Hard?

Let’s break it all down;

1. It’s a Teen Comedy

While teen-centered movies had existed before the 1980s it wasn’t until the 80s that they became a genre. Films made for and marketed to the prosperous children of the prosperous Baby Boom generation. The kids now called “Generation X”. Films like Fast Times At Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Valley Girl and all their offspring.

Also iconic

So looking at Back to the Future through that lens as a teen movie, it works. It’s a cool teen with problems who goes to experience life as a teenager in his parents’ era when they were teenagers. One of the reasons I recommend George Gipe’s Back to the Future novelization (copies are easily attainable and affordable in the secondary market) is that it really delved into the differences between 80s kids and 50s kids, which is quite the trip to read in 2022, where the 80s are as far removed from us as the 50s were to the 80s. If Back to the Future were made today Marty would time-trip back to the distant year of 1992 (again, sorry).

2. It’s a Spielbergian fantasy

You can’t talk 80s cinema without talking Steven Spielberg. The guy was and remains a master filmmaker, but it was his aesthetic, the “Amblin feel” of so many classic 80s films – Poltergeist, Explorers, Gremlins, Goonies, Back to the Future – that suburban living could lead to adventure, that the fantastical could drop on your doorstep, that became a genre unto itself. Even today, with Netflix’ Stranger Things series, the Spielbergian influence is front and center.

NOT iconic, but man is that beautiful

The biggest genre films of the decade – the Indy trilogy, E.T., these films he produced – sparked wave after wave or imitators and homages. And Back to the Future, despite being a Zemeckis-Gale joint, has Spielberg’s fingerprints all over it, right from that look of awe on Marty’s face when he sees the DeLorean for the first time. Those somber, reflective moments like when Marty pens a letter to Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) warning him of his future murder. Seeing his parents kiss for the first time. Little touches that humanize the fantastical are all Spielberg and it’s no small surprise many mistakenly believe Back to the Future is a Spielberg film.

3. It’s Boomer nostalgia 

Starting in 1985 the baby boomers all started turning 40. And you could see it in the culture of the day. Whereas the first half of the decade was dominated by MTV, New Wave, new Romantics and “youth” culture, starting in 1985 the boomers took their revenge. The big waves of 50s and 60s nostalgia (present in some form from Happy Days, Grease, and Sha-Na-Na in the 70s) really took hold in the 80s. It was that turning 40 where those greaser and hippy kids started looking back at their lives, and the culture followed. Paul Simon, Bob Seeger, the Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, the Beatles all saw a resurgence in popularity (in fact the following year’s Ferris Bueller’s use of The Beatles’ cover of Twist And Shout launched the Beatles back into the popular culture). 

I can still hear the music

Back to the Future really leans into the boomer nostalgia, filtered through the gaze of a 17 year old played by a then 24 year old and written by a couple of late 30/early 40-somethings. It may be Marty’s POV – he’s virtually in every scene of the movie – but it’s George (Crispin Glover) and Lorraine’s (Lea Thompson) story. Their world. Their era.

Part of why, to me, the two sequels aren’t nearly as effective or good (sorry but it’s also true) is because their settings – 1885 and the then far-away world of 2015 – are divorced from any world we, the viewer, knew. They’re perfectly fun time-wasters but they lack the emotional resonance of the first film. They’re movies about Back to the Future; not movies about a teenager time-traveling to meet his parents as teens. 

Back to the Future also made me conscious of the fact that my parents were teenagers once. That they had a lot of the same hopes and fears as I did. It got me more interested in their music, their movies, their TV. The sense that they’d grown up in a period predating my birth; that they’d lived a fair bit of life before becoming parents.

4. It’s a Gen X Film

Generation X as a term to describe that cohort of people born between 1965-1977 or thereabouts wasn’t actually coined until 1991 by author Douglas Coupland, in his book titled, well Generation X. But now, Marty McFly, those John Hughes Kids, those Kids of Degrassi Street and the like are all labelled Gen X. It was a label assigned after the fact. Unlike Gen Y, unlike Millennials, Gen X typically had to wait until the dust had settled to get a name, which it didn’t receive until:

As an aside, there’s definitely merit to an argument going around that it’s GenX who’s at fault for the endless sequels and reboots of classic 70s-90s film series as we’re the 40-50 somethings clinging to the nostalgia of our youth. But the missing component to that argument lies in the fact that the main demographic companies/networks/studios want to reach are 18-34, not 35-54. GenX is also, demographically, a small cohort sandwiched between two larger ones, the Boomers and the Millennials. I would argue more to the plethora of sequels, reboots, remakes as just being more evidence of that tepid corporate mindset that it’s a safer bet to repackage an existing property than to attempt something new. You couldn’t make Back to the Future today without a plan and a promise for a film series. The numbers bear that out; the two biggest movies in recent terms financially have been a new Batman movie (of which there’ve been 10 since 1989), a Spider-Man sequel, the 9th Spider-Film in the last 20 year span, and a sequel to Top Gun, 36 years after the original. It’s interesting to ponder how the landscape might have been were there only 3 Star Wars movies, 3 Indiana Jones movies, 6 Star Trek movies, 1 Ghostbusters, 1 Back to the Future. Would they be as beloved today or would they sit somewhere closer to a 1-and-done success like E.T. the Extra-terrestrial? That is rightly regarded as a classic film, but it certainly doesn’t have the fandom that those other franchises have (because in the end, all that matters to studios is the merchandise – the T-shirts, the video games, the toys, that keep the money flowing). But I digress.

But let’s look at Back to the Future in that context; Marty, the youngest child, sees his older siblings and parents crushed by the grind of life. Dad is a nerd pushover, mom an overweight alcoholic with a jailbird brother. Marty’s brother works in fast food, his sister is likewise in a dead-end job. George’s high school bully, Biff, is still tormenting him. He’s facing a future of diminished expectations which is why he has so much riding on that battle of the bands; his ticket out of the decaying California town of Hill Valley. He is of a generation that can expect to climb nowhere near as high as the generation preceding it. That’s the GenX-perience. That we were never going to have the success of our parents. And poor Marty’s family … are failures. Whatever dreams they once had (like George’s ambition to be a sci-fi author) never came to fruition.

So why is Back to the Future so important to me? 

In 1985 I moved to Greensboro North Carolina. School, culture, were not a good fit. Quite simply, I hated it. So there was an enormous appeal in Marty McFly’s story. I wished I too could time-travel with Doc Brown back to, well, maybe 1984 and just inhabit the pre-NC years on an endless loop. But I knew in my heart that was silly and doomed; to be perpetually aging while I relived the same events. Going from ten to eleven to twelve running in place. So while the fantasy was appealing I knew the only way to survive NC was to go through it.

[I did get through it, though the two years we were expected to spend in NC were truncated by an at-the-time fortuitous circumstance that eventually would have consequences for the whole family.]

I wish I could say things in NC turned around but they never did and when I left NC later in 1986 it was without any looking back. I haven’t been back there since and don’t intend to. Unlike all the many other places I’ve lived I have zero nostalgia for that time in my life. In point of fact to this day I posses a strong, very unfair dislike of the southern USA because of my North Carolina experience.

But in Greensboro, we lived a short walk from the nearby strip mall which included a nice bookstore, great Chinese restaurant, a Toy City, and movie theater. This was a second run theater, one of two in town, and when movies came there on their way to home video they played for a while. Tickets were a buck, popcorn and soda or candy was another buck. When Back to the Future finally made its way there I went almost once a week. When another movie like Young Sherlock Holmes or Weird Science arrived I alternated but the end result of that is I’ve probably seen Back to the Future in the theater more times than any any other movie before or since.

It’s also why I bought myself this …

Back to the Future is my movie comfort food. SO much so that this past father’s Day I chose it to be my movie for the day. And almost 40 years on it remains as fun, as sweet, as charming as it ever was. Watching BTTF now is akin to traveling back in time to 1985, to 1955 and back again to 1985. Over those many years past Marty McFly became a friend, then he became me; a teenager out of place, desperate to return to the place he belonged. His home. His time. It took a little longer for me but I made it home eventually.

That story will be told in the third installment of this series.

But first we need to take a leap forward to the year 1991 and this bad boy.

I’ll be back

See you next month.

Wonderboy

“Writing is an occupation in which you must continuously prove your talent to people who have none.” – Jules Renard

I admit it’s strange to say you miss a person you never met, that you never knew, but if like me you were a fan of his work I think we all felt like we knew Harlan Ellison. Some people I know actually did know him so I suppose in the grand scheme of things I could say Harlan and I were two degrees removed (top THAT, Kevin Bacon, who I’m only four degrees from).

Here was a writer who put himself front and center, to the point that in some circles he was better known for his personality than his writing.

A writer who never hesitated to make noise for himself in an industry where writers are expected to shut up and type and let someone else get the glory.

While I loved his fiction – “A Boy And His Dog”, “The Deathbird”, “Shatterday”, “Paladin of the Lost Hour”, “Mephisto In Onyx” rank among my favorites – I was a greater fan of his non-fiction; his essays on film, on television, on the art of writing, of his own life experience. Harlan laid it all out there and became the first writer as rock star, a figure known in some circles more for being Harlan Ellison, period. Louder and larger than life. He wrote about his father (“My Father”), his mother (“My Mother”), he wrote about the loss of a beloved pet, (“Abhu”). He wrote one of the best unproduced screenplays I ever read (his adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s “I Robot”). His book “Harlan Ellison’s Watching” collecting years of essays and reviews on film has been a constant companion for more than 25 years.

So if it wasn’t clear, I was and remain an Ellison fan.

He was haunted by the murder of Kitty Genovese (“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”), he marched through the segregationist south with MLK (“From Alabamy, with Hate”), he was a fierce, fierce advocate for the rights of the working writer, and was unafraid to call out assholes where he saw them. In the movie business and the book biz, they’re plentiful, believe me.

He had a lot of experience in Hollywood, mostly in Television with episodes of shows like Burke’s Law, The Flying Nun (!) and Route 66. His most in famous work though would be the two episodes he wrote for The Outer Limits – “Demon With A Glass Hand” and “Soldier” (both of which became the un-sanctioned inspiration for James Cameron’s The Terminator. Ellison sued, and won both credit on the film and a cash payout).

And his most famous? That would be this one:

Widely regarded as the best episode of the original Star Trek, and source of an infamous rift between Ellison and Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, detailed in Ellison’s book:

Harlan kept all the receipts.

When Harlan passed in 2018, I didn’t mourn, but I did reacquaint myself, pulling my 1012-page softcover of The Essential Ellison off my shelf and spending the next six or so weeks re-reading it cover-to-cover. That was my eulogy, my memorial to a writer who definitely had an influence on me. occasionally his name would pop up on the radar post-mortem, but I figured that was it. He’d specified in his will that all unpublished work be destroyed, leaving his wife Susan to manage his copyright and his estate (sadly Susan followed Harlan two years later). More on that further down.

So it was, back in February, that I attended my first in-person Boskone since early 2020 because, well, reasons. A guest on several panels, I made my customary sweep through the dealer’s room, where to my surprise, I saw my old pal Harlan. He was at the NESFA table; sci-fi and fantasy hardcovers and softcovers on sale to raise money for the New England Science Fiction Association, the fine organization that helps run the Boskone event. Naturally, I couldn’t leave without grabbing the last of two remaining copies of A Lit Fuse. It took a few weeks to get to it – I was immersed in a biography of Buster Keaton at the time- but after cracking A Lit Fuse open I dove back into a world I’d largely forgotten. 

On my first big trip to LA as a full-time working writer I made sure one of my stops was the late, sorely missed Dangerous Visons bookstore on Ventura Boulevard. I went because it was a bookstore, but also because it was Harlan’s bookstore. He lived a short drive away, and the name itself was taken from the legendary Dangerous Visions anthology he edited in the 1960s, that sparked a revolution in sci-fi-fantasy writing, breaking it free from the shadows of the pulp and the obscure and made it vital for a new generation of reader. 

Naturally I bought a couple of Ellison books; the first two volumes of The Essential Ellison (as well as a now extremely rare signed, slipcase copy of the late Richard Matheson’s Twilight Zone scripts). Given the ridiculous Canada-US exchange rate at the time I estimate I dropped two hundred dollars on books that day, and spent the next month eating Ramen noodles and mac & cheese (ah, the life of a screenwriter just starting out).

Pictured: A screenwriter just starting out

Harlan making himself, warts and all, very public was a bold move, a brave one, and an oddly prescient one. Because today writers are expected to be public. We’re expected to be online, Tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming our daily lives. We’re supposed to attend workshops and conferences and readings, we’re supposed to campaign for awards, to play the role our industry expects of us.

It’s almost enough to make you want to chuck in the towel.

Because if there is one thing I’ve come to discover about myself it’s that while I still enjoy the act of writing I don’t much enjoy being “a writer”. Certainly not as much as I used to. I enjoy the work, the rewards less so. A blank page does not terrify me the way it does others. I’ve heard writers say again and again that the writing is the least pleasant part of the process, preferring the adulation, the applause of the audience, the commendations that follow publication or production.

Dorothy Parker herself famously said “I don’t enjoy writing; I enjoy having written”. Well, that’s where Dorothy and I part ways. I enjoy writing, and when I’m done writing I write something else.

Clearly I’m the exception. And I’m not in any way blaming other writers for embracing what’s supposed to be fun. The victory lap is important especially for those very talented writers, the men and women for whom writing is therapy and exercising the demons that drive them. Writers and creators who come from traumatic backgrounds, hard upbringings, alcoholic and abusive families, ones who genuinely struggle from PTSD.

Reading Segaloff’s biography of Ellison I found myself remembering the writer I wanted to be. There’s very little of the mid to late-nineties I recall with much nostalgia. It was a depressing time in my life I wouldn’t ever want to repeat. And yet Harlan Ellison, the man, the writer, his stories and non-fiction I do recall in much fonder terms.

I’m definitely closer to the end of my life than I am to the beginning. Harlan once said life should end around age 70 (he lived to see 84). A debilitating stroke incapacitated Harlan some years before his passing; the worst torture for a writer now physically unable to write. Keeling over at my desk seems the best possible retirement for me. I’d hate to spend my remaining years sitting and doing nothing useful with them.

What is most surprising (and a little tragic) to me is that Harlan and his works are slowly being forgotten four years later. Without Susan to manage his estate his books are starting to go out of print. I don’t believe his writings will disappear entirely, but the day will come when some publisher that does retain rights will look at sales figures and decide it’s not worth the cost to a multi-million dollar corporation to keep a deceased author with a dwindling fan-base in print. Food for thought for all the writers out there concerned with their “legacy” and “creating works that outlast me”. I hate to break it to them/us but the likelihood anyone remembers us or our work after we’re gone is slim to none.

There’s a lyric from Canadian band Metric’s gorgeous song “Breathing Underwater” that sort of encapsulates where my head is at the present. It goes; “I can see the end but it hasn’t happened yet”. That’s where I am in my life. I can see the end. It’s (hopefully) a long way off, but it’s undeniably closer now than it used to be. I still have time and plan to make the most of it, but I know I’m nearer to the end of the road than the beginning. There’s still some great scenery, great moments to come, but that end is coming. 

To be clear, I don’t see that as a bad thing. We all make the mistake of believing our lives are infinite. If there’s any regret I have it’s the years I wasted, and the time others wasted for me. Knowing what I do now I would have walked away from people and situations a lot sooner than I did. I won’t make that mistake with the time left to me. 

Harlan was once asked what he wanted his epitaph to be, and he replied; “For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time I mattered.” I think that sums up the human experience as succinctly as anything he wrote. Our lives are brief, and over far too soon, but to our loved ones and to the people we touched through what we created, they matter. Writers like Harlan, like myself, try and snatch a little bit of immortality by producing work we hope will outlive us.

But as the years go on, everything fades.

Even words on a page.  

ADDENDUM: I will be back next month with part one of a 3-part series I’m calling “Celluloid Heroes”, in which I take a deep dive look at three movies that changed the course of my life, inspired me, or otherwise made their mark. Following that summer series will be a little treat marking the 5th anniversary of my book MAGICIANS IMPOSSIBLE, so make sure you’re here for that. October will feature a piece on another writer with a great influence on my life, the legendary Ray Bradbury, and I may have a few more surprises in store. Stay tuned. Same Brad-time, same Brad-channel.

Moving In Stereo

It’s happening. Sort of.

If I’ve been a little silent as of late it isn’t without good reason. I’ve been up to my neck in work on a new project closely related to my comic book series Mixtape.

I’ll be brief and to the point; I’ve partnered with Little Engine Entertainment to develop Mixtape as a half-hour comedy-drama TV series. That’s right, the further adventures of Jim, Noel, Siobhan, Lorelei, and Terry are (hopefully) coming to the small screen. We (Little Engine and I) are currently in the development phase of the sales pitch that we hope to start taking to broadcasters and production partners this fall, with an eye to rolling into production (again, hopefully) sometime in 2022.

Hope is not a business strategy, and we recognize that. But it seems the age of 80s nostalgia is moving off and the 90s are back “in” again (except to people like me, where the 90s apparently never left). But with some BIG musical anniversaries this year (Lollapalooza, Nevermind, Badmotorfinger, Ten, Use Your Illusion 1 & 2, Screamadelica, Out of Time, Blood Sugar Sex Magick, Trompe Le Monde, Bandwagonesque*) now is probably the best shot we have at grabbing the attention of the people we want to grab.

*Seriously, Google “1991 Albums” and prepare to drop your jaw. 1991 might have been THE year the 90s officially began, culturally anyway.

It’s a long road ahead, and one that might never reach its destination, but we all believe in the project and think it has a better chance of moving forward now than it ever did.

So, that’s where you’re going to find me over the coming months; here, working on Mixtape again. It feels good, if a little strange

To be clear this series is NOT an adaptation of the comic; think of it more as a companion piece to those stories. Each issue of Mixtape captures a small moment in the life of its particular main character, but there’s a lot more story to tell that until now has lurked largely in the margins. new characters, new situations, new music. It’s all there. The pictured title page is actually the first completely “new” Mixtape story I’ve written since completing Volume 1 of the series. My hope is that with a series moving forward I’ll be able to return to the comic book world of Mixtape and complete Volume/Side 2.

But that’s all some time from now. Until then I hope you all have a great summer and I’ll see you in September!

Mountains Beyond Mountains

To look at me, a 40-something Gen X-er with more salt in his beard than pepper, you would expect my musical tastes to have ended sometime around the year 2000. Sometimes I worry that’s been the case. Looking at my favorite albums and songs and bands, it’s easy to see why; my music choices have largely remained drawn from the 1970s through the 1990s, with some deep dives into the music of the sixties.

Despite being a 70s kid, the music of my early childhood was the music of the 60s. That was the music of my early years, those long drives with my family, the radio tuned to some oldies station (though back then these “oldies” were barely 20 years old), or an album on our station wagon’s 8-track cassette player.

It was the 70s, okay? Don’t laugh.

This was the pre-teenage, pre-music discovery years of my life. The music I listened to was the music my parents listened to. For most people I’m certain their childhoods were the same. The emotional connection I have to songs like ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Bring It On Home’, ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and ‘Sunny Afternoon’ are largely drawn from those younger years.

I didn’t really start discovering “my” own music until the mid-80s. I’d moved to a new city and state and as such did not integrate very well. After schools and weeknights and weekends were spent listening to the radio in my bedroom. This being the mid-1980s though, it was a fine time to be a music fan or to become one.

Live Aid was the first eye-opener. Queen, U2, and a new-wave band from Boston left the biggest impressions. In fact the first proper album I bought with my own dollars would have been this one:

And it’s still one of my favorites

The Cars were my gateway to modern music. They led to the discovery of bands like Depeche Mode, The Smiths, The Cure, The Jam, Billy Idol, Duran Duran, David Bowie, The Pixies, New Order and on and on and on. This was a golden era for music, as any Gen X-er will tell you, though we probably didn’t appreciate it at the time. 60s music still seemed cooler, and ‘classic’ and was still everywhere, thanks to the first baby Boomers hitting the big 4-0 and entering their midlife crisis years. We 80s kids didn’t yet realize that by the time we reached our parents’ age we’d be nostalgic for the music of our youth the way they were for theirs and would stop looking at new music in the same way we once looked at our older sounds.

[Part of this is actually science. The teenage brain reaches its peak development around the age of 16 and continues on that path until the early 20s. That’s why the music you loved at that age and the five or so year span following remains with you your entire life. While you certainly can and should continue discovering new music, it will never be the same. ]

I, of course, dove deep into music over the next fifteen years or so. I was there for the birth of “Alternative Rock” and Grunge and Hip-Hop and the rise of Generation X. I bought the albums, I went to the shows. I lived the life.

And then … it sort of ended. By 1995 I was parting ways with music. It wasn’t as important to me. The bands I kept up with dropped off, broke up, committed suicide (literal and career). Life got more complicated, the workload more intense. I was in this weird, nebulous place where I wasn’t quite old enough to be nostalgic for my still too-recent childhood and teenage years, but hadn’t yet ‘arrived” in my adult ones. Life felt like it was on pause while I sorted my shit out. Music was paused as well.

So what does all the above have to do with Arcade Fire’s 2010 album “The Suburbs”?

EVERYTHING.

Hypnotic, melodic, complex – The Suburbs was and remains everything a great album should be and does what any great album should do; transport you. Because of the music, obviously, and because of that mood and tone, but mostly because of the subject and title; it’s exactly the album I would have loved when I was a teenager. I can easily picture throwing the cassette into the deck of my Toyota and cruising the streets of my town, and being utterly surrounded by it.

The Suburbs remains my “New York Soundtrack” – the album I’ll put on anytime I want to remember what those Big Apple years were like. Me, essentially starting my career and life over again after some pretty disastrous decisions in the mid-2000s nearly killed my career. It, along with The Dead Weather’s Horehound, Metric’s Fantasies, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz! and Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, take me back to a time that seriously does feel like yesterday and a million years ago at the same time. But I’m not here to talk about those great albums (yes, even the Coldplay one). I’m here to talk about The Suburbs.

But not the album. Not exactly.

The Suburbs. The ‘Burbs. The Sprawl. Maligned and scorned by the hip, the self-conscious, the self-absorbed, and the “hip urban elite” who (until Covid-19 anyway) lived comfortably in their lofts and apartments and townhomes of whatever metropolis they call home. The ‘burbs are where you go where the dream dies. When marriage and children enter the picture you feel its pull; abandoning the excitement, the energy, the vibe of the city for the house, the fence, the cul-de-sacs and crescents and tree-lined streets, the strip-malls and shopping centers, bisected by roads and freeways, survivable only by automobile.

Call them “sub-urban.” Beneath contempt.

Well, I’ve come to praise the suburbs, not bury them. The suburbs made me who I am. And in this COVID-era, the suburbs seem to be drawing more people into their orbit. The appeal of the big bad city becomes somewhat limited when you can’t go anywhere or do anything.

Unless you’re wearing a mask, that is.

My first true memory of the suburbs involved me chasing a blimp. I was four years old, happily being four years old in the subdivision I lived in with my parents and sister. One summer evening (childhood memories of these suburbs seem always to be summer) I’m in the backyard of our bungalow and what do I see in the sky but a blimp, much like the Goodyear Blimp, only with red and white colors. I run and tell my dad and tell him we have to follow it. Why he agreed I’ll never know but what resulted was a family outing with me and my mom and my sister in her stroller wandering the tangled network of streets looking for wherever this damn blimp is, just hanging there in the sky. We eventually found it at the edge of our subdivision, among the skeletal structures of the coming expansion of houses yet to be built, yet to be occupied. The “blimp” was really just an oversized helium balloon, with the logo for the construction company on it. I was disappointed that it wasn’t real (and that rides weren’t in the offering), but as we walked back home, I realized that the world existed beyond the limits of my own realm; the front yard and backyard of our house, and wherever my parents would take me. That there was more out there than just my home and street. That there were mountains beyond mountains.

Looking at a map of that neighborhood now I am amazed at how much of my memory of that period is confined to a tiny grid of streets among many. Really my world extended from my street to a block south to my school, and maybe a block or two east and west. My world was comprised of wherever my bike or feet could take me. Venturing a block south of my school was considered a Big Journey, and if we wanted to go to one of the shopping malls in the vicinity we had to ask a parent to drive us and save a quarter to call when we wanted to be picked up. Our experience of the city at large was made in increments and always entailed some sort of voyage.

As we grew older and gained the freedom that comes with age, trips into the city itself involved a lengthy bus to subway ride and consumed the better part of the day. Downtown represented freedom, record stores, comic shops, the best burger joints, and girls (especially girls). On those trips your world expanded to areas accessible by public transit.  Of course when we got our licenses and access to a car, that world grew exponentially.  There was literally no place we couldn’t go and as we explored, as our sphere of influence expanded, the world we grew up in seemed all the more tiny and insignificant. Cruising through neighborhoods only a mile or two west of ours presented homes and schools and kids our age who lived in worlds that were as foreign and unknown to us as ours were to theirs.  We would never experience their lives, the halls of their schools, and maybe we’d pass each other at a mall, we were ships in the night. Maybe we’d learn later, at college, that a new friend lived in a neighborhood that was a stone’s throw away geographically, but a lifetime down the road.

Not to mention that to the creative mind, monsters could be lurking ANYWHERE, even the burbs.

But to understand the allure of the suburbs is to understand their relationship to the city they orbit. To glimpse the glittering skyscrapers of New York or Los Angeles as you pass them on the freeway to your home enclave, is to see a light seductively drawing you in. You want to escape, you want to find your place in that light; you want to find home. I’ve come to realize that dream, that search for your place in the world is a recurring theme in a lot of my work.

When I first experienced The Suburbs I was living in NYC. Prior to that I lived in another large city. All told “Urban” living has occupied 25 years of my life. Big cities, sprawling megalopolis. Places I thought would be my forever home but ended up being just a blip of memory. Places where I thought I’d find a path through life, a career, a happiness that eluded me for much of my life. There’s something to be said for a reinvention. I reinvented myself when I moved off to go to college; again when I threw it all away and made my way to another part of the world. Chasing that dream only to realize it wasn’t the one I really wanted.

And now it’s all over.

In 2018 my family and I decamped to the suburbs; actually to a town founded in 1630 that’s part of a greater metropolitan area (this is no tract house subdivision; it’s older than the danged country). But we’re close enough to the big city that we don’t feel quite so isolated. Our lives are back on those quiet suburban streets, where our child has learned to ride his scooter and now his bike. Where the playgrounds ruing out with the sounds pf playtime and laughter. Where the local baseball diamond hosts little league games all summer long and the ice cream trucks prowl.

It’s certainly a different place from the one I pictured when I began my professional career. Ending up as a work-from-home/stay-at-home dad in a suburb is now where I expected to wind up. It’s a different life than the one I envisioned for myself. In many ways it’s much, much better.

In this pandemic year of 2021 the suburbs are experiencing a rebirth of sorts. They have a much greater draw then they did a decade before. The cities still draw the hopeful in, and I will proselytize that at least a few years of urban life is good for the soul. The cities are where you make your name, where you forge the person you hope to become some day. But stand atop the Empire State Building, Mulholland Drive, the CN Tower or the Prudential Tower, and you’ll see the lines radiating out like spokes on a bicycle wheel, connecting villages to towns and cities and the suburbs in between. At night, the streets and roads and highways gleam, headlights and taillights rushing through like red blood cells through veins and arteries.

The suburbs are about longing. They’re about being on the outside and looking in and dreaming about what was or what could be someday. Not many urban kids rebel against their parents to move to the ‘burbs; it’s always the reverse. The promise of that excitement, that constant search for a place in the world is forged in a suburban setting, not an urban one. In a city like New York you look for an escape from it; the heat, the noise, the people and can find it within a relatively short drive but you always feel the city’s pull on you whether you live there or glimpse it from a hilltop or a highway.

But that longing is part of the romance of the suburbs. You always feel that pull that a better life could lie around the next corner, or the next subdivision over. You can waste your life looking for that place, only to realize that what you’re looking for is right beside you all along.

Forgotten Years

[This is the latest in a periodic series in which I write about some of my all-time favorite albums and the memories that shall forever be attached to them]

Album: Blue Sky Mining
Artist: Midnight Oil
Year: 1990

March 1990. I’m on an airplane flying south, and very frustrated that it’s not a flight winging its way east. I’m on a family vacation, you see; my family, and my aunt, uncle, and cousins, all winging their way south of the border, down Mexico way for a week-long vacation at an all-inclusive resort.

Where I want to be going is several hundred miles east, across the Atlantic, across Europe, to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A.k.a. The U.S.S.R. A.k.a. Soviet Russia

[AK-47. An Eastern block assault rifle which saw great use in Afghanistan. Vietnam and countless Golan-Globus schlock of the 1980s, usually involving Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, and in the case of The Delta Force, a shirtless Robert Forster playing a middle-eastern terrorist.]

Bob, you’re only about thirteen years from Jackie brown. Hold tight.

The reason I wanted to be on that trip and not this one, is because my best friend (then and now) is going. His school, three hours drive away from mine, was planning this trip to the Soviet Union since September the previous year. A lack of overall interest led to an offer to me to accompany. I asked my parents and expected them to say yes as I was, as I am now, a student of history, and to see the Soviet Union, to trod Red Square and see Lenin’s corpse was a dream of mine.

I was a weird kid. But in my defense, he was the walrus.

Goo goo ga joob

So I was hopeful. Being a teenager with little sense of just how much things like this cost, it seemed a no-brainer. Of course those hopes were dashed on the rocks when my parents told me no, I couldn’t go, that it was too much money, and anyways they’d decided to surprise my sister and I with a vacation in Mexico with them and my aunt and uncle and cousins. “Surprise!”

I was not happy. But I was also possessed of some sense of appreciation. I couldn’t just sniff at a week in Mexico, drinking Pina coladas, eating tacos, and sunning on a private beach. Then I learned my friend’s school was partnered with an all-girl Catholic school’s history class, so it ended up being my friend, two other guys, and about thirty gorgeous girls in catholic school girl uniforms my age.

So there I was; the most miserable teen ever to be found on a plane to Mexico.

But fortunately I had my walkman. I had my tapes. I had AA batteries in reserve.

And I had Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining to keep me company.

I think my love – my Animotion-esque obsession – with music began in the mid-80s. I was still a kid then, but entering an age where G.I. Joe and Transformers and Star Wars were on their way out, and MTV, Friday Night Videos, and Top 40 rock radio were in. A traumatic move to the US south found me more often then not sequestered in my bedroom, reading quietly and listening to the local radio station. Mostly Top 40 nonsense, but on evenings I had more success pulling in radio-waves from the smaller campus radio stations further east. That was how I first heard R.E.M. and Talking Heads and Love & Rockets – tiny pinprick sparks of light amidst the endless spin of Whitney Houston, Loverboy, Dire Straights, Billy Joel and other mainstream music. This was the era of the resurgent Boomer – legacy acts like Paul Simon, the aforementioned Mr. Joel, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Chicago – who was taking the radio back from the post-punk new wave, new romantics era of the early to mid-80s – Soft Cell, Duran Duran, Thompson Twins and The Human league. Sure, there was great new stuff out there – 1986 saw the debut of Come on Pilgrim, from The Pixies after all. But you had to hunt for that stuff.

But starting around 1987-1988 music began to change. More socially conscious. Bands like UR, singer-songwriters like Bruce Cockburn and Tracy Chapman and Cowboy Junkies. Amidst all of this “Conscious Rock” was a little band from Down Under that scored their first big North American hit with a little song called “Beds are Burning” which notched heavy airplay on MTV and on the radio.

And still rocks hard, 34 years later …

Australia was cool in the 80s. Don’t ask me why. Well, obviously, it’s a fantastic, fascinating country, albeit one I’ve never visited. But I feel like I at least know Australia. This is the land down under! The land of Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli, of Razorback and The Cars That Ate Paris. Of INXS, Crocodile Dundee, and Jacko … and a little trilogy of car-crash post-apocalyptic movies that pretty much launched a sub-genre from a former doctor turned filmmaker named George Miller

Ride eternal, shiny and chrome little pig …

So there I was, heading into my deep teens, becoming interested in the world around me and its problems. Artists against Apartheid weren’t gonna play Sun City, and neither would bands like Midnight Oil. They’d been kicking around since the 1970s, releasing a string of commercially middling (for North America that is – they were huge down under), but really solid albums. They’d flirted with mainstream US success on albums like Red Sails In The Sunset and 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 (scoring the minor hits “U.S. Forces” and “The Power And the Passion”). The Oils weren’t interested in getting drunk, Scoring chicks, and driving their cars; they were interested in stopping nuclear proliferation, curbing the world’s petrochemical addiction, and educating dumb suburban kids like me about colonial treatment of aboriginal people the world over. They were anti-capitalist, anti-corruption, and anti-greed. They toured the outback; they spoke out against their government and businesses. They walked the walk, talked the talk, and put their money where their mouths were particularly in erudite, shaven-pated singer Peter garret, who eventually became a sitting member of the Australian parliament, and named minister of the environment.

They also rocked hard. And that was just why this kid needed to hear.

Where it all began …

Naturally I scooped up 1987’s Diesel and Dust. I rocked out to Beds Are Burning and The Dead Heart, but he found that top-to-bottom Diesel and Dust was a tight rock album with barely a weak link in the chain. I was a fan, and I was hooked on the Oils, on U2, on all those bands and those issues facing the world I was going to become an adult in.

The tricky thing with finding a new band (or in my case discovering one that had been around for a while) was waiting for their next one. This was still the 80s. Music wasn’t cheap. Finding obscure albums from Australian bands while stuck in N. America was a challenge. The Oils’ early albums wouldn’t be re-released stateside until 1990. Waiting for a new Midnight Oil album, like waiting for a new U2 or Depeche Mode one, was interminable.

There were rumblings in ’89 that a new album was on the way. I was a regular consumer of Rolling Stone magazine. In fact it was Rolling Stone that published an early review of Blue Sky Mining, giving it 5 stars out of 5 and calling it the band’s Joshua Tree.

Needless to say, I was excited. I just needed to get my hands on it. Blue Sky Mine, the first single and video, was getting heavy airplay on MTV, like they were tempting me to madness.

Wikipedia will tell you Blue Sky Mining was released on February 9th, but owing to where I was living and the odd quirks of record distribution, the album didn’t make it to me until early march. Three days, in fact, prior to the family’s departure to Mexico. I needed this album in my sweaty little hands, and I needed it before a week-long vacation. What was I supposed to do? Converse with my family?

And so, on a cold Wednesday in March, the call came, and I made haste to the local record store – the only record store, in point of fact – and was handed my cassette copy (because I did not own a CD player) of Blue Sky Mining (MSRP $10.99, or roughly $22.00 in 2021 dollars – thanks inflation!). Into the walkman it went, and after the audio level test (remember those?) it began.

Now, being familiar with Blue Sky Mine, the lead single, The Stars of Warburton was the first “new track” I got to hear. Stars is a propulsive, melodic song that starts slow and just builds and builds and builds to something transcendent, which is typical of the Oils. Despite being in a frigid northern cline it felt like the outback must have; hot, dry, desolate.

Bedlam Bridge was next. A slower, more mournful track with one of my all time favorite bridges of any rock song;

So how stands the city on this winters night
The city on the hill or so they said
The snow is falling down around the armoury
The city’s closing in around my head

Forgotten Years. This song bangs, to use the modern nomenclature. Here’s the video. Watch it and we’ll get back to things.

Pretty good stuff, huh? A great album closer, if it were one. Definitely a high point of any Oils show. This is the fourth song on the album.

Mountains of Burma. Another slow burn, and one with lyrics seemingly more tornfrom the year 2021 than the year 1990.

Pack your bags full of guns and ammunition
Bills fall due for the industrial revolution
Scorch the earth till the earth surrenders

Were the Oils prophets? No, they were singing about present day issues. It just took us thirty damn years to finally notice.

King of the Mountain. Another banger in the FY mold. Not a complaint, and a great way to kick off side B, same as they kicked off my first time seeing them in concert later that year.

[As a side note: does anyone else miss album sides? If the cassette had one small advantage over the CD it was that it replicated that switch of sides. Eject the tape, flip it over, pop it in, press play. You don’t get that with CDs. You don’t get that with streaming. Maybe that’s why vinyl made a comeback in recent years; for that pause in the action.]

On a whole Side B of Blue Sky Mining is a much slower, much more mournful mirror to the harder rock of Side A. River Runs Red is practically a ballad, only one of the good ones 1990 gave us, at a time where seemingly ever hard-to-mid-rock outfit was whipping out the acoustic guitar like that sensitive ponytail type you saw at every suburban house party.

But Midnight Oil’s ballads are as propulsive as their all-out rock tunes. Shakers and Movers, and One Country following next are practically operatic as they build and build. Have I used “propulsive” enough times in this entry yet to convince you otherwise?

Antarctica rounds out Side B, and it feels like the comedown after a really strong workout. you’ve pushed yourself and pushed hard and now you just need to sit and breathe.

Some albums take time to hook you. Call them slow burns, call them whatever. Blue Sky Mining, for me, was not one of those albums. It dug its hooks in and pulled almost immediately. By the time Antarctica was finished I was flipping the tape over to hear it all again. I knew then, that this was going to be one of those musical experiences I would never forget. that in years to come I might not like the band as much, but that album would always be a part of me.

And I was right.

By the time our plane to Mexico lifted off I was getting familiar with Blue Sky Mining. Over the week that followed, I listened to it over and over again. When I got sunburnt on the second day there – they take afternoon Siesta for a reason, amigos – I spent a lot of time in my hotel listening to it. The vacation was certainly a fun time, and probably preferable to Leningrad in March, and part of that enjoyment was that music swirling through my brain.

Though to be fair, the view was pretty nice too …

Funny thing is I think that vacation actually deepened my appreciation for the album more than it would have otherwise. Because there wasn’t much else to do but listen, when I returned home I found to my surprise that my friends weren’t as into it as I was. Maybe because I spent so many hours recovering in my hotel room from that wicked bad sunburn I had nothing to do but listen to it over and over and over again.

I saw the Oils later that month. My first “real” rock concert. Memorable for all the right reasons and the wrong ones too, I suppose. Blue Sky Mining marked the apex of my fandom of all things Oil. By the time 1993’s Earth and Sun and Moon arrived, I was on my way out with Midnight Oil. The music didn’t have quite the same snap. Of course this being the era or grunge, of Nirvana and Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and the RHCP and hosts of other alternative rock bands crashing the mainstream, a band like the Oils was only going to have a limited shelf life but in a way I think the Oils success in 1987-1990 paved the way for bands like Nirvana; underground artists given a chance in the mainstream and reaching millions of angry, disaffected teens in the process.

Though for my money, Earth and Sun and Moon has aged MUCH better than a lot of early 90s rock

That diminished interest in the Oils was also an ending of sorts to the world I knew, even though I didn’t know it at the time. My parents’ marriage, already rocky, was showing its first real fissures. By Christmas 1992 they’d separated. By late 1993 they were divorced, the relationship crumbling like the Soviet Union had. The divorce cast a long shadow over that decade and over my life, that extends to this very day.

There’s something special, something unique, about finding the right album at the right moment in your life. It’s a rare thing to discover something in the moment that speaks to you in a way it wouldn’t if you’d discovered it ten, twenty, thirty-one years later. Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining is my 1990 album; the one I’ll pull out and listen to when I want to remember what I was going through at that time.

Listening to Blue Sky Mining now – even as I make final edits to this entry – it still brings me back to that year and vacation 31 years ago. It makes me think of hot Mexican weather, bookended by the arctic chill of our northern airport and the long drive to and from there. I remember my friends; most of whom moved on with their lives and left me behind. I remember the Russia trip I never got to go on but became the stuff of legend. I remember the world that was, and was changing all around me without my realizing it. The decade that lay ahead would be one of the most memorable of my life; possibly the most memorable. Everything changed in the 1990s, for me. They may be long ago years, they may be long gone years …

But have not, and will never be forgotten years.

[Have an album in your life with as much meaning as Blue Sky Mining has for me? Let me know in the comments below.]