Achtung Birthday

[So this is a little different update-wise, as what follows is a revised and updated version of  a two-part piece I first wrote back in 2010. Nobody in their right mind will want to delve back 11 years into the past to find them, so what we have below is a combined and revised piece about one of my favorite albums of all time, which turned 30 this past week.]

30 years ago this very week (November 18th for those keeping count) I ducked out of school on my lunch break, drove to the local record store, and bought this:

I have a confession to make – I am a U2 fan. I realize that’s an un-cool statement to make, given that U2 are not cool by the normal standard. The only thing cool about U2 is to viscerally hate their pompous, earnest stadium rock (the same grief Coldplay gets – and another band I quite like, so there). Somehow, Radiohead gets a pass because they’re all arty and serious, but their fans are the biggest shitheads around and worse than people who constantly berate you for buying a Mac instead of a PC, because these things supposedly matter. But I am a U2 fan; I have all their albums, saw them in concert several times, and even liked Songs of Innocence, the free album they released in 2014 that everyone else seems to hate despite it being a pretty solid collection of songs.

This all has to do, I realize, with the age I discovered them.

I discovered them in 1987 when The Joshua Tree was released and you couldn’t walk the street without tripping over “With or Without You.”  For an impressionable early teenager, the great thing about U2 was that they weren’t what was clogging the airwaves at the time – Bon Jovi and Warrant and “Unskinny Bop” – they were serious, they had a conscience, they were all about Amnesty International and Greenpeace.

UNITED KINGDOM – MARCH 16: Photo of U2; L-R: The Edge, Bono (waving flag), Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jnr performing live on The Tube TV Show (Photo by Erica Echenberg/Redferns)

Another reason I responded to them was, by this point, I was still the “new kid” at my school and at my new hometown. We’d moved in August 1986 and while I made friends, I still felt like something of an outsider. And as so much of The Joshua Tree is about alienation, and fear, and desire, it was like handing a glass of ice water to a man dying of thirst. So I dug U2, but not in a huge way. I didn’t get The Joshua Tree until Christmas 1987 (on Vinyl), and had to make a cassette copy to listen to on my walkman. Of course, the U2 steamroller had just got going when they dropped Rattle and Hum – the album and the movie, and went from “cool, serious band” to “overexposed” in a heartbeat. I saw Rattle and Hum in the theater, and as it was my first exposure to the band in something of a live setting, my appreciation for them deepened. The only concerts I’d been to by that point were Jan and Dean, Donny and Marie Osmond, and a pre-Private Dancer Tina Turner, so seeing Bono’s ego projected larger than life was a sight to behold. But more important, the theater sound system was the best stereo one could imagine – the walls were shaking. Needless to say after the experience I was a full-on fan, no longer just a casual one. I bought up their back catalog and nearly wore the cassettes out. The fact that R&H is not a good album by U2 (or anyone else’s) standards is beside the point – it was the right album, and the right movie, at the right time. I was a fan now, and I anxiously awaited their next album.

And waited. And waited. And waited …

B0W1XG Iconic graffiti on Berlin Wall at East Side Gallery

1988 became 1989, which became 1990 and then 1991 and there was no sign of a new album. Unlike this internet age where you have that information at your fingertips (true or rumored), in the early 1990s you either read about it in Rolling Stone or Spin, or you heard nothing. One advantage of the wait was I filled the gap by discovering other bands who would become as important to me as U2 – Midnight Oil, INXS, REM, The Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, and many more. Summer 1991 saw the first Lollapalooza festival, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and by September the Pixies released Trompe Le Monde, and Nirvana released Nevermind.

Think of that: 1987 was The Joshua Tree, Bon Jovi, Warrant and Unskinny Bop; 4 years later was Pearl Jam, Lollapalooza and Nirvana. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union was on the way out, and still nothing new from U2. A lot can change in four years, but an even bigger change was coming.

In late September of 1991 I picked up the newest issue of Rolling Stone (with Guns n’ Roses on the cover – remember Use Your Illusion?). And in the news section there was a small blurb about U2’s new studio album being readied for release. The title was Achtung Baby, with the first single “The Fly” set for release in October.

I thought it was a joke. Really? They’re calling it Achtung Baby? They’re releasing a song called The Fly? This, from the band behind the painfully earnest Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum? It had to be a misprint. They couldn’t be serious.

Could they?

I began to wonder … by now I was well into the left of the dial music that was slowly sweeping across the land. By the time AB dropped on November 19, 1991, would I even be interested? Would I even care? This was not a new phenomenon; in years since I’ve fallen in love and then out of love with lots of bands. Some were just brief affairs of an album or two, some lasted years before fizzling entirely. Some I still listen to and buy their new releases, but it still feels like a sense of duty more than something I genuinely want to hear.

Late October, “The Fly” was released. I didn’t so much hear it as see the tail end of the video on Much Music when I got home from school. It was a good 30 seconds before I realized it was even U2. Bono was wearing these goofy wrap-around shades; The Edge was wearing his soon to be ubiquitous knit cap and (gasp) bell bottoms. This wasn’t the U2 of The Joshua Tree, and the music wasn’t like anything U2 had done before. I was intrigued, but after the low-fi sonic assault of Nevermind, this slick, studio stuff seemed more self-indulgent than anything else.

There was still a month before releaseon a trip to the record store to grab Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden, I happened upon a cassette single (a.k.a. “cassingle”) for The Fly.

I picked it up too and on the way home gave The Fly a listen.  I listened to it several times, along with an included remix, and an instrumental track they did for a Royal Shakespeare Co. production of A Clockwork Orange.  It was all very … different, but as is the case with anything, the more you listen, the more it tends to grow on you. So everything was in flux come November 21 when I left school at lunch to hit the record store. You see, this was THE DAY Achtung Baby hit shelves. To risk restating the experience of buying it, click HERE if you haven’t already. Done? Good.

When I walked into the record store, the owner was playing what I would later learn was “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” but I was all eyes at that point, and not ears. I looked for the new release rack and finally found what I was looking for. It took me a minute, because the first thing you notice about Achtung Baby is its cover.

It was off-putting, coming from a band who had up to that point selected a single image for their cover art:

So right away it didn’t look like U2, but that didn’t discourage me, obviously, because I threw down for the cassette copy, as I didn’t own a CD player at this point, yet had a Walkman, a boom box and a car stereo with tape deck. I paid for it, declined the bag, and ripped the cellophane off the case on the way back to my car. I slid behind the wheel, fired it up and popped in Achtung Baby. The test signal rolled first and I set levels, and then, music …

ZOO STATION

When it started, it sounded like my stereo speakers were broken, and it wasn’t until Bono started singing that I realized that was the entire point. Given the last U2 song released was the melodic All I Want Is You (well, that and a cover of Cole Porter’s Night and Day” from the Red Hot + Blue compilation), it was music from a different planet, but still very much U2. I really wasn’t crazy about it to be honest, but now I can’t imagine the album without it.

EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING

Now this was more like the U2 I knew – a sweeping rock anthem, blending the old and the new. The “rhythm and blues” influence of The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum was gone, and it harkened back to The Unforgettable Fire in its “European feel” but by this point it was clear that AB was a totally different beast.

ONE

Here we go. Some songs take several listens to “get” but “One” was one I got the moment I heard it, and is probably their best known, best loved song. It’s apparently a popular song at weddings too, which blows my mind because if you listen to the lyrics, you realize pretty damn quickly it’s not a love song. With lyrics like “You ask me to enter/ but then you make me crawl/ and I can’t keep holding on / when all you got is hurt,” it is ironic their most popular song is also their most misunderstood. It’s hard to think of this era in music and with U2 to be “Classic Rock” but One is a classic and now recognized in roch circles as one of thegreatest songs ever written. Even people who hate U2 will couple that hatred with the admission that “One” is pretty good.

UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD

It’s about Judas, and his betrayal of Jesus, told from Iscariot’s perspective, but for me, it seemed to speak to what I was going through at that time in my life; an on-again-off-again relationship with a girl who was much more into me than I was into her, being stupidly into someone else who I had no chance with. And by the time I realized I had made a big mistake it was too late. She’d moved on, and told me it would be the end of the world before she reconsidered.

WHO’S GONNA RIDE YOUR WILD HORSES

A nice salve after the bitterness of the previous tunes, it’s one of the lesser tunes on the album, at least for me. I think it is for U2 also, given how the fact it was a single, it really isn’t remembered. It’s the closest to a Joshua Tree-era tune on the album and stands out for it.

SO CRUEL

For some strange reason, the song that becomes before the side break on pretty much every U2 album becomes my favorite on that album, and So Cruel fits that bill. It’s simple and melodic, and sets up the two songs that follow. One of the things we lost with the rise of the CD is that “act break,” the song that holds its spell on you as you flip the cassette or album over; something to linger while you wait for the next track. So Cruel still does that.

THE FLY

If you hear any U2 on the radio these days, The Fly is going to be one of them. No 90s compilation or playlist is complete with this roaring beast of distorted guitars and distorted voice. It was U2’s firs new music in three years and it sounded unlike anything they’d ever done. I didn’t realize at the time how this song and that video would be the blueprint for what was to follow. U2 had long wanted to “redefine” the concert experience and what the subsequently pulled off did just that and that influence can be seen and felt to this very day.

MYSTERIOUS WAYS

The first time I listened to Mysterious Ways, I didn’t like it. It was too “dance” too “House”, and as a self-import and, self-involved 18 year old, those things were just wrong. Now, it’s my favorite song on the album after So Cruel, and best played loud. Go figure.

TRYING TO THROW YOUR ARMS AROUND THE WORLD

To this day, every time I hear it, I think of a very particular scene; me, driving the streets of my town after dark. It’s winter, the ground is covered with snow and every street feels abandoned. There are no people out and fewer cars, but the music coming from the stereo is warm and soothing.

ULTRAVIOLET (LIGHT MY WAY)

There’s a scene in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly where Jean-Dominique Bauby, paralyzed by a stroke, is remembering a trip he took with a mistress, and as we segue into the flashback, the first strings of Ultraviolet can be heard, before BLASTING into the big intro. The image, of the mistress from behind as she sits in the passenger seat of a convertible, her hair whipping in the wind, is now forever associated with this song, but it remains one of my favorite tracks on the album. U2 resurrected it from limbo for U2 360 tour as an encore, as a throw to their fans, who by all accounts were thrilled to see some lesser-known known songs make the playlist.

ACROBAT

Its refrain of “don’t let the bastards grind you down” has become my personal mantra. They try their best, and sometimes it looks like they’ll win, but I always bounce back and am still here when so many of them have gone.

LOVE IS BLINDNESS

The somber closing to a joyous and yet bitter collection of songs. A downbeat song they closed shows on their tour with and didn’t diminish the high everyone felt coming out of it.

So despite Nirvana and Pearl Jam, RHCP, Ministry, Soundgarden and countless others occupying the sonic landscape of 1991 – surely the last great year in music we’ve seen – AB remained lodged in my tape deck for months, it seems, and remains my favorite “winter album” — yes Achtung Baby makes me think of snow and chilly air. A lot of stuff happened in those remaining weeks of 1991 and AB was the soundtrack to it. Hell, when I started college the following fall it was still out there, still playing in record stores, still blasting from dorm rooms – albums had a longevity then that they don’t have now. In fact, in the 30 years since then I don’t think I ever stopped listening to it.

In March 1992 I got to realize a dream of the previous five years and saw U2 on their now legendary Zoo TV tour. I cut afternoon classes and drove the three hours with three friends, spent a good part of the day wandering the city near the venue, and got to see The Pixies (my still-favorite band, and people behind what was and remains my all-time favorite album, 1990s’ Bossanova) open for U2.

I was at this show, though sadly not this close to stage.

It was, of course, an amazing show and an amazing experience – but I realized much later that seeing U2 live represented the climactic moment of my love for that band. I’m still a fan, and will be until I die, even though they’re not the pinnacle of my musical taste like they were. Seeing Zoo TV was the conclusion of that period of my life, which was changing quickly. I graduated High School three months later, I moved away to College five months after that (and ended up living down the street from where I saw U2 barely half a year before). I saw them again in August of that year, and then thirteen years passed before I saw them once more, on their Vertigo Tour, general admission, right up front. That was the last time I them perform, live, because nothing could top that experience outside of being their personal guest or something.

People change and music changes, and 30 years can seem like 30 years, and can also seem like just last week or last year. The agonizing wait for an album is gone – music gets leaked, officially or unofficially – in the case of Songs of Innocence it can appear, wanted or not, in your iTunes downloads.

I’m a U2 fan, but will probably never be as into U2 as I was in 1988-1992 and probably will never be into any band that much again. Music obsession is a young man’s game and it has to be, because that music will be with you for the rest of your  life. When Generation X hits retirement age, rest homes across the world will have Grunge nights, and arguments will break out in the lunch room over the merits of Nirvana over Pearl Jam, just like High School with more wrinkles, more grey hair and less of it. The rec room will be filled with the music of Ministry and Nine Inch nails, and especially U2. I’Il still listen to Achtung Baby regularly, like Doolittle, like Nevermind, like so many other albums that stood the test of time. And, like every memory I have of that year and time of my life, I’ll never stop listening to it.


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.]

Delete Facebook

Let’s talk about online life, shall we? When the clock rolled forth on January 1st, 2000, none of us knew what was coming. As an avid Sci-Fi fan, creator, and reader, I can say that nobody in the genre ever predicted what Social Media would become. It didn’t even predict social media, let alone the internet. Seriously; in the grand scale and scope of speculative fiction, NOBODY ever predicted the world-wide-web accurately. William Gibson likely came closest with Neuromancer. While the internet was a thing in the 80s we just didn’t hear about it.

The Internet. It could have been beautiful. And had kung-fu.

We do everything online these days. Much of it we do through mobile technology. Through phones that carry more processing power than your standard-issue desktop computer circa 1998 did. The internet has changed our way of life, but it’s also changed the way people think and relate to one another.

It hasn’t been pretty. Especially, it seems, in the last five or so years. Reducing people to names and profile pictures on Facebook or Twitter has done more to dehumanize each other than was probably intended. Or maybe that was the point

Pictured: Twitter. Where the cruelty IS the point.

I don’t really get involved online anymore. Not with debates, not with “being in a community”. It just holds no interest for me. Because I used to get involved. In debates. In “community”. I used to spend much more time online in the morass of social media than was probably healthy. I told myself it was for work; as a writer, you need to engage with your audience, you need to promote, you have to hustle. But doing all those things felt empty. Like it was just work. And it was just work, only the kine that largely gave me back little in return. So, in 2019 I said goodbye to Twitter (I said goodbye to Facebook in 2013, though I do maintain an author page though another administrator runs it). I’m still on Instagram but I’m only really there to follow art and travel and photography accounts. Comments are generally closed on my posts, I don’t allow strangers to drop in and spam me with promo. It’s “anti-social-networking”.

This all began in earnest last spring, as I was in the early stages of outlining my next book. It takes place in the 1980s; a pre-internet era. And I decided to be method in my writing in that I wasn’t going to use social media at all while drafting. I could use the internet but only for research. If I needed to know for example what the Top 10 songs in the US were the third week of April 1985, I could do that.

Pictured: a scene from my next book

But the minutia of checking Twitter or Facebook or whatever went away. And after finishing my draft four months later, it kind of stayed that way. I got used to not having social media around, and I have to say I like it not being around. I like not knowing what everybody’s up in arms about, or arguing over. I like being out of the loop. In fact, in the process I rediscovered what we’ve all been missing; the fine art of Not Knowing.

If you’re of a certain age, you remember Not Knowing. You didn’t know what was going on the next town over, or the next suburb. Heck, even venturing to the other side of your small town was a trek. Here you encountered people you’d never seen before and never would again, unless you went back. You had friends, you made friends, and when you moved away, you lost touch with them. I can look at my old school photos, from Kindergarten to pretty much Eighth Grade and only recognize a couple names, and only few faces beyond those. When I got older I thought things would change; that I’d remain closer to people I knew in high school, and college. And for a time – the early, generally non-evil Facebook years of 2007-2010 – I did remain close; re-establishing contact with people I’d lost along the way.

Even then, by 2012 I was getting tired of keeping up. I realized that these people I knew once upon a time weren’t the same people. And the thing is I wanted them to be those same people, and knew that wasn’t possible. they’d changed, and I’d changed, and shortly thereafter – as in seven years ago today – I logged into Facebook one final time, to delete my profile.

Was losing touch better? I hate to say it, but yeah; it kind of was. Because knowing those places, those moments, those friendships were impermanent is what made them special. It’s what made me cherish those moments and my memories of them.

One other positive aspect of walking away from social media is I can enjoy things on their own merits now. It seems that in the last five years or so the culture wars have migrated over into entertainment in a big way, to the point where who you are as a person is judged by the art you consume. If you like X you’re a bad person. If you didn’t see XX you’re the reason XX failed and that makes you a bad person. There’s no middle ground anymore; you’re either with the mob or against it. It’s almost like you can’t be indifferent to anything anymore.

Because we ALL have opinions …

Being outside that bubble has been liberating. Not that I ever cared what people though of me because of the things I enjoyed, but being sidelined by choice has been an eye opener as to how people related to one another now. It’s no longer enough to watch X, listen to Y, read Z. You have to declare allegiance to your tribe, you have to wear the colors, you have to gather on the field of battle and face off against Those People.

My motto is simple: enjoy the stuff you enjoy, ignore the rest. Don’t let anyone dictate what you should/should not entertain yourself with. As long as it isn’t something horribly offensive you aren’t hurting anybody by watching or reading or listening to it. And if you truly love something, love it. Don’t let the naysayers tell you “it was crap, it was terrible”. And likewise don’t tell them the same with something you didn’t like. You have the power. The world won’t stop turning because you did or didn’t express your opinion or share a thought.

My advice? Find your happiness, embrace it, and never let it go. Likewise, anything that makes you miserable, sets you on edge, get rid of it. I know that’s not always possible. Your boss could be an asshole but you need that job. But there’s always another job, another town, another place.

My life has improved in many ways because of this. Just in the case of time. Because don’t realize how much of your life you can waste in a day by hitting “refresh”.

Far, Far Away …

Here’s a confession that will shock everyone who knows me (and probably more than a few that do not): I don’t like STAR WARS.

The Saga, I mean; I’m talking Episodes I through IX, its spin-offs, its TV series. I’ve certainly enjoyed them, but once you’ve consumed 99% of Star Wars-related content you’re kind of left with an “ehh” feeling. A couple of hours of escapism, some robots, some aliens, some mystical mumbo-jumbo made up on the fly, the end.

Oh, and there’s usually a big explosion too.

Now with that out of the way, I will admit I love STAR WARS the movie. The first one. The one I saw in 1977. I’ve seen it the most of all of them, and 43 years on I still don’t get tired of it. I speak of the one called Star Wars. Not “A New Hope” not “Episode IV”. STAR. WARS. I love its low-tech (pre-special editions, of course) feel. I love its fast pace, its leap from planet to planet, location to location. I love its iconic set-pieces which remain memorable decades later, to a degree few of the other films in the lengthy series recapture.

Star Wars is one of those movies I’ve seen so many times that I can close my eyes and roll film from beginning to end and know every shot, every musical cue, every FX shot. On my list of desert island movies, it’s near the top. If fleeing my burning home I can only save one movie in my collection, it’s Star Wars. If I’m tasked by the government to save the world, bring world peace, end climate change, by keeping just one Star Wars movie in existence and obliterating everything else, well, the choice would be easy and obvious.

STAR. WARS. Period.

Why does Star Wars still hold my imagination? I think because it was my first major gateway to storytelling and being a storyteller. I was four. I’d seen TV, I’d had bedtime stories read to me. I’d possibly seen other movies. But nothing had that impact as Star Wars did. It got me interested in stories, in sci if and fantasy and that flood of SFF films and TV that followed well into the 80s. It certainly was the most instrumental and influential piece, for me, that led me down the road to a career as a storyteller. It’s what got me into film school and that 20 year career that followed it. It’s what got me to want to tell my own stories. Magicians Impossible is hugely influenced by Star Wars in its initial incarnation, that “we join our heroes midstream” pulp vibe. Not part of a series, no prequels, no sequels, just this rich mythology world. There’s a backstory, there’s a hint of the story continuing, but really it’s just a story set in a much larger universe.

To clarify; I don’t hate the other material – I just don’t need them to enjoy Star Wars. I don’t need sequels, I don’t need prequels. I don’t need the spinoffs, the TV, the CANON. I don’t even need The Empire Strikes Back (arguably the better film) or Return of the Jedi (arguably the weakest). I don’t need Darth Vader to be Luke’s father. I don’t need to know what the Clone Wars were; they’re a throwaway line in Star Wars and that’s all you did need. I think it’s a testament to that film that we wanted to know more. It had worked its magic on us all.

Pictured: all the backstory you need.

With the sequels, things changed. When Star Wars ended, Luke and Han got their medals (Chewie didn’t, but to be fair Leia was quite short), the Rebels had won, the Empire had their white-armored butts kicked. The galaxy beyond was wide open. You got an all-too brief taste of what was to come in the ancillary materials – the Marvel comics, the serialized newspaper strips (my personal favorites), the execrable Holiday Special, and – most importantly – the action figures. The adventures they went on, in suburban sandboxes and basement rec rooms were sequel enough for me. Even when pretenders to the throne – the “Killer Bs” of Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and The Black Hole just gave the Star Wars figures more enemies and allies in their 3 ¾ inch adventures.

Heaven

Did we have questions? Sure we did. But answering them was our job, or it should have been. For a time it was ours. Luke could have found his mother. He could have tracked down the Emperor, or could have turned bad, brought back by his friends. Before we even heard of a sequel, we were going on new adventures with our favorite heroes and villains.

But what would have been really daring was to not have those questions answers. I often like to ponder a world where Star Wars was neither a flop nor a massive hit; it was something that made its money back so George Lucas could keep making movies, maybe focus on running ILM. A world where Star Wars was enough of a success for those toys and comics, but something that didn’t make enough money to justify a sequel

*Really, what would have been interesting is to have a Star Wars universe where they did make more movies but they were stand-alone ones cataloging further adventures. Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was famously initiated as an idea for a lower-budgeted sequel to Star Wars should it just do “okay”. You may have seen further adventures of Han and Chewie minus Luke and Leia and the Rebellion (maybe mishaps along the way to paying off Jabba the Hutt – who we did not see in Star Wars). Darth Vader would have remained the Bad Guy with no familial connection to Luke other than being the guy who offed his Jedi Knight father, exactly as Obi-Wan said. Vader could have been Ming the Merciless from Flash or Baltar from Battlestar, or Princess Ardala from Buck ; a foil, and a threat, and a constant reminder that these adventures were always meant to unfold in situ. That, while there was a history, it remained a history. Something as backdrop.

Episode II. Seriously.

I think it all gets to the heart of what I don’t need in my stories these days, which is a deep and detailed exploration of backstories. The dramatization of backstories has, to me, become the worst thing about popular genre entertainments today. We’ve become accustomed to expecting to have all those questions answered in some official capacity. We can’t just imagine what was and what might be. It has to be part of a canon. You rarely can sell a fantasy or sci-fi book without having some plan in place for a second, a third, a series of books to follow should the first hit. And I have to confess that my fandom brain is the same as my writer’s brain; I only need one very good bordering-on-great story. I don’t need the same wine in a different bottle. I need that pure experience, that, when the book is closed and the house-lights come back on, I feel like I was on a journey.

If a film hits me so hard that I can walk out of the theater on a total high, I don’t need to see more of the same. I didn’t need more adventures of Robocop or Neo or John McLane on-screen, because I already have those in my mind. It’s what was in my mind after seeing Star Wars. I had my toys, I had adventures with them. They’re a part of who I am.

I recognize that creative work is a hustle. It’s about the paycheck, about spinning gold when you have the materials and the interest. It’s about paying those bills and socking some away for your golden years. But writing to me has always been an intensely personal experience, driven by a lot more than just dollars and cents.  

Every Star Wars fan has their “era”, the era where they discover it (and when and how they do). If you discovered them on video, where you could pop your VHS or DVD into the machine and watch one after the other, it’s different than if you had to wait three years between chapters. When the Prequel trilogy came out, by and large the older fans weren’t too crazy about them (and I say that very, very diplomatically).

Exhibit A

But if you were five or six when Star Wars came out, you were pushing 30 when The Phantom Menace arrived. The Prequel movies weren’t going to be your favorite ones. You’d grown up and come of age in a decade of Dragonslayers and Terminators, Robocops and Predators, Goonies and Gremlins, Alien and Aliens.

But now, the kids who were five or six when The Phantom Menace arrived, are now in their mid-late 20s, and have the same nonplussed reaction to the Disney films we older fans had to the Prequels, because they LOVE the prequels.

And now, everything’s different. It’s bigger, and smaller at the same time. With Star Wars you have this huge volume of movie and TV and video games and comic books and toys and novels. It’s everywhere. There are Original Trilogy fans, there are Prequel Trilogy ones, and there are Sequel Trilogy ones. That fandom has become a lot more fractured as a result. There’s fans that up and hate everything Disney has done with the property. There are fans that worship the Prequels. There are fans that ceased being fans after Return of the Jedi left theaters. For me, Star Wars: The Saga is essentially a big carnival midway. There’s rides, there’s games of chance, there’s food. You can’t take in it all, so really you should just find what booth appeals to you and focus on that. For my part, I’m a fan of a lot of the ephemera from the Original Trilogy; the Making of books, the Art of books, the Illustrated Screenplays. I love the collected editions of the Newspaper strips and the Marvel comics. I’m less enamored with the Prequels and while I’ve enjoyed the Sequels, I feel exhausted by the overkill. By the end of 2019 we’d had five Star Wars movies in as many years. Star Wars used to be more of an event. Now it’s just another film series.

You can only pick one.

And yet, while I’ve become largely indifferent to “Star Wars: The Saga”, I remain ride-or-die with Star Wars the movie; that singular experience. That type of movie experience that comes along with less frequency now than before. And at the risk of sounding like one of those old guys, I have to say that unless you were there in 1977, seeing it on the big screen with no knowledge of what was to come, and no idea what it would all lead to 42 years later, you didn’t really see Star Wars at all. At least not the way I saw it.

And that’s okay.