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Snapsongs: “1984/Jump” by Van Halen

Thursday 1 August 2013 - Filed under Snapsongs

Another scene set here: summer of 1986. It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school. Halley’s Comet had been something of a bust, but there were interesting things happening in the summer sky, and I was tracking Mars, Jupiter and Saturn on a huge wall map of Wil Tirion’s Sky Atlas 2000. I was finally getting the hang of high school, but it was something of a tiring experience for a geeky boy who liked to stay in his own head most of the time. LBJ High School was a majority minority school; it was the first year of the Austin science magnet program established in part to keep the school from closing through low enrollment; I was in the throes of burgeoning adolescence. One bonus: I had grown six inches the summer before and was no longer chubby. One drawback: I was beginning to like girls, but had no clue how to deal with them. I had already met the subject of an obsessive infatuation that would make my sophomore year more than tumultuous. But that was far in the future. June of 1986 was the calm before the storm.

It so happened that an old friend of mine from middle school called me up and asked if I’d like to come stay with him for a few days. This sounded awesome. He and I had been best buds, writing space operas and satirical lyrics and playing video games on rainy days over at his house. His family had moved to Waco, Texas, a couple years before, and we hadn’t really kept in touch. So it was arranged: I would catch a ride with his older brother’s girlfriend and come up to stay in Waco. Not exactly a gripping vacation for many people, but it promised to be fun.

It was, but there were oddities that stood out. The girlfriend was pretty cool, and we had a good chat on the way up. Her boyfriend, the oldest brother, was on the cusp of chilling out of being a teenage asshole as he entered his twenties. My friend’s older sister had become hot. And his slightly-older brother had seamlessly claimed the teenage asshole role that his brother had just given up. His parents had become kinda annoying, but that could have been my own teenage assholism showing. They had, however, found a piece of the space shuttle Challenger on the beach in Florida, and had it displayed prominently on their mantlepiece. That was kinda odd. But they had a pool, and his mother schlepped us to the local video arcade and the movie theatre. That was the year that the “Star Wars” arcade game came came out, and it was soooooo cool, with its vector graphics of TIE fighters and sampled one-liners from the movie. And I got to see “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, which was a bonus in more ways than one. My parents weren’t up with keeping me abreast of the latest in popular culture through TV and movies, so this became a useful touchstone in my interactions with my peers.

Of course, the album “1984” had come out the previous year, but singles from the album were still on the air, and it was probably still a fixture on the turntables of many young men at the time. I liked the songs I’d heard, but I wouldn’t actually start purchasing albums on my own until later that summer, and I wasn’t much of a metalhead, at least not yet. I preferred the synth revolution of early New Wave before MIDI started displacing the drummer. But “1984” was the album where Eddie Van Halen had discovered the synth, so the sound of his sawtoothed Oberheim OB-Xa was pleasing to my ears. I was willing to give it a chance.

But the image that stays in my mind is not the video, or people rocking out, or listening to the song on my headphones at home. It’s a combination of sight, sound and smell that impressed itself into my mind as a singular scene. Picture: up in the converted attic where my friend and his near brother had their rooms. Nobody in the house had heard of lamps, so the place was always dark, and the conversion was haphazard and random, so it was always cramped. My friend and I came into his brother’s room, where the space-age attack-swoop-fuzz-decay sequence that is pretty much the entirety of the instrumental “1984” was already playing. The room was black except for the glowing stereo and a long violet tube emitting eye-wrenching radiance. Several posters on the walls were glowing in bright primary hues, and the addition of hundreds of little fluorescent labels stuck to every surface available made it that much more trippy. The posters that weren’t fluorescing were of the apolcalyptic sci-fi painting variety. And there was a peculiar smell that cinched the other-worldly nature of the scene in front of me. I realized later that it was the smell of the suntan lotion that my friend’s brother had put on to protect his shirtless body from the ultraviolet, but it seemed to flow from the tube itself, or maybe it was some scent-based drug that we were all now inhaling. My friend and I stood there for a minute, entranced, and then the song segued into “Jump”.

Right behind the turntable was a lovely piece of sci-fi artwork seemingly lifted from the pages of Omni Magazine. Multiarmed blue dudes wielded stacked zebra-striped keyboards, curved guitars with three or more fretboards and Gigeresque drumkits; they were all arrayed on a stage swooping in crescent forms over an alien audience. There, right there, was the sound of “Jump”, coming from those speakers that looked like engine nacelles from an off-brand Star Wars rip-off. It was mesmerizing; I both was aware of the fantasy and totally immersed in it. The scent of off-brand suntan lotion became a tantalizing whiff of an alien world, redolent with mystery and romance. Forget visions of boots stamping on the face of humanity forever. That, my friends, is my alternate vision of the world of 1984.

Update: the poster artwork has been found, by artist Rodney Matthews:

SpaceJamBand

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2013-08-01  »  Edward Semblance