San Francisco comes in small bits of video over the airwaves via a half-hour show called Videowest, broadcast on the city’s public TV station, which provides a glimpse into the things going on there. It is almost shameful to want to live in the Bay Area because everyone knows that’s where the queers are (and it may just confirm a suspicion they have about you). But the punks live there, too. Though the meaner, tougher punks live in Los Angeles. If you had any guts at all, you would move to L.A.
I am unable to throw myself into the slam pit; I am brittle bones and don’t know who I am.
But I am getting an idea. When I hear The B-52’s “Planet Claire,” the first song on their eponymous 1979 album, it arrives like a message from outer space. It is almost tired sounding, the opening Morse code has traveled a great distance to invite me to a party full of writhing freaks in thrift shop fashions. I don’t know yet how to be one of them. I jerk my body awkwardly, responding to the call.
I remember bringing this bright yellow album into the house, commandeering the turntable and infecting the living room with its sound. My family was in the middle of a hard time. We had lost our home and moved to a rundown rental in an even smaller town with no amenities on main street — no groceries or fast food, just a grain silo and a farm supply.
The faces my parents’ make on first listen are classic. They physically turn their heads, lifting one ear into the air, like dogs trying to understand English. It is their first indication that something is going awry with their oldest kid. “This isn’t music,” is the response.
It is hard to believe now how foreign The B-52s sounded when they first arrived. My step-father, whose favorite band was The Eagles, just laughed and laughed. He couldn’t understand what he was hearing, but he thought it was funny. My parents knew weirdness, having made it through the sixties, but this was something entirely different, brittle and aggressive.
The B-52s sounds like a psycho-beach surf party going quickly out of bounds on another planet. All the more reason to dance a little faster, faster than you can. The record communicates through its angular sound exactly how to move; gone are the smooth satin-covered curves of disco, replaced now with the jerky spasms of someone going off their meds. Early ADHD. You will twitch and throw yourself into the noise — not hips, just shoulders and elbows.
I get this news from Videowest. Every Sunday night at 11pm it drifts into my black and white TV set, coming over the air through rabbit ears, distorted and covered in static. This quality, along with the technology with which the show is produced — the aesthetic of early video, favoring a sharp, electronic feeling, makes the scenes hallucinatory. The characters feel like they have escaped from a mental ward. Infamously, some punk bands actually play mental wards, which are under attack by the nascent Reagan Administration. In a rush to cut spending that will never fully recover, Reagan will defund mental health facilities and turn patients out onto the streets. Some will end up in the prison system; others will become chronically homeless. It will soon be morning in America, but at this moment we can just make out the sickening light of that hideous new dawn.
The patients love the rumble that they can feel in their skin and bones. These sounds are like that; they are more embodied than intellectual. Perhaps it is about knocking the listener out of complacency, short-circuiting the brain in favor of direct communication with the body. We are propelled into motion like projectiles heading toward random targets.
Videowest shows all of these things and more. It tells me who to listen to and what to watch, but it also reports from the front lines of crises that will remain unnamed for years. How it communicates makes a larger impact than what it says. It is a hyperactive collage of nuclear bomb blasts and satellites in space, post-apocalyptic landscapes and naked maniacs doing performance art. It seduces and beckons, injecting a heavy cynicism into my vision of no future.
Somehow, what it shows me on TV feels both like it is happening now and already over. In fact, by the time I am old enough to heed its siren call, the show will be off the air and the world it depicted will have ended.
The morning in America is a bummer hangover from a party I was too young to attend.