As pop culture weaves its way through our lives it seems to take on a personal quality. Looking back over my life, I can see the threads of music, film, books and more woven in with personal successes and failures…heartbreak and moments of real hope.
In 1977 I was 12 years old. When not in school I was playing outside with the kids next door. Their family was from Iraq and Iran. For several years before my father’s next assignment by the military, and the requisite move that would come every three years or so, we grew up together. My older brother, eternally three years older than me, could climb trees faster than I could. We would sometimes fight or go to the roller rink together. Sometimes we were friends, sometimes not. The Six Million Dollar Man, All In the Family, Sonny and Cher, Wonder Woman and Saturday morning trying to drag myself from bed early to fall asleep in front of the TV…. that was my world. School was difficult and confusing. I was labeled as having Attention Deficit Disorder, though it was called something different at the time. Talking to friends was fun. Movies like “The Pink Panther Strikes Back” were fun. School was not. Even so, I made friends there and did my best.
For perhaps the first time in my life, a major pop cultural event took place, and I was just old enough to be a part of it. My mother came to me telling me that Rona Barrett, a gossip columnist who also did hollywood news, was talking about a terrific new film that was taking the country by storm. My mother, an avid reader of science fiction, thought it sounded fun. The film, of course, was Star Wars.
My mother and I went to see it first in the afternoon, then later my brother and my father were initiated into the ways of the force. Things were starting to change. Despite the fact that video games were still a few years from real success, arcades already existed. They were filled with driving games that used projectors and pieces of plastic painted to look like cars to throw odd cutout images on the screen in front of you, or realistic looking safes that could be “cracked” to win a prize if you did it in record time. There were air hockey tables and pinball machines. The stage was set for the later revolution. I an remember my brother and I standing in Sears while Mom and Dad watched us play some new home TV game called “Pong” as we waited for the latest showing of Star Wars. Despite my sincerest efforts, the “force” seemed unwilling to help me win against my brother.
By the 1980’s a lot had happened. I’d gone from regular school to two different private schools, then back to public school with another military based move. Rather than being sad, the moves seemed just a part of life. School would bring it’s difficulties and disappointments, but I could meet a lot of people my own age and develop friendships fairly easily.
With the 1980’s came two huge influences – Dr. Who and Monty Python. I believe Monty Python was first, and it laid the groundwork for a lot of my present sense of humor, as well as my ability to understand (some of the time) fairly think English accents. When the local PBS station decided to begin airing Doctor Who, my brother and I watched with some interest as this strange drama unfolded. My brother didn’t care for the first aired episode – Tom Baker’s “Robot” – but I did. The Doctor would be someone I would check in with regularly for some time.
The 1980’s also saw several years of Boyscouts and a number of skills learned there. One skill that they didn’t teach was video gaming, though it would have come in handy. I had asked my parents to buy a pong-style mini-console system, which had no more than two or three “pong”-based games and only paddle controllers. That Christmas they surprised me by buying me my first full-fledged video-game system: The Atari 2600. The games were crude and simple, but fun. Friends would stop by the play. Once, a friend and I tried to made banana flavored milkshakes that were of very poor quality. Not our best experiment. When my father saw that we were about to pour them out, he told us that if we ever wanted to use the blender again we had to drink them. We might not have cared for the taste of your experimental concoctions, but they were perfectly potable. We spent the rest of the afternoon playing “Tank” and forcing the other to take a sip of his topped off glass each time he was hit. Or blender privileges remained. Later in the 80’s I would buy an Atari 5200 – the next gen system that had some very good games.
While I was playing video games my brother was growing up. He had inherited a beautiful stereo system my father never really listened to anymore, and the wall between our rooms reverberated with the sounds of Yes, Kansas, Van Halen and the like. They sounds often became so familiar the they became part of my musical tastes and shaped the way I thought about music for a long time to come. Just one of many ways that my older brother influenced me. Another way was National Lampoon. The humor magazine burst into my life as my brother started reading it, and further developed my rather iconoclastic sense of humor. When I found a subscription card in one issue that informed me that I was required by law to either subscribe or keep the card with me for the rest of my life – an obvious joke. I took the card and carefully put in in a safe place, as per the humorous instructions. More than 20 years later, it still hangs on my wall.
As if I hadn’t been iconoclastic enough, I found myself wondering about the nature of life. My father, a Christian, had exposed me to the religion, but felt that forcing me into it would be useless. I rebelled a bit and began forming my own ideas about the afterlife, life and the nature of any supreme being. One day while walking to school it occurred to me that people had been worshiping Gods throughout the ages. Perhaps there was no God. And my life long agnosticism was born. I say agnosticism, rather than athiesm, because I keep an open mind.
In the early 80’s. Videos had already become a big deal and MTV was nothing but videos.My first experience with video tape. The experience of watching David Letterman at 2 in the afternoon– was surprising to me. It was as though i was traveling in time. I could record Saturday night live and watch it on Wednesday morning. You get the idea. Controlling how we watch, read or are exposed to media content now is part and parcel of a new age. At the beginning of that age, I watched as paradigms like “TV Schedules” start to lose their grip, and personal choice become the more dominant driver of the market.
The first time I saw someone renting pre-recorded video tapes of movies, the woman behind the counter of the small mall-based store had to explain to my father and I how this new business model worked. It seemed to make sense and was just another example of things changing quickly.
The Empire Strikes Back came, and upped the ante for the Star War Universe. Prior to it’s release I’d found a copy of the novelization in a bookstore. The movie would not be out for a month or more, so I purchased it. I can remember clearly (with some embarrassment) that I gasped when I read that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. I can also remember immediately realizing that I was probably taking the story too seriously if it actually made me physically gasp while reading. When I stood in line to be the first in my city to buy a ticket I succeeded. A few hours later after walking out of the theater I felt a bit down. The film had ended on a sad note, and it all felt a bit anti-climactic. In the car on the way home I told my mother that I didn’t think I was a Star Wars fan anymore. Fortunately the drive was long enough that I realized that I was just down from the ending of the film and that I wanted to remain a fan.
And the Doctor continued his adventure in the UK, even in a new form, I kept watching. Though it was my frist time see The Doctor change, I took to the new Doctor right away. But a problem arose when the stories started to get weaker and weaker. There were still some very good ones, but watch every episode stopped being a priority. With each succeeding Doctor it would become less and less of a priority.
During this era another influence from England should be mentioned: Kate Bush. Her “Live from the Hammersmith Odeon” concert was played on 1980’s perennial favorite. Night Flight, and I can remember going to bed as it was set to recycle and play again late into the night (part of the show’s appeal) and regretting the next day that I didn’t tape it. I would end up buying all of her albums and finding what meager bits of information I could. I found her and her music fascinating.
But as time went on, many things were changing. The 1980’s were about to come to an end, and so was Doctor Who. The Doctor’s run of over two decades came to an end after many, like myself, were tuning in less and less to each subsequent Doctor. Peter Davidson had been a fresh face, but the scripts were a bit weak. By the time he bowed out, I’d almost moved on. Colin Baker was an anomoly. I didn’t care for him and would only see his adventures from time to time. Sylvester McCoy was little better, and as the series wound down, I found myself not too worried about it. I’d moved on. It wouldn’t be until much later, when the new series came that I would rediscover my love of the original.