Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Baby That's the Bleeps

The sweet spot at the Sidetrack seems like the sort of space one would avoid at a live show. But that stout square pillar at stage right casts a nice big crowd-shadow, an open area of air and freedom amid the multitudes jostling and tippy-toeing for sightlines, and if you don’t mind not actually seeing the band – you can peek around the corner now and then if you need to, make sure they haven’t been replaced by karaoke ringers – the sound is fantastic. You’re more or less at the mirror coordinates of the sound guy, and the mass of the pillar cuts out the nasty white clash of raw loudness so you get a full, nuanced sound you can really let your ears wander around in. That’s where I am now, zoning out and nodding as Carla Bozulich wails through “Baby That’s the Creeps”, thinking about Pokemon.

Pokemon? It happens, sometimes. I’ll catch a glimpse of a faded Bulbasaur or Tentacool sticker on a ratty old binder in a pile of end-of-the-month dumpsterside junk and it all comes back to me – the long walks through the tall grass on the outskirts of Pallet Town, scaring up wild Pidgey and Kakuna; the strategic intensity of the gym battles; the raw fever of Gotta Catch ‘em All! But why now, and why here?

Sound triggers, man; the melody, as they say, haunts my reverie. It was almost eight years ago, in the deep autumn of 1998, that I began – improbably, almost impossibly – my career as a videogame writer with a right-place-right-time pitch: working as a proofreading drone at the Journal, I saw the Pokemon press kit neglected on the edge of the then-Entertainment editor’s desk and, having a friend recently come back from Japan with wide-eyed tales of Pokemania, insisted the thing was going to be huge and that I should knock out a preview feature. That turned into a weekly thing, the sweetest and easiest money a hack could ever hope to pull… and throughout that bright and golden time I was listening a lot to Butch, the second album from Carla’s band the Geraldine Fibbers. The music’s different, but the built-in codes of her voice – that feral twang – are taking me back, displaying the years.

Those were exciting days, and tough to leave behind; musically, spiritually, emotionally, morally, financially and professionally I’ve never really escaped from that ’98 basement suite. And why escape? Along with Butch, there’s the Zoobombs’ Welcome Back, Zoobombs!, Cibo Matto’s Viva! La Woman (already a year or two old) and Beck’s Mutations soundtracking Oddworld, Ocarina of Time, Legend of Legaia (don’t laugh) and Bushido Blade. There’s Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid and R.L. Burnside’s Come On In. There’s the sweet rush of that first no-roommate pot-smokin’ bachelor living… and all it takes to return is the sight of an old grey PlayStation, a whiff of Nag Champa, a single second of a certain quaver in Carla’s voice.

Eight years! Eight years. A lot of water under a lot of bridges, thousands of hours of videogaming for rent money. Plenty of time for a network of audio associations to build up, wrap themselves around my memory core and send their tendrils deep. Some are less subtle than Carla Bozulich sending me back to Pokemon Red on my old Game Boy Pocket… to this day, I can’t hear an Offspring song – any Offspring song – without having my head shoved back to a blissful Y2K and the power-brat “Yah-yah-yah-yah-yah!” that kicked off every sweet Dreamcast Crazy Taxi run. Damn… there was a videogame! Crazy drifting through traffic with a screeching harpy in the backseat, giving you shit because you couldn’t get her to the KFC in less than twenty goddamn seconds. Look, lady… the place is only 800m away! What're you taking a taxi – let alone a crazy taxi – for, anyway? YAH-YAH-YAH-YAH-YAH!

It works the other way as well, when there’s a phrase in a game’s music that’s similar enough to the melody of a pop single that you can’t play the game without getting that song stuck in your head. The GameCube cleaning-robot adventure Chibi Robo, for example, had something in it, somewhere, that lodged Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” deep in me for weeks. And I seem to recall an old Japanese RPG – I think it might have been Star Ocean – that so aggressively re-introduced the Scorpions’ glasnost anthem “Wind of Change” into my psyche that I had to quit playing. Currently, playing Oblivion, there’s this one bit that nags me, a snippet of '80s pop in the score I can’t quite nail down and it’s driving me crazy. I’d turn off the in-game tunes and slap in some Danzig... but Oblivion’s music -- which changes to Battle Theme whenever trolls and skeletons and shit want to kick your ass -- provides an indispensable danger sense.

Up on stage, Carla’s into the title track from her awesome new record, Evangelista. Pokemon thoughts fading, coming back up into this moment behind my pillar, I’m kind of glad my friend and I didn’t follow through on our supernerd plan to bring our Nintendo DSes to the show: do I really want to spend the next eight years hearing a haunted, wavery organ drone every time I fire up PictoChat?

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