Roughly in the middle of the 1980s I became a part of the earth, a ‘slice of life.’ Reagan’s reign, his empty actor vial of a self funneled Milton Friedman’s toxic philosophy into a permeable smoglike substance, one that seems to still dampen humanity. It was allegedly ‘Morning in America,’ but the 80s for me always draws images of dark, trash filled cities at night, neon lights blazing in seeming permanence. The cinematography of The Terminator with the homemade soundtrack of John Carpenter movies. I wasn’t really conscious for most of it, and these images of history/opinion have no relation to any of my lasting personal memories from the second half of that decade. To be honest, barely any of those childhood memories come up when I try to think of the 80s, conceptually. Almost as if my mind doesn’t categorize my childhood into a segment of time, as if it were more like some inevitable spiritual forming of the core of my character that still influences every action, reaction, feeling. An experience so necessary for moving through time that it must transcend it.
I saw my first dead body at the end of the 80s. My great grandfather died after Alzheimer’s kept him in a hospital, screaming unintelligibly. I remember that, and I remember his lifeless body in a casket at my Amish great grandmother’s house, and me willingly, without any trace of reserve, being taken up to the casket by family members to look at it. I saw my cousin, who’s three years older than me, getting taken up to look at him after me, and I saw the weighty resistance in her journey up to the casket, upper arms grasped by a different aunt on each side. I couldn’t understand her fear back then, but I do now. My adulthood seems to have adulterated my inherent bravery, acceptance of situations, and probably a bunch of other necessary things.
This was probably around the time that my first concepts of death entered my thinking. From a very young age I could never fall asleep easily. I’d always go into bed and stay up, thinking for an hour or more before losing consciousness. Sometimes I’d get to a point in thought, wonder how I got there, and retrace which thoughts led to one another in a cause and effect train. When death would cross my mind during these late night meditations, I’d come to the conclusion time and again that dying of natural causes at the age of 89, or at the very least in my 80s, would be the best thing for me. I’m still a big fan of this idea.
I wasn’t expecting this too veer off into death so suddenly, but I guess it’s within the boundaries of death’s character to work that way. To 86 something means to get rid of it … Never really noticed how close 80s and death were for me …
“Eighties” is a song on the album Night Time by Killing Joke. Anyone who’s heard it would automatically recognize Kurt Cobain ripping off the guitar riff and effect for “Come As You Are.”
Despite there being some sort of consensus with most people I run into about how the 80s was the worst decade for music, I would actually say that it was one of the best. If all you look at are the surface hits, you get mostly songs that border between that odd region of hilariously bad and stimulating nostalgia. But if you look at the independent acts, or even the more creative of the major label acts, the quality doesn’t get much better. Let’s just get this list out of the way, because these names have helped shape my notions of what the 80s were more than anything else:
(some links nsfw)
Big Black, Swans, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Black Flag, Minor Threat, Fugazi, Bad Religion, NOFX, Bauhaus, Joy Division, The Pixies, R.E.M., The Smiths, Talk Talk, U2, Nick Cave, The Birthday Party, Scratch Acid, Dead Kennedys, Operation Ivy, My Bloody Valentine, The Cure, Pink Floyd, Devo, King Crimson, The Clash, Guns N Roses, Depeche Mode, Flipper, Killing Joke, Hüsker Dü, The Minutemen, The Replacements, Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Billie Joel, Talking Heads, Queen, Tears For Fears, Leonard Cohen, Prince and the Revolution, ZZ Top, Tom Waits, Metallica, Megadeth, Bad Brains, Beastie Boys, Beat Happening, Butthole Surfers, Cocteau Twins, Coil, The Misfits, The Cars, The Flaming Lips, Indochine, Iron Maiden, Jane’s Addiction, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Killdozer, Motörhead, Naked Raygun, New Order, Nine Inch Nails, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Samhain, Slayer, Swell Maps, Wipers, Young Marble Giants, and a string of one hit wonders that make up your average 80s greatest hits mix. The type of stuff I always heard in the car with my mom while I was young. Def Leppard and the like.
The movies, toys, and videogames all seemed to have congealed into one entity that doesn’t really affect much of my life anymore. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, Ghostbusters, G.I. Joe, Super Mario Brothers, Mike Tyson’s Punch-out, Mega Man, countless other NES games, Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, Scarface, Rambo, Rocky IV. Blue Velvet and The Toxic Avenger are keepers, though.
I’m not sure I can back any of this up, but it feels like the 80s was when certain departments in American universities started taking post-structuralist or post-modern thinkers more seriously, or, rather, this was when professors could make careers talking about them more easily. This was when the trend ingrained itself more as a part of the industry. With the obvious excess of free market capitalism inflating throughout the 70s and growing more outlandish in the 80s, it seemed best for everyone involved to ‘institutionalize,’ or give comfy tenure spots, to the voices of opposition, kind of like how a human mind axiomatically learns to quarantine into dismission impulses that contradict the ego’s power grab so it can move on to fulfill its own intentions. The idea of a tenured radical nauseates me a little nowadays, maybe because for about a year of my life I seriously considered it as something worth working toward. Tenure’s becoming a thing of the past, though, it seems, so maybe the real radicals will be all that remain in times to come, and they won’t be stuck, stifled in ‘institutions of higher education,’ wasting their time and everyone else’s money.
I recently rewatched Kickboxer starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. Now that I live in Bangkok, a city that always felt to me like it holds some reminiscence of the 80s, it was interesting to see scenes of it and the rest of the country in the 80s. The movie, otherwise, really doesn’t hold up well, which might have something to do with why it’s being remade. It also lies in that odd region I mentioned earlier. There’s also this (to me) fascinating Youtube clip of how the city actually looked back then. The street signs, city busses, and tuk tuks look completely unchanged 30 years later, so it sort of justifies that feeling of the 80s that seems to imbed itself in the city. There’s also this, which makes no fucking sense to me at all. First of all, they don’t play chess here. I found this out the hard way when I saw a chessboard at a school I worked at in the more rural regions of Thailand and asked one of the interns if he wanted to play me. It’s called mah-grook and even though they use a chessboard and chess pieces, it’s a totally different game that I still don’t know how to play. This is the only place I know of in the whole entire world that plays chess a different way.
The word for 80 in Thai is bat-sip, which to the English ear has vampiric connotations. The morbidity continues.
Eighty is also the number in French when things start to get a little too ridiculous. Sure, I can understand 70 being soixante-dix (sixty-ten), but 80 being quatre-vignt (four-twenty) is a little much. With sixty-ten they’re adding, and then all of the sudden it switches to multiplication. Ninety is even worse. There’s both multiplication and then addition—quatre-vingt-dix. There really shouldn’t be twice as many syllables as digits. But then again, what do I know?
Books like Bright Lights, Big City come to mind. Even though I only read about a chapter or two before getting annoyed with the second person narrative going on. American Psycho, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Midnight’s Children, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, White Noise, Libra. DeLillo was at his best in this decade. Probably Rushdie too if I ever get myself around to reading his other stuff. Aside from a short story collection, there was no new Pynchon for the whole decade, but that short story collection had a great personal reflection of his career, life, influences in the introduction. I wonder what he was doing that whole time.
A hundred years before I was born, in 1885, Ezra Pound was born. This nice round number has allowed me to parallel without much effort the accomplishments of my life to that of a very prolific, egotistical, mythical literary figure. I’m nothing like Ezra Pound, aside from the fact that we’re both expats that in different degrees had/have qualms with America. I don’t think I’d go into borderline treasonous territory with my speech and actions like he did. It’s hard enough for me to maintain a belief in my own beliefs, let alone someone else’s political ideology. At least not enough to willingly spout out poetic propaganda on Italian radio. But it would be nice to be as actively generous in aiding others in literary ventures (if I had any connections at all). Being one of the earliest proponents of Joyce and Eliot is a pretty cool thing to be, historically, I guess. But when you’re pretentious and divisive like he often tended to be, and the accomplishments of your ego are your top priority, the crafting of your historical self seems to elude your control no matter how much effort you put into it. The statue you try to make of yourself to stand the test of time and influence others in your respective tradition gets caught up in the morphing purview of others as time goes on. Nowadays it’s even faster. And now people remember more his fascist passion rather than his immediate influence on the champions of Modernism.
He died when he was 87. Wouldn’t be a bad year to go either.