This Saturday sees the premiere of the episode of Transformers: Robots In Disguise that set the record for “most snickers in the recording booth.” I can’t recall if I was aware of all of the possible innuendos in the script, but leave it to voice actors to spot all of them… and riff on them… endlessly. Lines from the episode still get brought up when we all get together. That said, it’s a fun episode even without the accidental euphemisms, and includes one of the more bizarre Decepticon team-ups you’re likely to see. Personally, I think these two ‘Cons should have their own talk show.
Thirty years ago last week, a touchstone event of my adolesence occurred, one of those happenings where pretty much everyone my age or thereabouts can tell you where they were and what they were doing when it happened. Relatively speaking, there wasn’t a lot of coverage of the anniversary… It didn’t command the front page of CNN.com or anything, but I did see a few blog posts about it my music and pop culture chroniclers. At the time, however, Live Aid dominated the summer of 1985 as much as any other story.
As a teenager, I was pretty locked into my twin all-consuming interests of sports and comic books, and didn’t really pay too much attention to the rest of the world. I’d vaguely heard about the “Do They Know It’s Christmas” recording that’d been made to benefit African famine victims, and maybe I’d heard the song once or twice, but it didn’t make much of an impression on me, and neither did the cause. I wasn’t a huge radio listener, and the few cassettes I played on my single-speaker boom box tended toward the classic rock of Bob Seger, Billy Joel and the Eagles. Nor was I a big consumer of MTV at that point. My family didn’t have cable, so I only saw the hottest cultural craze of the moment was when I visited friends who did. It was a curiosity to me, like messages from another planet.
My hometown of Phoenix did have a UHF video channel, Channel 61, which showed videos smothered in the snow and static of a weak signal. The first video I remember seeing was Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” I’d never seen anything like Boy George, and I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to again. Few of the videos the channel aired were by the top artists of the day, though some introduced me to niche artists I’d become a fan of later, such as Graham Parker.
I think I started tuning in to the music community’s movement to help Africa’s famine victims with the release of “We Are the World” in the spring of 1985. I wasn’t very interested in the song itself as I was with the historical significance of the artists coming together – even if I didn’t really know much about many of them. Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson in the same room? Crazy! Lionel Richie and Bruce Springsteen sharing the same microphone? Unbelievable! Cyndi Lauper and Kenny Rogers in the same sentence? Bizarre! I did my part and bought the cassette of the all-star song, but musically, I was more interested in the Huey Lewis and the News single on the flip side.
As “We Are the World” took over the charts and the air waves, Live Aid coalesced, and everyone started to get excited about the lineup as the artists were confirmed. Anticipation started to build. Would Phil Collins really be able to perform in England and then catch a Concord flight to Philadelphia that would allow him to participate in the concert from the American side as well? Were Dire Straits and Sting, two of the acts of the era, really going to share the same stage? Could Mick Jagger and Tina Turner duet without blowing up televisions across the world? And who the hell was this Udo Lindenberg who’d be performing in London between Crosby, Stills and Nash and Judas Priest (Answer: A German drummer – I had to look him up just now)?
In the summer of 1985, I took my sheltered self to Evanston, Illinois for the National High School Institute at Northwestern University. Several dozen high school juniors from around the country (“Cherubs,” in NHSI parlance), joined me for six weeks of intensive instruction in the art of journalism (There were other programs at the Institute at the same time, focusing on theater, engineering, and other disciplines). Like any gathering of teenagers, there were nerds, jocks, cool kids, and party animals. We all found our smaller groups to hang out with, but everyone got along, as we were all sharing in the same NHSI experience. It was great exposure to kids my own age of different backgrounds from all over America, and it opened up my world a good deal.
As July 13th, and the Live Aid concert, approached, I geared myself up, which mostly amounted to making sure I had extra batteries for my Walkman. I assumed that, on the day, most of my classmates would be doing what I’d be doing: planting myself in front of a television or listening to the radio for as much of the event as possible. But, perhaps for no other reason than teenagers generally have short attention spans, interest in Live Aid seemed pretty tepid. My peers came and went during the day, regarding the concert with light curiosity. I didn’t have to worry about anyone stealing my chair. I watched as much of the concert as my waking hours allowed me, starting in the lounge in our dorm, then wandering around campus while listening to the radio, watching more of the show in the student union, then coming back to the dorm for the finale. The lineup wasn’t the most diverse, shall we say. There were few black artists, particularly on the American side. Tina Turner and Run-DMC participated, but Prince, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson did not. Country music wasn’t really represented, and but there were nods to Blues (BB King) and heavy metal (Black Sabbath and a shockingly bad Led Zeppelin reunion).
Not that I cared who was there and who wasn’t. Most of the acts were new to me, in that I was hearing or seeing them for the first time, or I was having a chance to experience their music for the first time in a way that wasn’t an occasional radio spot. I can remember watching Spandau Ballet and finding them as unlikable as their music (I’ve since revised my opinion – slightly). I remember Elvis Costello (who to that point I thought was a weirdo) singing “All You Need Is Love,” and I remember becoming a devoted fan after the first verse. I remember newly-solo Sting performing with just his bass and Branford Marsalis on the saxophone, holding me transfixed through “Message In a Bottle,” while it seemed the crowd only wanted to see Phil Collins (he came on two artists later, after Rick Springfield). I vividly remember U2’s set, and their epic performance of “Bad,” during which Bono pulled a young woman from the crowd to dance with him. I’d never seen a band make a performance so personal and emotional. I hadn’t been to many concerts in my life, and I didn’t know they could be more than just an evening in a building singing along to blaringly loud versions of favorite radio songs. At Live Aid, U2 showed me there were possibilities in live performance I didn’t know existed. Queen confirmed that for me shortly thereafter. I’d always considered them kind of transgressive, but it was impossible to resist Freddy Mercury’s charisma and ability to command an audience. Their power blew me away, and their performance was the highlight of the concert, as far as I was concerned.
But there were still hours to go. I remember thinking lead singer Jim Kerr of Simple Minds was extremely odd in his mannerisms on stage, but that the band as a whole was crazy good musically. I remember Madonna joking away her scandalous recent appearance in adult magazines. I remember Phil Collins making it to Philadelphia safely (thank God) for his second performance. I remember Jagger and Turner being not exactly as scandalous as they were later credited with being. And I remember being happily exhausted when the concert finally ended… and I had a list of artists whose music I was determined to explore further.
A week or so later, I went to the mailbox at the dorm and found something unexpected: An issue of Rolling Stone addressed to the student that had occupied my room during the previous school year. He’d evidently not canceled or forwarded it. On the cover were photos of some of the biggest Live Aid names, and the headline, “The Day the World Rocked.” Inside were pages of coverage of the event, much of it behind the scenes, the logistics of how it all worked, and how the performers interacted. I read it six times before the end of the summer program, and I’ve read it countless times since. I think it spurred in me an interest for all things “behind the scenes,” whether about sports, films, music or historical events. When I returned home, I subscribed to the magazine immediately, and I haven’t missed an issue since. Obviously, Rolling Stone is (now) about as mainstream as it gets, so it’s not like I was discovering a secret trove of underground knowledge. But it broadened my horizons nonetheless, expanding me creatively, culturally, socially and politically. And all because, during a formative summer, there was Live Aid.
It gave me the world.
After graduating from college, I spent two years in a hospital.
Let me back up.
I graduated from Northwestern with a journalism degree, which I believed would lead me to a stable, practical career. Finding the job market that year to be the worst ever (Every year is the worst year for the job market, as employers love to tell you), I moved back to my hometown of Phoenix. spent the summer doing odd jobs here and there, as well as pounding the pavement, and generally didn’t feel stable, or that I had made a practical choice.
But I answered an ad in the paper (That’s how we rolled, back in the Print Age), interviewed for a job in the Community Relations department of John C. Lincoln Hospital in Phoenix’s Sunnyslope area, and somehow won the post. The title was “Writer,” which I was very proud of, and the responsibilities primarily involved writing (hence the title) and editing newsletters and fundraising magazines for the hospital. Writing features of the “Bob was sick. We made Bob better. Aren’t we great?” variety. Maybe not the most exciting material, but it seemed more creative to me than straight reporting. It came with a regular paycheck and health benefits. It was like I’d walked into a blazing neon sign reading, “STABLE AND PRACTICAL.”
It was a good job. It was a very good job. It allowed me to buy a car, get my own apartment with friends, and start a professional life.
But it wasn’t for me.
Even while diligently taking journalism courses and working at internships, I knew in my heart of hearts that, while I wanted to make a living telling stories, what I NEEDED was to tell my own stories. Not stories about “Bob” (though I’m thrilled he’s doing better), but about robots and superheroes, cops and crooks, fathers and daughters and all the other things I could imagine and more. If there’d been a major called, “Imagination Exploitation” that promised a stable and practical career, I’d have jumped at it. But it just didn’t seem feasible to me. I knew how many people WANTED to make a living writing in the entertainment industry… I didn’t think there was any way I could stand out from all of them and actually DO it. How would I get noticed? Putting on a tight sweater and sitting at a malt shop counter like some ’50s starlet didn’t seem like an option for me.
But I was going crazy at the hospital. I wasn’t doing what I wanted and needed to be doing, and that frustration was showing. I wasn’t exactly a great coworker to my office mates, I wasn’t accepting notes from my boss gracefully, and I was almost literally climbing the walls. One of my responsibilities in the department was to help put together video presentations for awards banquets and the like, and as such, I was given the dispensation to go out and buy a few books on filmmaking — Not that I’d ever use them in actually making the videos myself, but they were diverting to read at lunchtime. One book had a section on universities with film programs, graduate and undergraduate, along with application information. I re-read that chapter several times over several weeks. And, with an attitude of “if it happens, great, and if not, great,” I applied to four schools. I specifically remember picking four schools where I wouldn’t have to actually make a film myself, because that seemed expensive, and I was almost certain I’d drop a camera on my foot, which would be even more expensive, and make people mad at me, to boot. I wanted a screenwriting program. And, a few weeks later, I was accepted to the one at the University of Texas at Austin.
Now I had to put my money where my mouth was. Was I willing to give up my stable, practical career? Under cover of a cousin’s Bat Mitzvah in Dallas, and looking for any reason to say “no,” I visited the campus. A good friend from college, Matt, who was attending UT as a law student, drove me around and helped me scout apartments. Two older cousins and longtime Austin residents, Lois and Lem, gave me their views of the city and introduced me to a UT screenwriting professor, Robert Foshko, who sang the praises of the university. Rents were cheap (I know they aren’t now, Austinites, but this was the weekend of the LA riots), the campus was lovely, the department seemed great. Further, Austin was becoming a hot spot for the film community. Independent film was just becoming a thing, and because of locals like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez, Hollywood was starting to drift in for scouting trips, and it seemed everyone in the city was on the verge of being “discovered.”
I returned to Phoenix, considered my practical career and my stable position at the hospital… and I decided that if I didn’t give myself at least a chance to do what I really wanted and needed to do in life, I’d regret it forever. So I wrote a resignation letter and rented a U-Haul, and later that summer, I bid a tearful farewell to my health benefits, as well as any pretense of stability and practicality, and set off on I-10 on the long journey to Hollywood via the Lone Star State.
More to come…