Eight-bit video game logic — when you’re five — is like dream logic. It all somehow makes a bit more sense when you scrutinize it in a non-lucid state. We’ve all been there, I’m sure. Last week, I had a dream I went to a class taught by my college broadcasting professor at an Olympic-sized indoor pool. Somehow, dreams unfold in the real-time present, but also in dream-time through elaborate back-stories — in some fourth dimension, somewhere, providing exposition and filling in narrative gaps, even if the patchwork is more of the absurd. That kind of logic. Games for the original Atari or Commodore share similar levels of logic, filled with lazy genius and patchwork artistry.
My favorite game was Bruce Lee. The martial artist transcended his mortality as an actor and had become an icon, getting a namesake game devoted to the man as the myth. Here, he battled a ninja and a green sumo wrestler (the Yamo), collecting lanterns that unlocked passages in an ancient temple until he could face off against a giant wizard. What a beautiful, bizarre mixture of Hollywood, Chinese-lore and pre-Hogwarts Hogwarts. This all was fed through roughly 20 platform screens, the loose-threaded narrative only serving to string an ongoing, side-scrolling, collection-based challenge, using the sophisticated button-mashing technique of a beat ’em up. The main opponent in the game, the Green Yamo, particularly defies convention: a high-flying, acrobatic sumo wrestler. This all made the game strange, beautiful and weirdly alluring. A few years after I last played, my mind had convoluted these surreal images (pixelated sumo men) in the fog of time and the expansive power of the imagination to fill in the blanks, especially when pouring it into something I desperately want to relive.
One time, I tore through my attic, hoping to reconnect with this old technology (outdated even when I was born), really hoping to reconnect to my early adolescence. It was my first attempt to capture a feeling or experience through a medium. I was experiencing nostalgia.
When I was young — or, let’s say, new, my sphere of musical influence was a fairly small bubble, drawing largely from my parents’ Christian adult contemporary and populist media. My poles of divergence weren’t so far apart. I knew soft music, and, on the other hand, my understanding of “hard” music was Twisted Sister or the psychedelic boat ride in Willy Wonka. Slowly, you begin to pull into focus the various genres that something as broad as “soft” or “hard” can contain. My first understanding of hard rock were those old commercials for classic rock radio that blasted the hooks from Foreigner or Def Leppard. You may hear the brutal blasts of death metal and think, in the pounding of double-kick artillery and incomprehensible shrieking, this is truly as heavy as music can get. Teetering on the edge of static. Punk music falls somewhere among these extremes of “hard rock.” It may have last been revolutionary in the ’70s, but to the uninitiated, the first strains of a half-shouted “Emotion is my middle name” from MxPx can be just as explosive to a new ear as Pete Townshend’s feedback was to others five decades ago.
And nothing brings you back to the past like video games, where the evolution of graphics and game mechanics can date a game within a few months of its release. But those specific graphics and associated soundtrack get so burned into those time periods, my sister and I, craving nostalgia, inevitably pull out a relic from high school: the original Xbox.
By all accounts, it’s a cumbersome brick, the angular equivalent of a black cinder block. When I start it up, it strikes me that for a different generation this machine holds the very same “retro” appeal as my generation holds for the original Nintendo. The thing is basically a computer, and it sounds like it’s overworked in every aspect, from whirring to life to opening the tray to scanning a scratched, 15-year old disc for a good 30 seconds before recognizing it’s playability. This time, I put in a favorite old timekiller of mine: a snowboard game using the classic mechanics of the Tony Hawk series with the ability to use your own songs stored on the Xbox’s hard disk as the in-game soundtrack.
Hearing the distorted, palm-muted guitar under a nasal-toned, tune-fighting singer, I’m hit with the immediacy and aggression that overflows in punk music. It was carried by strained vocal chords and overdriven guitars; you could feel the soul of the person on the other end. With many lyrics often leaving little to interpretation, you heard them sing about it directly, too. This was channeled through strings (always in standard tuning), a pickup (stock), distortion stomp boxes (rat pedal), an amp (Peavey) and a mic (SM57) all into a mixer and, finally, through the speakers of my TV.
This was the sound of a revolution. Punk rawk. I couldn’t deny it, listening there. Hearing it shot me back to my first exposure to the genre, when it was fresh and powerful and was first to shatter my preconceived notions of music, juggling with artistry the balance between catchy and the heavy.
I was always placated by the repetitive gameplay of that snowboarding game, and — like a patient on a morphine drip — the classic tunes that would always pipe in take me back to teenager-shirking-homework levels of lethargy. The music was a mess of songs once loved — some still loved, some fallen out of favor or some receded back into the pool from which they first evolved. Effortlessly, the words and melodies would always come back. I had a deep love for simple, mindless songs, and, as I’ve since worked my way up some imaginary objective musical criticism ladder, I’ve still held on to what drove my first love for music: speed and power. I actually felt like any musical baggage was lifted in those listening sessions — any notion of superiority dropped for a sense of clarity and appreciation. These were the songs that first made you drive to Detroit on a school night to see them live or made you go to practice with friends in the garage without an air conditioner. This wasn’t about merits in execution, it was about the blood rolling down your wrist (as hearts on sleeves tend to bleed).
I’m not sure academia can truly be applied to punk music — as far as I know, no accredited university can make me a scholar — but in my lifelong love of music, I’ve listened to thousands of bands, from active torchbearers back through trailblazers. I’ve read essential biographies; I’ve called mass reissues of records “must-owns” (London Calling). I’ve debated Blink-182 versus MxPx.
But here, in a humble way, there was no gap between the Sex Pistols and The Huntingtons. There wasn’t precisely 25.7 years between the original Ramones lineup and Slick Shoes. There wasn’t true punk or faux punk or distilled grit-laced pop elements or NOFX or Value Pac or New York Dolls. This was the jumping-off point, and the conviction of the present was shining brighter than any measure of credibility. This was rock and roll. And sometimes, you turn it up and let it hit you like an eight-bit gut punch.