Well the Shoop Shoop stands for the mood you’re in
And the Diddy Wop means let the fun begin
It’s a feeling gonna set your senses reeling and you can’t sit still
Cumma Cumma mean what you thought, that’s right
And the Wang Dang gonna get you through the night time
Baby there’s a right time if you wanna lose control
Shoop Shoop Diddy Wop, Montevideo
Who you are; who you wish you were; who you were; who you think you were; who you want to be; who you think you will probably be. How many of “you” do you carry in your head? You contain a multitude.
What if I could understand myself? Is there some secret in the past that makes sense of the present and will allow me to control the future of myself? Is there a story I can make out of the past that will contain a satisfying epiphany and settle all the selves into one?
We left the house where my father died in August of 1983.
I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA
I got millions, I got riches buildin’ in my DNA
I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA
I got off, I got troublesome, heart inside my DNA
DNA. Kendrick Lamar
There’s terrible loneliness at the heart of E.T.
Watching it again I see the low, dark spaces of the inside of Elliot’s house filled with toys that simulate but do not deliver human contact. The streets outside are mostly empty. The forest. And the adults are absent, distracted, or officious and threatening representatives of authority.
I thought my heart would burst when E.T. died. I couldn’t control the feelings I had in the movie theatre. All the pressure of that scene, the awfulness of the death on the operating table, it made my whole throat and chest tighten into a sob that squeezed tears out of me. Tears I tried to hide because I felt even then, aged 9, that tears were shameful in some way. Everyone felt that way I suppose, upset at that scene, my reaction was not unique; it’s a famous moment that we can all remember reacting to. I wonder though if it rang a different note in me: Seeing that scene in 1982 when my father had died in 1978.
Of course E.T. didn’t die. His resurrection and escape led to another kind of farewell and I had to endure a second wave of grief as Elliot said goodbye again. I was emotionally drained by that movie in a way I hadn’t realised until I watched it again in my 30s. Until I watched it again I tended to think of E.T. as being how I was introduced to American culture: M&Ms, D&D, BMX, home delivered pizza, video game T-shirts, toys that talked, Star Wars action figures. Catnip for pre-teen boys raised on Rupert Annuals and hand me down Just William books. I didn’t notice, or didn’t care to remember, that it was about a lonely boy saying goodbye.
In, of all places, a bus chugging around the foothills of the Himalayas, I listened to a song called Real Death this year. I think it is the best song about death I have ever heard. It’s not really possible to shorten the lyric, which is about the singer’s real experience:
Someone’s there and then they’re not
And it’s not for singing about
It’s not for making into art
When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb
When I walk into the room where you were
And look into the emptiness instead
My brain fails
I go downstairs and outside and you still get mail
A week after you died a package with your name on it came
And inside was a gift for our daughter you had ordered in secret
And collapsed there on the front steps I wailed
A backpack for when she goes to school a couple years from now
You were thinking ahead to a future you must have known
Deep down would not include you
Though you clawed at the cliff you were sliding down
Being swallowed into a silence that’s bottomless and real
And I don’t want to learn anything from this
I love you
I was lonely and bored. Nothing ever happens in Arizona. But we had a lot of stars in the sky at night. I remember thinking it was very lonely…. We would move from town to town across the country…. There would be the inevitable goodbye scene. All my friends would be there at the station or the airport, or packing up the car. And I would leave. The older I got the harder it got.
Steven Spielberg, 1982
One of the conditions of my growing up was moving house. Rosetta Road, a flat in Wadestown, Indira Place, Malda Grove, Koromiko Road, Kew Grove, Fox Street, Lewer Street, Hildreth Street: all before I was 20. The only really stable house when I grew up was my Gran’s house in Mosgiel. A trip to my Gran’s house at least once, but probably twice, in a year was a steadying counterpoint over the 80s. Not much, if anything, seemed to change down at my Gran’s house or in the small town it was in. There was something very reassuring about that, and something unsettling when that steadiness began to wane in the 90s.
The 80s had a gloss to them. When I look back at the songs that I listened to as a kid in 1983 most of them are perfect little pop songs. Perfect little sugar sherbet confections that are lively on the tongue and make you want to dance. An antidote against the lonely inside some kids, the kids just beginning to imagine themselves. Just beginning to wonder who they might be in the future, and trying on all kinds of futures in their heads.
I started here – with the shadow of a death in 1978, and moving out of that particular house in 1983 – because I think it frames what happens next, it shapes how I unfold. Not entirely, but in part. There is no entirely anyway. No one thing explains any one thing.