Alien signals

I have memories of long-ago Sunday nights on the road, my sister and I drowsing in the back seat, our parents driving us home from a visit to our grandparents, all ears turned in the darkness toward a public radio show called Hearts of Space.

Usually it played against the flashing lights of I-696, a Death Star trench of a highway near Detroit; otherworldly. The host intro­duced each episode basso profundo, lips against the mic. An hour of droning, chiming ambient music followed. I’m not sure I ever under­stood exactly what I was hearing. It was an alien signal.

More or less contemporaneously, I subscribed to a zine about video games called Next Generation. (There’s no rela­tion­ship to the magazine of the same name.) I became aware of its publishers in the forums on Prodigy, a crusty AOL competitor. They were a little older than me; high school kids. I think I only ever got two issues — black and white, stapled, clearly a Kinko’s production — and they, too, were alien signals. I read them and reread them, reduced them to tatters. It was adoles­cent stuff, nothing radical, but full of strange names and strange voices. The zines came from far away (California) and the only way to learn more about this group, this scene, was to wait for another issue.

A while ago, I interviewed the writer and musician John Darnielle in San Francisco. His novel Wolf in White Van is full of the pleasure and mystery of sending away for things, and that feeling is drawn from Darnielle’s life. In person, he speaks vividly about the era during which indie music was all tapes in the mail. If you wanted to hear something new and weird and great, you sent away for it. Time passed; a tape arrived. I mean, that is straight-up magic. The delay, the distance, the mystery.

I’m no nostalgist, and even if I was, there’s no going back, but I do wonder what sort of expe­ri­ence might provide that alien-signal feeling for suburban kids today? Suburban grown-ups, too. Has the internet simply anni­hi­lated it? I mean, Hearts of Space has a website. It’s really good! Today, if you discover the show on a Sunday night, you can pull out your phone and access the entire archive instantly.

I don’t want it to die out, this feeling. How might we send new signals to be received by new kids in new back seats, ferried home by new parents on new nights, all ears turned in darkness, as always, towards the mystery?

January 2015, Berkeley