Over in Silver Spring, Maryland there’s a Funhouse pinball machine inside a gas station that I call the Jesus Gas Station. I think it’s an Exxon or a Chevron, I can’t remember, and who looks at gas station names anyway? Jesus Fish decorate the outside of the building, but that’s the limit of the religious stuff. Except for the fish and the Funhouse in the corner, the Jesus Gas Station is your average American gas station and convenience store; a couple of aisles of snacks, coolers of colorful drinks, jugs of antifreeze and bottles of oil. There’s also a weird sign stuck to the wall next to the cashier:
—BLACK AND TANS
… BUT TRY TO HAVE A NICE DAY!
A pinball game in a gas station is very rare. A classic game from 1990 is unheard of, and for a game made so long ago, the Jesus Gas Station Funhouse is in decent shape.
I always wonder how pinball machines arrive where they are in the world. I invent scenarios and situations, and for this particular Jesus Gas Station Funhouse I envision an imaginary gas station owner who bought the thing at an auction. Or won it in a Super Bowl bet. Maybe it was a door prize gag at his regular Wednesday night bingo, or maybe his dad was a pinball engineer and even though Pinball Dad was crushed when his son realized a life long dream of opening a gas station instead of following in Pinball Dad’s pinball footsteps, maybe Pinball Dad willed the machine to his son anyway.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I drove out to the Jesus Gas Station to perform a pinball experiment, but the Funhouse was turned off. A huge box of trash bags was carelessly resting on top of the machine.
I hate the sight of a turned off pinball machine. It reminds me of grim death.
I asked the cashier if the machine was working. (In my experience, people forget to turn machines on. It happens more than you’d think.)
“Oh no, I mean yeah, it’s broken. Guy’s supposed to come fix it this afternoon.”
On the drive home I was tempted to construct a metaphor for the popularity of pinball in the modern age using a dusty, shut off pinball machine with boxes stacked on top of the glass, but I didn’t.
Most pinball games have a theme, and Funhouse’s theme is straightforward: an evil marionette named Rudy has taken over a carnival. The goal is to put Rudy to sleep by making a clock on the game advance to midnight. (Yeah I know, kind of strange, but I guess marionettes who come to life via magic and treachery and then take over carnivals don’t like it when it’s midnight, something to do with the darkness reminding them of their boxes where their manipulators store them after the marionette show, reminding them of the time back before the treachery, back when they were just wooden puppets and not evil entities.) Rudy’s disembodied head is on the playfield, in the upper right hand section of the game and his eyes and mouth open and close when he taunts you. You advance the clock by hitting various targets, ramps and alleys. When the clock reaches 11:30, you lock a ball at the top of the game. When it’s 11:45, you lock a second ball, and then you get multiball by flipping the ball into Rudy’s mouth.
A quick but crucial aside here: until about five years ago, I ignored The Stooges, when theoretically, I should have loved them. I loved dumb, repetitive rock and roll, and I worked at my college radio station and a record store. I played in bands, I mean there were bands everywhere, seven inches and cassette tapes galore. Bands sleeping on the floor, bands calling on the phone, asking for shows. Bands silk-screening t-shirts in the living room.
My girlfriend owned Funhouse, the second album by The Stooges, on vinyl. We listened to it once and declared it “hard rock with crazy sax,” and that was that. We filed the information away and forgot all about The Stooges.
I didn’t put the two things together, the pinball machine with the marionette and the brutal record with the man whooping and screaming until earlier this year, during a cold February afternoon that I spent hanging out playing Funhouse at a pool hall with my friend Ken. We’d been jamming on the thing pretty hard and I think we were doing okay, probably a little better than okay, when another friend walked in, pointed at the game, and made an Iggy Pop joke. He might have even mimicked the bass line to the song “Funhouse,” I can’t remember.
I say we were doing okay because I don’t remember our scores at all. My friends and I don’t play pinball that way. We don’t play to get high scores. We play to win more games. We play to keep the afternoon (or evening) going. I monitor my score while I’m playing, but once I win a free game, I forget about scores. Our common definition of pinball success is free games. It’s not about insane scores. It’s about economic thrift. It’s about dumping five bucks worth of quarters into a machine and playing for an hour and a half straight, racking up credits, dividing the worth of those twenty quarters again and again. If a single game costs 50 cents, but you win three free games off those two quarters, each game has cost you 15 cents.
When I returned to the Jesus Gas Station the next day, the Funhouse was turned on. I played a quick game to make sure everything was shipshape, then I put my headphones on and started a second game.
I like to challenge myself with pinball. I no longer ask myself, Can I get an extra ball? (I usually can) or, Can I win a free game? (I can, sometimes, if all goes well.)
My pinball experiment was to play a single game of Funhouse for the entire seven minutes and forty-five seconds of the song called “Funhouse” which is on the album of the same name by The Stooges. (I called this experiment Funhouse on Funhouse. Technically, it was Funhouse on “Funhouse” on Funhouse, but that’s just crazy talk.) Even for someone as experienced as myself, an average pinball game lasts three to four minutes. I would have to perform at the top of my game and I couldn’t make too many mistakes.
After my test game, I put eight quarters in, which gave me six credits. I slipped my headphones on, started up “Down on the Street,” and began to play another test game, so I could fine tune the music and make sure it was loud enough to blot out any audible cues from the machine. I also wanted to see if I could play with my headphones on.
I made it all the way through the first song and then, two minutes into the second song, “Loose,” I got a multiball. Under my breath, I howled along with Iggy as he yelped and coaxed a solo out of Ron Asheton.
On my first try with the song “Funhouse” I got about four minutes into the song and then I lost my last ball. I started the song over, and pressed start on the machine. I did awful on my second game, lost my last ball two minutes in, and then I played five or six painfully average games in a row. It was getting hot in the gas station, and I had to put more quarters into the machine.
Finally, everything fell into place during a single game. Once I hit the five-minute mark, I knew I was going to make it. I didn’t cheat by holding the ball with the flipper, either; I kept playing my game. I locked two balls, and I even won an extra ball in there somewhere. The song boiled in my ears and blended with the machine and I got really into the bass for some reason, it started sounding like a foghorn. And then I was flipping my way through a multiball, and then, yes, I won a free game, but I was immersed in the song, it was all I could think about, the song took over my head and I kept playing pinball but in a way I forgot I was playing pinball? I mean, for a moment the gas station fell away, and I’d been re-reading Moby-Dick so when Iggy yelled at the saxophone to “Blow!” I got confused and all I could think of was the Pequod, and then Iggy was Ahab and Rudy was Iggy, and marionettes were harpooning whales, and saxophone players were signaling to the others on the Pequod to get ready for a whale chase, and I ended up playing a couple of minutes into the next song, “L.A. Blues”. I think my final tally was somewhere around 14 million points, but like I said, I really don’t keep track of my score.