About eight years ago, I played pinball every day like a maniac. I needed a form for my life—a plan, a coagulant—and I found it in pinball. I avoided the newer games with the video screens, the five-thousand-pound advertisements for the latest Keanu Reeves movie. I was old school. A litany of names: Cyclone, Pinbot, Bride of Pinbot, Taxi, Hurricane, Whitewater, Diner, Comet.
This developed into the hobby of hunting down obscure pinball games. One of my favorite pinball machines is/was called (I swear) Al’s Garage Band Goes on a World Tour. If you shot the ball into the Drummer’s Throne, you were awarded a prize: you got to perform a drum solo by hitting the flipper buttons. The solo cranked out of the speakers, accompanied by the rat-a-tat-tat of the flippers.
My pal Gabe and I searched the towns of mid-Missouri for games to add to our Master Lists. Bowling alleys and bars, convenience stores, laundromats, sandwich counters, donut shops. We drove around in Gabe’s beat up gold-colored car. The car had a bent rearview windshield wiper that we called The Claw. We listened to music as loud as it would go. We were fucking corndogs.
(You can’t really do this anymore—the games we played back then were ten years old. Some of them are close to twenty-five years old by now. Good luck finding a Taxi that works.)
Pinball soon became an obsession. I had visions of assembling a Pinball Encyclopedia, cataloging the details of every game I could play, recording various motifs and idiosyncrasies.
Late one October afternoon, we were lost, rattling down some off-road. We could see the interstate but couldn’t figure out how to get there. The pinball that afternoon? A bust. An arcade, at the edge of a town—Shelbina, Hatton, Moberly? —had been closed. For every disappointment in pinball, there is a reward. Once, at a laundromat, I put a dollar bill in the change machine and, plop, five dollars worth of quarters fell into the tray. (Note: in pinball, the reward is not always four dollars.)
“Slanted and Enchanted” was playing. The sun sinking off to our right, hiding between thick black bare branches. It wasn’t quite afternoon anymore and it wasn’t yet evening.
“Fame Throwa” came on, introduced by that distinct drum pattern. And then: fuzzy sha-la-las, outer space distorted guitar, that shuffling beat that never quite walks straight during the verses, and the words—half-spoken, half-sung—those perfect, sing song words that sound like some kind of half-asleep football chant or nursery rhyme. Thirty-three seconds in, the song falls into a chorus, and he starts to actually sing—in falsetto, no less—about leather thighs and recruits. The beat has straightened out, and the keyboards (Q: Is it a keyboard or a distorted guitar? A: Who cares?) play this series of ghostly notes, a soundtrack to a horror movie that was never made. Everything freezes, the drummer smacks that pattern on his snare, and the entire song starts up again from the beginning.
The second time the band hit the chorus Gabe lost it: he had to stop the car, he was laughing so hard. He had heard the record maybe twice. He said: “I forgot this song did this.” What really got him was the way the words “Naked, naked, foul…” slide out of the singer’s mouth. I have now heard the song so many times that it is no longer a surprise, but I remember the first twenty, thirty times I heard it, how fresh and new the music sounded.
So: the last thirty seconds of “Fame Throwa” is straightforward—the shuffling beat has been thrown out, there are no vocals, only that beautiful ratty-ass guitar, those wild keyboards, and the thundering, dry drums—the perfect getaway music.