Dynamite with a Laser Beam

Teens still love a Pink Floyd laser show.

Sputnik launched the Space Race and shamed a man onto the moon, but what it rarely gets credit for is birthing an art form: the psychedelic laser light show. In its wake, the US government funded hundreds of planetaria, many more than anyone needed or wanted. To compete with free love and color TV, these surplus domes were forced to diversify their programming. Enter Pink Floyd, and generations of weed-reeking teens.

This at least is how Dave McCullough tells it, and he’s basically the grandaddy of the whole laser-Floyd phenomenon. In 1970, McCullough was president of Audio Visual Imagineering, a brash upstart on the national laser scene. They’d just landed a plum contract with the Hayden Planetarium, at the Museum of Natural History in New York, where it was McCullough’s intention to blow minds—specifically those minds deadened to the splendors of his craft through prolonged exposure to Laserium, his predecessors at the Hayden. “The thing about laser shows back then,” he told me over the phone, “is most were infantile. They were just dumb.”

Laserium had been content to toss on a pop song and shoot random squiggles at the sky. Not McCullough. For AVI’s first show at the Hayden, he pioneered a new mode of laser-based expression: The Floyd songs were actually synced with the lasers, and for the first time these lasers merged to form images, rudimentary cartoons. The big-city Boomers ate it up, as did their counterparts in the provinces, whose formative experiences, enshrined in retro books and sitcoms, would lodge the Floyd show between the Tastee Freeze and Tunnel of Love in the country’s collective pop-cultural unconscious.

At the Vanderbilt Planetarium on Long Island last summer, more than half of the audience for its weekly Floyd shows was under the age of twenty-one. But Dave Bush, seated on a folding chair in the Vanderbilt’s back office, did not seem surprised. Bush is a fit, tanned tech coordinator in his mid-to-late thirties whose mellow voice, soothingly devoid of inflection, has ferried thousands through the solar system in his sixteen years at the Vanderbilt. Though he’s not much for the music (“I’m more of a Zeppelin guy,” he says) Bush came alive discussing the details of the Vanderbilt’s latest acquisition: a state-of-the-art laser machine manufactured by none other than Audio Visual Imagineering.

“I mean, lasers are lasers. I had appreciated them,” Bush said. “But this system…I’m pretty much blown away.” Audience response so far has been awed, fervid. Crowds have swelled; involuntary gasps of pleasure shot way up. That night’s Floyd show, a medley of tunes from The Wall, was set to start in just a couple of hours. In the meantime, Bush had a galaxy to lullingly explicate—already, a crowd had formed for his signature Friday night show, a freestyled tour of the cosmos—and I was left alone with Steve, Bush’s teenaged summer assistant.

I had come to the Vanderbilt with the vague notion of writing a piece on cultural memory and the waning Boomer nostalgia circuit, but Bush’s demographic breakdown instantly altered my mission. Why would teens choose to spend their Friday night here, at the Vanderbilt, reliving what could very plausibly be at this late date their grandparents’ adolescence?

One teen—impressively bearded, floridly high—had seen The Wall just last week, and was almost alarmingly eager to discuss his Floyd fandom.

“I’m a die-hard Floyd fan,” he said. “I actually want to get a Pink Floyd tattoo!” I pressed him for insight into Pink Floyd’s lasting appeal.

“I don’t want to sound politically incorrect or anything, but…” Here the boy’s voice grew quiet, confiding. I nodded, got ready to grimace. “…it’s great music to get stoned to.” I sighed in relief and, like some kind of narc, asked if he was high at that very moment.

Oh yeah,” he said. “I’ve been trying not to make eye contact with you. I didn’t want you to know.”

I was touched, and also furious, that a random teen would want to conceal his drug use from me. Had he, in his stoned delirium, somehow mistaken me for an adult? To correct this misperception, I told him that I, too, had once gotten high and watched a Pink Floyd laser light show at the Vanderbilt Planetarium.

“You did?” he asked.

I did.

I wasn’t myself a Floyd fan, and pitied my school’s small clutch of revivalists, the kids play-acting their parents’ youth in $30 Zeppelin t-shirts. I liked kazoos, peppy Scandinavian art-pop ensembles, sensitively arranged odes to mid-century Illinois senators—the vanguard of alternative youth culture, circa 2006.

My motives were more complex, or so I flattered myself at the time. Like many Americans raised outside the mainstream of US culture (in my case, as part of the vast insular world of Long Island Orthodox Jewry, with its own schools and gyms and rabbi-sanctioned Chinese restaurants) I grew up fetishizing a notion of secular teenhood gleaned mostly from films which ripped off or paid humble tribute to John Hughes’s homeroom-cosmology.

When my proto-Reddit raving about God’s non-existence got me booted to the local public school, I felt like I’d stepped into a theme park modeled on a favorite fantasy series. There they all were, just like in the movies—nerd-strangling jocks with absent fathers, imperious and unpleasant popular girls, hot-tempered proto-policemen, English teachers with boundary issues, even, incredibly, a large mohawked punk. I wanted to start a food fight, kiss a crush in the snow, brood attractively on a classmate’s suicide. I wanted to revel in suburbia, try every advertised ride, even the Floyd show, rusted as it was even then.

Weed was crucial to this project. Smoking it sent me into deranged tailspins of anxiety and self-doubt and so I smoked it constantly, hoping with sustained practice to break through to the state of slit-eyed hilarity I’d seen on reruns and the faces of better-adjusted friends. This phase of my life came to a kind of end at the Floyd show, most of which I spent ignoring the chintzy laser-shapes above me in favor of the far bleaker images taking shape in my mind—say, the workweek cubicles of the bald nostalgists surrounding us, old show posters scotch-taped to particleboardWithin an hour, the lobby was filling with Floyd fans. Bush had, if anything, drastically undersold this thing’s youth appeal: There were enough teens here to fill a small rural high school, or the cast of a racially problematic CW soap opera. There were white kids of every description: Khaki-shorted meatheads, pimpled nerds with intense stares, even a clutch of neo-hipsters with gauges and dyed hair.

Not a single one of them appeared to be high.

Take the girl standing solo by the vending machines: Anna. Had her father never shown her The Wall, would she have made it through senior year? The first half on the way to school, the second driving back—the album almost perfectly spanned the length of her commute to and from her Catholic girls’ school on the North Shore. Or the young couple by the benches: She a freshman at Berklee who sometimes slips Floyd references into her classwork, he some guy too boring to describe but nonetheless a major Floyd fan. “Today’s modern music is like, dubstep and all that stuff,” he said. “It’s not like, real music. Not many people make music like this anymore.”

The crowd lined up and filed into the theater. A wild-haired giant of a planetarium technician strolled the perimeter pointing out exits, then asked us if we were ready for The Wall. Softly someone yee-hawed, and the lights began to dim.

I am not a professionally trained laser critic. I’m not even a self-taught yet passionate laser blogger. My range of reference, when it comes to laser light shows, is limited to that one other light show I saw, ten years ago, in a state of all-consuming panic and despair. Maybe if I was less of a rube (or had even the slightest interest in the music of Pink Floyd) I’d have noticed all the ways in which the McCullough-less AVI was extending or winkingly commenting on the Pink Floyd laser show tradition. Maybe, watching that green laser-baby tumble through laser-space, I’d have had a series of thoughts along the lines of ‘This is good,’ ‘Cool, baby,’ and ‘The progenitors of punk were too quick to write off the progressive rock of the 1970s—this music is imaginative, complex, and does not make me want to puncture my eardrums with whatever instrument is handy, no matter how sharp or potentially bacteria-ridden that instrument may be.’

But those are not the thoughts I thought, sitting there.

Through the fog—the metaphorical fog of extreme boredom and the literal fog of the Vanderbilt’s brand new, room-filling fog machine—I surveyed my fellow audience members and reflected on reflection, on reflection’s purpose and utility at each stage of the middle-class suburban life-cycle.

The Boomers in the room, and the Xers too, were there for that sound that calls up all the fond associations of teenhood minus the slammed bedroom doors and failed biology finals and endless dull waiting around in parking lots and chain donut shops and half-finished basements. The teens in the audience were there to fetishize that imagined past and (though they weren’t aware of it then) to make some past of their own to fetishize in the future. The children present, the five- and eight-year-olds brought along by their parents, were there because they had no other choice and would probably not remember any of this, unless it all came flooding back to them ten years from now, high like their parents and like their parents’ parents before them, and there to see another moronic, unending Pink Floyd laser light show.

All this sociocultural theorizing, I was sad to learn, had killed only three and a half minutes. I had already resigned myself to the show never ending, to starting a new, diminished life right there in the Vanderbilt, when the show mercifully drew to a close—only to instantly start back up again with renewed intensity for a shameless and totally unwarranted encore. If I had been watching a live act, and not the pre-programmed light-pulses of a complicated slab of machinery manufactured somewhere in Florida (the exertions of which this audience nonetheless felt the need to applaud), I’d have strongly considered some light heckling. After a few more minutes of furious inactivity I was finally allowed to leave, as the lights came on and the audience filed out into the humid, rain-slicked summer night.

All this was nearly a year ago now. At the time I was miserable, I know I was miserable: Exhausted, sweaty, confused about why I’d come to the Vanderbilt at all. But time has once again done its thing. From the vantage of the always-worse-seeming present—all the mistakes and wrong turns of the last ten months laid bare—the memory of that night has already, improbably, begun to glow.