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Blinded By the Lights

A study in stimulated emissions and musical phantasms at the Moldy Oldy Laser Show Festival.

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There is something hilarious about the mere mention of the word "laser" -- the way Mike Myers' Dr. Evil torturously elongates it; its delightful use as a proper noun on American Gladiators. It is both harshly futuristic and disarmingly retro at the same time.

"Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation." I used to repeat it like a mantra back in my prepubescent mathlete days when the recitation of scientific acronyms could very well be the zenith of a Saturday night's activities. But a couple years later in high school, when I was trying to unsuccessfully woo potential paramours with dates to a laser rock interpretation of the Doors' oeuvre, "Stimulated Emission" had taken on an entirely new meaning. The announcement that the Pink Palace was reviving the tradition of rock-oriented laser-light shows for the Moldy Oldy Laser Show Festival was more than enough to trigger those foggy memories of yore. And if I seem blinded by nostalgia, please forgive me -- for the lights have just been dimmed, there are luminescent Spirograph designs shimmering above, and the really rocking part of that song that we've all heard a thousand times before is about to begin

In 1982, the Pink Palace presented its very first laser rock show. Not surprisingly, it was Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, the urtext of laser rock albums. (Like most rock-music laser-light shows staged by planetariums, it had the dual purpose of increasing awareness of the museum's facilities and, perhaps more importantly, raising funds.) Dark Side of the Moon is a perfect choice for a laser-light show. Its synthesis of commercial pop and cynical psychedelia appeals to successive generations of rock neophytes. The album cover accurately depicts the prismatic process that the Pink Palace's Spectra Physics 164 White Light Multigas Laser uses to create every color within the visible spectrum. Even its very title must surely endear it to rock laserists, who are often lovers, if not students, of astronomy.

Twenty years after the original programs, the Sharpe Planetarium at the Pink Palace is reviving several of its archived laser-light shows. Humbly titled the Moldy Oldy Laser Show Festival, it has resurrected the Beatles, Metallica, Pink Floyd, and Pearl Jam laser shows for weekends in the month of June. The title of the festival refers as much to the dated technology as it does to the classic-rock tunes and is designed to complement the new exhibit "Behind the Scenes: Curious Collections of the Pink Palace." The shows themselves were all designed by relatively ancient software running on DOS. They have been archived on ADAT media, like prehistoric weevils suspended in amber.

Anthony Hale, who now runs the IMAX theater at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, created all of the original shows that constitute the Moldy Oldy festival. Although it is currently impossible to edit these archived programs, there is still a little wiggle room for improvised visualizations. Currently, the two main rock laserists are Ben F. Hudgens, planetarium coordinator, and Kathey Nix, theaters manager. In addition to the archived shows, Hudgens and Nix are able to use an array of supplemental light effects. On a handmade console, there are over 20 different effects with such imaginative labels as "Ferris Wheels," "Jailbars," and the refreshingly licentious "Boobs." Now, don't worry, champions of decency, the shows are approved for all ages. None of the rock songs contain profanity and these un-anatomically correct laser "Boobs" more closely resemble water balloons filled with neon tetra.

Most sources point to Los Angeles' Laserium as the location of the first rock laser show. Ivan Dryer, an astronomer-turned-filmmaker, somehow convinced the Griffith Observatory that it would be a good idea to let a gaggle of drug-addled teens gather in the planetarium on weekend nights to get their collective gourds rattled by a "light and music phantasma." On November 19, 1973, the first Laserium concert was staged with Dryer manually operating the laser squiggles to accompanying music. Dryer took baby steps to rockville at first, mixing in Emerson, Lake, and Palmer with classical music by Copland and Holst. But it wasn't long before rock became the music of choice for the Laserium, and within months, they were turning away crowds of suburban stoners. (Sadly, after 28 years, the Laserium closed its doors, but after a year, it is planning to reopen and saddle itself with the already dated moniker Cyberdome.)

Over the mid-'70s, the worlds of science and rock continued their ardent flirtation. Rock bands began taking elaborate laser-based shows on the road. Blue Oyster Cult shot lasers from their wrists with custom-built blasters. Kiss knockoffs Angel stupefied audiences with holographic seraphim. And planetariums around the country began creating their own laser rock shows. Attending these programs while sauced on psychedelics became a rite of passage for America's teahead teens.

Most people of my generation (X) seem to have at least one pleasant memory of attending a laser rock show, no matter how inchoate it may be. I will never forget my own transcendent glee during a presentation of laser AC/DC. Timed to throb with the chorus of "Big Balls," two perfect neon-green circles coruscated above while I thrilled at being allowed, nay, encouraged, to yell "big balls!" in a museum setting. And it is certainly the low-tech imagery that gives the programs in the Moldy Oldy festival a quaint charm. The title is not just self-deprecating. "We didn't want people to be disappointed in the limitations of the laser shows," says Nix. It's true -- many screensavers are like Jerry Bruckheimer "blow-'em-up" productions compared to the line-art animations of these retro creations.

But viewers last week at the festival didn't seem to mind the simplistic renderings. Personally, I was impressed with the economic use of the laser images. For instance, the benign helicopter used to bring the Fab Four in for a landing during "Help" looked awfully similar to the war machine used at the beginning of "One" by Metallica. But one aspect of the shows was decidedly high-tech: the sound. Over 12 kilowatts power a six-track sound system that, on certain magical nights, can creep into the three-digit decibel range. The Metallica connoisseur and photographer I brought along last Friday reported hearing elements in songs he had never heard before. "The only time I have ever listened to Metallica louder than that," he said, "Metallica was in the same room."

The phenomenon of laser rock declined in popularity in the '90s, and the fate of future Pink Palace shows is dependent on the success of the Moldy Oldy Laser Show Festival. There are some permanent shows on the schedule, however. In November, the museum will revive its annual holiday show with Mannheim Steamroller performing Christmas carols. In February 2003, Pink Floyd's -- you guessed it -- Dark Side of the Moon will be played in its entirety. And, of course, next month will mark the 20th year of Elvis Presley's Legacy in Lights, timed to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the King's death. Easily the museum's most popular laser show, it also contains hundreds of exclusive slides of Elvis and chronologically traces him through his Sun, Hollywood, and concert years.

In a great episode of Freaks and Geeks, a short-lived TV show about early '80s teenagers, the stoner kids are all set to enjoy an evening of Pink Floyd at the local Laser Dome and, in anticipation, are yelling "Floyd rules!" and "Comfortably Numb!" But instead of the otherworldly strains of Pink Floyd, "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" kicks in while the laser depicts cowboy boots and anthropomorphic cacti. The looks on their despondent faces are priceless as the kids begin to realize they have accidentally attended Southern Rock Night at the Laser Dome. It's a scene that I can imagine happened when the Pink Palace temporarily abandoned laser rock and took a mistress. And that mistress' name was laser country. Garth Brooks was the only artist the Pink Palace tried. Country fans showed up for a couple of weeks then stayed away in drawling droves. Laser and rock -- why try to break up a good thing? But experiment and failure are part of the scientific method. Maybe I learned something at the museum after all.

The Moldy Oldy Laser Show Festival

The Pink Palace Museum and Planetarium

Running through June 29th

Fridays: 8:30 p.m., The Beatles; 10 p.m., Metallica

Saturdays: 8:30 p.m., Pink Floyd; 10 p.m., Pearl Jam

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