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Editor's note: Larry Ellis is a Lecturer Sr. in the ASU Department of English, as well as an English alumnus (MA 1997; PhD 2003). His undergraduate degree in history, also from ASU (1975), inspired the piece below. He teaches and researches on topics related to literature and folklore; he is also a new affiliate of the Creative Writing Program. See how many literary and pop culture references you can count here ...
"Astronomy for Non-Physics Majors" was the name of the class, and it was just the ticket for an indolent history student who needed a science elective to graduate. The instructor reminded me of Professor Peter Schickele, musical satirist and pioneer scholar of the work of P.D.Q. Bach (composer of "The Short-Tempered Clavier," "The Pervertimento for Bagpipe, Bicycle, and Balloons," and other masterworks of the Baroque canon). I had seen him perform at Gammage earlier that year, dressed in his signature ragged tux and tails and looking like he had spent the day drinking cleaning fluids with Tom Waits.
Granted, our professor was more presentable, but he had a casual attitude toward grooming that was typical of the day. Equally desultory was his teaching style, in content but not enthusiasm anticipating Carl Sagan's Cosmos. No arcane formulae or theoretical hijinks here, which was Jim Dandy with me and, I'm guessing, the rest of the class.
And yet, there was one student who demanded more. She insisted on full immersion baptism in the solid truths of the hard sciences—unlikely in a class no more challenging than an episode of Nova. Repeatedly, she annoyed our good-natured, disheveled professor by insisting on the numbers behind the concepts. Nothing less would suffice. On the day dedicated to Einstein, he granted her request.
For a full 45 minutes, he filled two blackboards from corner to corner, from top to bottom with the horror vacui of a medieval Irish illuminator. The script, for all we knew, was Sumerian cuneiform, and the language he chanted was the sacred lingo of Newton's calculus, which confounded us all. When finished, he turned to his tormentor, placed his hands on her desk, and looking her dead in the eye inquired,
There is a lesson here: When you are offered life's simple gifts, act in the spirit of the Shaker hymnist and don't ask stupid questions—these will serve only to draw you into Bunyan's Slough of Logos, where the soul of the free-thinking anarchist is suffocated in the mire of rational inquiry.
We were liberal arts majors for the most part, lazy buggers all, dedicated to the Gentleman's B and the novels of Hermann Hesse and Richard Brautigan. We watched Nova.
Bluegrass was our music of choice. On weekends, we hung in dance venues like The Blue Goat Pub, just north of the power plant on University and McClintock. Clad in denim, flannel, and desert boots, we saw ourselves as back country farmers just in town for a hoedown after locking up the plow and stabling the jenny mule. We leapt, stomped, and flailed to the old-timey stylings of Thunderchicken, Yesterday's Wine, and the Normal Brothers, afterwards resting over pitchers and discussing the respective merits of Steppenwolf and Trout Fishing in America.
When disco entered the Tempe music scene, we knew we had met our nemesis. Legend attributed its sudden appearance to the vile treachery of the Bee Gees, once honest rockers who sold their souls to Barry Manilow for enchanted sequin-studded jumpsuits. It was the Apollo to our Dionysus—measured, precise, hygienic. Its stilted, four-on-the-floor choreography brooked no variation, and the Village of the Damned stares of its devotees confirmed our worst nightmare: that Cthulhu had emerged from centuries of hibernation in his underwater realm to devour the souls of men.
Daily, scores of bluegrassers succumbed to the wiles of the Arch-Fiend, trading honest wool and cotton for polyester and the beery honky-tonk for the throbbing pleasure domes of Xanadu. Some pressed their denim, donned pearl button shirts and neatly blocked Stetsons, and sought compromise in the insidious hybrid of country swing, where the boogie is corn-fed and the evenings end with ostrich-skin Tony Lamas tapping their heels to the Cotton-Eyed Joe.
Like the esoteric cipher of my astronomy professor, the disco floor and its curious rituals baffled us, as did the allure of the order, clear design, and conformity promised by both. And like the disco folk we scorned, my pesky classmate longed only to dance to the Music of the Spheres. For her, the barriers of high mathematics proved impassable. Perhaps the accessible arithmetic of the Hustle and the high-hat cymbal was what she needed—certainly not the grungy anarchism that drove our ragged band of brothers.
The Blue Goat Pub is closed now, but what of disco? Merely a campy relic, or has its dark heart retreated to a hidden place where it awaits a Yeatsian Second Coming? You should take care, for even in the safety of your favorite natural foods grocery, you may hear the Call of Cthulhu in the seemingly innocuous thrump of the house muzak.
Image 1: An example of true '70s style on the ASU campus. "Student demonstrates a new craze - the skateboard." Photo from ASU Libraries. UP UPC ASUG S882 1970s #9.
Image 2: A blackboard used by Albert Einstein in a 1931 lecture in Oxford; on permanent display in the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. Photo by decltype on Wikimedia.
Image 3: Blue Goat Pub, ca. 1975, from Phoenix, Arizona Historical Images on Google+.
Image 4: A business called Elite Cabaret resides at the address of the former Blue Goat Pub, 910 N. McClintock in Tempe. Is disco to blame? Photo from Elite Cabaret's Twitter page.