I was living in Hong Kong when Cosmic Thing was released on these shores, June 27, 1989, to be exact. I bought a lot of CDs there (and laserdiscs, if anyone still remembers those), but lacked guidance. Britpop was the local flavor of the former Crown Colony’s few critics, and reviews weren’t easy to access from abroad back then, as U.S. magazines like Rolling Stone took two months to cross the Pacific and cost a pretty penny to obtain. I had an undisciplined collection. Thanks to my friends I caught the XTC bug, hard; that was the foundation of my taste for my expat years. Left to my own devices, though, I floundered. Did I really buy Aretha Franklin’s Through the Storm? Yes.
So I was untutored in Cosmic Thing. The B-52’s I knew from “Rock Lobster,” which, if you were of a certain age, you drank warm beer to, then maybe broke out with feebly spasmodic, avant-garde-ish “dance” moves at college as it went on. I didn’t hear the rapture that greeted their fifth album’s release, as I sifted through unsold piles of Millie Jackson’s Back to the Shit and Pia Zadora’s Pia Z. at the maze-like CD and knockoff computer emporium near my office. (Nor, for that matter, did I hear the noise surrounding that month’s Hollywood blockbuster, Batman. It didn’t open in Hong Kong till Chinese New Year, eight months later. But of course I bought the Prince songtrack right away—you know, the one the guys in Shaun of the Dead throw at a zombie to pierce its skull, after rejecting other, better Prince albums as projectiles.)
I didn’t catch up with Cosmic Thing until October 1989, when I took my first trip to Bangkok. I bought my Walkman (cassette tape variety) and needed something to play on it, so off I went to Patpong, the city’s notorious red-light district, which is fronted by dozens of hawker stands selling everything under the sun. Now, there were more, umm, enticing things to buy, or at least rent, in Patpong. But for about a quarter I picked up a tape of Cosmic Thing, and so, among the fleshpots, began a real relationship that has lasted two decades.
If XTC was the soul of my Hong Kong experience, then Cosmic Thing was its heart. It was love at first lyric—Fred Schneider’s exhorting you to “Gyrate it till you had your fill/Just like a pneumatic drill” commands you to have fun with your ears wide open, and sets a tone that never lets up. (It’s the joyous sound of a group rediscovering itself, following a period of paralysis after the death of guitarist Ricky Wilson in 1985.) In the downloadable world I rarely buy whole albums anymore, but I wouldn’t part with a single song on Cosmic Thing, which even at its most languorous maintains a brisk pace. I can listen to it all year round, but it’s a perfect summer album, with songs that take off like theme park rides, and others that are like waking up at 11am on a vacation Tuesday morning. I’ve never, to quote “Deadbeat Club,” danced in a garden in torn sheets in the rain. I feel I have, though. And it feels good.
The song that really hooked me, though, was “Roam.” If 20 people write about music here at Popdose, then I’m about No. 25 when it comes to knowledge. So I was pleased when “Roam,” my suggestion, made it onto our recent road trip mixtape. It’s a song with special resonance for me. There I was, in Thailand, on my own, alone—a liberating but also isolating feeling. Yet I was living the very song I was listening to, as if it had been written just for me at that very moment in my life. Everyone has a musical epiphany, and this, with Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson’s shimmery vocals as transport, was mine. And I swear to you, at the instant “Around the world/The trip begins with a kiss” played, a hooker walked up to me and said, “My pussy takes Visa card for you.” Alas, no “Love Shack” for me: I only had Amex, but my night in Patpong was made.
The B-52’s next album, Good Stuff, appeared in 1992, when I was living in San Jose, CA. It didn’t make it to my next and thus far last move eastward, at the end of 1993, and was dropped off somewhere on the road, along with Aretha’s dud and other Hong Kong-era musical mistakes I had made. It’s not that there wasn’t enough good stuff on it (though consensus was there wasn’t); it’s just that it wasn’t Cosmic Thing.
The group pops up here and there on my cultural radar, notably in The Flintstones movie, as “The BC-52’s.” Today the B-52’s are no longer the B-52’s; they’re the B-52s. They record music like Stanley Kubrick made movies, with Funplex showing up in 2008—a millennium after its predecessor. I haven’t heard it. The B-52’s, as they’ll always “B” to me, had a time and a place in my life, and my eternal gratitude for Cosmic Thing, an album that remains a favorite traveling companion.