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 Colonyâ€™s few critics, and reviews werenâ€™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 Franklinâ€™s Through the Storm? Yes.
So I was untutored in Cosmic Thing. The B-52â€™s I knew from â€œRock Lobster,â€ which, if you were of a certain age, you drank warm beer to, then maybe broke out with feebly spasmodic, avant-garde-ish â€œdanceâ€ moves at college as it went on. I didnâ€™t hear the rapture that greeted their fifth albumâ€™s release, as I sifted through unsold piles of Millie Jacksonâ€™s Back to the Shit and Pia Zadoraâ€™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 monthâ€™s Hollywood blockbuster, Batman. It didnâ€™t open in Hong Kong till Chinese New Year, eight months later. But of course I bought the Prince songtrack right awayâ€”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 didnâ€™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 cityâ€™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 lyricâ€”Fred Schneiderâ€™s exhorting you to â€œGyrate it till you had your fill/Just like a pneumatic drillâ€ commands you to have fun with your ears wide open, and sets a tone that never lets up. (Itâ€™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 wouldnâ€™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 itâ€™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. Iâ€™ve never, to quote â€œDeadbeat Club,â€ 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 â€œRoam.â€ If 20 people write about music here at Popdose, then Iâ€™m about No. 25 when it comes to knowledge. So I was pleased when â€œRoam,â€ my suggestion, made it onto our recent road trip mixtape. Itâ€™s a song with special resonance for me. There I was, in Thailand, on my own, aloneâ€”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 Piersonâ€™s shimmery vocals as transport, was mine. And I swear to you, at the instant â€œAround the world/The trip begins with a kissâ€ played, a hooker walked up to me and said, â€œMy pussy takes Visa card for you.â€ Alas, no â€œLove Shackâ€ for me: I only had Amex, but my night in Patpong was made.
The B-52â€™s next album, Good Stuff, appeared in 1992, when I was living in San Jose, CA. It didnâ€™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 Arethaâ€™s dud and other Hong Kong-era musical mistakes I had made. Itâ€™s not that there wasnâ€™t enough good stuff on it (though consensus was there wasnâ€™t); itâ€™s just that it wasnâ€™t Cosmic Thing.
The group pops up here and there on my cultural radar, notably in The Flintstones movie, as â€œThe BC-52â€™s.â€ Today the B-52â€™s are no longer the B-52â€™s; theyâ€™re the B-52s. They record music like Stanley Kubrick made movies, with Funplex showing up in 2008â€”a millennium after its predecessor. I havenâ€™t heard it. The B-52â€™s, as theyâ€™ll always â€œBâ€ 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.