“Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”

Gary Numan emerged from backstage with a deep bow and a dramatic flourish of his gangly arms. Sweat dripped from his hair and smeared the eyeliner darkening his eyes. He’d already blasted the audience at Salt Lake City’s Metro Music Hall for an hour and a half with industrial beats, synthesized noise, and screaming guitars. And he looked tired. But he peered out at his fans through dark locks of hair and flashed a genuine smile of thanks.

To open the first of his two encores, he reached back to the beginning of his decades-long career and crooned, It’s cold outside, And the paint’s peeling off the walls, There’s a man outside, In a long coat, grey hat, smoking a cigarette, Now the lights fade out, And I’m wondering what I’m doing in a room like this. A lot of musicians use their songs to tell stories. Not a lot use them to tell horror stories.

Numan set the stage, described his dilapidated surroundings, and established some vague danger lurking on the periphery. He scared us out of complacency. He let us know, in no uncertain terms, that, despite the gentle synth groove and inviting vocals, he was not interested in your usual pop music fare. When he arrived at the climax of the song––where he finally asks the question articulated in the title––he turned his mic on the audience to let us shout the lyrics at him, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?!” Maybe, the song asked, all our friends are robots and there’ll be no one left for us to love once they short circuit. The real horror had little to do with the threat lurking outside. The real horror, Numan suggested, was in the paranoia he felt at the loss of genuine connection.

*

I bring an end to this record today. For three years now, I feel like I’ve moved from one crisis to another, managing one just long enough to prevent the next from drowning me. It was like someone trapped me in a room with water levels that rose steadily until all the oxygen got trapped in the two inches of atmosphere at the ceiling. Left to tread water, I let my school, work, and interpersonal relationships suffer so that I could survive. I found four points of contact in the corner of the room long enough to pass my qualifying exams, but now, the aching in my muscles demand that I either tread water again or dive deep to force a drain open somewhere.

Maybe this is how the paint in Numan’s room started peeling off the walls. Its occupant found the drain hidden in the corner, cleaned out the gunk, and waited for the water to wash away. Looking for a way to escape, he peered outside and found a nefarious looking man pacing the sidewalk waiting. The wet lights blinked and sputtered out. Cold and shaking, he hoped that the flint of talent and chert of inspiration was enough to light up the room. With each click, click, click, the darkness blinked from existence and the light…

 

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