Serialized specially for The Well-Red Mage, based on the podcast by Wesley Schantz
“The following is a contributor post by the Bookwarm Mage.”
Welcome back, one and all! I’m very happy to get to riff with you this week on the Runaway Five, who, in a game full of memorable characters and moments, must be some of the coolest. We’ll look at the ways EarthBound pays homage, through them, to the important influences of the Beatles, the Blues Brothers, and Mario Bros.
First, though, a shout-out this week to Charles Montgomery, faithful listener and sometime troll of Side Quests and Bookwarm Games. Charles is the co-host, with Lindsay Hill, of Drop in and Write here in Spokane, at Spark Central–do drop in and write with us if you’re in the area. He’s read everything from Virgil to Shakespeare to contemporary Korean literature, and has a website, descendingcat.com, where you can admire his web and editing work, as well.
From when I first played EarthBound as a kid, I can distinctly recall my confusion about how to get in to see the Runaway Five show. The tickets at the Twoson department store are sold out, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to get to the front of the line, or rather queue, outside the Chaos Theater. Lucky and the unnamed co-band leader standing by their bus seem upset about Paula’s kidnapping, even though they aren’t from the town, as moved by the events there as any of her neighbors. The owner, Mr Poochyfud, gloating about how the band can’t leave now, doesn’t seem to suggest any way to actually get in to see them, but again, as is suggested by the immobile queue, there doesn’t seem to be any real urgency to it, either. The Runaway Five aren’t going anywhere, despite their dynamic name.
Something about that name has always been so evocative to me. Runaway: that is, to become in fact one of those people I always read about in books, or saw in movies, or played as in video games: a person going off and having adventures, actually doing something, rather than just imagining it. But Runaway, too, implies what this would mean for the people left behind: that I’d abandoned them, that I’d taken a cowardly exit from my problems or a shortsighted one from my potential. And though in some sense the opposite of being kidnapped, it would have a similar impact on those people I cared about, who cared about me, so I never seriously considered actually running away from home. But I did play EarthBound, and I loved books about such runaways, like Maniac Magee and My Side of the Mountain. And I still do. Just this week I read Songs from Cold Mountain, that poet of clouds and moth-browed eyes and cinnamon trees, who invites the reader to abscond to the mountain with him. He’s less a runaway, maybe, than a recluse. We don’t know quite who he was; we know where he was:
Since I came to Cold Mountain
how many thousand years have passed
accepting my fate I fled to the woods
to dwell and gaze in freedom
no one visits the cliffs
forever hidden by clouds
soft grass serves as a mattress
my quilt is the dark blue sky
a boulder makes a fine pillow
Heaven and Earth can crumble and change
So in seeking Paula and trying to find a way through the tunnel to Threed, this more frivolous but somehow more immediate impulse, to get to see the Runaway Five show, plays its part. In a Rube Goldberg sequence of events worthy of any musical, farce, or comedy, rescuing Paula convinces Everdred to pay you the reward money he hinted at, and Lucky to slip you a backstage pass; that money becomes the Runaway Five’s ransom, and their tour bus in turn provides Ness and Paula with an unexpected way to get to the next town, to continue their adventure.
In case you weren’t sure before, it becomes clear that Orange Kid’s inventions are a red herring, and that Apple Kid, like Einstein, whose equations tell the awesome truth that all things are shot through with squares of light speed and thus multiply out to effectively infinite potential energy–that Apple Kid’s inventions, though they look wacky, are at once poetic and immediately practical. Even he can’t provide you with a way to pass through the tunnel, though. Still, finding a way–which is what invention means–in this case means following an impulse rather than restraining it.
The sense of release that comes through in their music, too, reflects the Runaway Five’s release from bondage. The muted rhythm of the theater transforms with their show into a melodic call and response, right, the usual chord progressions and syncopations of jazz and blues and rock ‘n roll. So it’s not the intellectuals who can find a way forward this time, it’s the artists, inarticulate as yet–for no words appear in that song they play–the musicians. Indeed, their music is the way forward, as they play so loudly on their bus and drive so recklessly–out of my way, sidewalk!–that the ghosts can’t haunt you and keep you back. Depositing you in darksome Threed, the band leaves you to cheer it with your own special brand of sunshine, and off they go to the big city. Where, you may have heard, another singer, a Twoson native, is attempting to make a name for herself: ‘vein, oh, vein something,’ as her mom says.
True to their name at last, the Runaway Five–aren’t there actually six band members on-stage, by the way, if you count the keyboardist? But anyway, they’ve left, for now. You still have their backstage pass–surprisingly, perhaps, since that fan who tagged along with you at their show even looked just like the sprite of your sister, but you didn’t give it away to her. Despite thinking nothing of giving away $10,000 or more to get the band released from their contract, I guess like the sax player you don’t want to make a spectacle of yourself. Giving away the dirty money of a crime lord with a heart of gold is one thing, but the backstage pass from the Runaway Five is priceless, like the Franklin Badge that Paula gave you when you first met, or the hand-made band-aid Paula’s mom gives you. I for one could never bring myself to actually use the Hand-aid, it held so much sentimental value. The idea of a backstage pass to the Chaos Theater–how rich with meaning is that? The game takes you in hand in the form of that fan to hustle you through the audience a bit and into the dressing room, and then onto the show, or you could well dwell on it indefinitely…
If you do get a chance to bounce around and talk to people first, you get an interesting cross-section of the reasons we continue to value live music so highly in this theater of chaos we try to call into order from time to time. Some people are there on dates, or waiting for their hapless date to show up; some are courting business partners; some hope to be seen at such an exclusive event, inflating its popularity for popularity’s sake, a mechanism all too common at the extreme end of the fame distribution today, as art for art’s sake was in an earlier generation; some hope to get the performers’ sweat or spit on them, fetishizing their youthful personae more than appreciating their musical talents; some are tone-deaf, but presumably they like the elegant circling choreography of the two singers, their slow spins and graceful dance moves.
Does that dance contrast powerfully or what with the cultists’ milling about? Is it totally off-target to suggest that the red zigzag patterns in the theater, as well as the stage and general vibe, might remind you of Twin Peaks? That’s a rabbit hole I don’t want to go tumbling down right now, though…
I think the more relevant references are those I mentioned at the outset: first, to the Beatles. The name Runaway Five in EarthBound’s English translation conjures the Fab Four, and thus continues the running joke incorporating the Beatles into the game. Here’s a song not explicitly alluded to, but thematically appropriate:
She’s leaving home… As if the general idea of being a runaway weren’t appealing enough, this all connotes the dream of being a rock star, mixing desire with cultural memories of that archetypal pop sensation. You can see the footage of bemused boys descending the jetway stairs and the crowds of screaming, weeping fans; four boyish faces grinning and head-bobbing, mop-tops flapping, onstage, and all through the hall hands raised and voices wailing in ecstasy at the least strum of a chord.
The Beatles stand for so much more than their music, but again, the music is the vehicle for the dream. And the music itself is on a journey. The Beatles’ sound famously developed from album to album through the years, and for all their simple or profound songwriting, depending on when and how you look at those different stages, it remained indebted to a much deeper well than the pop they helped to bring about: the well of rhythm and blues, the same as is thumping along in the Chaos Theater before and after and beneath the Runaway Five show.
So the next thing this brings us to is The Blues Brothers, that classic movie with its non-stop parade of iconic musical artists, that bizarrely popular late fruit of the tree with such deep roots which also gave the world Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit.’ Nothing so profound as that is anywhere present in Blues Brothers, of course. Nor for all its explosions does the movie touch the heat of John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom,’ though he has a cameo in the film; for all its winsome cultural cachet, it has nothing on Louis Armstrong’s ‘West End Blues’ or ‘(What did I do to be so) Black and Blue’…
And that should give us pause. For all the rollicking good times we get in Blues Brothers, they’re predicated on some deeply strange and sad foundations. The premise is that they need money. Why do they need this money? They’re not only broke, but they’ve just been released from jail. They need to get the band back together not only to save the nuns and the Catholic orphanage where they grew up, but because they’re heart-broken to see the place come to such a pass. Such great jams and car-chases ensue, but where do the brothers derive their musical ideas, their power to work this modest miracle? They get inspiration at a black church, and their music, like the Beatles’ and the Runaway Five’s, is nourished by soul and gospel and jazz and blues, domains of African American experience rendered in musical form, appropriated and popularized by each new rock star, to say nothing of theater owners and record- or ticket-buying masses.
The word appropriation gets tossed around a lot, of course, but I’m using it here if possible not as a shibboleth but in its straightforward, non-technical ascription. I mean to say just that this music is on a journey, and is a journey; that it possesses and is possessed by many creators and listeners, is the property in turn of interpreters of many backgrounds; and where it will go next escapes our ken, until perhaps we catch up to it again. I only recently started listening to Kendrick Lamar, so I’m not claiming to be in a place to say anything authoritative about musical matters as they stand, but I hope it goes without saying that I think people should be free to listen to or make whatever kind of music they like, without any backstage pass other than their own good will. Authenticity–not the prerogative of any in- or out-group but that which makes truth possible to share between people–crucially, authenticity, too, is that which makes forgiveness possible, because it makes apology possible first, repays patience, permits second and seventh and seventy-seventh chances to make things right. And everyone has it, authenticity, as part of that God-given potential that’s everyone’s human right, and with it the responsibility to cultivate it and their sense of it, their judgment, by patient attention to the best examples they can find. For me at least, that’s these games and movies and reading and music, which I never tire of admiring and sharing with you.
And that seems to be the message of Blues Brothers, too, from their disastrous first attempts at gigs to their climactic escape from the big show in the palatial theater, with all that driving around with the theme music thumping like a heart. We can all feel how vibrant real music is. We all yearn for it, and we miss it when it’s gone. When it’s imprisoned or fugitive we cheer it out and on. When it’s disguised we urge it to let fall the mask. But tastes also move on, and demographics in neighborhoods, and church attendance and collection-plate giving all shift, and so we better boogie to stay free to make and listen and testify when the spirit moves. “For the healing of the nations,” that’s that well again, watering the tree of life. I came across it recently in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, of all places, which I also just tried reading for the first time. Try that, reading Spenser alongside Cold Mountain and Kendrick Lamar. And EarthBound. That’s the American experiment, to me. That’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness again, bound up inextricably with all that is meant by the blues. It can’t be an accident that the happy happyists chant and paint things and robe themselves not in green, green, or some other cheerful springtime color that pops, but in blue, blue, that deep well, which is bitter as tears and also sunshiny as smiles.
I never tire of wondering how that poor lost Mr Saturn wound up in Happy Happy Village, where he wisely keeps his door shut, yet his house manages, like the Lilliput Steps, to avoid the veneer of blue. Maybe he’s there to keep an eye on everything, to encourage Paula and keep her company while she waits patiently until Ness shows up…
Anyhow, it just seems obvious that if you take a hard line and focus on what gets brought under the term appropriation in the narrower sense, art itself stagnates, balkanizes, or what depressing metaphor you will. And you’re no longer allowed to read Mark Twain or William Faulkner, who appropriate black speech quite appropriately, or Frederick Douglass for that matter, who appropriates white rhetoric so effectively that early readers denied that he could have written the narrative of his own life. Always a perilous denial. So if you haven’t read those, or listened to those other artists mentioned above, probably you should just hit pause on reading this and Google them. Look up duende while you’re at it. A kind of Spanish blues, duende is supposed to come up through the dancer’s feet from the dark earth. Or look up Brazil’s choros or saudade, a couple more things I wish I knew more about, and let me know what you find. Wherever you look, you’ll find something like the blues in the folk music of every people around the world.
All through Andalusia, from the rock of Jaén to the snail’s-shell of Cadiz, people constantly talk about the duende and recognise it wherever it appears with a fine instinct. That wonderful singer El Lebrijano, creator of the Debla, said: ‘On days when I sing with duende no one can touch me.’: the old Gypsy dancer La Malena once heard Brailowsky play a fragment of Bach, and exclaimed: ‘Olé! That has duende!’ but was bored by Gluck, Brahms and Milhaud. And Manuel Torre, a man who had more culture in his veins than anyone I’ve known, on hearing Falla play his own Nocturno del Generalife spoke this splendid sentence: ‘All that has dark sounds has duende.’ And there’s no deeper truth than that. — Federico Garcia Lorca
But when you’re ready to go on with the rest of this essay, I hope you’ll bear with me in talking about something else which I might not have done enough with so far: video games. For all that I draw out my tendentious tender connections between EarthBound and many other media, I’ve spoken relatively little about other games. But in the two singers who most embody the Runaway Five ethos–in Japanese they’re called Tonzura Brothers, which means running away–I also see a fairly unmistakable allusion to Nintendo’s most iconic franchise, Super Mario Bros. Just as Nintendo became the quintessential home video game system–Famicom in Japan, echoing family (recall EarthBound is Mother 2, and in Mother the hero’s name is Ninten, and how Ness is an anagram of SNES)–so the Mario Bros. titles are the quintessential games.
Mario and Luigi are the global culture’s latest manifestation of that same principle which yields Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, or Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee, Huck and Jim, Jacob and Esau, Gilgamesh and Enkidu. We like our heroes to have at least a couple of aspects to their nature, and we like to dramatize this by having separate characters, at times distinguishing them physically, at times psychologically, then at times letting them be more unified as to their shared purpose. For Mario and Luigi, it’s rescuing Princess Toadstool and the Mushroom Kingdom from Bowser, the turtle-dragon, and his brood; for the Runaway Five, as we’ve seen, it’s recovering their own ideal, ‘freedom, freedom, that’s what we really sought.’ And yet the method, in both cases, is musically accompanied movement, the enacting of that freedom: in Mario Bros., running fast, jumping high, flying, lobbing fireballs, gaining extra lives. It’s the ultimate wish-fulfillment, ultimate verve, rejoicing in simple skill; instant gratification blended with variation, pique, challenge; engagement in that larger goal of rescue and release, within the larger-still game of the pursuit of happiness, of course, and of learning and sharing some glimpse of the truth, which is the game beyond all games–to riff on the popular hymn.
The Mario Bros. are the ultimate of what they are, whether in the original or Mario 3 or World or 64 or Kart or Smash or Galaxy or the new Odyssey. Basically, these are perfect games. They’ve given rise to a lively culture of folks striving to play them perfectly, too, much in the way that a virtuoso performer will take on a violin concerto. I’d certainly pay to see that live, a perfectly-played game, and many people do, usually for charitable causes. Playing the music from them live is another form this motivation takes. The Mario Bros. music, as well as EarthBound’s and other iconic touchstones like Studio Ghibli’s, have delightful covers you can find by bands like Meine Meinung–highly recommended for whenever you need to come up for air from your dive into jazz and the blues–
So, to recap: we descended into chaos, because that rocks. We heard about another Twosonite who’s gone off to seek her fortune. And the music moved us on to the next town at last. We thought a little about the Beatles, Blues Brothers and Mario Bros., and about the brilliant music that flows into and out of them again, the tide of the blues. We hopefully said some helpful things about appropriation and authenticity; if not, like the kid in the preschool, I beg your pardon. Next week we’ll have another dialogue essay, and then it’s on to Threed! Until then, take care.
Drop in and Write: https://spark-central.org/community-programs/
Charles’ site: descendingcat.com
Red Pine’s translation of Songs from Cold Mountain: http://library.globalchalet.net/Authors/Poetry%20Books%20Collection/The%20Collected%20Songs%20of%20Cold%20Mountain.pdf
Twin Peaks zigzags and red curtains: http://www.glgr.com/pdp-twin-peaks/
The Beatles arrive: https://www.beatlesbible.com/1964/02/07/beatles-american-invasion-begins/
The Blues Brothers: https://www.oscars.org/collection-highlights/blues-brothers
Garcia Lorca on duende: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Spanish/LorcaDuende.php
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