Thursday, 16 September 2010

Before they were famous

Returning from my second stint in Japan in summer 1990, I made a wrong turn in 1991/1992, enrolling in Memphis State University's graduate program in urban planning. It's a topic I'm still very much interested in, and arguably it's a more pertinent discipline now than ever, but two events convinced me to quit after just one year. The first was a visit to observe a meeting of the Memphis and Shelby County Land Use Control Board, which was dominated by property developers, each of whom recused themselves from cases in which they were conflicted, and all of whom clearly scratched each other's backs in the pursuit of ever-greater urban sprawl. I found it to be a sickening display. The second was an encounter with a student just completing the program, who had quit a job as an engineer with BellSouth and racked up a lot of debt in pursuing the degree, only to find himself facing the prospect of earning less than as a telecom engineer, if he could get a job at all. I decided I would ride out the rest of the year and move on.

Sometime late in that spring semester of 1992, I was walking across campus when I heard a sampled drumbeat in the distance, with a whirling, Middle Eastern shawm-like sound above it. I followed the sound to the front of the student center building, where a P.A. system had been set up, and this group of very enthusiastic young people was dancing around before the sound segued into this very song. I think it was late afternoon on a Friday, and Memphis State then being predominantly a commuting school with lots of kids working part-time jobs to make ends meet, there was only a handful of people around, perhaps 30 or so. Unfortunately, just as the song began to move into high gear, the power died. I and a few of the other onlookers waited around for ten minutes or so, but there was no sign of the power being restored, and the poor band looked very disappointed. I finally decided to cut out. A few months later, watching MTV one night, I worked out who the unfortunate group had been, and I wished that I'd hung on a bit longer, just in case someone found that uncooperative fuse.

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