By Joel Francis
We never had cable television in our house when I was growing up. Some people are surprised when I reveal this tidbit, but I don’t think one would have to scratch to deeply to tie this to my long-running obsession with pop culture.
As a child this was no big deal, but as I got older being disconnected from the great mainstream fountain of MTV put my sister and I severely out of the loop.
To plug into the cultural zeitgeist we had to go to the Mecca of the cutting-edge, St. Joseph, Mo. There, at our grandparents’ house, we got to gorge on cable programming and feast on the forbidden MTV. Thanksgiving and Christmas were the best. With two extended breaks within a month of each other, my sister and I could catch up on all the Yo! MTV Raps, Club MTV, Headbanger’s Ball and Street Party we could get away with.
Our system was both simple and foolproof. The main TV in my grandparents’ house was in the basement by the fireplace. My sister would position herself at the bottom of the steps (with the door “accidentally” closed at the top), and I would hover my finger over the “previous channel” button on the remote, ready for her signal.
In that basement we saw the videos for Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “November Rain,” U2’s “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” and Michael Jackson’s “Jam” for the first time. We witnessed the evolution of Kurt Cobain, performing with cheerleaders, hanging on a cross and eventually playing unplugged in a natty sweater. We also saw the hot dance moves I knew my hopelessly uncoordinated body would never let me conquer. Armed with this information, we would return to school and be in the know until Valentine’s Day. In that brief window, all of our touchstones would begin to stale until we were once again relegated to the sidelines and second-hand video knowledge.
Of course watching that much MTV could only lead to premarital sex and other inappropriate behavior, but if our parents cared they didn’t let on much. They were probably just happy my sister and I weren’t fighting for once. There may have been several occasions dad watched with us just to see what all the fuss was about. Allegedly. (He was as impressed with the 360-degree camerawork on “Even Better Than the Real Thing” as us. In a pre-“Matrix” world it was pretty remarkable. I also remember him liking the dolphins in Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Estranged,” not that it made any more sense then than it does now.)
My grandparents downsized to a condo in the late ‘90s. By then I was in college and my sister could drive to Westport and experience a more authentic musical environment. They eventually moved closer to our parents and better healthcare in Independence.
Grandma died a week ago today, five days after suffering a stroke that rendered her right side paralyzed and took away her ability to speak. She could still smile, though, and the half of her face that could lit up any time one of her loved ones walked into her hospital room. She went quicker than expected – Grandpa didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye – but peacefully in her sleep.
Truth is, of all my grandparents, my grandma and I probably had the least obvious connection. She was all the things I wasn’t: patient, selfless and completely uninterested in sports, music and movies. Her life revolved around church and serving her friends and family. Anything else that collided with that universe was just gravy.
The TV in her basement, like a lot of the furniture in that room was sold or given away long ago. But in a lot of ways, it was never turned off. I go back there in my mind when I pull up a long-forgotten Black Star video up on Youtube, or watch any of my music DVDs. And now I think of Grandma, waiting for us upstairs with a freshly prepared hot meal and a smile on her face. Come join us. There’s always room for one more at her table.