Chuck E. Cheese and the Lost Lyrics
I have always enjoyed hearing the stories behind songs, so I am going to share a few of my own over the next few weeks. The lyrics to “Cricket in a Jar” were inspired by a rather luminescent source.
Many arcade games are designed for sheer delight; others solely prey on budding greed. This one is the latter.
I have a memory of spending an entire birthday party hassling this machine. All of my tokens went into the space age devil. I did not want to have fun; I wanted to win. Every string of tickets promised a longer string of tickets. I don’t remember any prizes, but I do remember that oddly satisfying orange chain of paper. Looking back I realize that I should probably stay away from Vegas.
This is how it works: The game begins with a light whizzing around the circumference of the dome. The goal is to press a button to stop the light just as it passes through two fluorescent bars. Succeed and the tickets spew.
I thought of this game my first year of being a dad. That year my senses were heightened. It seemed that more than ever there were brilliant moments of life that would whirl by in an instant and disappear. I wanted a “light stopper button”. This is evidenced by the amount of pictures we took of Shepard’s first year of life. We tried to slow things down with pictures, to capture the radiance that so frequently seemed to surface and vanish. It was never adequate.
Instead, we ended up with a hard drive full of less than exciting pictures: Here’s one of him drooling on a blanket…another of him, five minutes later, sleeping in a basinet…. here he is later that day on his stomach on the same blanket…and five different angles of that. The camera’s “light stopper button” satisfied at the time, but in retrospect it was just a toy, allowing us to express that deeper urge to permanently secure an otherworldly, visiting joy and to feel we had at least tried. That is what I was thinking about when I sang these lines while driving to work:
Catch the moment
It’s passed away
Catch the traveling light in the arcade game
You know how to play
You’re probably realizing, as I did later, that this is not a perfect metaphor. At the time it seemed on point, and I thought that it was the best way to say what I needed to say. But I’d heard from many writers, particularly Annie Dillard, not to hold on too tightly to the first lines that you write and love. It can stunt the best work that comes from drafting and reworking an idea or a line.
So, eventually I followed the feeling instead and moved away from that image to the one of catching crickets in a jar, replacing the chorus line about the arcade game with one that I hoped would have a broader resonance. I don’t remember much more about how the rest of the song came together, but I am indebted to this random childhood memory for sparking the fire.
Now that I’ve brought up a Chuck E. Cheese arcade game, I don’t think I can end without reminding you of an age many wish could have been frozen in time and which some are now trying to relive….the glory days of Showbiz Pizza and The Rock-afire Explosion: