Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Dead Man's Party:" A Halloween Tradition

Perhaps over the years, I've just become a stick-in-the-mud.  Unless I have a really clever costume, I don’t usually dress up for Halloween, and, at least in recent times, I make a concerted effort to avoid refined sugar. To most, it would seem that the holiday is a bust for me, but I do have a few very specialized traditions that I keep every year. During my more bachelorish times, I would invite over some unsuspecting victims and watch Peter Jackson’s voodoo zombie splatterfest Dead Alive. That ritual has fallen by the wayside in recent years, but another that still remains is to put Oingo Boingo’s 1985 classic Dead Man’s Party in rotation for a few days.

This tradition has its roots in high school, when my old friend Snoopy and I decided the piercing Jokeresque stare of Danny Elfman, who was then lead singer and songwriter for Oingo Boingo, harbored a macabre genius. Before his scoring career took off with the soundtrack from the first Batman movie and the now ubiquitous Simpsons theme, several songs from Dead Man’s Party were featured in television and films, not the least of which was the song Weird Science.

Dead Man’s Party is as a particularly well-evolved example of the post-punk/new wave/ska movement and overall, I think that it truly is a classic 80s album. Its distinctively wild-eyed menace is creepy in that enjoyable, wax-museum sense, where an immobile Frankenstein in the shadows with bolts in his neck is cause for simultaneous unease and glee. Although Snoopy and I pegged it as having a somewhat pleasantly morbid undercurrent, Dead Man’s Party did not become an official “Halloween Album” until a couple of years later.

In 1989, after being in college for just a few months, I went to a Halloween drumline party in the country with some people I knew from marching band. It turned out to be a somewhat bizarre scene. Freshman members of the drumline were being subjected to a knuckle-busting round of “rat trap roulette” while others were being recruited to throw an old piano onto the bonfire. This latter activity was particularly cathartic to those of us enrolled in the brutal piano classes that UNT used to weed out the weaklings.  The piano crashed into the flames with a thunderous clap and, as its frame began to warm and its strings began to break, it conjured an incredible death knell that lasted for almost an hour.  John Cage himself could not have come up with a better performance.

As the din began to die down, I remember standing on a hill and looking out on the scene with a mixture of admiration and disbelief.  Then, from behind me, I heard the distinctive synth-marimba intro of Just Another Day, the opening track from Dead Man’s Party, rolling out from the stereo in the house.

The hosts played the entire album at length to its end, and I was pleased see people I didn’t know singing along with even its deeper cuts. Since then, I have played Dead Man’s Party every year almost without fail for the Halloween season and strangely, the album has transcended nostalgia. I still find it to be a pleasurable way to acknowledge the holiday, even if I am not doing anything particularly festive.

These days, Dead Alive is pretty much off the table. I don't think its wife-appropriate, much less kid-appropriate. Perhaps in a few years, when the Little One is a bit older, The Nightmare Before Christmas can replace it as the official Halloween movie, and Elfman’s distinctive croon can make another appearance as the singing voice of Jack Skellington. For now, though, I think that Dead Man’s Party would be great to have on as we get on our costumes and get ready to go trick-or-treating for the first time.

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