Neon is a primal visual experience, but how about a little music to help us get in the mood?
The obvious choice for a song mentioning neon is “On Broadway” by the Drifters. That is, the obvious choice if you, like me, are too old for the Neon Trees or Demi Lovato or Blake Shelton or Chris Young and their neon references. If you know that music you probably aren’t reading this.
Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?
The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
But, I submit that there is a song with better lyrics that mention neon. And no, it is not Petula Clark’s “Downtown.”
Tom Waits sings “(Waiting For) The Heart of Saturday Night.” In it is this rhyme:
Tell me is the crack of the poolballs, neon buzzin?
Telephone’s ringin'; it’s your second cousin
Is it the barmaid that’s smilin’ from the corner of her eye?
Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye.
That is, in my book, as good as it gets.
Neon was discovered in 1898. In 1902, a French company began producing industrial quantities of neon.
In 1913, the first large neon sign appeared in Paris. In 1923, neon was introduced to the United States. A Packard sign in Los Angeles may or may not have been the earliest neon sign in the US.
Neon took off.
It is an essential element of urban America. For decades it defined urban America at night. Neon evokes jazz and cigarette smoke and John Dos Passos and Jack Kerouac and lonely men walking night streets with their hands jammed into jacket pockets. Neon promises, we see the signs and hear laughter and smell the perfume.
Berkeley has no special claim on neon, but neon is a thread in our fabric. It gives life to our city at night, especially the major commercial boulevards.
But – driving to photograph neon a few days after Thanksgiving, it struck me – neon is dying. Disappearing. Vanishing. I read up and sure enough – taste, cost, and newer bright-light technology have caught up with neon. There is less now than there was five years ago, and in another five years there will be less than now.
So, the lesson being, enjoy the neon of Berkeley now.
Let’s start with the Very Best of Berkeley’s neon – Spenger’s.
THAT is what I am talking about. Glory! Grandeur!
Not a bad effort by University Avenue. Moving on to San Pablo – I expected a goldmine. I was disappointed. What has happened? Where did all the neon go?
Neon! I wonder if other stretches of San Pablo, not in Berkeley, might have more neon. My friend reminded me of the Hotsy Totsy sign in Albany, definitely great neon.
San Pablo outside of Berkeley is a project for another day. I’ve got my hands tied with Berkeley. I promised my friend I’d drive him by the Hotsy Totsy later and that settled things for the moment.
When I lived in Bakersfield in the late summer and fall of 1973 with Gabby and Sandy (whom Gabby called “Dusty”), Gabby and I would take long, long night walks. The neon of Bakersfield was a big part of what kept us sane in those very difficult times.
My friend is a big neon fan. He savored each photo in this post.
A few days earlier he had done some research on the Neon Museum in Las Vegas because a cousin of his was looking at it as a possible wedding venue. I am not sure that is a good idea, but it is not my magical day and so I will step back.
I asked him about his opinion of the neon of University and San Pablo avenues.