We humans may fool ourselves, but we cannot escape the truth: That we exist huddled alone on a rock hurtling through space, chained to a fate that we will never know, living in a universe that we will never understand, with only our instincts, our intellect, and our inherited knowledge to guide us, or at least to soothe our passage through this terrifying and incomprehensible void. It is, of course, human nature to stay within our comforting routines, clinging together in blissful ignorance of the gaping maw of uncertainty and chaos that buckles and gasps just below our feet — but is it not, too, so very human to see patterns, signs, warnings in seemingly random occurrences and coincidences, and to use them to rally for a better path for humanity?
August 16, 1987 is, 30 years later, little remembered. However, throughout the summer of 1987, there was indeed a growing mania surrounding the movement that awaited that date as a moment of Harmonic Convergence. In those pre-internet days, it was often difficult to ascertain the source of rumors of an impending global event of cosmic importance; however, the sobriety of hindsight tells us that the Harmonic Convergence originated as a phenomenon within the then-burgeoning new age movement, as meditation, Mayan calendars, and aspirations for world peace set the stage for a day of worldwide displays of high-minded focus in a quest for enlightenment. Art historian Jose Arguelles predicted that a forecast for planetary alignment would elicit the beginning of a new era in human consciousness– but only with the power of mass meditation to start the cosmic chain reaction at the exact moment.
Nowadays, a certain image comes to mind when people think of “the eighties”: day-glo clothing, asymmetrical hairstyles, pop music composed with synthesizers, a nerd-ish charm that mixes dorkishness with extreme earnesty. This ’80s conceptualization falls back on the sights and sounds of the early formative years of MTV, as the styles created by various avant-garde fringe elements, largely in Europe, were freakishly allowed a brief mainline directly into the homes of an unsuspecting middle America thanks to the novelty of cable television. Suddenly, squares in Peoria were doing the robot dance to Devo — or, at least, that’s how the mythology of the era goes.
The truth is, of course, far more nuanced: That focusing on the cultural revenge of the nerds that was America in Reagan’s first term really misses the continuation of the story in Reagan’s second term, as MTV’s shot in the arm to the recording industry results in an absolute tidal wave of music success stories. If MTV’s formative years found it providing unlikely fame and fortune to unsuspecting ingenues that just happened to have video in the can when the network went live, by mid-decade, record labels had properly adjusted their budgets to include bloated line items for outlandishly expensive music videos; by 1987, music videos were million dollar affairs usually anointed for big established acts looking to present their larger than life image into the homes of millions of viewers.
The commodification of the music video went hand-in-hand with the solidification of a certain aspirational song style that would go on to define the 1980s: In the wake of the hippie tendencies of the ’60s and ’70s, Reagan-era popular music is most identifiable for its forceful earnestness. This would, of course, be shredded to pulp by the start of the next decade, as the hip ironic void that was the 1990s would make it impossible for future generations to ever enjoy, with a straight face, songs like Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” (1987’s #5 year end single on Billboard) or, say, Whitney Houston’s “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”, which was the #1 song in America at the time of the Harmonic Convergence.
“Didn’t We Almost Have It All”, buoyed by Houston’s senses-shattering vocal bombardment, is a shining example of the kind of pop music affirmative bombast that came to define not just the sound but the emotional headspace of living in the late 1980s; ostensibly a wistful song about a mature romance, the tune packs a spiritual punch that takes the nostalgia for a once-gone romance and turns it into a cataclysmic refraction of our place in space, time and the universe. “A moment in the soul can last forever,” Houston croons forcefully; “we can take the night into tomorrow, living on feelings”, she intones elsewhere in the song, as the cosmology of the song obliterates everything else in the universe save the two joined souls of the lovers in love with nothing but the power of their infinite capacity to bask in this universal communion.
Arguelles was largely laughed off by the mainstream media of the late-’80s when he promoted the concept of the Harmonic Convergence. The time and date of the convergence were predicated on a planetary alignment allegedly predicted by the Mayan calendar; the significance of the convergence, however, was vast and profound, according to Arguelles and his co-horts. Arguelles believed that an international meditation event was necessary in order to defy a coming Armageddon (he was a significant voice in the eventual popularity of the idea that the year 2012 was to be an end of history as predicted in the Mayan calendar), but he also believed that this force of meditation could end all wars and conflicts and re-align man’s priorities toward peace, brotherhood and cooperation. On the day of August 16, 1987, thousands gathered at Mount Shasta in California, at Ayers Rock in Australia, in Central Park, and in many other sites worldwide, to chant a massive “om” that would generate the necessary spiritual energy to realign human consciousness.
In 1987 the ’80s hit a fever pitch, and soon after 1987 that fever broke, with a new concept of the ’90s replacing the existing order; as such, 1987 can in many ways be seen as peak ’80s in form and content
Arguelles and Whitney Houston were, as it turned out, no match for the impending tidal wave of cynicism that would come to define the 1990s and beyond. In just a few short years, the kind of sentiment that fueled the power ballads of the 1980s would forever be seen as cheesy and laugh-inducing. In a sense, this sentiment was dead already by 1987 — songs like “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” were really holdovers from the 1970s, inspirational ballads that could never really speak to the disaffected Gen X-ers who were about to endure a third sequential right-wing administration that would lead the nation to war soon after the 80s were through. With the economy in a tailspin, the middle aged aspirations of Michael Masser, who wrote not just “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” but also other Houston hits like “The Greatest Love Of All” and “Save All My Love For You”, would very soon seem painfully out-of-touch. By the end of the ’80s, it was hard to remember how we held on in the rain.
The lone musical ode to the actual Harmonic Convergence came, of course, from the pen of Jon Anderson of Yes; in 1987, his band was still experiencing the massive popular lift that came from the earth-shattering second-career success of 1983’s “Owner of A Lonely Heart”, an enormous hit that introduced the band to a music audience that had otherwise forgotten the knotted prog legacy of Yes. 1983’s 90125 redefined Yes for the new decade, replacing Steve Howe’s intricate guitar phrasing with the power chords and high-tech synthesizer madness of Trevor Rabin and Trevor Horn. The band followed up in 1987 with Big Generator, which gave the band another big radio hit, their last, with the decidedly un-Yes-like sex jam “Rhythm of Love”, a strange number wherein Anderson equates sexual union with the dawn of man: “Take me over/Lead me to fire.”
By mid-decade, Anderson had made friends with people who hipped him to the impending convergence, and he promised to promote the cause in song form; sure enough, the final song on Big Generator was “Holy Lamb (Song for Harmonic Convergence)”, a straightforward ode to the spiritual significance of Arguelles’s movement. Sadly, conflict in the studio during the writing and recording of the album dragged on for years, causing the album to be released weeks after the actual convergence itself; the album, its singles and its subsequent tours may have been successes, but the song itself missed its window to actual affect anticipation for the global event.
In retrospect, it is clear in a sense that in 1987 the ’80s hit a fever pitch, and that soon after 1987 that fever broke, with a new concept of the ’90s replacing the existing order; as such, 1987 can in many ways be seen as peak ’80s in form and content, with the themes and styles of the post-’70s newness that was the ’80s being pushed to their logical conclusion. The end of the ’80s was celebrated at the time as a victory for democracy and freedom; in malls across America in 1989, you could purchase pieces of the destroyed Berlin Wall. This take on the arc of the ’80s fits in with the mindset of the Harmonic Convergence: That love and peace conquered tyranny, and a new age was sweeping in, alleviating the need to worry about 2012’s apocalypse. Subsequent world events obviously showed this to be not entirely true, which is why, twenty-five years later, the next big Harmonic Convergence movement focused on December 21, 2012.
Still, it is instructive to look to the events of 30 years ago and at least give a little credit to the true believers who stood at Mount Shasta and Ayers Rock, hoping to use what little internal power they had to guide mankind in a positive direction. We of course know, in the sobering sun of a post-’80s deconstructed world, that we as individuals have no power, and our world is controlled by forces, both natural and human, that are far beyond our individual control. And yet it is instructive to see how music and culture can act as a spell guiding us toward belief, goading us to go against the cynical voice inside our head that tells us that there is no point to our existence and no power within our headspace.
It is certainly true on a certain level that believing is foolish and failure is inevitable, but as Whitney Houston sang, in a voice filled with megawatt tonnage that spilled out of every audio orifice during that late summer of 1987, “the ride with you was worth the fall, my friend; loving you makes life worth living.” As we wince and wait for the cold bludgeoning of oblivion, it is still a magical force that lets us look around at our collected multitude and, at least temporarily, mask our fatal predictions with the gauzy hope of eternal love and cosmic meaning. As the song sings, once you know what love is, you never let it end.
Follow Daniel Brockman on Twitter @thebizhaslanded.