Space Oddity

Jon Darling is Lake Worth's junkyard hero

A low buzzing sound fills a small schoolroom, which is dark save for a single string of Christmas lights. Suddenly, bright beams burst from a large, square hodgepodge of coils, tubes, and scrap metal that looks like a junkyard version of Mouse Trap. Green. Red. Yellow. Purple. The colors bleed across the walls of the classroom, illuminating Cat in the Hat posters and paper plates decorated like the faces of dogs, lions, and elephants. That buzzing sound, which is being emitted from a small, yellow-and-blue toy keyboard, turns into a warbly, sci-fi wave of feedback, then becomes an ominous, rumbling thump-thump-thump-thwack-thwack-skreek. There are children. They are dancing.

No, it's not Sesame Street Rave! In this tiny room of the Lake Worth Art League on Lake Avenue, Jon Darling creates a trippy light show that is accompanied tonight on guitar and keyboard by George Bechtel of local experimental noise band Life in the So-Called Space Age.

This is what Darling does the first and third Friday of every month.

Tonight, the audience consists of three youngsters who are jumping around in front of the light whatchamacallit, their shadows projected on the wall behind them in a spectrum of colors. One of the kids is even doing the Robot -- a testament to its generation-spanning appeal. Just outside the window, on the lawn to the west of the Art League building, a cover band is playing a 15-minute version of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."

Darling is a small, excitable man with wavy gray hair who works a day job painting furniture. He definitely has the "eccentric mad scientist" thing down -- he built the funny-looking pseudo-science project sitting in front of him. "I went to a concert, and there were 300 people applauding a tape recorder," he says of the genesis of his machine. "This was before computers, and synthesizers were too complicated to play in public. I had these lighted sculptures that were done around 1963, '64, and '65, and so I rewired the sculpture to play to music."

The sculpture was originally a design-class project for Darling, and he labeled it "Garbage Painting 1," or GP-1. It's easy to see why he called it that. The sculpture looks like a robotic assassin from outer space who could shoot lasers out of plastic tubes to burn out your retina. Darling rattles off the various parts with ease: "This used to be a toaster; this is the headlight rim off a Chevrolet; this is a water pump off an old Studebaker; this is a shock absorber; this is a flywheel off a lawn mower; this is from a stove pipe; this is from an electric fan..." The whole thing is pieced together inside an old telephone stand. Talk about one man's trash being another man's treasure.

Darling began producing light-animated sculpture in 1963. Around the same time, he also began collaborating with William Hoskins, a professor at Jacksonville University, who coined the term Lumasonics to describe the combination of light and electronic music. Hoskins also designed the "Lumatron" Darling is playing tonight. "It's like a keyboard," he says of the small wooden box sitting directly behind the GP-1. "The two center buttons produce red. The two thumbs are yellow, and two outer fingers produce white. You're really playing colored lights, but you play it like a piano. You can build one for somewhere between $300 to $400 [with supplies] from Home Depot."

Darling, Hoskins, and fellow Jacksonville University art professor S. Barre Barrett joined forces and called themselves the Lumasonics Trio. They began traveling throughout Florida and the Southeast in the late '70s, performing spaced-out, experimental light and sound compositions with names like "Pink Polka," "Green Grimace," and "Visit to Saturn." The trio also collaborated with synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog.

The young Bechtel, who has performed with Lake Worth noise agitator Kenny 5 and Nick Klein (son of choreographer Demetrius Klein), decided to jam with Darling and perpetuate the city's burgeoning noise/art scene. "I had heard about [Jon], and he showed me his whole light setup, and I thought it was great," Bechtel says. "Usually when we play here, there are three to six people performing. Other nights, like tonight, it's just me."

As the band outside tears into "Sweet Home Alabama," Darling mentions he has another light sculpture ready to unveil. "It's just recycling the old for the new," he muses. "I do the same thing with furniture." While the generic cover band may entertain hundreds of people simply by recycling the old, Darling's light show has that intangible yet exciting "what we do here is secret" quality.

His words inspire you to go Dumpster-diving and build some strange, lethal, alien-light thingamabob. Or at least to go home and take apart a Speak & Spell while listening to the Forbidden Planet soundtrack.

 
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