Pinball Wizard: War On Drugs' Dave Hartley

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Dave Hartley didn’t know what to expect when he pulled the plunger on his first game at Pinburgh. The longtime pinball fan is a solid player and the best among his friends (except for maybe Severin Tucker, who talked Hartley into signing up for Pinburgh in the first place) but he’d never competed in an official tournament before. And this wasn’t just some impromptu four-player at the corner bar—Pinburgh is one of two major annual tournaments run by the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association. It might be slightly more laidback than the World Pinball Championships, but it’s serious pinball. As the PAPA World Headquarters in Scott Township, Pennsylvania, filled with the sound of 450 pinball machines clinking to life, Hartley started the first of 10 four-player head-to-head rounds. He noticed one of the first games he’d play was Simpsons Pinball Party and felt relieved—he knew this game.

He lost at Simpsons Pinball Party. He didn’t fare much better at Big Indian or Last Action Hero. At the end of that first round Hartley’s record was 1-11, well behind Sergio Johnson and Rick Prince, the veteran players he squared off against in Pinburgh’s first session. He stalled to another last-place finish in the second session, and went 2-10 in the fourth. At the end of the first day Hartley’s record was 20-40, near the bottom of the standings.

The second day of competition brought new hope. It also brought lighter competition—Pinburgh reseeds after each round, and Hartley was now facing players with similar records. He never expected to win any prize money or finish near the top, but with a good day he could still finish with a winning record, and that counts for something. He wasn’t just good that second day, though—he was great. He finished in first place in two of his first three matches. He was only eight points away from a winning record headed into the final two decisive rounds. But he never made it, forfeiting his final two rounds. He had to get back to work.

Hartley got in a car and drove back to Philadelphia, then got in a van and drove to North Carolina, where he recorded an album with the legendary producer Mitch Easter—yeah, the guy who recorded Murmur and Reckoning.

You may not know Dave Hartley’s name, but you might’ve heard his music. He’s a member of the War on Drugs (a band that used to include Kurt Vile) and played bass on Sharon Van Etten’s first record. He released Oak Island, his second solo album under the name Nightlands, on Secretly Canadian earlier this year. He’s been a touring musician for years, and he’s absolutely obsessed with pinball.

Hartley’s musical career directly contributed to his renewed love of pinball. “I played a lot as a kid and then just kind of forgot about it,” Hartley explains. “Then we did a tour with the Hold Steady in 2009 through a lot of Midwest cities. Kind of rough, long drives and a lot of downtime. We’d load in and the Hold Steady would soundcheck for a couple of hours so I’d just be sitting around. For whatever reason a bunch of the venues we played had pinball machines, and good ones. At the time I didn’t realize they were these great classic machines. There was a venue in Iowa City that had Whirlwind, which is one of my favorite games. I played it for like four hours straight.”

Hartley started seeking out pinball machines on the road. “I’ve been to some of these cities so many times through touring that I know where the games are now,” he says. “I should probably write an app or some kind of website, like, ‘when you’re in Portland go over here, when you’re in Lawrence, Kansas go here…’ My bandmates just kind of make fun of me for being this pin geek.”

Playing music and playing pinball may not seem to have anything in common beyond both requiring the presence of hands and the know-how to use them. Hartley has pondered the relationship between music and pinball for an essay he’s writing, and sees some deeper similarities between the two, both in the abstract and in terms of structure.

“It’s a little bit like the blues,” he says. “The blues are a really rigid musical format. You have a five-note scale and usually it’s in a certain rhythm with 12 bars or whatever. It’s rigid, but because it’s so rigid it always brings people back, because you need something that’s rigid. Those limitations allow you to be more creative.”

Similarly, the player’s inflexible expectations from a pinball machine drove designers to experiment with theme and aesthetic. “With pinball, I mean, you have flippers and a silver ball, and yet that restricted gameplay mode can be applied to anything,” Hartley continues. “I really laugh at how over the map [thematically] some pinballs are, especially if you go back into the ’70s and ’80s. There’s a pinball machine where the theme is partying. Or where you don’t even know what the theme is because it’s just psychedelic, like it has some crazy name and a psychedelic theme. There’s actually a pinball game where the theme is pinball. It’s like pinball pinball. It’s this extremely meta thing.

“I think in that way it is sort of similar to music because it’s such a rigid concept that it will never go away in the way that the blues will never go away. It will always come back. People will be like, ‘Ah there’s nothing new with the blues,’ and then some band will come out with some totally new take on the blues and revitalize it. That will happen with pinball because it just won’t go away. It’s just gravity, ball, flippers.”

When talking about pinball Hartley strikes on another similarity with music, perhaps without realizing it. Both are social activities that are fundamentally antisocial. Arcades and rock clubs are both public places that minimize traditional interaction between customers. You’re surrounded by people but your attention is fixed on something else. Conversation is possible but distracts from the main reason you’re there.

As Hartley observes about pinball, “It’s kind of a private thing. It’s not really social. What I love most about it is that I have some acute social anxiety problems in some situations, but with pinball I can go to a public place and engage in this one thing. It’s sort of a retreat from a social situation without really retreating. I think that what draws me to it. You can go to a bowling alley or a bar or a club and be engaged without leaving and still talk to people and be social.” Much like you can go to a rock show, spend most of your time either watching or playing loud music, and only have to talk to people when the action dies down.

It might be archaic and a bit antisocial, but pinball is undergoing something of a renaissance these days. Renewed interest from older players that are nostalgic for their childhood is aligning with a rise in curiosity from those too young to have played pinball in arcades. Stern keeps cranking out new machines every year based on popular movies or rock bands (their latest table, based on AC/DC, is apparently amazing). After a decade of being the only game in town, Stern now has competition from Jersey Jack, poised to finally release its long-awaited Wizard of Oz table this summer. Interest has also been spurred on by the recent wave of video pinball simulators, from the Pinball Hall of Fame series to Zen Studios’ original videogame designs.

Hartley’s a purist. Like many pinball fans, he believes there’s no substitute for the real thing. And so, after compiling a map of pinball hotspots around the country, and mastering the Avengers table at his local taco joint, he started looking for more machines reasonably close to his home in Philadelphia. That led to Pinburgh, just outside of Pittsburgh, and his first taste of competitive pinball.

“It was just like pinball culture immersion,” Hartley explains. “Up to that point I would just play when I saw a machine, or seek them out. At this thing all the dudes are collectors and all in leagues. 75 percent of the people there were wearing some kind of pinball t-shirt, which I didn’t even know existed. I was like, why don’t I have one? I knew the subculture existed but I never knew the scope of it. It’s super intense competition with people who are just incredibly good at pinball. It was very humbling but also really fun.”

The competition was daunting, but it reaffirmed something Hartley had already realized about pinball: It’s definitely more a game of skill than chance. “There’s almost no degree of luck,” he says. “There’s a degree of chance, just like any sport, like in basketball you can dribble the ball off your foot, or you can get injured, but the same dudes just win, year after year after year. They just dominate and you’re like, ‘Okay, these guys are just really good at pinball’. Those old electromechanical machines just seem so much like luck because the ball can drain so easily down the middle or down the sides but these guys still just kill it. Just total control.

“They play it in a way that doesn’t even resemble how I play it. You’d see these guys with multiball just banking all the balls on one flipper and flipping them to the other with a little stutter pass and just nailing every ramp that they aim at. It’s really amazing. Seeing anybody be excellent at something is entertaining in its own right.”

Hartley had to skip out on the last two rounds of Pinburgh to go make a record, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t committed to pinball. He’ll be returning to Pinburgh next year, and might even wind up buying a machine. And who knows—perhaps, following the path blazed by such luminaries as Ted Nugent, Dolly Parton and Elton John, the War on Drugs might make their own themed pinball machine.

“We’ve been talking to Secretly Canadian about getting an AC/DC pinball machine and retrofitting it with War on Drugs art. That machine already plays music and it has a cannon that shoots the ball. We were gonna call that the Baby Missile.”