Some unfinished business from last week. This was my original selection for entry 1.2. However, after trying to tie “True Faith” and “Under the Milky Way” together, I thought it better to tackle the songs separately, in chronological order. You should thank me. I think I was on page 48 of my comparison when I finally stopped myself and changed focus. Hopefully this isn’t too disjointed. I’m attempting to write about one song while I watch I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the great documentary about the making of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album. Hey, I like my music.
There are those who say that alternative music, in its commercial form, disappeared after New Order’s “True Faith” in 1987 and didn’t appear again until sometime in 1992. Sure, briefly REM became the biggest band in the world during that time, but they left their college radio roots behind and didn’t start some great movement in doing so. Across the pond, The Stone Roses were in the process of putting out one of the greatest English albums of all-time and in turn setting the stage for a decade of quality British music. But their debut album was widely ignored in the US, both by MTV and radio. There was a little band from Sydney, Australia, though, that in one magical moment gave a flicker of hope to fans of alternative rock during that dark period.
The Church had been around for most of the 1980s, scoring a few minor college radio hits in the States. They have also managed to stay around, in one form or another, for much of the last 15 years. It was with their album Starfish, and its signature track “Under the Milky Way” that they reached their critical and commercial highpoints in 1988.
Although released well within the decade, “Under the Milky Way” sounded like it was from another time. It featured heartfelt lyrics and delivery, unusual traits in 1988. It felt safe and warm. At the same time, it had a feel of desolation that made it complicated. The title summed up that feeling. Standing under the sky, staring up at the stars, contemplating the infinite measure of space leaves one with a feeling of endless possibility, and also of extreme insignificance. More in feel than in lyric, “Under the Milky Way” perfectly captured that ambiguity.
Just as the song was climbing the charts, my grandfather died in a farm accident. It was my first experience with death, and I wasn’t really sure how to handle it. People around me weren’t supposed to die, and although my grandfather was in his late 70s, we didn’t expect him to leave the house one morning and never come back. I recall what must have been the night before the funeral, driving my parents’ car through the fields of Kansas after dropping some relatives off someplace. Along the way, “Under the Milky Way” came on the radio. It was a perfect April night: warm, sweet air; the night full of the sounds of spring; with a massive, unspoiled, rural sky above me. I eased back on the accelerator, put the windows down, and cranked the stereo up as loud as it would go. I could see millions of stars above me as four Australians sang about standing beneath the galaxy. I wish I could share some great lesson that I learned that night, or some magical way of putting loss into perspective. However, I’ve never been able to articulate what happened in those three or four minutes, and I’m still not really sure if I understand it. I know I somehow felt different afterwards. In one odd, random confluence of time, place, and song, I was finally able to consider some of the ideas that had been careening through my head in the four days since my grandfather died. It’s a moment that has stuck with me, and I think of it each time I hear the song.
Earlier this week, I said if I was having a party to celebrate the end of the 1980’s, I would play “True Faith” just before midnight since I felt it summed up so much of what the 80s were about. “Under the Milky Way” is B-side to “True Faith. It’s the song you play the next morning; when you wake up and realize that something artificial like the turning of a page on a calendar doesn’t magically change your life. It’s the song you listen to when you realize the troubles and pressures you had when New Order’s drums kicked in are still there, waiting for you to face them. It’s the song that reminds us about the stockbroker, after his one last night of hedonism, calling an old friend to talk about his problems for a while. It’s the song that in one of the great lines of the era, speaks for the comforting friend, “Wish I knew what you were looking for/Might have known what you would find.” In many ways, that line sums up the 80s better than “True Faith” did.
I own Starfish, and it’s a pretty good album. There are at least four really good tracks, one more than my threshold for considering an album to be of high quality. Sadly, there are no lyrics in the liner notes, so I had to do some research with Mr. Google to check the lyrics. While doing that, I discovered that “Under the Milky Way” was used in the Miami Vice episode Asian Cut, which aired January 13, 1989. I was struck with two feelings when I read that. First, again, it was an outstanding fit. Miami Vice was always great with using moody, atmospheric, ambiguous songs to complement the edgy, artsy visual image. (“In the Air Tonight”, “Voices”, and “Lunatic Fringe” being three other fantastic examples.) Second, every time I read something about Miami Vice still being on in 1989, it blows me away. Has a show ever got more out of only 30 good episodes? From early 1985 through late 1986, there wasn’t a better show on TV. But it quickly went downhill. I think I gave up on it about the time Dave Henderson went deep off of Donnie Moore. Hard to believe it stuck it out for two-plus seasons after that.