When I discovered radio in seventh grade, I was enthralled. All through junior high, I danced in my room and drove imagined masses to ecstasy with rollicking tennis racket air-guitar solos. I memorized and transcribed lyrics and mimicked the vocal stylings of everyone from Men Without Hats and David Bowie to Cyndi Lauper and Madonna. And Journey. And Van Halen. I lived and died by the triumphant ascent and agonizing fall of my favorites on the Rick Dees Weekly Top 40. Most importantly, in every lyrical twist and guitar solo, I sought and often found some cosmic significance, assurance from ethereal voices that, Tina Turner be damned, love is heroic, forever, a battlefield, whatever.
I was weird. Everyone is weird in junior high.
In high school I started broadening my musical tastes with South Dakota Public Radio ("your sound alternative, broadcasting on these translator stations..."). Our dynamic high school choir director Miss Edwards revealed to me the wonder of Schubert's Mass in G and voices raised in Latin. At university, SDSU's newborn KSDJ helped pull me away from top 40 radio. Then Alberta's amazing CKUA ruined me, turning me away for good from cookie-cutter pop stations broadcasting focus-grouped playlists and sterile non-local DJ chatter.
Up against the like of CKUA, Jazz Nightly, and the World Café (the Rock Garden Tour is still proving itself), South Dakota's top 40 stations just can't compete.
But every now and then I spin the dial, and once in a rare while, I hear something new on pop radio that makes me feel that junior-high vibe, that crazy sense that the whole world turns on one song.
Such was the song I heard coming out of the radio from B93.7 a couple weeks ago. Then I heard it again last week, driving through North Dakota at high noon on Prairie Public Radio.
"Sometime Around Midnight," by The Toxic Airborne Event. A poetic, plaintive rock crescendo packed with angst and verbal gems tied just right to the music:
...the piano's this melancholy soundtrack
to her smile..
...she's laughing, she's turning,
she's holding her tonic like a crux...
...the curl of your bodies
like two perfect circles entwined...
...but she makes sure you saw her
as she looks right at you and bolts
as she walks out the door,
your blood boiling, your stomach in ropes
and your friends say what is it
you look like you've seen a ghost...
...and all the poetry goes to emotional hell in one pounding, animal cry: "You just have to see her, you just have to see her, YOU JUST HAVE TO SEE HER...."
This song shouldn't grab me. It doesn't speak to my daily life. My days of feeling "hopeless and homeless" as I crash through unsuccessful love affairs are long gone. Every time the girl I love looks right at me and bolts, she generally returns a few hours later with groceries, and we go happily on chasing our three year old and laughing with Jon Stewart together.
Starships aren't part of daily life, either, yet Star Trek can still move me. The Toxic Airborne Event pulls off a similar feat, crafting a literary and emotional work of art that pulls us out of our everyday experience (come on: nobody experiences heartbreak like that every day) and gives us a healthy dose of desperation and catharsis. They resurrect the thrill I felt when I first discovered good music on the radio.
And they know how to use a string section.
The Toxic Airborne Event plays Boulder, Omaha, and Des Moines in September. South Dakota fans will have to settle for Hyperion's refinery.
September's coming soon... so get out and enjoy the weekend!