Hymns and Churches

Many a Sunday night of yore, my preteen self stretched out catlike on my canopy bed, staring up at the yellow awning above, thinking “deep thoughts” and listening to “The New Music Test Department” on KLPX radio.

Susie Dunn’s Test Department was the successor to  even better show called “Virgin Vinyl with Jonanthan L.” which packed up and moved to Phoenix’s KUPD just in time for me to be old enough to buy my music of my own. These two shows were the only real alternative or college rock radio offerings in Tucson in the late 80’s  short of the extremely limited range, campus only KAMP radio and the occasional successful pirate station signal.

One night, as I listened to the Test Department,  I had my mind blown by what sounded like a mirthful, deranged John Lennon soundalike set to psychedelic guitar at the speed of punk. It was “Somewhere Apart” by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians. And all the see through things were crawling from the sea.

Another night I heard The Mighty Lemon Drops and was astounded to learn that they were related to The Clash, which made them kind of punk rock royalty in my juvenile imagination.

It was on one such Sunday that I heard a song unlike any of the others. It was jangly and weird and absolutely mythic, a Sphinx and a cipher of a song. It was “Under the Milky Way” and it had me enthralled. But it was Tucson in the late 80’s and I was all of 14. I lived in the suburbs and had a measly allowance of about $3 a week. Which meant the odds of me snagging a copy of the cassette in the meagerly stocked alternative offering of the corporate mall record store at a time when I had anything near the money to pay for it were slim to nil. So I taped a copy of that song (and “Reptile” a couple months later) and forgot about the band for a bit.

Flash forward to a road trip of sorts. A mini tour of California with my Baptist youth choir. We stop at a mall in San Jose on the way to our outdoor concert in Yosemite National Park that evening. I sacrifice some of my food money to buy two cassettes at a well stocked record store. They are the soundtrack to Labyrinth and Starfish.

Getting back on the van, a fellow traveller nods at my bag. “What’d you get?” I show him my selections. “Ah,” he nods “they’re called The Church, but they’re not a Christian band, you know, right?” “Yes, I know.” “Great album anyway.” “Oh. Good.” It was.

Found a seat near the back where I could sit by myself, headphones on, eyes partly closed, meditating on this music, a reverent and secular sermon, all the more magical for the ancient redwoods looming above me on the winding and majestic road into Yosemite, my reverie occasionally interrupted by the real life absurdity of vicious semiautomatic water gun fire as the more aggressive tenors ambushed each other through the windows each time one of our vans neared the other. The bus was half soaked and I was half amused but all the same my soul was touched and I’d been changed.

I was obsessed with that album all summer and into that year. But that was also the year I discovered Bowie in earnest. Kind of not a fair fight, that.

In 1990, I finally scored a CD player, spoils of my accident I guess. I got to a recover to a soundtrack of U2 and The Wall and Bowie and Roxy Music and The Replacements and Tin Machine, which was just more Bowie. And a new album by The Church came out that year and I had such high hopes. But it was Gold Afternoon Fix and I was comparing it, unfairly I suppose to BOWIE. And such ended my brief affair with The Church for about 25 years.

Music lovers are a fickle bunch. But I missed a number of psychedelic mythic masterpieces in the intervening decades. Twas my loss, it seems, as the band played on.

In recent years, I’ve had a chance to meet both current and former members of the band, share a glass of backstage absinthe and discuss whether Bowie was more a musician or an actor. Turns out they’re just men, of course, but remarkable ones. Men with the ability to draw down the moon and channel it through an amplifier. Men with a bigger bus than you or I and with enviable collections of vintage instruments, records and polka dot shirts.

May you have the chance to meet some of the heroes of your own musical canon someday and to pick their brains about music and records and God. It’s worth a two day sweaty Greyhound Bus trip to L.A. to do it, I assure you.


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