Frequency Rotation

Frequency Rotation: Helium, “Aging Astronauts”

Each week, Frequency Rotation spotlights a different song with a science fiction or fantasy theme. Genre, musical quality, and overall seriousness may vary.

Heard any good Buzz Aldrin jokes lately? No? Okay, maybe there aren’t any. Maybe there shouldn’t be. Aldrin’s media blitz over the past couple years has left an aftertaste of indignity in the mouths of some (i.e. anyone who thinks Apollo astronauts shouldn’t be reduced to hawking their autobiographies and acting like clowns on TV). Seriously, how does a man who WALKED ON THE FRIGGIN’ MOON get reduced to mugging it up on The Price is Right, Dancing with the Stars, and 30 Rock? (We’ll mercifully restrain ourselves from mentioning his 2009 rap song, “The Rocket Experience.” Oops.). Chalk it up to a lousy agent, if you must. Or the fact that Aldrin may simply be turning into a wacky grandpa. Hey, even astronauts get old. Not that it should come as a surprise. Way back in 1997, Mary Timony and her indie-rock band Helium had pondered the issue in their gorgeous, haunting song, “Aging Astronauts.”

David Bowie is by far the most famous rocker to have written songs about astronauts (one astronaut in particular: the fictional Major Tom, the protagonist of no less than three Bowie songs). But an altogether different and unrelated Bowie is partly responsible for “Aging Astronauts”—namely Ash Bowie, bassist of Helium. The surname may be coincidental, but the influence certainly isn’t; Mary Timony, leader and singer-guitarist of Helium, channels David Bowie (and the entire canon of speculative ’70s rock) on the group’s 1997 masterpiece, The Magic City. The album is a stunning mix of fanciful prog and folk sensibilities spiked with the angst and angularity of post-punk. And one of its many high points is “Aging Astronauts.”

Plenty of science-fiction, fantasy, and magic-realist themes pop up throughout The Magic City (especially in tracks like “Leon’s Space Song,” “Medieval People,” and “Cosmic Rays.”). That said, it’s far from a concept album; rather than trying to force a coherent narrative, Timony and crew shoot for a broader, subtler sort of atmosphere. And they nail it. Awash in equal parts Sonic Youth-style menace and classic folk-rock delicacy, “Aging Astronauts” floats like a spacewalk. And it opens with one of the most poetic and evocative verses of any SF-themed song since, well, Bowie’s “Space Oddity”: I count the stars almost every day / The aging astronauts have floated away,” croons a hushed, moonstruck Timony. “I watch the future from the edge of the night / The same stars that killed you will bring you light.”

That’s the kind of gravity and awe any astronaut, young or old, deserves. Admittedly, Buzz Aldrin has every right to accept every cheap cameo appearance or publicity stunt he’s offered. Only a handful of human beings know what it’s like to set foot on dirt that doesn’t belong to Earth, and that feat alone earns you a lifetime pass to do whatever the hell you want. But it’s been so long since such a feat of miracle has taken place, it seems that the entire notion of walking on the moon—the daring of it, the impossibility of it, the utter fucking magic of it—has been taken for granted. If not forgotten entirely.

Sure, we’ve started paying a little more lip service lately to manned space exploration, including the recent revival of the plan to send humans to live on Mars. Permanently. But in the process of bickering about budgets and propulsion, the philosophy has all but bled out. Just think of it: In some of our lifetimes, people may depart for another planet, never to return. To spend the rest of their lives without ever touching Earth. To grow old surrounded by red sand, two moons, and the bare means with which to extract sustenance from a barren, alien landscape. It’s a testament to either the power of art or the hollowness of science that we have to rely on musicians—even humble, unassuming ones like Mary Timony and Helium—to ask the big questions. Even as we ask our astronauts to grin and shuffle (and, God forbid, rap) for our amusement.

Jason Heller writes for The A.V. Club, plays guitar in some bands, and doesn’t even kid himself that he’d ever be brave enough to buy a one-way ticket to Mars. His debut novel will be published by Quirk Books/Random House in 2012.


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