I’ve written two books about music that has magical elements (The Hum and the Shiver and the forthcoming Wisp of a Thing), as well as featured music in my two Memphis Vampires novels. You could say that my last Eddie LaCrosse book, Wake of the Bloody Angel, starts where a famous song from the Seventies ends. But my love affair with genre music started a long time ago: I was once enamored with Styx’s “Come Sail Away,” for the simple reason that it mentioned starships.
First, a refresher (I can’t imagine too many of you don’t know it anyway):
This baby was released in late 1977, the science fiction year of my childhood. Worse, far worse, was the fact that I was both 14, the perfect age for this pretentious stuff, and already an SF fan. So after having the very thing that got me mocked and bullied suddenly turn cool with Star Wars, and then seeing Close Encounters put the stamp of legitimacy on it, I was flush with the sense that, finally, I might be cool (don’t worry, plenty of people made sure I knew better). And then, on the radio, Styx sang about starships.
Now, since I grew up in the rural south, there were those quick to condemn anything that sounded vaguely sacrilegious, especially if kids liked it (it often seemed as if the mere fact that kids liked it made it sacrilegious). The song sent certain parents and authority figures into a saliva-spewing rage, much like that gun rights guy on Piers Morgan. It was bad enough that everyone knew KISS stood for Knights In Satan’s Service; now this weird band named after a river in Hell was going all Von Daniken and claiming angels were merely aliens! Radio evangelist Bob Larson even wrote that they were actually demons, because demons (as you do) routinely masqueraded as aliens.
“Come Sail Away” was written by Dennis DeYoung, who secretly wanted to (and has since done so) write musical theater. You can tell by the piano tinkles that open the song, DeYoung’s exaggerated stage vocals (“IIeeeem sailiiiiiing AY-wayyyyy…”), and the fact that the guitars don’t show up until the bridge. You saw a production number in your head when you heard the song,* not a rock band performing. And while George Clinton and Sun Ra routinely mentioned (and even depicted onstage) starships, this was a new thing, a top-forty faux-metal epic.
I suppose I’m a little embarrassed at how much I once liked the song. But at the same time, it’s an artifact from a time when, damn it, people wrote songs about starships, and Martian spiders, and slipped Tolkein references into their heavy metal. It was a time when music could be epic. Dave Marsh said that these groups were “enamored of the smell of their own album-length farts,” and that may be true, but the older I get, the more tolerant I am of the failures of reach rather than nerve. So I guess that means I’m not as embarrassed as I thought.
So, to paraphrase Eric Cartman (who has his own issues with this song): “Screw you guys. I’m sailing away.”
*Some people saw a more vivid one than others. It was that sort of time. Just say no.
Alex Bledsoe is author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, Dark Jenny, Wake of the Bloody Angel), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the Tufa novels (The Hum and the Shiver. and the forthcoming Wisp of a Thing).