Growing up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, my family didn’t have the luxury of cable. We lived in a ‘rural’ suburb, you know the kind where raccoons ripped your garbage to shreds, deer ran out in front of you when you least expected, and you had to be a ‘satellite family’ if you wanted all your television dreams to come true. A few years before DirecTV or Dish Network, Primestar was all the rage in digital satellite entertainment. With a tiny three footbdish in your backyard, and a moderate monthly fee, you could blaze through one hundred and sixty channels with the best of those cable watching city folk. Of course with all those channels, not all of them were actual networks. A good chunk of say twenty or twenty five channels were actually audio-only music stations. You have to understand in the early 90s, satellite radio like XM wasn’t even a thing, so to have a collection of commercial free, digital radio stations was kind of a big deal, even more so when each channel was dedicated to genre of music. Everything from Rock, Pop, Country, Oldies, and Hip Hop were there and for the more adventurous, Industrial and Alternative! Truly an exciting thing for suburb dwelling audiophiles!
Mom would sometimes leave it on the 80s Pop channel while doing housework, Dad would tune to the Oldies channel and play his acoustic guitar along with just about every song, but it was really me who utilized those music channels the most in my family. I liked to stay up real late and listen to all sorts of different styles of music that wouldn’t fly during a ride in the family car. I think it was around this time is when I first heard Ministry and N.W.A., not exactly the kind of stuff the family would listen to on the way to the Orland Hills mall on Sunday. I may have not particularly cared for all of the adventurous stuff the channels had to offer, but it sure was fun to sample what the underworld of pop culture had to offer at 2am (at a reasonable volume of course).
One night in late 1992 or early 1993, the nine or ten year old version of me sat close to the living room television, close enough that Mom would have to reminded me that I could go blind sitting that close, and also close to enough to hear what the Primestar digital radio roster had to offer without waking the rest of the family. I had a few minutes to kill before re-runs of Tales From The Darkside came on at 2am, so I switched over to the Alternative Rock station. Sometime after hearing “Rusty Cage” or “Been Caught Stealing” I heard what would become the most elusive song in my memory over the next twenty something years.
It started with the jangle of a lightly distorted guitar doubled with a driving four note bass riff, a faint acoustic guitar arpeggio. A pulsing kick drum beat, and then followed a reverb soaked ‘aahhhh’ on the intro. Soon after, the verse started with an almost out of time drum pattern, three chord riff, and now a slight nasal vocal delivery of what I wasn’t sure if male or female. Then the chorus kicked in. The Britpop-esque guitar jangle returned, but now a spoken word vocal. I couldn’t understand a single word but I knew it had to be romantic, or at least what I thought a romantic song would sound like in my impressionable nine or ten year old head. It went on for what seemed like an eternity and with each minute, it got more interesting and unlike anything I had heard before or after it. It was absolutely gorgeous! I instantly fell in love with this song!
One problem: What song was it? One of the bigger problems with this pre-XM digital music channel world, instead of printing the artist, song title, and album title, you were treated to a generic overly digitalized image of mountains, the ocean, or whatever royalty-free clipart Primestar had access to, to keep it from being the dead black image of nothingness. I wanted to purchase this song as soon as possible, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing about it. The vocals were muddy and covered in a thick layer of reverb, so remembering lyrics would be next to impossible. It was the first time I heard it, so even if I could decipher what the singer was saying, there was no way I could remember it. I hadn’t started playing guitar yet, so trying to play it was out of the question. The only thing I could do was to sing the tune to someone and pray they knew what I was talking about.
The next day I tried telling my brother about it, and he just shrugged as if I asked him what our neighbor’s second cousin’s brother-in-law had for dinner sixteen years ago. My younger sister laughed hysterically when I hummed the tune. Mom offered her favorite answer to every pressing question her pre-teen children threw at her, “Ask your Father”. Starting my question with “I was listening to the Alternative station last night and…” resulted in Dad’s favorite response to every modern music query, “I don’t know, that’s crazy music.” It was impossible. I even remember going into Camelot music (remember those?) and asking the hippest looking employee if they had ever heard the song. Some claimed they did, but lured me over to album from Alice In Chains and Stone Temple Pilots, which even then I knew they were dead wrong. I was devastated. No one knew what I was talking about. My only hope was to hear it again on one of those stations on our TV. Over the next few months, I listened to the stations for at least a half an hour before bed in hopes to find the song. It became almost a ritual.
But it didn’t happen. Sure I was probably exposing myself to some amazing music that still sticks with me to this day like The Jesus and Mary Chain and Nine Inch Nails, but no sign of the song. Years went by and I still didn’t let go of this song I had only heard once at 2am. I learned how to play guitar a few years later, and I remember trying to play the song on my own. Maybe someone would recognize it that way? Nope. the closest I came was having someone recommend Teenage Fanclub. It wasn’t in the same vein exactly but close enough to eventually discover other bands like Material Issue and eventually Mazzy Star. When the internet came to every house hold, it wasn’t much help either and when you can’t find it on the internet, all hope is gone. Eventually I gave up. I was never going to hear that song again. As sad (or silly) as it sounds, I knew that I was going to live the rest of my life never hearing that mysterious song again. It was throwing a message in a bottle into the ocean. It was gone forever.
Fast forward to 2013. I just got a new truck that came with a free three-month trial of XM satellite radio. Just like all those years ago in the Primestar days, I found myself flipping through the commercial free channels, not only listening to the hits, but exploring the underbelly of album cuts and indie artists I hadn’t yet given a full chance. I pride myself in having a somewhat eclectic taste in music, and my saved stations reflect that. Jazz, Little Steven’s Underground Garage, 90s Alternative, 80s New Wave, 60s Pop, and Modern Alternative. One night on my way home from work, I was singing along rather horrendously to Missing Person’s “Destination Unknown” on the New Wave station, and after it was over, I heard the familiar jangle of a lightly distorted guitar….. The song!
I pulled over and cranked up the volume. It was surreal hearing something that had plagued my mind for over twenty years. It was familiar yet alien. It was just as beautiful as the only time I had ever heard it so many years before. It was like being reunited with a long lost loved one. Finding that girl who smiled at you on the subway. Finding that other sock that your dryer ate. It was like getting back into bed after having to get up to shut the light out, but being just as comfortable as before you did. My years of torment and mystery had been vindicated. It was perfect, and best of all, thanks to the evolution of modern technology, the touch-screen ‘media center’ in my new truck actually told me the song title and artists. The mystery had been solved and the answer was staring back at me. I scrambled to find something to scrawl it on. I frantically opened the bare glove compartment, then console. A Speedway gas receipt and a pen from a bank that’s not even my own would work just fine. As the song played effortless and a probably dangerous volume, I nervously wrote the missing link to the enigma. I wrote “Climbing” by The Sweetest Ache.
When I got home, I Googled the band and only came up with a few bits and pieces about them. I read they were a short-lived band from Wales and had only released two full length albums before disbanding in the mid 90s. They didn’t find much success in America and had minimal radio play, which explained why I had such a hard time finding anyone in my area who had actually heard of them, let alone the song I was humming to them. Even the hippest of 1993 hipsters in Camelot music, wearing a Pixies t-shirt and a nose ring couldn’t tell me what this song was. It’s almost a melancholy tale of unrequited love, when I look back at my journey. I was a little kid when I heard and fell in love with this song. It’s not even the type of song a kid my age would find appealing! What was it about this song? The unorthodox styling of jangly Britpop mixed with a lovelorn feeling of sentimentalism? Maybe it was just the exciting mystery? Whatever the reason, I was drawn to it. I downloaded the song on iTunes and made up for lost time. The funny thing about that song is, even though it’s not as good as the legend in my head had remembered, it still feels like part of me. So much of my life I spent trying to find it. It wasn’t my life-long purpose and I didn’t dedicate my life into finding it or anything, but I learned a lot about music on that journey. This song, along with Superdrag’s “Destination Ursa Major” and R.E.M.’s “Strange Currencies” became the top three songs of my entire adolescence that shaped the way I look, listen, and feel about music. One day I’ll share my stories about those other songs, but this story was about that one that got away, but thankfully came back.
Oh and I still have no idea what the lyrics are.
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.