Friday, March 31, 2006

Between the moon and New York City

And you thought Chris Cross only sang one song. Pull up a chair, prop up your feet, and listen a few minutes to the rest of the story.

If you had wandered into the middle of the American pop music scene in 1980, that year of hostages in Iran and the Reagan Revolution, it would have been difficult to miss Christopher Cross. He exploded, seemingly out of nowhere, with a huge first hit, "Ride Like the Wind," complete with backup vocals from ex-Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. It was on that green album with the flamingo on it. Remember?

Then he took us "Sailing" on a polished ode to riding the waters of make believe in search of your dreams. That trip of the live fantastic hit No. 1 that summer.

Next he told us he'd "Never Be the Same" without our love and blindsided us with "Arthur's Theme," the Burt Bacharach classic from the 1981 Dudley Moore film about a rich, alcoholic man-child. Its catchy, "Caught between the moon and New York City" sensibility struck a chord. Presto -- yet another No. 1 smash.

A few more quick hits followed. The lush "Think of Laura." The up-tempo, feelin' good "All Right." And that, it seemed, was it.

Or was it?

Rotten vultures with no taste (also known as pop DJs) suddenly found Chris Cross to be out of fashion. Too polished. Too pop. Too "regular."

But Chris didn't care. He just kept on making pop music for adults. The jocks missed some of his best work.

A 1988 album, "Back of My Mind," featured the heartbreakingly beautiful ballad "Swept Away," Cross' best piece of work and one of the most underrated pop songs from any generation. The lyric is so wonderfully pure, the sentiment so exhilaratingly honest. ("I never wanted anything more," the song says, "than to love you.")

If only we could be so straightforward in our real-life relationships, imagine how the world would spin on its axis.

I first heard the song in a 1988 episode of the ABC-TV situation comedy "Growing Pains" and didn't hear it again for more than a decade. When I rediscovered the song again on a late night cable TV Cross "comeback" concert, it hit me like a sucker punch -- unexpectedly, the wind rushing out of my lungs.

Warner Brothers/Rhino Records released at long last a definitive collection of the Christopher Cross discography earlier this decade. Yes, the 19 song collection is something of a time machine, carrying you back to Morning in America.

But it also serves as a fine testament to a talented, underrated American popular music artist. Some of his best work came much later, long after all those pop hits. (Listen, for example, to virtually any track from the brilliant "Walking in Avalon/Red Room.")

Christopher Cross may never again have his finger on the pulse of popular culture. Who, at the end of the day, really even wants to be in such a shallow, fleeting place?

Nope, Chris Cross belongs to something higher, to that magical place that only seems to exist somewhere between the moon and New York City.

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