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The Song Remains the Same

If you ask me -- and I'm sure you would, if I didn't screen my phone calls and delete all reader mail the moment it arrives in my box -- Miami Vice is one of the great shows of the 1980s. Sure, it never really set the gold standard in terms of tackling The Weighty Issues of the Day, unless "druglords bad, stylish haircuts good" is your idea of a provocative stand. But when it came to a distinctive style of storytelling, no one could hold a pastel-colored candle to Vice -- except for maybe Crime Story, Michael Mann's other stylized cop show of the 1980s. But that's another article altogether.

Perhaps no single episode captures the Miami Vice oeuvre as well as "Stone's War," an installment from the third season when Vice was probably at its zenith, before Sheena Easton signed on as Crockett's wife and Don Johnson's hair went to hell and most of the cast members got it into their heads that they were pop singers. Stone's War stars Bob Balaban -- whom some people confuse with Ron Rifkin -- as Crockett's twitchy, rat-bitten reporter buddy from the 'Nam who hightails it from Manauga to Miami with videotape footage of U.S. soldiers slaughtering Nicaraguan innocents. "Stone's War" features everything you could want in a Miami Vice episode: Pulsating music! Slow-motion shoot-outs! A brand new department-issued Ferrari Testarosa for Crockett! A sexy female TV reporter! Rico Tubbs putting the moves on said sexy female TV reporter! Switek providing comic relief! And special guest star G. Gordon Liddy snarling out lines like, "Ah, Crockett... still on powder patrol for the local PD?" and cheefully waving a necklace of Sandinista ears! Indeed, this particular episode of Miami Vice has everything you could want from any form of creative endeavor, give or take a severed Sandinista ear or two.

So it's no surprise that I always scour the listings for Miami Vice reruns, keeping a particularly watchful eye out for any re-broadcast of "Stone's War." It's one of those TV moments -- like game six of the '75 World Series or the "Super Karate Monkey Death Car" episode of NewsRadio or that time Geraldo Rivera got hit upside the head with a chair -- that requires you to drop whatever you're doing and sit in front of the TV slack-jawed and happy.

Which is exactly what I did last week when "Stone's War" was on.

Now I've never noticed this during my thousands of previous viewings of "Stone's War," but there's this chase scene in which Crockett and his twitchy little reporter friend are riding in the Ferrari with a couple of G. Gordon Liddy's goons in hot pursuit. The necklace of human ears, sadly, is nowhere to be seen. And while Crockett is motoring the Testarosa down the mean streets of Miami, a song is thundering in the background, a synthesizer-heavy sampling of upbeat '80s pop confectionery in which some indistinct singer is doing his darndest to sound like Rick Astley crooning lyrics like:

The rain is coming down
The rain is coming down

And so on. And it's just awful. It's so thoroughly inapporpriate for the mood of the scene. I mean, suppose you find yourself in high-speed chase with a bunch of hired goons looking to fill you full of lead and stash your body in an unmarked grave while your jittery, rat-bitten reporter pal from the 'Nam is babbling about the Contras. What song would you select as the background music for your chase scene? Something that sounds like the Ladies' Choice number at a junior high dance circa 1985? An upbeat little ditty where some Rick Springfield wannabe keeps singing about the rain coming down? Hell, no -- you'd pick something by Metallica, something by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, something by Gustav Mahler, for Christ's sake. Anything but the canned syntho-pop that is playing during this particular chase scene on Miami Vice.

"It's a shame," I say to my wife, since the bonds of holy matrimony not only require her to stick with me in sickness and in health but to watch the "Stone's War" episode of Miami Vice whenever it should air.

"What is?" asks my wife, who to her credit, is making a game effort at appearing interested in whether Crockett and his twitchy pal escape this latest scrape.

"That the same thing that happened to WKRP in Cincinnati is happening to Miami Vice," I respond.

WKRP, as you may be aware, currently appears in reruns, but without much of the music you heard when it originally aired. That's because the rights to broadcast the reruns with their soundtracks intact proved to be prohibitively expensive. So now, when Dr. Johnny Fever or Venus Flytrap play a record, you don't hear Bachman Turner Overdrive or KISS or even ELO -- you just hear generic '70s guitar rock or tepid early '80s piano exits. The original music's been airbrushed out of the picture like a disgraced Soviet agricultural minister. That such a fate could befall Miami Vice -- a show where the music in the background is just as important as the action in the foreground -- suggests that even influential, landmark TV is as fleeting and ephemeral as last week's Inside Schwartz. And that's simply depressing.

Only such a fate didn't befall Miami Vice. My first clue was when the unmistakable strains of "Red Rain" by Peter Gabriel and the more easily mistakable but nevertheless distinct strains of "Lives in the Balance" by Jackson Browne appeared elsewhere in the episode. It's not likely the cheap-asses at TNN would pony up the rights fees for some sons and replace others with horrible Muzak-inspired tunes about the rain coming down. And my second clue? That was when my wife -- my lovely, wonderfully inquisitive wife -- logged on to MiamiVice.org to get a complete list of the music featured in the "Stone's War" episode. You had the Peter Gabriel song, of course, and Jackson Browne's little ditty. And the song about the raining coming down. Which is, in fact, "When the Rain Comes" by Andy Taylor.

Of the Duran Duran Taylors, I believe.

So my fears were baseless. My suspcions were unfounded. My crazed conspiracy theories turned out to be less "conspiracy" and more "crazed." The song I thought was little more than an erstatz rendition of pre-packaged syntho-rock of the 1980s was the real McCoy. This wasn't a pale substitute -- this was the pale original.

Which is when I finally realized that the '80s really sucked.


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