(Pictured: young Rod Stewart hangs out.)
This happened just the other day, on the kind of afternoon we get in September, warm, a lovely breeze, beautiful light. I stop by my neighborhood convenience store, step inside, and all of a sudden I’m not there anymore. That is because the in-store music is playing Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May.”
I have an annual rendezvous with Maggie, the first time I hear her every fall, when she takes me back to the first time I ever heard her. It is 1971. I am back at Northside School for the sixth grade. I have been in love with pop music and the radio for a year. But an equal passion at the moment involves the organized city park-and-rec touch football games after school. At Recreation Park, we play on the field where our fathers played high-school ball in the 40s and 50s. Occasionally we play on a half-grass, half-gravel field across the street from Lincoln School, which I attended until halfway through second grade. Each game is a rabble of boys, running and yelling and grabbing and falling and getting back up again in the September light, soft and golden then as now, which crowns the trees and slowly lengthens the shadows. “Maggie May” brings back those images of 1971; it isn’t the only song that does it, but it’s one that has never left me. And it was probably late September, like in the song, when I went to the store and put down my 94 cents to bring Maggie home.
WMEX in Boston and KRLA in Los Angeles, both rock-leaning Top 40 stations, were playing “Maggie May” as an album cut in early July 1971, and it was #1 in Boston as July turned to August. It was issued on a single with “Reason to Believe,” which was the original plug side; “Reason to Believe” is listed alone for its first four weeks on the Hot 100. On August 14, 1971, it appears for the first time as “Reason to Believe”/”Maggie May,” and the next week, as “Maggie May”/”Reason to Believe.” That’s the way the record is listed through five weeks at the top of the Hot 100, beginning on October 2, until it drops off the chart following the week of December 4, 1971. WLS, the only station that mattered to me, charted both sides of the record during the week of August 30, just as we went back to school, ranked both at #1 for four weeks starting September 27, and listed it through November. WLS ranked it at #4 for the entire year; Billboard had it at #2 behind Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” “Maggie May” was the #1 record for all of 1971 on radio stations in New York City, Buffalo, and San Jose; WFIL in Philadelphia listed “Maggie May” and “Reason to Believe” as co-#1s.
(“Reason to Believe” is a pretty potent memory trigger itself, with its piano chords tolling out the years.)
Rod and guitarist Martin Quittenton wrote “Maggie May” about how Rod lost his virginity to an older woman, but before I knew what it meant, I loved it for the sound of it on the radio. After many years had passed, I started associating it strongly with how it felt to be alive in the fall of 1971: not just hearing it on the radio, not just experiencing band practice and enjoying touch football, but being truly conscious of the change of seasons for the first time in my life, the sights and sounds of crops being harvested, the need to wear a coat to school, the earlier coming of sunset, and the welcome weight of an extra blanket at night. I also hear “Maggie May” as a song about the pull of home, our reluctance to let the days of our lives slip away—how we hold tight to the good ones and even a few of the bad ones—and how we are compelled to revisit them. We love those days and the songs that soundtracked them because they tell us about ourselves: who we have been, who we are, and now that we’re older, who we’re going to be.
And there’s something else about how much that song means to me, something I’ve said here before: The Mrs. and I have no children. But if we’d had a daughter, I’m pretty sure she would have been named Maggie May.