Deserving Voices

I’ve got a piece up at today about Gerry Rafferty’s career. (Link just added.) In my role as chief historian over there, I thought it was important to make clear that his career did not begin and end with “Baker Street.”

Can’t remember where I read it exactly, but I saw a piece suggesting that while “Baker Street” was about leaving behind rock-star craziness (“he’s got this dream about buying some land/he’s gonna give up the booze and the one-night stands”), its success threatened to make Rafferty into the very thing the protagonist of “Baker Street” didn’t want to be. And he resisted. There was no big tour in the wake of City to City, no slot opening for the Eagles or the Doobie Brothers or the like, as far as I know. What Rafferty did instead was go back to work, and it would be barely a year before he released Night Owl.

That is not to suggest that he never played live, ever. The fabulous ROIO bootleg archive dug up a show recorded in Hamburg, Germany, in 1993, in which Rafferty plays a handful of hits (“Baker Street,” “Right Down the Line,” and “Get it Right Next Time”), but mostly ignores the rest of his hitmaking period, playing just one other track from City to City, nothing else from Night Owl, and nothing from the 1980 album Snakes and Ladders. He does, however, perform a changed-up version of Stealers’ Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You.”

The ROIO archive is quite something, featuring an array of concert recordings, studio outtakes, and other ephemera by artists of all sorts, Gerry Rafferty to Miles Davis, classical to world music. Postings sometimes stick around for a while and sometimes they disappear quickly, and not every one of them will be of interest to everybody. But holy cow, the stuff you’ll find over there.

On Another Matter: The Internet nearly collapsed next week under the weight of the Ted Williams story—the homeless guy with the amazing pipes. Millions of Americans got all happy when Williams landed a couple of jobs utilizing his talents, although a few dissenting voices have been heard. Legendary DJ Dan Ingram is one of them, shooting a  note to Ken Levine complaining about the way Williams got a job at the expense of union voiceover artists. Commenters to Levine’s post are upset with Ingram, although many of them take shots at the idea of union voiceover artists in general rather than addressing Ingram’s broader point—that there are many skilled and experienced voiceover artists out there who are just as deserving of the sort of gigs Williams got, but their hard work and dedication has gone for naught. Ingram’s not the only person who’s made this point in the last week, and it can’t be entirely dismissed. But neither can the role of serendipity, as some of the commenters observe. We’ve all gotten breaks. In the end, it’s up to us to make the best of what we get. If Williams is deserving, he’ll make a life out of it. If not, he’ll be back on I-70 before too long.

“Stuck in the Middle With You”/Gerry Rafferty (live in Hamburg, 1993; bootleg)

The Owl and the Swallow

I don’t write about every musician who dies—there was no obituary for Captain Beefheart here, for example—only about those who had a particular impact on me as a listener, which Gerry Rafferty surely did.

I knew and liked “Stuck in the Middle With You,” his 1973 hit with Stealers Wheel, although I’m not sure I ever heard his name at that time. That would have come five years later, when “Baker Street” blasted onto the radio. Every headline, every mainstream media piece about Rafferty yesterday and today mentions that song, and it’s no wonder: There had never been anything like it before, and there’s never been anything like it since.

“Baker Street” came out during the summer after I graduated from high school, and it always takes me to those days spent working at the gas station without customers, listening to WFRL on the little radio in the window. That fall, when I got to college, one of the jocks on the campus station sparked a staff controversy by talking over the entire introduction, all 50-some seconds, which led to a philosophical debate over just how sacred Raphael Ravenscroft’s iconic saxophone line really is. “Right Down the Line” followed “Baker Street” onto the radio. It’s forever associated with that first semester of college as well, a difficult time in my life, but one that was steadied at least a little by the calm in Rafferty’s voice. The third single, “Home and Dry,” came out after I started working on the air at the campus station. I can remember cranking it so loud in the studio that its monster bass riffs caused the turntable to feed back. The City to City album has remained a favorite from those days to this one.

A year later, Rafferty released Night Owl. I don’t know if I had named the “Gerry Rafferty Syndrome” yet—the phenomenon of making the best record you could possibly make right out of the chute so that everything else you do is compared to it—but the album suffered from it. The lead single, “Days Gone Down,” was as fine as “Baker Street” in its way, with a stronger lyric about wild times and bygone days, and the hope that there are more such days to come. “Get it Right Next Time” deserved better than to miss the Top 20 by a notch, but it did, and for most everybody, the Rafferty story stops there—five unique singles in a little more than a year, which is a better legacy than lots of performers leave behind.

For the outlines of the rest of Rafferty’s life, you can read the obits for yourself. I have one more story about “Baker Street” and me, one that I am reasonably sure is true. I am working at the gas station one sunny afternoon, out by the pumps, maybe emptying the garbage cans or refilling the windshield-washer stuff, or something. The door to the building is open, the radio is on, and “Baker Street” is playing. A family of swallows lives somewhere nearby, and one of them is flitting around the canopy over the pumps. Swallows, in my experience back then, were notoriously fearless; they seemed to take pleasure in dive-bombing nearby human beings for sport. And so while I am working outside, this particular swallow decides to take a run at me. In memory, he spits chirps at me as if they are curses, and he does so in time to Hugh Burns’ fevered guitar solo in the middle of “Baker Street.”

I could have dreamed it, I suppose, on some night in the summer of 1978 or some other night since. But I hope it really happened.

“It’s Gonna Be a Long Night”/Gerry Rafferty (from Night Owl; out of print)

Top 5: Here’s the Lifeline

Monday over at Echoes in the Wind, whiteray wrote about songs and album he turns to “for comfort or just escape.” Interesting topic, I thought as I read, although I had neither the time nor the inclination to blog about it myself.

Tuesday, every time I opened my e-mail, there was another significant news nugget in it. It wouldn’t necessarily be accurate to call it all bad news—“unsettling” is better. It’s news with the potential to lead to change. Some of it could be bad change, some could be good, but all of it is potentially life-altering, depending on how things turn out.

Wednesday I had an appointment out of the house, a meeting I wasn’t looking forward to. On the way, uninterested in whatever they were talking about on the sports station, I hit the CD player, having forgotten what was in it. It turned out to be several songs from 1976—“Get Closer,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “Welcome Back” and others—and I suddenly understood what whiteray had been writing about.  Those songs lightened my load immeasurably. They didn’t fix anything—the meeting didn’t go well and the news remains unsettled—but I found all of it easier to take. And on the ride home, I started percolating some other songs and albums that I’ve turned to for similar comfort or escape over the years. Here are five of ’em, in no particular order:

“Time Passages”/Al Stewart (1978). Not the whole album, but the title song, which promises us that there’s a place we can go where everything that’s wrong will be made right again. “The Sad Café” by the Eagles has a similar effect—which is really what this whole damn blog is all about.

City to City/Gerry Rafferty (1978). “Right Down the Line” ran the charts along with “Time Passages,” and it’s only a small exaggeration to say that the two songs got me through my first semester at college when it looked like nothing else would. But the deeper wisdom in this album took me years to hear—about finding one’s place (“Baker Street,” “The Ark”) or finding it again (“Stealin’ Time”), about the irresistible lure of home (“City to City,” “Home and Dry”), about the need to let go and move on (“Whatever’s Written in Your Heart”).

“Memory Motel”/Rolling Stones (1976). Last October I described this song as being about “a road that never seems to end, one that takes us further and further from the days and the people we remember best.” But “Memory Motel” is also about making the best of whatever road we’re on.

Sleepless/Peter Wolf (2002). I have never cared for the description of rock as “music to kill your parents by.” The best of it actually affirms life in all of its ragged, disorganized, making-it-up-as-you-go-along glory. Sleepless does this by embracing a myriad of influences: rock (the magnificent “Growin’ Pain” and “Run Silent Run Deep”), R&B (“Never Like This Before,” “Homework”), country (“Some Things You Don’t Want to Know” and “Nothing But the Wheel,” which features Mick Jagger and sounds like a Stones outtake, but is in fact a country song through and through), and some profoundly gorgeous pop songs (“Hey Jordan,” “Five o’ Clock Angel”—the warm electric piano that opens the latter is a marvelously comforting sound to me).

Stones in the Road/Mary Chapin Carpenter (1994). I’ve written several times about how the radio talks to us—how certain songs speak as if they were written for us alone. This album is full of ’em—“Why Walk When You Can Fly,” “This Is Love,” and “Jubilee” among them.

What all of these songs and albums have in common is a deep understanding of the patience it takes to live every day. Life is a long haul, and expecting the things we want to come to us right now right now RIGHT NOW is a prescription for frustration. But even when I don’t feel like patience is what I really need, it doesn’t matter, because this music still helps me through. I can hear that these people get it, whatever “it” is. They’ve been there, wherever “there” is, and they know what to say to me right now—which is mostly just to hang on. And I let them say it, over and over and over again. Or as MCC puts it in “This Is Love”:

If you ever need to hear a voice in the middle of the night
When it seems so black outside that you can’t remember light
Ever shone on you or the ones you love in this or another lifetime
And the voice you need to hear is the true and the trusted kind
With a soft, familiar rhythm in these swirling, unsure times
When the waves are lapping in and you’re not sure you can swim
Well here’s the lifeline