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Right Down the Line: R.I.P. Gerry Rafferty

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Tuesday, Jan 11, 2011
Hopefully even in his most lonely moments when he could not see the light, Gerry Rafferty's heart was less heavy knowing how many lives he had improved with the gift he shared

A considerable component of what made the ‘70s so awesome has, sadly, left the building we call Earth. And so it is on the unfortunate occasion of Gerry Rafferty’s premature passing that I’m compelled to talk about myself. Bear with me, this sentiment is not as inappropriate or solipsistic as it sounds; in fact, it is arguably the highest form of praise. In other words, I am incapable of talking about Rafferty without discussing how large his music loome—and looms—in my own life. I suspect I’m not alone here.

Anyone who drew breath in 1978 knew Gerry Rafferty (if you didn’t you were too young; if you still don’t it’s never too late).

That song isn’t simply an ineradicable part of the ‘70s; it is the ‘70s. It is possibly the best song of the decade. It is probably one of the best songs ever. It is a perfect song. Or, if we can call any one song as perfect as music is capable of being, “Baker Street” is part of that discussion, period. Even though it has an irrepressible push and pull (that sax! that flute!) that culminates in one of the sublime (and relatively succinct) guitar solos in rock history, there is such a subtle sense of melancholy that it stays inside you, even if you are only eight years old. As you get older, perhaps you begin to listen to (much less understand) the lyrics and slowly realize it captures the themes of innocence, loss and redemption, all in about six minutes. Songwriters (and poets, and novelists) are willing to sacrifice vital organs to compose something this enduring and indelible. The note of hope cut with the wizened (but not cynical) eyes of experience enable this song to function almost as a parable of themes that any sentient being struggles with on occasion: nostalgia, regret, expectation, uncertainty. And above all, the question of whether you can—or should—go home again, if only in the figurative sense.

If “Baker Street” was all Rafferty ever did, his legacy would be more than secure and the gratitude of this generation (and subsequent ones, no doubt) would be substantial. Of course, he did more. Much more.

Naturally, Rafferty would be remembered even if there had never been a “Baker Street”, since his early hit “Stuck in the Middle with You” (with Stealers Wheel) became part of the regular rotation on classic rock radio in the ‘80s. Then, in the ‘90s, it was immortalized in the infamous “ear” scene in Quentin Tarantino’s film Reservoir Dogs.

And then, impossibly, there may be the song that is best of all, “Right Down the Line”. Also from City to City (an excellent album, well worth acquiring), this is a love song you can believe in. I’m not even certain exactly what I mean by that, but it is definitely not the typical love song that is shorthand for expressing intimacy, like a Hallmark card. This is one of those tunes that actually is capable of conveying the sorts of things you’d like to tell someone special, and since you know you can’t do it more convincingly, or beautifully, it manages to become more than a song. Anyone who has fallen under its spell (and I’ve met many women and men who endorse it) will understand that this is not over-the-top, at least in any superficial or facile sense.

A while back I wrote at length about that old-fashioned courting ritual and rite of passage called the mix-tape. I wrote “A mixed tape was de rigueur for establishing, assessing and understanding the various levels of any serious romance. The first mix was as important, in its way, as the first kiss: too early and you could blow it; too late and you may have missed an opportunity to send the right signal at the right time.” Well, “Right Down the Line” was not first mix-tape material. It was always, eventually a go-to, but you had to earn that one. Of all of the ones I invoked, Rafferty takes top billing, and “Right Down the Line” is a musical memory that will always hold a sacred place in my heart.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying thank you to Gerry Rafferty. Based on what little I knew, and the accounts I’m reading today, his life was not always a happy one and he fought desperately against demons too many of us are obliged to face. Hopefully even in his most lonely moments when he could not see the light, his heart was less heavy knowing how many lives he had improved with the gift he shared. I sincerely hope, if there is a karmic force and any sort of justice in our universe, he is in a peaceful place where he can feel the enormity of what he achieved, and realize that his life meant a great deal to more people than he could ever have imagined.

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11 Jan 2011
Gerry Rafferty died too young, embittered and ravaged by alcoholism, added to the strange but poignant list of people we’ve never met but still miss. He leaves behind a perfect song, an aching, sad, beautiful story attached to a sax solo forever lodged in the right brains of millions of music fans.
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