I heard it on NPR. “You might not know the singer”, Melissa Block announced. “But you’d know that solo anywhere”.
The swelling saxophone filled my Dodge Caravan. I was driving home from work on a freezing Wednesday afternoon. More precisely, I was sitting at the red light where the Alameda turns onto Solano Avenue. From my vantage point I could see all the way to the coast, where the sun lowered into the sea.
“Baker Street”, I said to the empty van. “Gerry Rafferty”.
On this chilly, darkening afternoon driving in Berkeley, I piloted my van down the narrow street, carefully avoiding the pedestrians hurrying through the crosswalks, willfully oblivious to traffic as only Berkeleyans can be. I wove around BMWs threatening to back into the street. A few stores still had Christmas lights up. Melissa Block announced Gerry Rafferty’s death. He was 63 years old. She mentioned “Right Down the Line”, and “Stuck in the Middle with You”, made notorious by Quentin Tarantino. But I was not there. I was back in Detroit, in my childhood home, where “Baker Street” played through most of 1978, that sax solo you’d recognize anywhere blaring through the custom speakers my father built in our basement. He had in fact built the entire stereo system, save the Pioneer turntable. Speakers, tweeters atop them (don’t ask me what they are or why he built them; all I know is they “boosted” the already impressive sound.), receiver, amplifier, pre-amplifier. The stereo had to be turned on in order, starting with a light switch my father put on it’s own circuit for that purpose. From there the order had to be followed or you would “blow up” the stereo system. I could never remember the proper sequence and lived in fear of the stereo, which I never touched.
Music was sacred in our house. Even when there was no money, which was most of the time, regular trips were made to Korvettes, and later, Record Outlet, where my parents purchased most of the 1970s rock catalog and a goodly amount of Motown. The stereo was always on, often at high volume, so my father could test his latest tweaks to the ever-morphing system. In this way my parents passed their musical tastes to their three children: when I say “Baker Street” was always playing in my house in 1978, I mean my six-year-old brother might be playing it, or my nine-year-old sister, or me. My parents owned City to City. I had the single on a 45 rpm, purchased for 99 cents. “Baker Street” was, in home parlance, a “house hit”, a song that caught on in my family and ended up being played endlessly by all five of us. Often I had no idea whether the song in question was actually popular, though this was not the case with “Baker Street”. In 1978, it was impossible not to hear it everywhere.
One of the obituaries I read made sneering reference to “Baker Street” as “seventies soft rock”, making it clear why Rafferty hated the music business. I also take exception. One of the reasons “Baker Street” caught on, apart from the sax solo or Rafferty’s mellifluous voice, which few seem to acknowledge, was the song’s story. Strip the music from “Baker Street” and you have a perfect piece of writing, a story straight from the Raymond Carver archives. “Winding your way down Baker Street / Light in your head and dead on your feet / Another crazy day / You’ll drink the night away and forget about everything”. There’s the setting. You can see it. I can see it. And we’ve either been there ourselves or know somebody who has.
“This city desert makes you feel so cold / It’s got / So many people but / It’s got no soul / And it’s taken you so long to find out you were wrong when you thought it had everything”. Tell me how these lines have dated in any way. If anything, the soulless city desert has grown only colder. Technology has changed how we interact with the world and one another, but our basic foibles, our needs and fears and desires, are essentially unchanged.
We found out we were wrong when we thought it had everything.
You used to think that it was so easy
You used to say that it was so easy
But you’re tryin’
You’re tryin’ now
Another year and then you’ll be happy
Just one more year and then you’ll be happy
But you’re cryin’
You’re cryin’ now
Way down the street there’s a lad in his place
He opens the door he’s got that look on his face
And he asks you where you’ve been
You tell him who you’ve seen
And you talk about anything
He’s got this dream about buyin’ some land
He’s gonna give up the booze and the one night stands
And then he’ll settle down there’s a quiet little town
And forget about everything
Because I listened to this record as a child, it imprinted on me with a child’s perceptions, albeit a precocious child’s perceptions. I understood the song was about a lost soul, about alcohol, about the story that lost soul told himself and his friends. And how his friends, because they were his friends, listened to his story repeatedly, even when they were past believing him (“Just one more year and then you’ll be happy”).
We all know the lad way down the street. By the time I was ten, I knew several lads, most friends of my parents, connections they’d made through their musical passions. One of them, whom I’ll call Rich, dropped in at odd intervals. He once took me on a walk ending at the Star Deli, about two miles from our house. We discussed the scientific versus the artistic view of the world. Rich went into extensive detail about people who took the structuralist view, and how I was clearly not one of those people. I was an artistic type. I was seven years old, and for too many years afterward this discussion constituted my notion of an ideal first date. Shortly afterward, Rich went insane. I never saw him again (“He’s the rollin’ stone”).
But you know he’ll always keep movin’
You know he’s never gonna stop movin’
Cus he’s rollin’
He’s the rollin’ stone
And when you wake up it’s a new mornin’
The sun is shinin’ it’s a new morning
You’re goin’ home
I failed to realize Rafferty was singing about himself.
Think of all the rollin’ stones we knew who woke to new, shiny mornings with fresh intentions. A new day: no drinking, no drugging, no waking up tomorrow morning with a stranger beside you.
For Gerry Rafferty, this wasn’t to be. He 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.
Goodbye, unknown friend. Go in peace.
Special thanks to my father, whose stereo building talents included keeping my overworked 1956 RCA Victor record player running until 1981, when my parents gave me the Technics turntable I have to this day.