The Power of Song – Goodbye to Gerry Rafferty

Out on the street I was talkin’ to a man
He said “there’s so much of this life of mine that I don’t understand”
You shouldn’t worry yes that ain’t no crime
Cause if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time (next time).
— Gerry Rafferty, “Get It Right Next Time”, from the album Night Owl

The Scottish songwriter and singer Gerry Rafferty died the other day at age 63 of liver failure, after a long battle over many years with at first fame and the bottle, and then mostly just the bottle.

I’m writing about him because his songs mean a lot to me, and his albums from the late 70s and into the 80s — City to City, Night Owl, Snakes and Ladders, and especially Sleepwalking helped keep me emotionally afloat through some difficult times of my own. I still have all those albums in the LP and cassette collection I never play any more.

Rafferty is best known probably for two songs: “Baker Street” from City to City, and the earlier “Stuck in the Middle with You” co-written with Joe Egan when they were the principals of the band Stealers Wheel. The latter song has that memorable line: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”

The song “Baker Street” alone was so popular that it is said Rafferty earned about $125,000 a year in royalties from it until his death.

Here is a video of Rafferty performing “Baker Street.”

And another with Stealers Wheel:

Now those songs are alright, but it is mostly the songs that never became big hits that really reached out and touched me. It’s partly his voice, soothing and searching, partly the words that always seemed to probe at his pain, and ours, and partly the music itself, the guitar work and catchy rhythms. (Of course, that saxophone solo in Baker Street by Raphael Ravenscroft is considered by some to be the best of its kind in popular music.)

Ken Emerson of Rolling Stone wrote in his 1978 review of City to City that:

“Indeed, there’s a prayerful quality to the entire LP, a quality reminiscent of the dim dawn after a dark night of the soul.”

And later in the same review:

“For all their rhythmic variety—from the suave Latin lilt of ‘Right down the Line’ to the thump of ‘Home and Dry’—these are uniformly majestic songs.”

The comment about prayer is insightful to me, for it captures squarely the shading of Rafferty’s voice: his prayers in song to the Universe-At-Large over despairing self-realization, and his sorrow and hope.

Here is a YouTube version of his song “Right Down the Line”:

The Personal Connection

In the late 1970s in New York City, I lived for awhile with an odd, neurotic and attractive Montessori teacher named Jill. I seem to get involved with strong, or perhaps more accurately, volatile women, and in Jill strength embodied itself largely in anger. She had some health problems, a difficult relationship with her father, and was prone to impulsive short-term and intense romantic liaisons, among other things.

After quite a few extended bouts of her radically furious anger over what should have been minor disagreements, I gave up and moved out of our small apartment on the Far Upper West Side.

I kept in touch with her foolishly when I lived for a short time in San Francisco just after that. Then when I moved back to British Columbia and got a job in Merritt as a reporter/photographer for that small town’s weekly newspaper, our romance revived over long-distance telephone calls.

Then even more foolishly and naively I invited her to the small town of Merritt to marry me. Incredibly, she accepted, made plans to travel all the way to BC from Manhattan and arrived in little old Merritt.

Now you have to realize that this was a cosmopolitan young woman, who had gone to a toney Eastern U.S. college and was used to living it up in the clubs of Greenwich Village and dining at posh establishments on the East Side of Manhattan.

You also should realize that I am a plain guy who grew up in a log cabin in northern British Columbia and walked three miles to elementary classes at a two-room country school in Quick, BC.  Quick is not really a town, or even a village, but a sort of spread-out hamlet in the rural Bulkley Valley. You can’t even find it on a map, unless you’ve got a really local one.

And my job as a small-town reporter in Merritt meant I could only afford to rent a house with one of the town’s rising young lawyers as roommate and drinking buddy. Other than that I had no particular savings and no particular prospects. What the hell was I thinking?

Yet Jill and I began cohabitation in this house. It was only a matter of a couple of weeks before she became bored and angry and took up with my lawyer housemate, who I had come to think of as a friend. I moved out before I felt compelled to do something I might regret to either one of them.

I rented a small studio on the main street of Merritt above a hair salon. It often reeked of the odor of permanents. One Saturday afternoon in particular I remember being on the roof to escape the smell. I looked down the main street in the direction of the house where I used to live. There I could see Jill and my former friend from behind as they walked a couple of blocks away, holding hands, Jill’s enormous riot of curly black hair still so clear to me today. That was almost the last time I saw her.

It was in this context that the darkness and hope in Rafferty’s music and albums affected me so much. I would drive my Mazda 626 (bought, or almost given to me, from my mother) too fast on silent roads in the middle of the night when I was too restless to sleep, listening to the cassette of Sleepwalking.

(I finally stopped that after I scared myself spinning out on gravel while negotiating turns at too high a speed in careless anger.)

From “Good Intentions” on that album:

I asked my heart to talk to my mind
They said don’t worry, oh well you’re doin’ fine
I went to the doctor, I said I’m misunderstood
He said ‘Don’t worry, why your intentions are good.’

Now life is a hard school, when you’re living a lie
Tell me who’ll bring you water, when your well runs dry?
Ah but there’s always tomorrow, you’ll do the things that you should
You’re just a sad eyed dreamer, but your intentions are good.

My friends and acquaintances came to see me as somewhat strange, though eventually I passed through my extended funk.

From “Whatever’s Written In Your Heart”:

I heard us speak but all the words were dead
Talked all night and left it all unsaid
So we agree to disagree
At least we got our memory.

Whatever’s written in your heart, that’s all that matters
You’ll find a way to say it all someday (yeah)
Whatever’s written in your heart, that’s all that matters
Yeah, night and day, night and day.

Rafferty entered his own funk after the success of Baker Street. From all accounts, he was extremely uncomfortable with the fame and attention that song brought him, and he came to despise the machinations of the music industry. He hated to tour.

Apparently he spent most of his later years fighting alcoholism and depression.

Still I remember Gerry Rafferty’s hopefulness and the wry wisdom expressed in his songs. Here’s a video link to his song “Get It Right Next Time”:

I can only hope that maybe in one of the multiverses somewhere, that he, and we, will have the chance to get it right next time….

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8 Comments on “The Power of Song – Goodbye to Gerry Rafferty”

  1. Doug Says:

    Nice eulogy Fencer. I was never really familiar with his work other than the popular offerings, but you really made it come alive.

    Doug


  2. In Ian Hunter’s words, words I am most fond of, old records never die.

  3. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    His songs have been a big part of my life…

    Thanks for coming by!

    Regards

  4. fencer Says:

    Mr. Beer,

    It is wonderful to still have the music…

    Thanks for dropping by…

    Regards


  5. Oh boy, did that ever bring back memories! Thanks for posting.
    K

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    I go through bouts of intensely reviewing various uncomfortable eras of my life…

    Thanks for coming around!

    Regards

  7. David Says:

    Hi,

    Nice words. A man lost far too early (much earlier than this year). His ‘The Right Moment’ is a song which always seems to be _right_ (right now, it’s on You Tube @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ABDTO7CteY).

    Regards,

    David

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi David,

    Thanks very much for the link. Another great song from that Sleepwalking album… it goes straight for the heart.

    Regards


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