Can we rescue this from soft rock radio cliche oblivion? Or have you heard this in too, too many supermarkets? Also, can we reevaluate Eric Clapton’s legacy? Nobody really thinks he’s God anymore, thankfully. That kind of hyperbole is bound to inspire backlash, and now ‘Clapton is overrated’ is the new ‘Clapton is God.’ I’d say that Clapton falls somewhere in the middle, a bit closer to the former in my opinion. I’ve always considered him a minor artist, but I know that the world thinks he’s a major one. Though it does seem that having one great blues song and a lot of soft rock hits doesn’t carry as much weight as it used to. But maybe we can enjoy that soft rock for what it is, without spitting on it for over-familiarity.
Bruce Springsteen is very relevant right now. He’s a major American artist who never tires of reminding us that the American Dream really kind of blows. The dream has been looking particularly hollow lately, and a lot of us are feeling let down and at loose ends. We feel depressed and weak, we feel like we’re driving in circles, living pointless lives with no promise of betterment. Sometimes we secretly hope that a tornado will just come and blow us all away. Yeah, the promised land sucks. But we continue to stubbornly believe in it, because most of us ain’t got nothing better to believe in.
Do only men get to push the boundaries of decency by lusting after adolescent girls? No, not if that girl is Brooke Shields. Pretty Baby, of course, is the once-controversial 1978 movie is which then 12-year-old Shields played a child prostitute turned child bride. Shields was the Lolita of the 70’s & 80’s, known for appearing in risque movies and photoshoots from a shockingly early age. Needless to say, she inspired untold numbers of statutorily illegal boners. Debbie Harry, meanwhile, made her songwriting mettle by gleefully satirizing every creepy and gross gender convention that pop music took for granted. Blondie’s first single was called Sex Offender, after all, and their catalog is full of songs about following some hapless sap’s car downtown and similar escapades. So, of course Debbie Harry had to pay winking tribute to the nubile ingenue who was the toast of the jet set and the subject of pearl-clutching outrage. I get that it’s a parody of a gross pop song, but the element of satire slightly lightens it. It’s still, if you think about it, one of the queasiest pop songs ever. Remember, Brooke Shields was 12 years old, and Deborah Harry was a grown-ass woman who would later come out as bisexual. Obviously, the two knew each other, and all things considered, a lighthearted song about being the object of desire by an older woman who most likely probably didn’t mean it was the least creepy thing Brooke Shields had to deal with. The broader social context, as usual, is gross beyond belief, because yeah, precocious teenagers exist to be sexual chum in the eyes of the world, and the best anyone can seem to do with it is wink and shrug.
Ahh, the poet’s age old quandary; to do a line or not to. Heh, heh. Pretty clever. Otherwise, though, it’s kind of a sad song. There’s something inherently sad about telephone numbers that never get used, calls that are never answered. It could’ve been something great but it didn’t happen, because apathy. The poet, being too busy doing lines (in all the senses of the word), misses out on whatever it is normal happy people who answer the telephone are out doing. And, the singer being Debbie Harry, she’s probably going to go out later and follow some guy around in the supermarket. But for now, she’s not taking phone calls.
“Picture this, a sky full of thunder/Picture this, my telephone number”
Even in the most tender love song, Debbie Harry shows her craziness. She wants to sit and watch her man shower; she teases him for working in a garage. Those aren’t particularly weird things, but those are weird things to put in a love song. It’s a tone markedly different from the established one. It may not even be a love song, really. She wants him but she may not even like him. She certainly doesn’t look up to him, or need him. She’s a girl who sets the pace and knows what she wants. She’s the kind of a woman who walks up to men in bars, I bet. She’s the type who throws your number away and never explains why. In short, Debbie Harry is the kind of a woman who really doesn’t care about roles and boundaries, even when she cares a lot about people.
Pick yourself up, dust yourself off. Start all over. That’s great advice from Peter Tosh. And it couldn’t be more universal or basic. In the video (circa 1978), we hear the track opening with lines from scripture, and we see Tosh wearing a robe and keffiyeh. For what reason, I don’t know, or what the political context back then might have been. It may be a show of solidarity for victims of the conflict between South Lebanon and Israel or the conflict between Egypt and Israel, both of which were happening around this time, or a reminder of the common roots shared between Rastafarian, Christian and Muslim faiths. Whatever the specifics, the implication is that the message isn’t merely to try and have a nice day. It’s to try and fight another day, despite oppression, despite violence, despite hopelessness.
All right, get out your history books and follow along. You’ll need to brush up on your Robespierre, your Marat, and your Bonaparte. Get up to speed on the French Revolution. Or you can just enjoy the song. You can totally just do that. But I think you may be inspired to go learn something. Al Stewart sees beauty in history; where you see just something that may have at some point been forced into your brain by the educational curriculum (or very possibly not, if you’re an American), Al sees great stories waiting to be retold. In this case, of course, he’s got his work cut out. Unlike many historical things that remain of interest only to historians, Versailles and its inhabitants have never lost their glamour. We’re still stunned by the sheer opulence and beauty of the place. And we’re still fascinated by the ill-fated King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, whose affluenza was the downfall of their family, their court, their system of government and the very concept of absolute rule by dynastic monarchy. Plenty of monarchs have lost their status and their heads for their incompetence, but few have permeated pop culture like those two. It seems that history has softened its view of them; despite all the misdeeds they were demonized for, the fruit of their self-indulgence turned out to be its own reward. The palace still stands, a national treasure, object of fascination, major tourist trap, the ultimate symbol of luxury and tragic glamour, proof that beauty and art transcend whatever bloodshed was the cost of their creation.