08 January 2011

[liff] Gerry Rafferty: He Put Something Better Inside Of Us

When news of Gerry Rafferty's death broke, last week on Tuesday, I was in the Multnomah County Library, perusing Twitter.

For those of you who'd diss the Twitter, give it this: most of us so-connected knew right away that a talent, perhaps the greatest underappreciated talent of the latter half of the 20th Century, was no longer with us, and it was a different world now.

Oh, you'd not think him underappreciated. After all, who hasn't heard the famously-searing sax solo that underlines that sparkling exemplar of late-70s progressive rock (oh, we called it "soft rock" back then), "Baker Street", from the famous City to City album.

That album means so many things when one stops to consider Gerry Rafferty's oeurve. Three years earlier, the promise contained in the English-Scottish electrofolk group Stealers Wheel had been broken in a devolution that left Gerry unable to release music due to legal and contractual obligations. Gerry, a Scotsman living near Glasgow was (as the legend has it) shuttling unrelentingly between Glasgow and London - city to city - trying to ply his craft and untangle his entanglements. Legend also had it that he had little love for the south of England, preferring his northern, Glaswegian haunts. The tension of going to and fro and dealing with life's unpleasantries thereupon are written all over City to City, if you look closely.

The ambivalence he felt for the music industry and having to go to London to deal with it was a theme which surfaced time and again, in songs like "A Dangerous Age" (from the 1988 album North and South) and "Sleepwalking", (1982's Sleepwalking), which pretty much matched his ambivalence about performing live - those of us Rafferty fans in the USA were destined never to see him, as he apparently disliked touring, and certainly not across the ocean.

So it goes.

Still we Rafferty fans kept the faith. There's really nobody, before or since, who could turn a song out like him. When Quentin Tarantino "rediscovered" Stealers Wheel for that shambolic scene in Reservoir Dogs, Rafferty and Wheel fans all over the Western world wondered what the hell took so long for anything Rafferty-connected to become hip. We were always on board that train, you see (the musical one, not the evil-man-in-cheap-suit-cutting-off-a-cop's-ear one).

They say you never forget your first. Same's true here. Before the year 1979, when I was but a neat thing, as they say, I was more of a music filter. A child of top-40 radio, I enjoyed the poppy stuff, the tunes with the hook was the thing. While I had bands I preferred, I had no favorite artist. But then I heard "Baker Street" (which pioneered the idea of the sax solo before every other artist of the day beat the life out of it), and "Home & Dry" (an unusual synthpop march from an electric folk artist, and still the most favorite song I've ever heard) from City to City, and I did something I didn't do ever until that point - I bought a real album.

33 and a third, baby! And I put it on my stereo (that's what even we young folks called them then) and treated myself to an album that changed everything I thought about music, from the fact that now I knew what it was like to follow a single musician to the idea that you didn't have to wait on the radio anymore, hoping your song would come around.

I may or may not still have that original 1978 disc. If I do, I'm sure I'll find that I've played most of the grooves smooth.

Gerry wasn't only a player whose every song pleased me, he's someone who liberated me in a way. Introduced me to a larger world.

For me, the real key to having any Gerry in your collection - and I think the sign of an evolved music-listener is to have some - is to have the three albums of what I call his "70s Trilogy" in your collex. Those are City to City (1978), Night Owl (1979) and Snakes and Ladders (1980). Those three aren't thematically related other than Gerry's general style, but they seem posessed of a similar tone and polish, and are visually united by the unique style of Scottish playwright and artist John "Patrick" Byrne, so for me, as to age and approach, they hang as a unit.

From there, I'd suggest getting a Greatest Hits disc - those are comparatively easy to find these days, those old albums not so much - and you won't have to wait to get Sleepwalking, North and South, et. al., to hear some of his later gems. From there, lateral over to Another World (2001), which was his last original album (Life Goes On is rereleases and radio edits, though that's worth it because Gerry's versions of the hymns Adeste Fidelis and Kyrie are pure honey for the ears and properly cathedral-esque) and will clue you in on exactly how, just like any great Scotch, Scotsmen too age and attain majesty over time.

It's to all our regrets that there will never be original Gerry ever again. After a life of strife and alcohol, he died (it shouldn't need to be said) too young at age 63. Another World proved to me he had a ton of music left in him and we'll never know how good he'd sounded.

And I cannot resist the temptation to say that his liver departed him over artistic differences, or after years of dreaming of settling down and buying some land it appears he's done just that at last. I am mourning the passing of Gerry Rafferty but, in a contrary way that seems right somehow, with joy. GR's songs are on heavy rotation in the house here, and they all carry with them their joy - Gerry had many moods, but they were all colorful ones and even the saddest songs he played seemed to have some crazy, cockeyed joy woven through them.

And they never sound old or dated. That, my friends, is true magic.

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