30-Day Song Challenge, Day 21: A Song You Like with a Person’s Name in the Title
Steve Winwood first released the song “Valerie” in 1982, in a fairly simple form that he himself would later call “under-produced,” whereupon it failed to attract much attention at all. At the time, Winwood was 34 years old and had been a musician since he was just 14, when he and his older brother had joined The Spencer Davis Group. He’d subsequently been part of Traffic and Blind Faith (the Eric Clapton-led “supergroup” that released only a single, immensely successful album), as well as a session musician through most of the ’70s. He had a big solo hit in 1980 with “While You See a Chance,” but the relative flop of “Valerie” and the album it came from, as well as his reluctance to tour, left him thinking that maybe it was time to find something else to do with the rest of his life. Instead, he got himself a new manager, moved to New York, and found a coproducer (he’d done everything himself on his earlier solo work), resulting in the 1986 album Back in the High Life, five hit singles, three Grammy Awards, and a reinvigorated career.
The following year, he helped compile Chronicles, a greatest-hits collection that included a remix of “Valerie.” The polished, synth-heavy version shot to #9, validating Winwood’s faith in the song and paving the way to his next hit album, Roll With It. Not bad, considering he’d been on the verge of cashing in his chips only a short time before.
I don’t have any particular memories involving “Valerie,” but I do tend to associate it with my freshman year of college (the song was peaking on the charts in December of 1987, right between fall and winter quarters). My good friend Cheryl once remarked that Winwood’s music in general is “so damned optimistic.” So naturally it was a perfect complement for a time of my life when every single day seemed to offer some novel experience, and I thought I had infinite possibilities ahead of me. God, how I miss that feeling…
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 20: A Song That Has Many Meanings to You
I have to be honest, this category was something of a challenge. Whether it reflects the type of music I enjoy or my own lack of sophistication, I simply could not think of a song with multiple meanings. Most everything I like tends to be… unambiguous. What you hear is what you get. I came close to just begging off on this one and moving to the next item… and then something popped into my head:
“Sister Christian” by Night Ranger.
Oh, don’t laugh. This one is as much a landmark of its era as anything by Prince, which is why you’ve heard it in movies and TV shows ranging from Family Guy to Boogie Nights, and on every cheap truckstop “Best of the ’80s” compilation CD you’ve ever seen. And as it happens, I have had a number of conversations with friends who were unsure of just what the heck it was actually about.
To my ear, it’s pretty obviously a coming-of-age tune in which a big brother expresses concern — but also gentle support — for his little sister growing up and becoming sexually active. No one ever disputes that; the debates I’ve had seem to turn on the chorus, specifically the repeated word “motoring,” which seems to throw many listeners. I translate that as “cruising,” as in the mostly obsolete practice of driving around looking for a, um, friend for the evening, which is evidently what the little sister in the song is doing. (If anyone reading this is too young to have ever done that, check out the films American Graffiti and/or Dazed and Confused. I myself participated in this quintessentially American activity a few times, but never with much success. Good thing I just like to drive.) The word also suggests speed to me, that the sister is moving toward her goal fast… maybe too fast, and that worries the singer. So, there you go: multiple interpretations. However, that little quibble about the chorus is not what prompted me to think of “Sister Christian” as “a song with many meanings.”
For me, this song is also indelibly associated with another rite of passage, high school graduation. But not my own, strangely enough. Way back in the spring of 1986, my junior year of high school, I worked for one class period each day as an aide in the media center — the library. Mostly I hung out in a little room filled with VCRs, TV sets, and overhead projectors, fiddling with a really cool stereo system in between checking out equipment to faculty members. I had a few interesting adventures in that room, which I might get around to talking about some day. And I also occasionally got pulled into jobs involving the stage crew; my “boss” in the media center was their advisor. One of those occasions was when I helped to assemble a slideshow and the accompanying music for the final senior assembly for the outgoing class of ’86, held in the last couple weeks of school before they graduated. The slides were all photos of their class from the past four years — dances, football games, that sort of thing — and the music had been deliberately selected for maximum nostalgic effect. I remember sitting in that assembly alongside the clicking slide projector, hot and bored. Hey, it was late May, the A/C wasn’t up to the job, and we weren’t looking at pictures of my class! But then the opening notes of “Sister Christian” began, that so-familiar little piano riff. And very soon after, I felt that something had changed in that auditorium. The energy was different. More open somehow…. more vulnerable. And then I started to hear sniffling… here… there… and I realized that quite a few of these big tough seniors, who only moments ago had been cracking jokes, shifting restlessly, cynical and ready to be done with Bingham High and off to whatever adult lives they had planned… were crying. “Sister Christian” had struck a chord within them, and for at least a moment, maybe they too felt like they were growing up too fast and wondering what was the price for achieving their flight. I know I did. I wondered about it all through my own senior year, wondered if my fellow classmates felt it too or would feel it if they heard the right song in our senior assembly. I’ll confess that it took me a long time to really grow up and to move beyond high school. In a lot of ways, I suppose I never have, considering I ended up in charge of my 30-year reunion a couple years ago. And I think my impulse to hang on might have started that day listening to Night Ranger in a stuffy auditorium.
Incidentally, it is purely a coincidence that the official video for “Sister Christian” is themed around a high school graduation. I don’t remember seeing the video until long after I was out of high school, and in any event, I wasn’t the one who selected the song for that slideshow.
Now for the technical stuff: The song comes from Night Ranger’s second album, Midnight Madness, and it became the band’s biggest hit. Released in March 1984, it was on the charts for 24 weeks and would peak at number five in June. Midnight Madness sold over a million copies — one of which found its way into my Walkman — largely on the strength of “Sister Christian” and its follow-up “When You Close Your Eyes,” another exercise in wistful nostalgia. It probably won’t surprise anyone reading this to learn that both songs are favorites of mine.
On that note, why don’t we do some “motoring?” Sing it with me, kids: