30-Day Song Challenge, Day 29: A Song You Remember From Your Childhood
“Sundown” is the title track from Gordon Lightfoot’s fifth album on the Warner Bros/Reprise label (his tenth album, overall). It was a number-one hit in the summer of 1974. I was just under five years old at the time, so it’s unlikely I have any real memories of the song in the context of that year. And yet somehow it’s become associated in my mind with a series of impressions that add up to a scene that very likely did occur around that time… so maybe I actually do remember it. Memory is such a weird, slippery thing, especially when you’re looking back across four and a half decades. But whether I’m experiencing a genuine memory when I hear “Sundown” or just something I’ve manufactured for myself that uses the song as accompaniment, it always conjures up a vision of riding alongside my pretty young mother in her 1956 Ford pickup truck, the one with rust-red primer on the fenders and an eight-track deck welded into the dashboard. A long bar of sunshine-polygons pivots across the curving sides of the windshield and the truck shimmies and squeaks as old cars do, like living things with a touch of arthritis in their joints. The sweet, floral smell of just-cut alfalfa flows through the open wing-window. Dad has a swather machine and picks up a few extra bucks on the weekends cutting and baling hay for the local farmers. We’re on our way to meet him with a midday snack, a box of his favorite raspberry Zingers on the bench seat between us, a styrofoam cooler on the floor between us loaded with cans of Fanta Red Cream Soda and Coke in tall glass bottles. I’m drowsy in the heat, and the world seems very large and uncrowded.
This memory is a safe place, a happy place that I find myself retreating to more and more often as I get old and current events become more grim and frustrating. Strange that it would be so tangled up with a song about a “hard-headed woman that’s got me feeling mean.” But like I said… memory is weird…
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 28: A Song By An Artist Whose Voice You Love
An artist whose voice I love? Well, let’s see… I already used the Bangles way back at Song Number 9, so Susanna Hoffs is out. How about…
Mary Chapin Carpenter.
You might remember her from a string of hits on the country charts back in the early ’90s that included “Down at the Twist and Shout,” “Passionate Kisses,” “I Feel Lucky,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “I Take My Chances,” and her biggest seller, the number-one favorite “Shut Up and Kiss Me.”
Despite these successes, though, mainstream country was never a great fit for Chapin — I call her Chapin; I have no idea if anyone else does or if she would be cool with it — especially at that particular moment when her contemporaries tended to be glammed-up dollies like Reba McEntire and Faith Hill. By contrast, Chapin has always seemed to be most comfortable in a flannel shirt and a ponytail, and neither her speaking nor singing voice has the slightest trace of a twang. She took five years off in the late ’90s, but since the turn of the century — man, that still sounds weird! — she’s been recording and releasing new music that has moved farther and farther away from the country genre, both in sound and subject matter. Today, it’s probably best to describe her simply as a singer-songwriter whose work comprises literate meditations on aging, politics, and contemporary events. Sounds pretentious, but her music always had an intellectual edge, which is partly why I like her. Her lyrics are smart and often include striking imagery, as well as unexpected flashes of humor, even when the subject matter seems heavy. She’s a storyteller, which isn’t that unusual among singer-songwriters or country musicians, but the way in which she tells her stories are uniquely her own, and as a wannabe storyteller myself, I admire that.
As to her voice, it can be sexy on the right song, but mostly it’s warm and smooth. The cliche’d description would be “like honey,” but cliche or not, that’s what it reminds me of. Especially on the song I’ve selected for this post, which is the introspective title track from her 1994 album Stones in the Road, the same one that yielded the playful “Shut Up and Kiss Me.” This one refers to historical events that would have more resonance for Baby Boomers than my own age demographic, but I still relate to the overall mood and themes, and I love the final verse about what becomes of those innocent children when they hit working age.
“Stones” was not released as a single, so there’s no official video for it. There are some live performances on YouTube, but I really like the sound in the studio version you’ll hear here. Chapin didn’t do many videos in any case; much like the glamorous hair and dresses, she never seemed comfortable doing them. It’s probably for the best anyhow. Just close your eyes and pay attention to the words she uses…
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 27: A Song That Breaks Your Heart
Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is a beautiful ballad, as insightful and emotionally truthful as any I’ve ever heard… so truthful that for a very long time, I couldn’t stand to listen to it.
This was partly an accident of timing. The song was released in October of 1991, and while I was on the mend by then from the romantic trauma I mentioned in the previous entry, “on the mend” is a long way from “100% recovered.” It didn’t take much in those days to rip the scab off and this song was just… too much. It stung me like a physical slap every time I heard it. So naturally it was a big hit that I couldn’t seem to avoid hearing all through the fall and winter months of that year. The universe has a sick sense of humor sometimes. Even if it hadn’t come out right then, though, I think I might have struggled with this song anyhow. It really is very sad.
Watch the video closely… the man you see playing the piano at the end is none other than Bruce Hornsby, who’d just had several hits of his own in the late ’80s with Bruce Hornsby and the Range. He also played piano on Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” around this same time. He was evidently the go-to guy for melancholy…
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 26: A Song That Makes You Want to Fall in Love
In the summer of 1991, I was 21 years old and finally beginning to move on from a heartbreak I’d experienced the previous year. In retrospect, I never should have allowed myself to sulk for so long about that situation, which really couldn’t have turned out any other way except the way that it did. But that’s the somewhat wiser perspective of a 51-year-old whose scars (and hormones) have faded. Back then, when it was all fresh and red and oozing, and I was still more of a boy than any kind of functional adult… well, back then I fancied myself some kind of Byronic hero, a tragic figure swathed in melancholy, wounded by love as no one in the history of humankind had ever been wounded before, existing in the shadows and clinging to the bright pain that gives life meaning. (“Call me... Darkman…”)
Christ, no wonder I had such a hard time getting a date!
Seriously, though, now that I think about it, this awful period was probably my first encounter with the Black Dog of depression, and I probably could’ve used some professional help instead of muddling through it on my own. I’m more than a little embarrassed about my behavior and thinking during that time. But as I said, by the summer of ’91, I was starting to pull myself out of the funk. And in spite of the aforementioned difficulty, I was starting to land the occasional date, too. For example, there was the afternoon I escorted an old friend to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at the theater where I worked.
Now, that movie is what it is and this isn’t the place to debate its merits or lack thereof. And whatever intentions (hopes? wishes?) I may have had toward that friend didn’t pan out. We had a nice afternoon at the movies, but that was all. Perhaps I wasn’t as ready to move on as I thought as I was, or maybe too much time had passed to rekindle anything with that particular girl. Maybe I never actually had any intentions at all and I just wanted to see a movie with a friend. I don’t recall for sure anymore. But whatever the ultimate outcome, there was a moment during the movie’s closing credits when I suddenly felt… well, something between us. It might have been wishful thinking, it might just have been the mood generated by the movie’s romantic ending, but it was there, and it did me a world of good to feel that way, if only for a moment. To know that I still could feel that way. For that reason alone, I’ve never been able to join in when everybody else starts ragging on that movie.
Music is, of course, a huge component of how a movie affects the viewer, and I have no doubt that the song that played over the end credits of Prince of Thieves was as responsible for how I felt in that moment as anything. “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” was Bryan Adams’ first foray into movie music and it proved to be a good career move for him, as the song became a number-one hit in 16 different countries and remains Adams’ biggest-selling song. It also led to him writing and recording a slew of other movie songs, both for himself and for other performers, including a couple of power ballads that were very similar to “(Everything I Do)” in sound and mood: “All for Love,” a collaboration with Rod Stewart and Sting for the 1993 Disney version of The Three Musketeers and “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” from the Johnny Depp vehicle Don Juan DeMarco. For my money, though, “(Everything I Do)” is the best of these, as well as one of the best love songs of the last several decades. Because while love songs are a dime a dozen, especially in pop and rock circles, I’ve never heard one that captures the feeling of tenderness in such an honest, true-to-life way. At least to my ear. Your mileage may vary.
This song isn’t about the early infatuation stage of a relationship or about physical lust, as intoxicating as those things are; this song is more mature than that. It’s a promise. It’s a knight pledging himself to a lady.
And one day back in 1991, it really did make me want to fall in love again
A final note about the video: I know there was one that incorporated clips from the movie along with Adams in a long black coat walking along a stony English-looking beach, but for some reason, I couldn’t find that one. Probably something to do with licensing, I would guess, because of the movie footage. Here’s another version that’s not nearly as good… but we’re here to listen to the music anyhow, right?
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 25: A Song You Like by an Artist No Longer Living
I heard a lot of Elvis’ music when I was a kid. My mother is a longtime fan and, while she was never one of those extremists who built a shrine in the living room following his death, it seems like there was always one of his records playing on our massive old hi-fi console when I got home from school. Unlike most kids who probably just rolled their eyes at whatever their parents liked to listen to, I actually enjoyed it. Most of it, anyhow.
I’ve gone back and forth over the years about which era of Elvis I prefer. Generally speaking, he was at his most exciting in the early days, the late 1950s, before his stint in the army and that long string of Hollywood movies that seemed to drain away all the mojo that had been so threatening to whitebread America when he first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. However, I also have a real soft spot for his work from the early ’70s, the records that Mom was listening to most often in my memories of that time. “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain,” and “Burning Love” are great songs, as iconic in their way as anything he did when he was young.
However, for a plain old crank-it-loud, get-the-heart-pumping rock-and-roll experience, I always dial up “Promised Land.” Originally a Chuck Berry tune from 1965, Elvis recorded it in 1973, and released it as a single in the fall of ’74. It peaked on the charts at number 14 and became the title track of an LP the following year. I was five at the time.
The video I found appears to be fan-made, using footage from the film Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, which documented a string of live appearances at the International Hotel in Las Vegas (now known as the Westgate Las Vegas) in August 1970. Promoted as the “Elvis Summer Festival,” this was essentially the same sort of residency that has now become de rigueur for aging rockstars. People tend to sneer at “Vegas Elvis,” but he was pioneering something we now take for granted, and as cheesy as the jumpsuits and karate moves might now appear to be, I’m sure they were electrifying at the time. There has to be a reason why the man sold out 837 of those Vegas performances.
One final thought: You might remember this one from the first Men In Black movie, when Tommy Lee Jones is driving on the ceiling of the Queens Midtown Tunnel while blasting his favorite eight-track. (“Elvis is not dead, he just went home.”)
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 24: A Song from a Band You Wish Were Still Together
This was another tough one because most of the bands I like are still together, at least in some form or other. But after wracking my brains and scrolling back and forth through my iTunes library, I finally came up with a candidate: The Go-Go’s! So obvious, right?
Except it turns out that they’re not quite as broken up as I thought they were. It seems they still perform together sporadically, have just in the past two weeks released a new song (it’s not bad!), and are even loosely planning for a tour in 2021, if the COVIDs allow. But considering that their heyday was the early ’80s and their output as a group essentially finished by since the early ’90s, I’m going to stick with them for the purposes of this entry.
The Go-Go’s hold a pretty exalted place in the annals of rock and roll history. They were the first and so far remain the only all-female band that wrote their own songs, played their own instruments, and topped the Billboard album charts.They had five top-40 hits between 1981 and 1984, the biggest of which — “We Got the Beat” — is practically a Gen-X anthem. (That’s probably in part because it played over the opening scene of the seminal ’80s film Fast Times at Ridgemont High.) It was also one of the first 45-rpm singles I ever bought. Still have it, too!
As much as I like that song, though, I find myself drawn today toward “Vacation,” the title track of their second album, released in the far-off summer of 1982. It became their second highest-charting single, right behind the aforementioned “We Got the Beat.” I’ve always liked the infectious cheerfulness of this one (in spite of the lonely-heart lyrics), and unlike a lot of other stuff from this era, it never sounds dated to me. It’s just good listening. And the truth is, after five months of working from home and COVID-related paranoia, I’m craving a good vacation myself. Or at least a carefree summer like we had back in ’82.
I don’t know that The Go-Go’s are remembered as an MTV band per se, but they came along about the same time as that phenomenon and I’ve always enjoyed their videos. I think this one is especially cute. The band itself evidently thought videos were a waste of time, and according to guitarist Jane Wiedlin in the oral history I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, they were all very drunk while pretending to waterski. Weirdly, the thought of that makes me smile…
One final thought: When I wax nostalgic for the ’80s, this is the era I’m remembering, not the later years of the decade when the shoulder pads and hair styles seemed to be in an arms-race to see which would collapse under their own weight first. The looks (and ladies) of the early to mid ’80s, though… I miss those.
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 23: A Song You Think Everybody Should Listen To
I’ve often said that the year I spent working as a telephone customer-service representative was the worst 12 months of my professional life. That’s not entirely true — the year I spent struggling with underemployment, as the expression goes, while pretending I knew how to be a freelance writer was objectively far worse, not to mention the times when I’ve been out of work entirely — but yeah, my experience as a “phone drone” was… not good.
It was my first “adult” job after graduating college and leaving behind the safe womb of the movie theater, where I’d pretty much done as I pleased without much supervision or many rules. The phone shop was different. There, I was tied to my desk and phone console, my productivity rigidly monitored, my time micromanaged to the extent that I was warned for taking too long in the restroom. There was always the possibility of someone listening in on my calls without me knowing about it. Opportunities to get to know any of my coworkers were severely limited. It was my first experience of really, truly feeling like a faceless cog in the machine. I hated every second of it.
And I had a commute for the first time, too, a half-hour drive each way instead of the minutes it had taken me to reach the theater, in heavy traffic in one of the busier parts of the valley. I hated that too. But out of that, at least, came something good: I discovered a radio station I’d never heard before, “The Mountain,” KUMT, all the way over the end of the FM dial at 105.7. The format was something called AAA, “adult album alternative,” which in practical terms meant a little bit of everything. On The Mountain, I heard deep cuts from familiar classic rock artists, occasional pop tunes from the ’50s right up to that moment in the early ’90s, stuff I would later learn was called “roots music,” and stuff I had no idea how to classify. You could hear things like Los Lobos followed by Boston followed by Annie Lennox followed by the Grateful Dead. It was “jukebox” programming years before iPod shuffle mode made that a thing, and I liked most of what I heard, which I could no longer say about most of the other stations in town. Naturally, though, something that cool wasn’t destined to last; as I recall, “The Mountain,” at least in that format, was around only about as long as I was a phone drone. In the end, though, it had served its purpose. It kept me sane during my daily drives to and from a place I really didn’t want to be, and it introduced me to a number of artists I hadn’t known before and possibly never would’ve stumbled across any other way. Sonny Landreth, Nanci Griffith, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang. And most especially a cat named Keb’ Mo’.
Keb’ Mo’ — street-talk for Kevin Moore — plays a style of music I describe as “happy blues.” The sounds and rhythms are undeniably classic Delta blues, but the lyrics and overall tone tend to be upbeat, infused with a gentle and frequently self-deprecating sense of humor. His music is simply good, and listening to it makes me feel good. I first heard Keb’ on The Mountain during one of my nerve-wracking commutes to my nerve-wracking job as a phone drone. The hours I spent in that office were soul-crushing, but if I caught a Keb’ Mo’ song on the way home, it was like healing energy coming from the air itself. He quickly became a favorite, and Anne and I have now seen him live four or five times. We were scheduled to see him again this fall, with a personal meet-and-greet before the show, but this stupid plague we’re enduring put a stop to that.
Anyhow, for my “song I think everyone should hear,” I’ve chosen the title track from Keb’s second album, Just Like You. It’s always a showstopper when he performs it live, especially in outdoor settings after the sun has set and a breeze is floating through the crowd. The lighters come out — well, smartphones now — and the mass of people begin to sway as one, and in that moment, that sweet, wistful, yearning moment, you believe that maybe we really can figure all this out and learn to live together.
I’d like to think this song could have that same effect right now, in this Year of the Plague 2020, when people are in the streets crying out for justice and others are telling them, essentially, that they’re not justified in feeling the way they do and that they should shut up and stop raising a ruckus. I know, of course, that it won’t. It’s just a song. Lots of people don’t even pay attention to them. But… I do like to think. I hope you’ll give it a listen and pay attention and maybe walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
And no, your eyes don’t deceive you: that’s Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne in the video, lending a hand…
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 22: A Song That Moves You Forward
In his Oscar-winning performance in the film Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges plays “Bad” Blake, a one-time country music star who’s been reduced to playing in bowling alleys and dive bars, earning just enough from each gig for a tank of gas and another bottle of rotgut. He’s a man on his way to the bottom, and very likely an early grave. But then a chance meeting with a journalist who’s looking for a story (and who also happens to be a cute single mother) provides the catalyst he needs to straighten himself out, although the movie is wise enough to not end up in quite the place you think it’s headed toward. In the end, Blake is not a conquering hero back on top with his girl at his side… but he’s better off than he was.
I figured I would like this film when I first saw it back in 2010, but I was surprised by how much it affected me, and by how much I identified with Bad Blake. Not that my life in any way resembles his; I am not, after all, an alcoholic has-been musician. But as with any good art, the film resonated with me. I was 40 years old in 2010 and it seemed as if I’d been in a midlife crisis since my twenties. The feelings Bad Blake struggles with were all too familiar: regret, guilt, the crushing sorrow of feeling like you’ve wasted whatever talent and potential you may once have possessed. The fear that maybe you never really had that much potential to begin with. And most especially the self-loathing that comes from knowing that you fucked up your life and there’s nothing you can ever do that will repair the damage or bring back the lost time.
In the film, Blake’s redemption is facilitated by a song he writes to try and express all of that accumulated everything he’s been carrying around. He sells it to another country star played by Colin Farrell, who naturally makes it into a hit, and Blake is on his way back to something resembling a life. In the real world, that song — “The Weary Kind” — was written and performed by Ryan Bingham, a former rodeo bull rider whose voice sounds far too weathered and wise for someone so young. The song earned Bingham multiple awards, including a Grammy and an Oscar. It’s a song for everyone who has ever felt burned out, used up, cast aside, or ruined. It’s as desolate as the southwest. A song that sounds like the last few drops in the bottle, the last dollar on the table when you see that you’ve got a losing hand. It haunts me. And yet…
Seeing Crazy Heart for the first time was deeply cathartic for me, in part because it was so unexpected. I remember walking out of the theater thinking that if Bad Blake can somehow find his way to the other side, maybe I wasn’t quite so lost myself.
That was the first time “The Weary Kind” could be said to have moved me forward. There was another occasion when it granted me that gift, though, and that perhaps was an even larger kindness than shuffling me through something as mundane as a midlife crisis.
A year after I saw Crazy Heart, in 2011, a young woman I worked with was killed in a car accident on a cold, foggy winter morning. I didn’t know her that well, but her death hit me hard. It was so sudden, so unexpected, and so completely unfair. She was a beautiful, smart, vivacious, and above all likable girl. Half the men in our ad agency, including myself, had a crush on her. She was good at her job, she’d won an award, and she was working on her MBA. Everyone knew she had a bright future ahead of her. And then in the blink of an eye, the future was ripped away from her. I remember that I wasn’t simply grieving about her death. I was angry about it. I was pissed at the gods or fate or the Force or whatever had conspired to put her in front of that lead-footed asshole with the frosted-over windshield instead of a minute of even just 30 seconds behind him. My imagination summoned up a horrific vision of her final moments and what the fire that consumed her little car had done to her face and her golden hair. And I couldn’t get that picture out of my mind for days, and I was pissed off about that too.
And then for some reason, I thought of “The Weary Kind.” The lyrics, of course, have nothing to do with a young woman cut down in her prime. But then… they don’t specifically speak of a frustrated wannabe novelist who’d just hit his 40th birthday either. But the tone — run-down and redolent of bone-deep sorrow and exhaustion — well, that certainly matched how I was feeling. And it reminded me of Julie. I thought that wherever she was, maybe she could appreciate the emotion, if not the lyrics.
I listened to “The Weary Kind” a lot the day of Julie’s memorial, which I wasn’t able to attend because of a work project I couldn’t get away from. I listened to it a lot over the next few days, too. And gradually my anger about her death and the nightmarish fantasy I’d conjured for myself faded into the background. I moved forward.
I still play this song when I’m feeling wiped out and lost and I can’t sleep because the regrets won’t leave me alone.
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: