The Owl and the Swallow

I don’t write about every musician who dies—there was no obituary for Captain Beefheart here, for example—only about those who had a particular impact on me as a listener, which Gerry Rafferty surely did.

I knew and liked “Stuck in the Middle With You,” his 1973 hit with Stealers Wheel, although I’m not sure I ever heard his name at that time. That would have come five years later, when “Baker Street” blasted onto the radio. Every headline, every mainstream media piece about Rafferty yesterday and today mentions that song, and it’s no wonder: There had never been anything like it before, and there’s never been anything like it since.

“Baker Street” came out during the summer after I graduated from high school, and it always takes me to those days spent working at the gas station without customers, listening to WFRL on the little radio in the window. That fall, when I got to college, one of the jocks on the campus station sparked a staff controversy by talking over the entire introduction, all 50-some seconds, which led to a philosophical debate over just how sacred Raphael Ravenscroft’s iconic saxophone line really is. “Right Down the Line” followed “Baker Street” onto the radio. It’s forever associated with that first semester of college as well, a difficult time in my life, but one that was steadied at least a little by the calm in Rafferty’s voice. The third single, “Home and Dry,” came out after I started working on the air at the campus station. I can remember cranking it so loud in the studio that its monster bass riffs caused the turntable to feed back. The City to City album has remained a favorite from those days to this one.

A year later, Rafferty released Night Owl. I don’t know if I had named the “Gerry Rafferty Syndrome” yet—the phenomenon of making the best record you could possibly make right out of the chute so that everything else you do is compared to it—but the album suffered from it. The lead single, “Days Gone Down,” was as fine as “Baker Street” in its way, with a stronger lyric about wild times and bygone days, and the hope that there are more such days to come. “Get it Right Next Time” deserved better than to miss the Top 20 by a notch, but it did, and for most everybody, the Rafferty story stops there—five unique singles in a little more than a year, which is a better legacy than lots of performers leave behind.

For the outlines of the rest of Rafferty’s life, you can read the obits for yourself. I have one more story about “Baker Street” and me, one that I am reasonably sure is true. I am working at the gas station one sunny afternoon, out by the pumps, maybe emptying the garbage cans or refilling the windshield-washer stuff, or something. The door to the building is open, the radio is on, and “Baker Street” is playing. A family of swallows lives somewhere nearby, and one of them is flitting around the canopy over the pumps. Swallows, in my experience back then, were notoriously fearless; they seemed to take pleasure in dive-bombing nearby human beings for sport. And so while I am working outside, this particular swallow decides to take a run at me. In memory, he spits chirps at me as if they are curses, and he does so in time to Hugh Burns’ fevered guitar solo in the middle of “Baker Street.”

I could have dreamed it, I suppose, on some night in the summer of 1978 or some other night since. But I hope it really happened.

“It’s Gonna Be a Long Night”/Gerry Rafferty (from Night Owl; out of print)

8 responses

  1. Your college radio station controversy is brilliant.

    I’d mentioned Gerry Rafferty’s death to someone. They looked puzzled, so, I simply said “Baker Street.”

    Nothing.

    “Play it on YouTube. You’ll recognize it in less than three seconds.”

    It didn’t take that long.

  2. Good post. “Baker Street” was part of the soundtrack of our senior trip to the Ozarks. If my Whitburn research is correct it was Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing” that kept “Baker Street” from #1 (like “Dominique” doing the same to “Louie Louie”).

    My son likes the song so I played the LP today in homage and was struck by the descending line (on a guitar?) after every phrase during the sax passages and during the guitar solo, much like on Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” a kind of varoom sound. Never really noticed it before and he and I laughed every time it came around.

    As to the slip in quality I guess the old saying relates to City to City, “you have your whole life to do your first album and then eight months to a year to do the second.”

  3. Hey JB! Just followed you over here from a comment you left on my site back in August. I like what I see. I’m also a product of Top 40 radio, and we may be close to the same age. I’m fascinated by your recollections and delighted that you turned me on to Songs of The Cholera King. I expect that I’ll have the same reactions that you’ve had to his commentary.

    Didn’t care for any of the Rafferty solo stuff, but ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ has very clear and positive memories for me. Love the song.

    I also saw your post on John Lennon’s death. It was odd for me to see it posted on WNEW.com, as Vin Scelsa was the one that broke the news to me. I don’t know how familiar you are with WNEW and the rest of that night but it was so deeply tied to some people memories that readers may have been much less interested to read of what Howard Cosell was doing. The WNEW staff was having their Xmas party and all ended up on air at the station. I have cassettes of it, it is too emotional for me to listen to.

    I didn’t come here to plug my own sites, but seeing your interest in Top 40, I wonder if you’ve discovered the post on my other blog that contains every Top 100 song from 1963. I plan to do every year up to 1987 (25 years) and have the songs, but it needs to be mixed in with airchecks and promos to get the proper atmosphere. The reality is that I’ll probably die of old age before I get past 1967. That first set, 1963, isn’t great but my technique has improved. That site is http://try-to-be-amused.blogspot.com/

    PS. Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas – I see your nick and raise you Disgruntled Invalids From Temperate Climates.

  4. Another excellent post.

    I associate “Baker Street” with an all-night local TV show (of the local-host-introduces-movies variety, with occasional comedy skits and news breaks) that used to air on Buffalo’s NBC affiliate in the mid-’80s.
    They used to use Raphael Ravenscroft’s soaring sax solo as their intro music, as seen here:

    So, to me, the mighty sax solo will always evoke charmingly bad movies (think “Jennifer, The Snake Girl”) viewed in the dark … which is not an altogether bad association.
    Beats getting attacked by birds, I suppose.

  5. One of my treasured possessions is the stereo/mono promo 45 for “Everyone’s Agreed (Everything Will Turn Out Fine) from Stealers Wheel. It’s the only place to find the song in stereo. Commercial 45’s were mono. I also liked “Star” as well.

    “Baker Street” to me defines the year 1978. Followed by “Right Down The Line.”

  6. Nice tribute to Rafferty. Get It Right Next Time was always my personal favorite. Loved that thumping bass line and you had to crank the speakers up! It was mandatory! Star was very good also. He was ranting about somebody in that song. Always wonder who. Sad how he died. Thanks for another good trip down the ol’ memory lane, Jim.

  7. “Baker Street” puts me in my clunky Duster in the spring of ’78, pulling into a school parking lot on my way to shoot photos of a track meet or a baseball game. I was late already, but I absolutely had to wait in the car to hear that sax riff one more time before getting to work. Good post, jb. Thanks.

  8. We added both “Baker Street” and the LP cut “Right Down The Line” right out of the box at WJON, so they’ll always take me back to March of 1978. Gerry’s voice had me hooked from the moment I first played his Signpost single “Make You, Break You” in college. I echo John’s sentiments on the 1973 “Everyone’s Agreed That Everything Will Turn Out Fine” 45 and “Star”, plus the two singles which followed: the then-two-year-old album cut “You Put Something Better Inside Of Me” and “Found My Way To You.”

    But the one that always seemed to beckon for another listen was “Benediction”, the leadoff cut on the final Stealers Wheel album, ‘Right Or Wrong.’ The gorgeous Gregorian chant-ish intro and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”-like guitar riff notwithstanding, what made the track so irresistible to me was the chorus:

    Look at everybody trying to find
    Their own place
    Looking for a heaven up high
    Working just to get into a state of grace
    You know we’re gonna need it when we die

    Godspeed, Gerry.

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