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)