A friend tweeted me last week: “We’re waiting for your Dan Peek piece. No one’s really dead unless you write about them, Jim.” That’s an argument for not writing about Dan Peek, I suppose—and you could click over to Barely Awake in Frog Pajamas for a fine post on America—but we should probably spend a little time marking the passing of a guy who was part of some of the signature records of the 1970s.
It’s been a long damn time, but “A Horse With No Name” can still take me back to 1972 now and then, and one of those soft spring Saturday mornings when the last of the snow was melting and the farm was coming back to life. I gave a lot of thought to the song’s imagery over the years, especially after I began to fancy myself a writer. And as a fan of little moments in songs, the turn toward the end—“After nine days, I let the horse run free”—still grabs hard whenever I hear it.
Three years later, another springtime saw another indelible America song: “Sister Golden Hair.” As a radio record, it couldn’t be better—the introduction gives a jock plenty of room, with a good post to hit at :06 before the vocal comes in at :17. And the last 30 seconds, down to the ending with the counted-off “1-2-3-4,” are perfection itself. (When I play the song on the radio, I always count it off out loud, sometimes with the microphone open. Pay attention next time.)
I can’t think of an America single I didn’t like, actually—although apart from these, I particularly dig “Ventura Highway” and one recorded after Peek’s departure, the luminous “Right Before Your Eyes.” But there are two others that stand above the rest. The band’s followup to “A Horse With No Name,” “I Need You,” is another sweet radio confection, with that great cold opening: “We used to laugh/We used to cry.” But what makes it a song for the ages is the first lines of the second verse: “And every day I’d laugh the hours away/Just knowing you were thinking of me.”
That’s the single most precise definition ever written of how it feels to be in love. That’s it exactly.
In the summer of 1976 (Christ, there he goes again), “Today’s the Day,” written and sung by Dan Peek, would be the band’s last significant single until 1982. Although it would reach only Number 23 on the Hot 100, it hit the top of the Easy Listening/Adult Contemporary/Whatever the Hell They Were Calling It Then chart, one of three America singles to do that (along with “Tin Man” and “Lonely People”). It is, like all of their singles, more delicious ear candy, with a nice little moment about two minutes in, after the solo, when they reprise the first verse: “Hold me close . . .”
Peek left America shortly after that—to little fanfare, as I recall—and went into Christian music. I remember playing the America-like title track to his first album, “All Things Are Possible” on the radio in the fall of 1979. It’s one of those Christian songs that you can read in an entirely secular fashion, and so pillowy soft that it should have charted higher than Number 78 in that particularly wimpy year.
I lost track of Dan Peek after that, until his death last week. I was surprised to hear he was only 60. When people that young die, it tends to attract my attention a little more than it used to. And now that I’ve written about him, I guess he’s really dead.