Wednesday, May 28, 2014

More Than Words

1979 was a heady year, moving as I was among early-teen grade school politics, endless afternoons on my ten-speed, and the unattainable bikini-clad girls at Wheaton Pool, all of it sweetly, painfully scored by Top 40 radio. Two songs especially evoke that time, the Knack's "Good Girls Don't" (released as a single in August 1979) and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "Here Comes My Girl" (April 1980). Both songs are about girls, and so mattered to me desperately, the words to each—lascivous in Doug Fieger's case, grateful in Petty's—narrating boy-girl dynamics I was getting hip to, if from the outside looking in. Fieger's explicit reminder to me that the adolescent dream is getting inside her pants was laughably superfluous, and his infamous complaint in the bridge (And it's a teenage sadness everyone has got to taste / An in-between age madness that you know you can't erase / 'Til she's sitting on your face) was lurid in a scary kind of way, inexperienced as I was, but it also made desperate sense. (Now it's hilarious to me.) And Petty's tribute to his girl was a bit beyond me, as well: my "old town" wasn't hopeless to me, and I wasn't working hard for little reward the way his narrator was—it's an adult's song, and adult's set of problems. And yet, again, his affection for his girl was made so palpably true in the song that I, burdened only by my book bag and school books, fell right in step.

But something affected me more powerfully than words. In each song the singer takes a leap. When Fieger sings the lines So, you fantasize away..., There's a ringing in your brain..., and So you start to make your play... he jumps up more than an octave from his blue-balled anxieties, perfectly embodying the surging hormones and thrumming anticipation that he's feeling, and bothered by. And Petty does something similar: his verses about small-town ennui and diminishing returns are spoken, solemnly, and a little angrily, as if he's boxed in. When his girl arrives along with the chorus, Petty, well, he bursts into song, disillusioned, beaten-down B&W flowering into color at her entrance. I don't know where in the composition processes these leaps occurred, but they take the songs into places anyone can follow, and make purer sense out of desire, frustration, want, and gratitude than words can. These aren't new observations I'm making, but again and again I'm struck by the simple, poignant, and timeless moves in each song.

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