(This was occasioned by an online poll seeking to name “The Best Album of 1979.” In something like the round of sixteen, the Clash’s London Calling (12/14/79) was pitted against Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes (10/19/79). Given the typical voting demographic for such contests, the Clash were a guaranteed easy winner. And, as someone who is not averse to participating in such exercises now, and was positively enthusiastic about breaking rulers to “Death or Glory” then, I can say I probably would have voted for London Calling myself if I had worked up the energy to cast a vote. No shame in that for Damn the Torpedoes. In purely musical terms (i.e. the terms in which the premiere punk bands so often failed), London Calling is one of the most exciting albums ever made, the more remarkable because it’s a double. Then again, Petty could never be accused of the kind of naivete that manages not to notice that when “one or two” evil Presidentes “have finally paid their due” it’s usually courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps, the point of the spear of a Military Industrial Intelligence Complex which has since developed sufficiently dread Leviathan characteristics that records like London Calling end up sounding like helpless bleats if you pay too much attention to the politics behind all that wondrous noise. Put another way, if I want to feel sufficiently detached from my surroundings to keep from screaming as I cruise through the American Night, running (albeit mostly in my head these days) along the crumbling superhighways of the Rust Belt or the Deep South or the West Coast or simply sitting in the Den Where I Keep My Records, I’ll play Damn the Torpedoes over London Calling every time. Same if I want to engage.That’s probably why I don’t end up participating in many of these straight up-or-down things. Still, arriving as it did at pure random from the internet ether, the main effect of this particular bracket was to remind me that, in the days when the 70s were turning into the 80s, “Train in Vain” and the hits from Damn the Torpedoes (“Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl”) were the most exciting things on the radio. if not the only exciting things on the radio. And thereby hangs a tale….)
Thanks to Rock and Roll Time, I know what I was doing in the late afternoon/early evening hours of Feb. 12, 1980.
I was going to see my mother in the hospital.
That, in itself, would not be memorable. My mother (b. 1919) was in the hospital a lot between 1960, when she had me, far too late in life for a woman in already fragile health, and 1987, when she passed away. Over time, the visits all ran together.
The only reason I recall this particular visit well enough to look up the date (no, I didn’t note it at the time, though I probably should have), is what happened while I was driving from our house in the Florida Panhandle to Dothan, Alabama’s Southeast Alabama Medical Center.
What happened was “Train In Vain.” It was the best new thing I had heard on the radio in at least three years. I knew it was new because it was everywhere, something no record older than a few months ever was. You could only pull about three stations that played pop music in the area (well, at least if you drove a ’71 Maverick with an AM-only radio). I kept punching between all three because, no matter how often I heard this mysterious new record which had obviously just been released (nothing hit that suddenly everywhere unless it was release day), I wanted to hear it again.
I also wanted to know what it was called.
Over twenty miles to the hospital, and, an hour or two later, twenty miles back, I heard it six times on three different stations.
Some dee-jay finally said it was “the new one from the Clash.”
I’d barely heard of the Clash and, as far as the radio in the Deep South was concerned, they didn’t have any “old” ones. Anyway, he didn’t reveal the important information: the name of the freaking record.
I wasn’t too worried. The name of the record was obviously “Stand By Me.” Or “You Didn’t Stand By Me.” Or “(You Didn’t) Stand By Me. Or “(You) Didn’t Stand By Me.” Or “Didn’t Stand By Me.”**
One of those.
Well, really, it didn’t matter. I mean anything that exciting that hit the radio that hard was going to be in heavy rotation for months. Somewhere, some time, some dee-jay would spill the beans….just in case I hadn’t tracked in down in some local record bin, under the letter “S.” Or “Y.” Or “D.”
One of those.
A funny thing happened though.
Make that a few funny things.
First funny thing: The next time I heard it on the radio was on a college station. Twenty-five years later.
Second funny thing: It wasn’t in any of the usual record bins. Not under “S.” Not under “Y.” Not under “D.” I tried riffing through a few huge bins (45 bins were still huge in those days, even in places like North Florida and South Alabama), to see if I could spot something–anything–by the Clash.
No such luck.
And that all led to the third funny thing…
A few months went by. One day I went into a department store in Dothan (Woolworth? Woolco? Some chain whose name I’ve forgotten? The memory hazes). It was a location I wasn’t used to frequenting and I was there for something else (a tire patch? a quart of oil?…the memory hazes) but I decided to see if they had a record bin.
They did. A small one. One small enough I could actually flip through every record. If I only had a reason.
I didn’t really. I knew department stores were no place to find what I considered “interesting” records. I could see, after looking at the first few records in the bin, that it was mostly the crap that made me stop listening to the radio that year.
(Which crap exactly? The memory does what the memory does…and you wonder why I don’t do drugs!)
But, still….it was a small bin. No more than a couple of hundred records. Probably not more than fifty titles.
I was about half-way through when a kid came wandering into the area. He was a big kid. Dressed in the redneck uniform. Jeans, boots, flannel work shirt. Just about old enough to drive. (Except for the boots, I was probably dressed the same….you know how it is, the memory hazes. But I always wore sneakers in those days. That was how you cold tell me from the rednecks. Kid I was looking at wouldn’t have been caught dead in those things.)
I was flipping idly through the records, not really imagining that he was there for a 45. He looked more like somebody interested in a set of speakers for his pickup. Either way, he did something I usually avoided like the plague. He signaled the employee who was watching over the electronics department, making sure kids like us didn’t steal anything for help.
The young man came at the kid’s call, very polite.
Very politely, the kid asked if they had “Here Comes My Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
I was past the “H”s by then but I kept shut about it. I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen “Here Comes My Girl” but, since I wasn’t specifically looking for it (already had the album), I thought I could have seen it and not really taken note.
The employee in charge of watching over us said if they had it, it would definitely be under “H.”
They looked. It wasn’t there.
Then they wandered over to the album section.
The employee was trying to talk the kid into buying Damn the Torpedoes when this came under my hand….in the “T'”s.
I did a long double-take. I held on tight. It was the only one.
The kid who had come looking for “Here Comes My Girl” was telling the store clerk he’d really like to buy the album. Except he didn’t have the money. For the single, yes. Not the album.
I thought: “This industry does not work very well.”
Tom Petty was the kind of square who named his songs after the choruses. The kind of square who gets voted out in the round of sixteen by the hip kids four decades down the line. The kind of square who got the jeans-and-boots crowd looking for his single, which would actually be right where it could be easily found….if the store had it in stock.
And he was also the only other guy on the radio just then who had records as exciting as the one I now knew was, for some silly reason, called “Train in Vain.”***
I felt a twinge of sympathy for the young man who had found himself in a position with which I was intimately familiar. No bread….
So I did something I really never did. I offered my sympathies and some advice.
“That’s a really good album,” I said. “It’s worth saving up for.”
Maybe if the store clerk hadn’t still been standing there it would have gone over better–like a secret we could keep to ourselves.
As it stood, the kid was in no mood to thank me for my priceless advice.
“Yeah, well, I really only like that one song,” he said. “That’s a great song.”
He had felt a need to be accommodating to the store clerk, who was only doing his job.
Me, I was just butting in. It occurred to me that he probably had the money for the album. He had the look of a kid who was already working somewhere. He also had the look of a kid who only wanted what he wanted and didn’t need any advice from strangers about what that might be. He had the chip on his shoulder you found–and still find–in a certain kind of Tom Petty fan. The kind who are mostly from the South and whose other records are mostly by hardcore country singers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Or perhaps it had just been a long day. I was never to know because, on that note, he stalked away.
The store clerk looked at me and shrugged. He didn’t say anything, but he gave me a sort of “what are ya’ gonna do?” look.
Well, I knew what I wanted to do.
I held up my copy of “Train in Vain,” and said:
“I’m ready to check out.”
(NOTE: **The actual lyric is “Did you stand by me?” I still hear “You didn’t stand by me.” I still don’t know–or care–if either way makes sense.)
(***To avoid confusion with Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” Wikipedia now tells me. I’m not sure I believe that one either.)