A Perfect Song in an Imperfect Time

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“HudsonSunset07–02.jpg” by VerneBecker is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Adam Schlesinger, a chief songwriter for the band Fountains of Wayne and the television series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, died on April 1 in New York State from complications of COVID-19. It is sad and infuriating to say that the virus wasn’t the only causal factor in his untimely passing. One must also cite the depraved indifference of a regime that twiddled its short thumbs for 3 months. They now crow that 60,000 to 100,000 deaths is a matter of relief since it won’t be upwards of 2 million. They own every death that happens. But for the moment, let’s back-burner this justifiable rage. Let’s concentrate on Schlesinger’s talent. As They Might Be Giants said of a similarly underappreciated artist, let’s “appreciate the man.”

There are “musician bands” and “song bands” and, like They Might Be Giants, Fountains of Wayne were a song band. They were excellent musicians all, Schlesinger himself displaying his ample talents on bass, guitar, and keyboards. But it was the perfect placement of music to lyrics, or chords to melody, or instrumentation to execution that made them a great and unfairly underrated band.

That and a certain sensibility. Here too it’s interesting to compare and contrast They Might Be Giants with Fountains of Wayne. TMBG’s sensibility is distinctively related to the fact that they are Massachusetts immigrants to Brooklyn. Their Park Slope/Williamsburg sensibility rests on a kind of wittiness that has more than a touch of irony about it but never too much, one that touches cynicism’s boundary but never crosses it, decidedly not sentimental but displaying a kindly, big-hearted absurdism. If Camus were a new-wave band he might have been TMBG. If not Camus, then certainly Ernie Kovacs. After all, songs about dying and coming back as a bag of groceries, or about having an out-of-the-body experience and forgetting where you left your body, or featuring a long-winded monologue by a bluebird-shaped nightlight comparing itself to a lighthouse, revel in the absurd, albeit to re-orient us to average everydayness with smiles on our faces and a birdhouse in our souls.

If TMBG’s sensibility is pure Brooklyn, Fountains of Wayne’s is pure Jersey suburb. (Jerseyites and their fellow-travelers know their name comes from a well-known garden-shop on Route 46 in Wayne NJ.) The thing about the New Jersey suburbs is that it is impossible to be too ironic about them. Planet Suburbia is a world in which blissful superficiality and conspicuous consumption is not just its thin crust of convention and familiarity, but something that penetrates down through its mantle, almost, but not quite, making it to the core. When you hit that core, you find that the human condition is not all that different from Brooklyn, or Manhattan, or anywhere else for that matter. You have love, you have dreams, you have loss, and you have tragedy and comedy in equal measure. You have humanity in all its ordinary glory and glorious ordinariness. (Joyce’s Ulysses covered the same ordinary, average, and everyday tragi-comic ground as this, but in Dublin: Leopold Bloom is Ulysses in a bowler hat.) You can’t not be ironic in suburbia, because it’s where irony goes to die. But because of that, it’s impossible to be cynical. Shit gets real there. And you can be a hero, if just for one day.

Fountains of Wayne are best known for “Stacey’s Mom”, a witty account of a teenage male’s lust for someone’s hot mom. While it is winsomely lovable, it’s not the perfect song I have in mind. That one is “Little Red Light”. Here it is; give it a listen: Little Red Light You Tube.

The song begins with the sort of blocky power chords, played on Les Pauls through Soldano or Mesa-Boogie amps saturated with distortion, that are standard-issue for power-pop-punk music. But right out of the gate you know that this performance isn’t going to be soporific like Weezer, or annoying like Blink-182, or pretentious like post-“Dookie” Green Day. From the first notes it does not sound ironic at all: it sounds earnest. There might be several reasons why: the fact that the song is in G, which like C is a “happy” key, and that there’s a synthesizer straight out of the 70s or 80s playing counterpoint. Chris Collingwood’s vocals are sincere, and what he sings is straightforward.

What he sings is this:

Sitting in traffic on the Tappan Zee / Fifty million people out in front of me / Trying to cross the water but it just might be a while / Rain’s coming down, I can’t see a thing / Radio’s broken, so I’m whistling /New York to Nyack feels like a hundred miles

Anyone who has driven from New York to Nyack — I have done it a lot — knows what the traffic can be like; and in the rain, at least on the old Tappan Zee bridge, it could be downright unsettling. Seeming like a hundred miles is understating things. But in a voice that is neither ironically detached nor seething with frustration, Collingwood says what any good suburban guy or gal has said to themselves many times over. In his lyrics, Schlesinger has conveyed a sense of how ordinary stuff matters, and how while it may be ordinary, it isn’t unimportant. It is important enough to whistle about if the radio is kaput.

The pre-chorus is interesting because it breaks the three-chord format of power-pop-punk songs by going from G-C-D to E-minor, which changes the mood musically at just the point that it breaks lyrically:

It’s not right / It’s not fair / I’m still a mess / And you still don’t care / I go to work / I come back home / But you’re still gone and I’m still alone

There is nothing meaningless about the ordinary: you go to work, you come home, but your heart is breaking nonetheless. Life may be absurd but it isn’t the sort of thing you can be indifferent about. Breakups hurt, even if you’re just creeping along at 5 mph in the driving rain over a foggy Hudson River. Big shots like Electra or Hamlet aren’t the only ones caught in a tragedy.

With the chorus, the three-chord format is disrupted again by going to an F power-chord. It introduces tension into the melody, which modulates from tragedy to ordinary crap like a cell phone:

And the little red light’s not blinking / No no, the little red light’s not blinking / No no, the little red light’s not blinking / On my big black plastic Japanese cordless phone

In the years between 2003 (when the song was released) and today “big black plastic Japanese cordless phones” have been replaced by iPhones and Androids. Nevertheless the familiar world of long-distance communication (or non-communication) makes itself felt once again. The ordinary and everyday can try to cover over the tragic, but they mask it only temporarily. The phone that does not blink is not a thing but a sign — a sign of loss, and the feelings of helplessness and sorrow.

The next verse goes back to humdrum everydayness — this time about work rather than commuting:

Stuck in a meeting on a Monday night / Trying to get the numbers to come out right / I’m getting tired, think I just might need a drink / And as I’m reaching in the bottom drawer / I’m dreaming ‘bout the way it was before / Life was so easy, I never really had to think

Work, even in the best of cases, can drop to the level of drudgery — of getting stubborn figures to “behave”, of driving you to drink or any other preferred substance. But out protagonist, stuck in the ordinary, is also stuck in the exceptional. Like Gabriel Conroy in Joyce’s “The Dead”, who finds out that his melancholy wife longs for a dead lover amid the fake gaiety of a posh party, he comes to realize that routines go on but are also interrupted by unimaginable shocks and sorrows. “I never really had to think” — well maybe not. We all have to think, but we can’t, either because we do not have enough time, or can’t bear the results. To err is human — and to ignore is human. Much of the time this works out for us. Sometimes it doesn’t. Go ask Oedipus or Lear or Antigone. They’ll set you straight on the details.

When the pre-chorus and chorus repeat for the second time, the last line is changed from “my big black plastic Japanese cordless phone” to “my big black Radio Shack digital portable phone.” Radio Shack had small stores almost everywhere in the New York/New Jersey metro area, where you could get everything from phones to computer cables to hand calculators: the company filed for bankruptcy in 2017, and closed their stores. Another symbol of loss, but Collingwood and Schlesinger couldn’t have known that then. What they did know, and emphasized by changing the line in the chorus, is that Radio Shack was a fixture of everyday life for the protagonist of the song and pretty much everyone else within driving distance of the Tappan-Zee Bridge. By juxtaposing the banal, like Radio Shack, with the extraordinary angst of the driver, they show how the extreme and the average coexist, in glory and in misery.

I think “Little Red Light” counts as a “perfect song” — like The Beatles’s “For No One” and The Stones’s “Wild Horses” — because the combination of deceptive simplicity in the music and the standard theme of lost love in the lyrics entices listeners into a world that is far more complicated and far more disconcerting than the power-pop format suggests. It shows more than it says on the face of it. It is a rare gem, one among many that Schlesinger created.

Appreciate the man…..

Requiescat in pace.

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