Retribalized by My Life’s Soundtrack: “Downtown”

As I have said before, my life has been lived to a soundtrack. Growing up in an age of ubiquitous car radios, restaurant juke boxes, record players and later stereos, it seems like the popular songs of the day were always playing in the background, over and over. Marshall McLuhan talks about the “retribalization” that is the “water we swim in” in an age of ubiquitous electronic media. Said McLuhan in his 1969 Playboy magazine interview

The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems… are immersing us in a world-pool of information movement and are thus enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves as well as with one another.

Recorded music has certainly played a critical role in my own development and even survival. In my own life my deepest emotions and passions have been captured and recalled by a catchy tune, mostly recorded popular music heard on the radio or played on a record (and later tape or CD) player. Lyric, melody and rhythm have continually inspired me to live more fully or (in those most difficult of life’s moments) to keep on keeping on.

The first such piece of music that I recall playing such a role in my life was Petula Clark’s 1965 hit, “Downtown”

When you’re alone
And life is making you lonely,
You can always go downtown

In 1965 when I was ten years old my mom and dad divorced. My mom had found out that my dad was having an affair with another woman, I remember her crying on the phone to someone that she could not breathe (what years later I would learn was called a panic attack). But in the previous coupl years I also remember my mom’s angry words to my dad that there was not enough money, that she felt like a drudge, and that she needed the opportunity to pursue her own development as my dad was working for his PhD and later as a college professor. My dad would not say so much in response except to express his hurt at her anger and that he was doing the best that he could.

The event was apparently so traumatic for me that I do not have any memory of my parents telling me at the time that they were splitting up or my dad moving out of the house (while I still remember two years earlier exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard JFK had been shot).

But what I do remember from that time was the crisp diction and soothing timbre of Petula Clark’s voice on the radio…

When you’ve got worries,
All the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know, downtown

The chorus accompanying my life’s tragedy was reminding me that life goes on and I need not despair, and at some level I understood and was heartened by that message. When I hear the song even today, it brings back a memory of being in the front seat of our station wagon next to my mom as she drove the 850 plus miles to Cape Cod with my younger brother Peter and I (without my dad for the first time), and of course hearing the song on the car radio. The emotional memory is soulful but I would not characterize it as sad. The song can still lift me up even today, and like other pieces of music that strike a deep emotional chord in my consciousness, it can literally give me goose bumps all over my body.

Just listen to the music
Of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where
The neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?

Well I was still just ten years old. My mom let me go out on my own as long as I came home “when the street lights come on”. So I was going to have to postpone the whole lingering by those neon signs thing until I was older. But Petula’s image of the call of the urban metropolis did resonate with me, a child transitioning into youth. It reminded me that if I hung in there I would eventually be an adult myself, and hopefully better able to control my environment than I could at the moment.

The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles,
Forget all your cares and go
Downtown, things’ll be great when you’re
Downtown, no finer place for sure,
Downtown, everything’s waiting for you

It was certainly nice to know that everything was waiting for me and the rest of my Baby-boom generation to come of age and make our mark on the world. I took great solace in that at the time.

Now 45 years later my young adult kids, of the Millennial generation, are ready for my generation to hand over that proverbial magic marker so they can take their crack at redrawing the world. Many of my peers have lost their perhaps naïve idealism of “peace, love, joy” pursuing a fleeting materialism that seems so narcissistic.

Don’t hang around
And let your problems surround you
There are movie shows downtown

Somehow Petula knew that I would eventually get caught up in my birth family’s “diaspora” and leave my friendly Midwestern college town to plunge myself at age 23 into the big pond of Los Angeles, initially with the goal of working in the film and TV business. But at ten I had no inkling yet of all that, just perhaps a commitment that my life was somehow going to turn out better.

At age ten, it would still be five years before I would realize, as my mom wrestled with depression and thoughts of suicide, that she was just another flawed but striving kid like me (she just three decades older), and the whole divorce thing had been her problem and my dad’s, not mine. Rather than continue and act out based on my own frustration the best I could do was to be of assistance, to her and to myself.

Just listen to the rhythm
Of a gentle bossanova
You’ll be dancing with ’em, too,
Before the night is over
Happy again

I would find my own love, my own mate to dance with some day. It would be very different than what my parents were going through. Just as both my mom and dad had committed to raise me with love (as opposed to the fear and anger directed at them by their parents), I would end up finding a partner I could share my life with in joy.

And you may find somebody kind
To help and understand you
Someone who is just like you
And needs a gentle hand to
Guide them along

Petula took me aside, my head in her hand. “Coop… hang in there sweetie! You’ll have your shot to make it right… just give it time.” And every of the many times I have heard that song since I can feel that loving hand.

2 replies on “Retribalized by My Life’s Soundtrack: “Downtown””

  1. I love that song too! This is so nicely written–it flows, there’s a poignancy which comes through and it’s poetic. Thank you, I enjoyed reading it.

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