I started out by putting it on after I heard the version of it on Ann Wilson’s new solo album (which wasn’t my cup of tea, though I love a good deal of Ann’s other work…hopefully she at least had fun recording it…).
Then, I started going back and forth between the album version and this single version, the one I’m most familiar with. The album version’s fine, but because the instrumental breaks are longer and arranged differently, you don’t get the guitar solo at the very end of the last verse, where it lands perfectly on the single. It shows up after an instrumental break on the album version, which I think was a well-meaning mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. It really triess to mute the urgency of the guitar solo (one that I’d argue is perhaps the most urgent guitar solo ever played; to my ears, it is the disturbingly beautiful sound of someone absolutely losing their shit…), and that’s just not a good plan. Contrary to popular opinion in all likelihood, I would quite strongly argue that the best part of the song isn’t that saxophone…it’s the guitar solo. It had to stand out in a song with that rather amazing sax line, amongst these terrific snapshots of life, and it sure as hell does. Hugh Burns turns an utterly legendary job on it. If you’ve never heard of him, he’s largely known as a session guitarist, but he’s one with 45 years of recording credits, playing on hundreds of records with everyone from Doris Day to George Michael (he’s done guitar work on two of the best known saxophone songs of all time, as he also played guitar on “Careless Whisper”) to (recent, scare the bejeezus out of people) Scott Walker, and, of course, with Gerry.
So, I settled in largely on the single version after a while. While I was listening, I did a bit of reading about Gerry Rafferty’s life (Hugh, I’d researched independently a few years ago), and a lot struck me. He was uncomfortable performing live, which is also something that pretty much derailed my own attempt at a musical career. He suffered from alcoholism just as I did (and do; I quit drinking two decades ago, but it’s always with me), only he wasn’t able to overcome it as successfully as I have to date (I’ve done well, but I’m learning to take nothing for granted). He kinda withdrew from a pretty loud public life, and on a much smaller scale, though I’m painfully aware that I’m typing this on a website that bears my name, I’ve rolled back my attempts at being “public” quite a bit in recent years, due to a developing antipathy toward fame. And then there was the train. He spoke of the Glasgow to London train being a fixture of his life and career during the recording of “City To City”, the album “Baker Street” is on, and in about a month and a half, I’ll be taking a ride on the 2018 version of that train, though it won’t be for business and, unless I end up getting a stronger-than-last-visit urge to see Danger Mouse’s pillar box (it’s possible, but it’s not written in ink on my itinerary, either), I won’t end up on Baker Street when I arrive in London. It’s weird that I’m hearing of this very different experience with that train and this song and its author than mine as I’m about to ride it. Mine’s going to be part of a honeymoon. Gerry’s experience seems to have been a lot of meetings with lawyers and music biz people (he dealt with some pretty serious legal problems after Stealer’s Wheel broke up, apparently because they signed on of those truly terrible recording contracts you hear so much about) and, eventually, when the lawsuits were done, riding it back and forth to record music. I’ll be thinking about Gerry on that train ride now, and I’ll try to make sure “City To City” is on my listening device of choice for it.
As for why the song is resonating so strongly with me tonight (I listen to it regularly enough, but I don’t think I’ve ever done what I think was about 7 or 8 listens in a sitting as I typed this), I think it’s just a right place/right time thing. I’ve been aware of the song for basically all of its 40 years. I’d heard it on the radio from the beginning as a very young kid, but I first really spent time with it on a K-Tel compilation called Spotlight…
…which I either ended up with as a hand-me-down or an “I’ll make off with this thing that belongs to my sister” (hopefully not the latter, though it was unfortunately both common and condoned far too often by my family, and I carry some guilt for doing it). It was the last song on the record, and it just, even at a young age, felt like more serious music than the rest of what was on the record, and a lot of the rest of what I’d heard at that point in my life.
Since then, it’s been a song that’s kept coming back to me over and over again over the years, because it’s one of the best songs, and probably because it captures that feeling of tension bubbling under the surface until something finally gives so well. It’s extraordinary, and at the same time, it’s deeply relatable. Given how deeply I dive into certain subjects, particularly musical ones, and given how largely “Baker Street” looms in my life, I’m kinda surprised that I’ve never really done an especially deep dive of Gerry’s catalog or his life until tonight. (My intellectual curiosity is really strong at times, but it can be extremely uneven, and that’s troubling to think about, because I know that miss out on things by not distributing it evenly.) I mean, I’ve dabbled a little, and I was familiar with the broad strokes, but I’ve never been compelled to spend as much time as I have tonight on all of this. It could just be that I’ve been constantly planning things for about 4 years solid now, while I’ve been simultaneously feeling the passage of time rather strongly, just this never-ending stream of plans, some mine, some other people’s, that sometimes get achieved to some degree or another, but which never really feel finished, and yeah, that’s this song. That may have driven me to need to know a bunch more about it, and keep hearing it tonight while I looked into it.
Or it could just be that absolute fucking rager of a guitar solo.
Update: hearing the album version on the radio in Edinburgh finally made it click for me after all these years.
Here, have at.