Sunday, January 18, 2009

Listening to the Jam on the Freeway

Misheard lyrics are the best kind.

I remember that it was pouring. It had been raining for days and would rain for many more days. 17 straight days of rain. I was driving somewhere with my friend Steve (who was a complete pothead, but for some reason hated "drug music"). Steve's musical taste tended more towards southern Hard Rock and boogie music (he loved groups like Molly Hatchet and Lynyrd Skynyrd and thought that self-indulgent solos that stretched songs to 9 or 10 minutes were the purest expression of God's grace on earth). Steve had a confederate flag decal on his school notebook and would refuse to listen to anyone who argued that New England was not part of the South.

Steve and I always argued about what radio station to listen to, but since it was his car, he got to pick that day. He took mercy on me and didn't pick the station that boasted it was "ultra, mega kick-ass rock" and instead settled for the "Rockin' You Hard All Day All Night" station. And that afternoon the DJ played this song, sandwiched between "Highway to Hell" and "Crazy on You" (link for Gmail subscribers):

I instantly loved the opening count-off (which sounds like it comes from another dimension), slightly robotic new wave beat, harmonies, and how the vocals simultaneously sound removed, disaffected, and completely insistent. The mood of the song perfectly captured how I felt looking out the window at a New England town I felt part of and simultaneously completely separate from. And, since another friend had recently introduced me to the Jam, I loved the line in the song "listening to the Jam on the freeway." To me, that pun perfectly combined the desire to escape with the deadening grounding of daily life (and seasoned it with a shout-out to an incredibly cool but then-obscure British band).

And, despite the casually pro-drug lyrics, even Steve seemed to like the song. He was tapping his fingers on the steering wheel (although that might have been an advanced driving technique to keep his Mom's Volare wagon from fishtailing).

Throughout that string of rainy days, I hunted for 20/20's album, finally finding it misfiled under "Various Artists" at a local used record store. I plunked down my 3 bucks and walked out with it. Unlike some albums you buy for a single song, listen to once, then only listen to that single song in the future, the first 20/20 album is filled with great and amazing tracks you want to hear over and over. And, the day after I found the record, the sun finally came out.

When the second 20/20 album came out, I was again driving with Steve in the rain and the song "Nuclear Boy" came on the radio. He got as far as the line "If I take enough pills, I'll be tough as the world today," before changing the channel to a station playing some endless song from a live-in-concert Outlaws album. I got the second 20/20 album around that time and it was just as good as the first, filled with driving power-pop anthems and lots of great hooks (link for Gmail subscribers).

The first two 20/20 albums failed to sell and their record company dropped them. The band broke up shortly thereafter. But their music won over a fervent cult of fans and their song "Yellow Pills" inspired a power-pop magazine of the same name (and a series of compilation albums in the 1990s), which eventually led to a band reunion in the mid-1990s.

As for my friend Steve -- he eventually wrecked the Volare coming home drunk from a party; he was relatively hurt but scared enough to stop drinking and taking drugs. He also stopped listening to hard rock and accumulated a huge collection of classic jazz records. He doesn't remember 20/20 at all and insists he was visiting a friend in North Carolina the time we got the 17 straight days of rain.

Maybe he's right -- memory's a funny thing. The lyric that won me over to 20/20, that I've heard every time I've played the record, that great shout-out ("listening to the Jam on the freeway")... it isn't in the song at all. The real lyrics are "But they're stuck in a jam on the freeway," which is just not as cool.

And maybe it didn't rain for 17 straight days and wasn't even raining when I got the 20/20 records. But it's raining in my mind every time I hear a 20/20 song... and maybe that's what really matters.

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