Thursday, July 21, 2011

Lend Your Voice: Petula Clark: "Downtown"

The man, in the dark, after he cries and perhaps is a bit cold and numb, turns on the radio, and hears this.

He is perhaps warmed by it, by the simple piano and then the unveiled band behind her, as if the city's core itself were made of music, bright and shiny and capable of lifting even the most tired and bedraggled soul. Of course he resists and tries to pretend that what is on offer - all the distractions - are beneath him or beside the point. But then it filters through slowly that it is just being out there that matters. He does not have to do anything but go and walk and look, really look and let himself become part of a greater whole. There is no great mystery to it, or conspiracy. Yes, the city is yours too. Do with it as you will. And yes, I am there, you might meet me, and we can exist, if only for a while. The city knows no time or particular emotion; it is what it is, and it accepts you, whoever you are.

It is easy to feel as if you don't mean very much, but then you can turn it around and say, it's just a city, of course; and cities are made of people. The idea of "life" making you lonely is no joke, and the city can only act as a bandage at first, while the real work goes on underneath. But all reviving souls need a distraction, and the city is there for you, if you can stand the "noise and the hurry."

Losing yourself to find yourself; getting rid of loneliness by becoming part of the lonely crowd - these are primal Sixties ideas and gathering together in order to do something good is a natural when there is a sudden boom in people who are young and don't have much else to do; but this song goes deeper than just addressing gawky, awkward wallflowers and hermits to go out and learn to socialize. In Canada a man the same age as Clark heard this song and was struck by it, and it was something of a soundtrack to his own outings, wherein he began to think of the voices of others - the sound of the crowd, if you will - as instruments in and of themselves, interweaving, contradicting, supporting, that the flow of life itself was music.

This was far beyond producer/songwriter Tony Hatch's idea of course - he simply wanted to get the song finished (it was, in the men's room minutes before recording) and give Clark a hit in English (she was doing much better in France than the UK at this point). It was a fragment he played for her at first, something he'd written hoping it would be recorded by The Drifters; Clark immediately recognized it was for her, and Hatch had only a few days to finish it. So in a way she is pouring herself into this song, singing directly to you to join her, in a way that is not just pretty or elegant but a personal invitation. There is a small clause in her "might" at the end, but this is because so many will turn out that she may not be able to see you. The song gives confidence to the listener that s/he will not be alone, whatever happens, and that includes the shattered man, gathering pieces of himself, recognizing himself in others, and others in himself.


Anonymous said...

Lovely analysis of Downtown.

Lena said...

Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it!