My mate Barney has a point. Even though some of us have never visited America, we’ve been familiar with host of its cities — thanks to the power of popular song. In fact the enduring popularity of some US towns and cities is due in large part to a sense of love and patriotism demonstrated by America singers.
Way back in the day, right in the middle of my teenage years, I recall Glen Campbell singing ‘By the time I get to Phoenix’. Until then I’d only heard of phoenix in the bird sense, thanks to a teacher who offloaded on to us her passion for Greek mythology. The idea of a bird that cyclically regenerates is the stuff that any 12-year-old wants to take home and share. Not only share, but ask lots of questions too. Why can’t this be the case with us if a bird can perish only to be restored?
These questions had relevance because at that time death was in the air. Not that it isn’t now, but at 12 when you first hear that your country has gone to war with China and some loved ones are likely to be carrying the flag (metaphorically of course, for they’d have been armed to the teeth no doubt). Still, the spectre of death suddenly looms like a menacing harpy, that other mythological bird which the Roman poet described as the vulture.
Anyhow, a rather cynical uncle of whom I asked all my questions ... well, it turned out he was on the side of the harpies for he pooh-pooed this entire notion of the phoenix being able to rise again. And so, the entire period of the brief Indo-China war was a stressful one for me as a youngster.
And that’s what I said to my mate Barney when he brought up the topic of songs and American cities. I said to him that every one of those songs will somehow have a small back story in our lives. So whenever I still hear Glen Campbell’s song about Phoenix, I cannot help but slip away tangentially by some process of association to the Indo-China war.
And just to prove that that’s not an isolated case, not a long time later in my life, Scott McKenzie put out a song called ‘San Francisco (Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair)’. I remember my father taking us boys (my younger brother and me) to the tailor to get our trousers stitched. In those days one didn’t buy ready-made and, of course, consequently, one never had a problem with the trouser legs being a lot longer and needing to be hemmed. Tailor-stitched clothes fitted just-so.
Anyway, with San Francisco ringing in my ears, reminding me that this was my time and that time of course was the time of the Hippies: Floral patterned shirts, sleeves so wide three arms could fit in comfortably and then ... bell-bottom trousers.
My father tried to put a meek foot down firmly and insist we stick to the drainpipes that made our horribly skinny legs look even more gross. But no, we stood our ground and got our way. Not that that was ever a major victory when dealing with my dear father.
Years later, he reminded me of my first pair of bell-bottom trousers and I have to say I cringed. I relate this account to Barney. He has a chuckle, but agrees with my theory regarding such songs and a back story. He says he can recall two such songs straight off the top of his head. The first being Albert Hammond’s ‘It never rains in Southern California’. Barney says anyone who lived two whole years in England during one of the wettest periods in their history (and he did), would absolutely hate that song! And the second song? “Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Lodi’,” he says, but assures me that that particular back story is not for publication.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.