And you say that's where it ended / But I say, “No no no, it just faded away / August was grey” / It feels like 1974 / Ghastly mellow saxophones all over the floor / Feels like 1974 / You could vote for Labour, but you can't anymore / Feels like 1974 / Digging Led Zeppelin in Grimsby / Oh Christ
Thus Robyn Hitchcock in a song performed solo acoustic in the film Storefront Hitchcock (1998), directed by Jonathan Demme. I first heard the song somewhere around that time, as the Nineties came to an end and my daughter graduated high school, so, sure, it took me back to my own high school years—in 1974 I finished 9th grade and began 10th, and 10th was the most godawful year of my high school existence. I wasn’t digging Led Zeppelin in Grimsby (I was digging Jethro Tull in New Castle, but more on that tomorrow), nor was I “half twenty-two” like the person in the song whose favorite song was Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.” Still, one thing we all had in common, then, was the fact that on this date, forty years ago, Richard Nixon resigned as President of the United States of America.
Hitchcock commemorates that momentous event with the lines, firmly tongue-in-cheek: And as Nixon left the White House you could hear people say / “They’ll never rehabilitate that mother, no way” / “Whirry-whirry,” goes the helicopter, “Out of my way / I’ve got a president to dump in the void” / Ooh.
The idea of rehabilitating a crook (which Nixon famously denied being) was one of those buzz terms back then, so that’s a nice parting shot. The helicopter, which was how Nixon left, comes tainted too with Vietnam associations. The void, of course, is always with us.
Other topical moments in the song refer to “[Monty] Python’s last series,” for, yes, that was the end of the beloved Python, in Britain, though here in the States we didn’t get them until then. In the summer of 1974, two skits appeared on Dean Martin’s World of Comedy, causing my sister and I to pick up, on chance, a record album of skits from the TV show, so that when PBS started airing the series, I believe in the 1974-75 season, we were ready. We also got the albums the Pythons released and pretty much memorized the skits, which I often preferred, old time radio-like, to hear and imagine rather than see portrayed. There is some great physical comedy on the shows, and of course costumes and Gilliam’s animations, but the Pythons were always great voice comics to me, and that was easier to appreciate on the record albums, though they weren’t masterful uses of the format such as the Firesign Theater albums.
Hitchcock also mentions the Guardian’s put-down of the Pythons: “the stench of rotting minds” which made me recall that such things as were the few spots of delight—like Python on PBS—were not necessarily embraced and appreciated by the mainstream.
The song references Syd Barrett’s last session as well. Barrett showed up during the recording of Wish You Were Here by his former band, Pink Floyd. The Floyd was huge at that time—to namecheck them and Zep and Bowie is a given for that year—and Barrett gave up being “Syd” (his recording name) and would “have to be Roger [his given name] for the rest of his life.” This is sung with a bit more mournfulness than most of the rest by Hitchcock because you know he feels the loss of Barrett, still, in 1998.
Other spot-on references are “you didn’t have to inhale too hard / You could smell the heads festering in the backyard.” Personally, I wasn’t anything approaching “a head” in 1974, but the heads were everywhere and you didn’t have to inhale too hard to pick up a buzz around them. Grass was in the air, often enough, wherever the young congregated. The phrase a “X-head” where X is some thing one is enthusiastic about, was common enough too. I guess I could say I was a “Lit head” at the time. In any case, the couture was certainly “funky denim wonderland.”
The song opens with Hitchcock cautioning himself—45 while singing the song—about how to live “a middle-aged life.” Well, we’re past that now, Robyn, and we’re still here, for now.
The part of the song that has always affected me most has little to do with all those topical references and simply registers the distance between, say, being 45 in 1998 and 21 in 1974 (for Robyn), and being 39 in 1998 and 15 in 1974: All those molecules of time / That you thought you'd shed forever / All those inches of time / That you thought you could just say bye-bye. In other words, this is a statement about what remains rather than what gets shed. It says that the past remains with you because it’s part of you, you can’t just say “bye-bye” to “those molecules of time.” This was a worthwhile reflection to me, at the time, as I soon embarked on a major writing project that required me to recall “all those inches of time” that connected me to the Seventies. This song may have had something to do with directing my compass in those days—the early Aughts.
Wait ‘til you get older than this
[Other milestones today: Jerry Garcia died in 1995, and Dylan's Another Side of Bob Dylan was released 50 years ago, 1964.]