“For the time being I feel good — at the moment.”
Fewer reservations and a bit more ebullience might be expected from a man with America’s Number Two single, “Baker Street,” and album, City to City (both have been Number One on some charts). But Gerry Rafferty is wearing a button warning, ‘Dangerous Times Ahead,’ and he’s known bad times in the past as well. He may be sitting on top of the world as he gives interviews in his rumpled room at New York City’s Plaza Hotel, yet he regards that world with a Scotsman’s dour distrust. He has the cautious fatalism of a coal miner, the trade both his father and grandfather pursued.
Rafferty has been a one-hit wonder before, five years ago, when Stealers Wheel topped the charts with “Stuck in the Middle with You.” Stealers Wheel was led by Rafferty and Joe Egan, friends since both were sixteen-year-olds playing in bands in their hometown of Paisley, a bleak industrial city near Glasgow. To Rafferty’s utter disbelief, his parody of Bob Dylan’s paranoia, tossed off as little more than a joke, struck pay dirt in the States — by which time he had already said goodbye to the band.
“I was going through a very strange period in my life right then,” he explains with a burr that is thick yet as gentle as his large gray eyes. “I’d got married, had a child, I was twenty-four, and one day it was like I’d been living in a dream for six or eight years and suddenly I woke up. It was a pretty scary kind of feeling. Perhaps I was on the edge of a nervous break-down — that’s how it felt, anyway. I just had to get away, away from groups, managers, record companies, the whole thing. So I picked up and moved [from London] back to Scotland to sort myself out.”
Eventually Rafferty was prevailed upon to rejoin Stealers Wheel, and he resumed writing songs that conveyed “pretty scary kinds of feelings” and condemned “managers, record companies, the whole thing.” (When I asked what he felt was the persistent theme of his music, Rafferty replied tersely and without hesitation, “Alienation.”) Though he and Egan sugarcoated their bitter pills with sweet melodies and glossy pop arrangements, they were unable to repeat the success of “Stuck in the Middle.”
Rafferty originally had conceived of Stealers Wheel — which he formed after spending three years as the better half of a folk-rock duo, the Humblebums — as a quartet of singer/songwriters, sort of a Scottish Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. (“Singer/songwriters were crawling out of every apartment at that time.”) But two of the initial recruits deserted before they even recorded, and as musicians came and went, Stealers Wheel deteriorated into Rafferty and Egan backed by a cast of dozens. They never toured America because the band, according to Rafferty, when it existed at all, was “a fucking shambles,” and they wrangled angrily with their managers.
Still, they managed to record a brilliant second album, Ferguslie Park, which was produced, like its predecessor, by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Rafferty says working with the legendary authors of “Hound Dog” and producers of (among others) the Coasters was trying. “The problems we had, had little to do, actually, with the results we got on the board, because they were great in terms of sound and all that. But they were old-school producers. That means you’re there dead on two o’clock, you have a coffee break at exactly five o’clock, and then you finish at eight o’clock on the dot and you don’t go over regardless of what you’re doing. There was a generation gap and a culture gap, too. We didn’t share a sense of humor or much of anything.”
Before long, Rafferty and Egan decided “it was time to stop the whole fucking farce,” which they did after completing a lackluster third album, Right or Wrong, with another producer. But extricating himself from his management deal took Rafferty three more years, during which he commuted unhappily to London from the town outside Glasgow where he and his family still reside. His frustration during this period underlies “Baker Street,” which takes its name from the London street where he often stayed in a friend’s flat. And the final resolution of his legal and financial hassles accounts for the understated exhilaration of the song’s last verse: “When you wake up it’s a new morning/The sun is shining, it’s a new morning/You’re going, you’re going home.”
And where does the magnificent saxophone line that everyone is humming come from? At first it was part of the melody, and Rafferty reckoned he’d sing it. Then he tried it on guitar, and that didn’t sound quite right. Enter Raphael Ravenscroft, a session saxophonist who came highly recommended, and the rest is history — or at least a hit single.
Apart from Ravenscroft, most of the musicians on City to City are old friends. Many of them collaborated with Rafferty (who plays rhythm guitar and rudimentary keyboards) on an excellent but little-noted 1971 solo album, Can I Have My Money Back?
Though it would seem to have struck America like a bolt from the blue, City to City does not depart dramatically from the music Rafferty has recorded over the past decade. In some of his new songs there still can be heard what Rafferty, whose father was born in Ireland, describes as “a sort of Celtic thing in the harmonies and chord progressions. The Celtic thing is the drone, you know — -it’s fifths, the same as in country music, a lot of which comes from Scotland and Ireland, anyway. That’s why I especially liked the Everly Brothers.”
Nor have the preoccupations of Rafferty’s lyrics changed all that much. Words and phrases he used years ago crop up in similar contexts on City to City. Rafferty continues to ponder and juxtapose the differences between urban and pastoral life, and many of his new songs (especially, and most eloquently, “Whatever’s Written in Your Heart”) still seem attempts to bridge the communication chasm between a man and a woman.
One new note does creep in: a hint of gospel music — -particularly on “The Ark” — -and with this, a sense of hard-won peace. Has he undergone, by any chance, a religious experience? Rafferty quickly denies this and points out that the destination of “The Ark” is extremely indefinite, though he does admit to reading such mystics as Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. More likely, he has simply mellowed with age. At thirty-one, he’s clearly overcome much of the anger he felt as a younger man toward both women and the music business. And he also seems to have overcome what he admits was a fondness for one drink too many (as we talked, he royed with a glass of water).
Rafferty confirms the contrast between then and now. “Before, I was never in control. Now I feel much more in control of myself, and certainly much more in control of the way I want my career to go along. I feel as if I can dictate the pace, and that’s what’s really very good: to dictate your own pace so that you have enough time to write, enough time to record, enough time, really, to give your best. And managers can’t fucking tell you what’s best for you in terms of when you should do gigs, rates and so on. I don’t have a manager now, nor do I want one.”
Still, some would consider Rafferty’s decision not to tour America until next March, long after the excitement generated by “Baker Street” will have dissipated, an imprudent career move. Isn’t he afraid that once again he’ll be a one-hit wonder?
After a long pause during which Rafferty’s eyes are downcast and the only sound to be heard is that of his chewing gum, he answers intently: “I don’t really think about it in those kinds of terms. To be a ‘star’ in inverted commas — -that is probably the last thing I want. What I want is just to develop in terms of my songs and also to work in other areas. In fact, I just spoke to a good friend of mine about doing a film in Scotland, a project we’ve been wanting to do for years. He’ll do all the painting — -it will be partly animated — -and I’ll do the music.”
Rafferty’s outlining of his goals, which seem at once modest and ambitious, is interrupted by the entrance of members of his entourage, a magazine photographer and a newspaper reporter who confesses to me that until today she had never heard of the man she’s about to interview. She won’t have much time to correct her ignorance, however, because Rafferty is rushing off to L.A. and another round of press interviews. “What did you do before ‘Baker Street’?” they’ll ask, and as he answers politely, concealing both his boredom and bemusement, through his head may well run the lines, “Fools to the left of me, jokers to the right/Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”