(Every Friday, look for “Seen Your Video.” I’ll toss out a song that meant enough to me way back when to remain lodged in my head today and pick it apart. It’ll be flashbacky fun.)
Before “The Tracey Ullman Show” that birthed “The Simpsons,” Brit Tracey Ullman first hit the US with her album “You Broke My Heart in 17 Places” in 1983. My Ullman introduction came early the next year when this video went into rotation on MTV. I think I owe Ullman a chunk of my soul because of it.
I was 11 when I first saw this video. Heavily into Duran Duran and fancying myself an Anglophile, I latched on. Not only did it feature a Brit, but she was funny. And a woman. A funny woman, singing songs lifted straight from the early ’60s stylebook – it had everything I could possibly want.
1960s pop was the real music of my childhood. We grow up with the new music of the day, but ultimately our first music is our parents’ music. When we’re infants and toddlers, that time when pop culture and music becomes a secondary concern for parents, they turn to the music that they loved the most to provide joy and comfort. For me, that was a stream of late ’50s and early ’60s pop. Pure spun confectionary – two of my mom’s favorites were Shelley Fabares’ “Johnny Angel” and Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry.”
By my late teens and early 20s, I didn’t understand how I could listen to the Clash and the Replacements, then turn around and crave the Chiffons and the Shangri-Las. Now I get the connection, that the first punk bands deconstructed music back to the basics of rock n’ roll, the same bare bones those girls used twenty years earlier.
I was in limbo between my music and my mother’s. I was also a weirdo, which was my badge of honor. I was smart and funny, and was dabbling in developing my sense of style with nods to Cyndi Lauper and the discovery of my town’s Salvation Army store.
At least until the end of fifth grade when my friends decided to laugh at me instead of with me. This ended my brief stint as a popular kid and began years of tamping down my goofiness in an attempt to appear normal, sane, acceptable.
But at home in my room – yes, I had a TV and cable in my room at age 11 in 1984; really not sure what my parents were thinking with that decision – I sang and danced along with Tracey’s “They Don’t Know.” It had everything I loved – the song left the aftertaste of candy necklaces and Tang when I sang it, so rich was the early ’60s bouffant sheen. Tracey wasn’t beautiful like other girl singers on MTV. She was cute, with a big moon face. She didn’t have a great voice. She warbled a little like me, but invoked more love and longing and conviction than Madonna’s managed in her whole career.
And she was funny! She hammed it up, mugged for the camera, took on every exaggerated facial expression – all the ones people told me to knock off or else my face would freeze that way. I believed that threat for way too long, sacrificing my prime smirk years.
Tracey wasn’t afraid to shoot video of herself in a frumpy housedress and pink feathered mule slippers, dancing in the grocery store with a shopping cart and toddler.
I was pretty sure I could pull off the same schtick, if only everyone from adults to my peers would stop telling me to knock it off.
All this, and she wound up riding in a car with Paul McCartney at the wheel by video’s end. Sometimes the silly girl wins.
It’s a shame her cover of Irma Thomas’ “Breakaway” wasn’t released in the US. Had I seen the video of Tracey in her school uniform, singing into a hairbrush, I would have spent my adolescence filled with the warm validation that I was normal and okay.
Like last week’s “Jukebox,” “They Don’t Know” was one of the first songs I bootlegged from Napster. Illegal downloading wasn’t so much about getting new music for free, for me; it was all about finding the weird rare songs that I’d missed for years and would never be able to buy because they were so long out of print.
A few years later, when I was in the throes of early motherhood, Angela‘s husband gave me a sampler of Irish singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl’s best stuff. I only knew Kirsty from her part in the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.” I don’t recall what prompted the mix, but it was well-timed. While climbing back from the postpartum tumble I took, the wry wit and bold honesty of MacColl’s songwriting in her 30s made the perfect soundtrack:
I’ve been an awful woman all my life
A dreadful daughter and a hopeless wife
And I’ve had my eyes on that carving knife
Oh you’ve been lucky so far
Did somebody tell you I’m lonely as hell?
I didn’t expect you to know me so well
If I learned a lesson it’s how to bounce back again
Sometimes I bounce off the wall
And sometimes my head hits the floor
And this …
Then I met an Englishman
“Oh” he said
“Won’t you walk up and down my spine,
It makes me feel strangely alive.”
I said “In these shoes?
I doubt you’d survive.”
I said “Honey, let’s do it.
Let’s stay right here.”
She articulated everything in my life. Everything. And it all ended at 40 when MacColl was killed while diving in the Gulf of Mexico. She was pushing her son out of the path of a speeding boat that had entered a restricted diving area. She took the hit and died instantly.
While falling in love with Kirsty’s new-to-me catalog, there was an old familiar favorite that I never expected.
My beloved “They Don’t Know” wasn’t a Tracey original; Kirsty wrote and recorded the song four years before Tracey. For Tracey’s version, Kirsty even did the high-pitched “Baby!” because Tracey couldn’t hit the note.
Twenty-year-old Kirsty’s songwriting mirrored 20-year-old me just as much as thirty-something wife and mum Kirsty did. I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately, since I’m now the age Kirsty was when she was killed. She was thirteen years older than me and I had songs by her that related to every stage of my life. Now I’ve run out of them. Her too-early demise always tugged at my heart, but now it’s a real hole in my life. No doubt her chronicle of the menopause years would have been spectacular in its honesty, humor, pathos, and beauty.
I always thought “They Don’t Know” was a a perfect love song. At least for this girl who never liked love songs. Even with the gallows humor in the video of the fantastic love that leads to the protagonist slogging through the grocery store in her slippers, dreaming of being young and riding with Sir Paul. Not that this end is mentioned in the song. The song has exactly what made the ’60s girl groups and singers great: rebellion, independence, and running off with the perfect bad boy with no regard to anyone’s opinion.
I don’t think I wanted the romance from the song when I was young. I think I wanted the bravado and guts.
Better late than never.