A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Recently, I downloaded this old song from Petula Clark onto my Ipod nano in a rare nostalgic mood.It reminds me of a good memory from my childhood; my sister and I riding our tricycles around the driveway on a summer day with the song playing loudly from the dashboard radio of my stepfather’s red and white Plymouth. It still makes me smile thinking of the simple fun we were having.
The song also makes me remember the infrequent trips my family made to downtown Cleveland. In winter, to see the animated Christmas displays in the department store windows and rarer summer trips downtown, where the plump grey pigeons wove through pedestrians on the sidewalks, just out of reach of my attempts to pet them(the pigeons, not the pedestrians).
Not only did the song sound very different now from the tinny transistor radios back then, I was also struck by new thoughts about the lyrics. I realized what a dichotomy the song was for its time. While most pop songs in the mid-1960’s were reflecting current events, Downtown sounded positively fluffy. While no one expected Petula Clark to pick up where The Byrds or Crosby, Stills and Nash left off, I wondered if the naivete was as deliberate as it appeared.
Because at the time this song was released, major cities in the U.S. were undergoing tremendous change. They were quite literally exploding, as many segregated neighborhoods, usually located near the center of town, were beset by riots. Martin Luther King Jr. said that “Riots are the voice of the unheard.” which is perfectly understandable, but the damage done to many inner city neighborhoods have still not completely been repaired, many decades later.
Since the 1950’s, American cities had been growing outward, fueled by cheap gasoline, shopping malls and an ever growing highways system, leading to the urban sprawl that continues today. Between the enlarging suburbs and white flight, American cities became donuts in less than a decade, meaning the center was deserted and the population and businesses had moved to the outer rings.This is different from cities in other parts of the world, especially in Europe, which remain vibrant, even in the centers.
Reading the lyrics of the song, (which I’d never done before), reassured me that it wasn’t pure cotton candy, though many of the sentiments harked back to an earlier time. The idea was that downtown was a utopian place, the ultimate pick-me-up with every sort of wish fulfillment: shopping, movies, music, companionship, “…everything’s waiting for you…”. My mother, who can recall downtown Cleveland’s halcyon days, agreed with this interpretation. I had to admit that today’s equivalent, “shopping mall”, just didn’t have the same musical flair.
But there is a serious bit towards the end of the song: “And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you. Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand to guide them along.” It almost doesn’t fit with the other escapist lyrics, but it does if one views the town as the center of the community, a place to connect and meet your neighbors. Or it could be a reference to Carnaby Street, which was hip and happening in the ’60’s. Maybe it wasn’t just the shopping and entertainment that would make the listener feel carefree? In fact, the last verse invites the listener to come downtown and join in the fun, “…maybe I’ll see you there…”, a precursor of the inclusive nature of the counterculture movement.
My sister said I was reading too much into a perky pop song and I don’t want to ruin the memories of it for anyone, including myself. Though I was pleased to find more to it than I’d thought all these years. It’s still not I Am The Walrus, but does firmly fit into the trends and attitudes of the 1960’s, as well as a perfect summer day when I was little.
Warner Bros. 1965 written by Tony Hatch
You can read the lyrics and hear Petula Clark sing ‘Downtown’ at the Rhapsody website here