Right about this time in 1986, a catchy song with a simple chorus that – on the whole – wasn’t so simple was peaking on the Billboard charts.
“Life In a Northern Town” appealed to me when I first saw it on MTV. I had never been to England, which is depicted in the video. Hell, I had only been to Canada once by that stage of life. But as I approached the end of my senior year of high school, I started to think about going other places, or at least wanting to be other places. The world was bigger than my suburb, and I wanted to see it.
At the same time, I was a walking contradiction. I wanted new but craved what was old. Around this same time I bought my second car – a 1969 Buick Electra. In it I had installed a tape player, and listened mostly to quickly-fashioned mixtapes of 1960s pop or the Oldies radio station I would work for ten years later. I was fascinated by a generation that I missed due to being born too late to be a part of it. That’s the other level on which this song appealed to me: the lyrics look back wistfully on a lost time. It’s still one of my favorite sets of lyrics to open a song of all time.
“The Salvation army band played/While the children drunk lemonade/And the morning lasted all day, all day.”
Later in the lyric the old storyteller is discussing what life in late 1963 was like – “it felt like the world would freeze with John F. Kennedy and the Beatles.” It told the tale of a place I wished I could have been but could never travel to. In many ways, the song was a metaphor for where I was: almost 17, almost out of high school, not sure where I wanted to be (as long as it wasn’t where I was), preparing for my tight-knit group of friends to begin to scatter to the winds in the fall, unsure that my planned career path – medicine – was the right decision. I wanted to go back to when everything was simple again. (Of course, at the end of the song, the old man telling the story gets on the train and leaves, and we never know if he comes back. Then again, can you ever really go back home?)
Of course, I didn’t have the knowledge or capacity to realize all of that then. With age and/or maturity it all makes more sense. (Everything does: we think we have all the answers when we are adolescents, and then in middle age we are amazed at how much we have learned in the last few years.) Also, age teaches that the things and situations that we thought were soooo complicated in our youth are nothing compared to the curve balls that adult life throws at you. In many ways, that’s the power of music: time travel.
Go back to when everything was simple and complicated all at once by clicking here.