Sunday, January 24, 2016

Thoughts on 'Baker Stret' by Gerry Rafferty

I'm up way past my bed-time, on a "school night", so I'm just going to write a few words on something that's buzzing round my head.

I've been listening to the song 'Baker Street' by Gerry Rafferty a lot in the last few days. I've always liked it but it's particularly appealing to me now.

It's a very strange thing. I remember hearing this song in the background one evening, when I was in my late teens. At the moment the song came on, I had just convinced myself that I had symptoms of a serious and probably terminal illness. (I was something of a hypochondriac back then.) I was seriously worried. But the funny thing is that this is a pleasant memory. At least, remembering it gives me a pleasant feeling. Perhaps it was that, in my heart, I knew that I was being silly and I wasn't really coming down with something terminal. Or perhaps it was that an awareness of mortality suddenly made life seem more precious, and the song dramatises life (and life plans) in a way that made life seem even more fragile and aspirational.

Baker Street itself-- the actual place-- is a memory in my life. I first met my wife in London and we went to the Sherlock Holmes museum in Baker Street. The museum was terrible but I felt determined to go there, since my father and mother had tried to find the residence of Sherlock Holmes when they lived in London and were unable to do so. It seemed like a touching tribute to them, and we only just made it-- the museum was closing as we reached it, and it was the last day of our visit. Of course, there never was a 221B Baker Street, but the museum seems like the closest thing there is. Here is an excerpt from the entry for the address on Wikipedia:
At the time the Holmes stories were published, addresses in Baker Street did not go as high as 221. Baker Street was later extended, and in 1932 the Abbey National Building Society moved into premises at 219–229 Baker Street. For many years, Abbey National employed a full-time secretary to answer mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes. In 1990, a blue plaque signifying 221B Baker Street was installed at the Sherlock Holmes Museum, situated elsewhere on the same block, and there followed a 15-year dispute between Abbey National and the Holmes Museum for the right to receive mail addressed to 221B Baker Street. Since the closure of Abbey House in 2005, ownership of the address by the Holmes Museum has not been challenged, despite its location between 237 and 241 Baker Street.

Funnily enough, London itself had exactly the same effect on me as that moment of hypochodria in my teens-- or rather, coming back from London did. For several days after I'd returned to Dublin, I felt a strange and pronounced sense of disorientation. The sheer size and impersonality of London had dislocated my imagination. ("This city desert makes you feel so cold, it's got so many people but it's got no soul".) This was an unpleasant mood, but remembering it is pleasant and rather exhilarating-- it gave my thought processes a good and salutary shaking. That combination, of an experience which is unpleasant to live through but pleasant to remember, seems to happen to me a lot.

Another thing I like about 'Baker Street' is the title. I love any title of a work of art that involves the name of a street or (even better) IS just the name of a street. It's mysterious and evocative.

Finally, I like that it's a song about someone in a particular life situation, one with its own atmosphere and mentality. Listening to it tonight, and wondering at its appeal to me, I realised that all songs that are about anything at all tend to be somewhere on a spectrum of concrete, immediate experience and general, universal experience. For instance, 'Escape' by Rupert Holmes ("Do you like pina coladas?") is about a very particular, individual situation that occurs in a single time and place-- a man intends to cheat on his wife through a lonely hearts ad, and discovers that the lady he's arranged to meet actually is his wife. That's the concrete, immediate pole. The other pole is general or universal subjects-- "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"  or "Imagine" or "Nine to Five".

But in between those poles are the songs which are about a particular character in a particular situation, or a particular part of their lives, but not in a specific time or place or setting-- as in 'Baker Street', which may have a particular street as its title, but which features a whole series of related vignettes. It's not so much a story as a montage. I find such songs particularly delectable. They make life seem more pleasingly dramatic, and are a consolation when we find ourselves in tricky terrain. Because we can think: "You could write a song about this. This is the kind of thing people write songs about."


  1. Hi M,
    I've always loved Baker Street - for me the reason is the saxophone! And, do you know, despite being a mad Sherlock Holmes far (& having been to Baker Street more than once) I never made that connection!
    I hope you're doing well. Regards to your good lady.

  2. Speaking of which, leaving the National Theatre on the South Bank last week, where I'd been to see As You Like It with my son, walking back towards Waterloo, we heard a saxophonist busker playing the Baker Street riff. As saxophonist buskers will be doing until the end of time.

    1. Apparently there was a surge of saxophone sales when the song came out, and this phenomenon has now been described as the Baker Street Effect!

  3. Really? I didn't know that but it sounds completely plausible. I wonder if there was a Careless Whisper effect in the 1980s...