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Snapsongs: “I’m In Touch With Your World” by The Cars

Tuesday 22 April 2014 - Filed under Snapsongs

It probably should be said, that in the swirling constellations of music that guided my adolescent life, none shone as brightly nor guided me as faithfully as the brilliant Triangulum of the Police, Rush, and the Cars. Perhaps an odd mix of genres, but that didn’t matter: when I wanted to chill, or jam, or sing along, or rock out, or escape from the world, those three groups would have a dedicated place in my trusty Walkman. Their albums shared pride of place on my pricey Maxell 90-minute metal masters, dubbed with my dual-cassette jambox from borrowed cassettes or recorded reverently from friends’ CD copies. They served as the sonic backdrop for my formative years, and thus I pretty much have their entire catalogs memorized. It is a point of fact that I was once was able to identify the song “Touch and Go” by the Cars from a single isolated drum sound played for the fraction of a second it took for a friend of mine to slide in the tape and to punch the fast-forward button on his car stereo. Teenage touchstone memories are elephantine.

The difficulty with all three of these bands is identifying a singular happening that could be definitely called personal or idiosyncratic and not necessarily a reaction to a popular hit played on the radio. Before I became a fan, I knew of the Cars, I’d heard the Cars, and I liked the Cars. For starters, they were all over the place in the summer of 1983, I really couldn’t have avoided them. That, of course, was not the time I really encountered them. One does not “encounter” something someone sees every day. It took the gift of the aforementioned Walkman in 1985 to make me realize that I could, in fact, purchase the albums recorded by my favorite bands and listen to them in the comfort and safety of my own home. I didn’t have to rely on the radio to serve me music at a sequence and selection of its choosing. When a friend of mine copied The Cars’ Greatest Hits for me I realized this was a band I could explore with confidence. I liked everything they did.

So in the fall of 1986 I discovered the world of album-oriented rock and the joy of perusing deep cuts. Sure, I was at least a decade behind the concept of AOR, but I was getting there. With the Cars I had a reasonably manageable selection of albums to choose from, not too few, not too many. It was still amazing to me: there were so many more songs out there than just “Magic” and “Drive”. There was something more than just the payola playlist in the hands of a bored DJ. There were oddities, experiments, brilliant failures and obvious padding. And there were songs that were just awesome, so awesome it was a crying shame I hadn’t heard them before.

“I’m In Touch With Your World” could be any of the above list of deep cut descriptives: in turns it’s an odd song, it’s an experimental song, it’s a brilliant song, it’s a silly song, it’s a filler song, it’s an awesome song. It’s the first non-hit song in the album The Cars, and showed the not-quite-a-pop-confection side of the group. One remembers that this was a band that had a Berklee graduate on keyboards, cut their teeth at the same time as Roxy Music, Iggy Pop and Generation X, and later got Andy Warhol to direct one of their videos. You get a feeling of a jam session gone studio, with a condenser mic set up next to the keyboard stand so someone could hit one of the various noisemakers assembled there whenever the notion hit. There’s a wide-open reverb, a sense of space different from the tight set of the hit tunes. And the verse construction is also sparse and simple, the first three beats of the 8-note bar reserved for a repeated motif, the rest open for jangly guitar riffs, doubled drum fills, or saxophone squeals. Then a quick power-chord rock-out for the chorus. The lyrics were off-kilter and ran through some silly innuendos and drug references that Ric Ocasek found amusingly oblique. To a newbie, it was dangerously fun.

And a newbie I was, that fall of 1986, in more ways than one. I was finally feeling the excitement of being fourteen, and things were starting to change in my brain. One could say my conscious adult self was finally waking up. It was, unfortunately, a later blooming than for most. Part of that had to do with the fact that my junior high experience had been a series of social isolations — yeah, I know, welcome to the party, brother. But this was slightly different. In my first year of middle school, I’d carved out a niche for myself and my weirdo friends in a huge public school in the rapidly developing rural suburbs north of Austin, but in retrospect I’m sure the Devil would have found ill use for my idle hands there. So my parents moved me to a place with more possibilities for intellectual stimulation. Unfortunately, in a private school populated by the offspring of the newest of the Nouveau Riche, a chubby sarcastic nerd will not fit in very well. Especially when there were no more than sixty-two children in the entire building. In this limited space I really had nowhere to run to. The same proto-douchebags would still be there, class after class, practicing their douchebaggery on me to perfect it for their later fraternal careers. It became rather tiresome.

To be sure, I did befriend the other oddities and outcasts around me, and I suffered no major insult to my body or my mind, but it was not a happy time. This was probably a large reason why my freshmen year in high school was spent in something of a bunkered mentality. But, then again, I have always enjoyed the comfort and safety of my own skull, and I am usually perfectly happy to let the world outside do its thing without me. My experience in middle school just made it that much easier to stay ensconced. So I did as a freshmen, inadvertently building up a reputation as a sequestered iconoclast, certainly brilliant but perhaps not all there. It was a science magnet school, there were plenty of those around. I had my fans, and my foes, but I didn’t really have many friends.

Well, sophomore year that changed. Some of that had started the end of my freshman year — the fellow travelers on my school bus banded together to get me some copied music, and another friend started asking me to come over to play on his computer bulletin board during the summer. I started wanting to hang out with people my own age, rather than the neighborhood group of children that included my younger brother, and for whom I kinda served as a benevolent leader. As the school year began, I started to make tentative social steps in German class and in my archery PE section. But, as usual, it took something completely out of the blue to make me realize I couldn’t be self-sufficient forever. And, as usual, that something was a woman.

It didn’t go well. Such things never did until much later in my life. As a sophomore in high school, I was completely at sea. I was too self-ensconced, too self-conscious, too nervous and too scared of this new dynamic to be able to do anything coherent. I was a hopeless, hopeless newbie. It didn’t help that I was, and am, something of an intellectual loose cannon, an informational leaf-blower, an incontinent free-thinker that oooh, shiny look a squirrel hey, let’s go ride bikes! The object of my desire was none of that. She was cool, calculated, smart, smug, superior and set. Her social surround was a group of math savants who looked down on a syncretic assimilative intelligence like my own as somehow inferior. And she had selected for her chosen a virtuoso cellist classmate of ours who had no discernible personality whatsoever. It was hopeless from the get-go.

But what does one do in the face of a flood of hormones? For that is what I finally found swirling around inside me, altering my thoughts, changing my brain, waking me up from the latency of childhood. Alas, one does what teenage man has done from time immemorial: I thought and despaired and obsessed and, finally, I acted. I sat moodily on my bed with my Walkman, trying to scry some solution — or failing that, some solace — from the words that spilled through my headphones. I joined Speech & Debate so I could talk with her more. I went on school trips, I spent the night in other cities, I got up and defied my stage fright to argue a point of logic. I started to engage with the people around her so I could have an in. I began to sift nuances of social interaction, finding like minds and fellow feeling in the milling mass around me. Indeed, that science magnet program had brought together a startling array of interesting and fascinating people, even though they were, as yet, not even old enough to vote. I pushed and cried and fumed and built up my resolve until I could get over my adolescent awkwardness. And in the end, I finally asked her out, and got shot down in epic style. In doing so, it gave me heartache and truckloads of drama, but it also gave me a growing selection of actual friends, a series of positive experiences regardless of their origin, and made my high school career something to experience rather than something to endure.

And, thinking back to those times, the sometimes intentionally goofy and sometimes inadvertently brilliant song “I’m In Touch With Your World” sums things up in surprisingly apt ways.  It’s a good song to calm a newbie, whether to AOR, to life, to music, or to love. It’s not flashy, it’s silly, it’s fun. Ric Ocasek nods at you from behind some New Wave shades and welcomes you in. “It’s all a jam, man, just feel for the bass groove. No pressure, no rules. Here, make some funny noises, I’m gonna sing some silly jokes and recherche non-sequiturs. That guy over there is gonna do goofy synth stuff. It’s all good.” The song never fully resolves, but never fully stops. Hesitant yet dogged — going back to mistakes and fixing them — or making them again, but better — with a taste of snark and knowing cynicism — this was something I could use, something I could pattern after, something I was, actually, familiar with. It was something to make you smile while walking the dog on a crisp autumn evening. The sequestered iconoclast finally had something to say: I’m in touch with your world, and don’t you try to hide it. I might not be all there, but I can see you from where I’m standing, and maybe you’d like to share the view. It’s such a lovely way to go.

That whole worldview is summed up nicely in the final verse: “It’s a sickie contradiction, this thing you call Creation. Everything is science fiction, and I oughta know.” Indeed. Indeed.

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2014-04-22  »  Edward Semblance