March 13, 2018

FTV: Gerry Rafferty


    According to his friend John Byrne, Gerry Rafferty, “Went through hell and arrived at his final destination with a sense of peace and fulfilment, but what a journey.”  Occasional singing partner Barbara Dickson said, “He liked having money and status, and why shouldn’t he have done it? He had a image of himself being almost like an American rock star and that was okay.  He was always well off and drove nice cars, and coming from a very humble upbringing, he felt that was an achievement I’m sure.” His PR guy Michael Grey feels that there wasn’t anything that anyone could have done to save Rafferty from himself:  “When he would say, ‘Oh, let’s not go to the gate for this (flight), let’s have another drink,’ it never occurred to me that he was on the road to becoming an alcoholic…but Gerry wasn’t nearly such a nice man when he’d had a certain amount of whisky.”  Although he didn’t pass away until January of 2011, Gerry Rafferty began circling the drain in the 1990’s when the decade saw his beloved wife Carla leave him, the death of both his brother Joe and his long time friend and producer Hugh Murphy. It was a sad twenty year decline for someone who Dickson later said, “He was a titan, a giant.  He could have been as famous as any songwriter in the world, but chose not to be.” Gerry Rafferty was a huge but complex talent. Unfortunately, the road to stardom is littered with similarly talented artists who fell by the wayside trying to become famous or because they did become famous.

    A native of Paisley, Scotland, Gerry Rafferty had already worked in the Glasgow music scene for a decade before he teamed up with the not yet famous comic Billy Connolly.   Performing as The Humblebums, they were an odd pairing with the introverted Rafferty and the extroverted Connolly playing songs and telling stories. Eventually, the stories got longer and Connolly’s path to stardom veered away from music.  When the partnership dissolved in 1971, Rafferty tried his hand at making a solo record (Can I Have My Money Back?).  It sank with nary a trace but his next partnership with his old Paisley mate Joe Egan struck gold with a song meant as a parody of Bob Dylan.  Stuck in the Middle With You could have been even bigger stepping stone for them had their record company not filed for bankruptcy, thereby leaving Stealers Wheel with unpaid royalties and a tangle of legal troubles.  Rafferty retreated into solo work, traveling the land with his wife Carla and daughter Martha trying to sell his introspective songs while the Punk Rock wave rose and fell about them. The road to stardom that had seemed so short when   Stuck In the Middle With You became a hit turned into a much longer slog.

    All the while, Rafferty wrote and self recorded his songs.  Endless trips to London to sort out the Stealers Wheel fiasco meant hours of train travel from Scotland.  The trips there and back prompted the title for his next album, City to City.  At the end of another day of wrangling with the lawyers, Rafferty and fellow musician Rab Noakes would meet to hoist a few at The Globe on the corner of Marylebone Road and Baker Street.  Baker Street was written near the end of his second album’s creation, about the same time the legal proceedings were put to bed.  He and producer Murphy couldn’t make the song’s melody line stand out until Murphy had the idea of using session sax player Raphael Ravenscroft to play what would become Baker Street’s iconic hook.  Even though his label wasn’t keen on releasing it as a single, the song rose to the top of the charts, eventually knocking the Bee Gees Saturday Night Fever soundtrack from the top spot.  Paul McCartney sent his congratulations for recording “an incredible song.”  It wasn’t lost on Rafferty that he had, “become an overnight sensation from doing what I have done for a decade.”  According to Classic Rock Magazine, when he died at age 63, “His work had made him a millionaire, but the considerable due he merited as a songwriter of rare craft and intuitive skill had largely eluded him.”

    Where did Gerry Rafferty’s life and career run off the rails?  Stuck in the Middle With You pushed Stealers Wheel into endless  touring. Rafferty himself claimed he was near a nervous breakdown when he quit the band in the early 1970s.  He returned to record a couple more albums in 1974 and 1975, but the magic wasn’t there and internal tensions with the band ground the whole thing to a halt.  During this same period, Rafferty began to see the record companies as the enemy. Dickson described his state of mind as, “He was obsessed with keeping control and he didn’t trust anybody in the music business.  Also, he saw himself as a serious writer, which indeed he was, but being a pop star is a Faustian pact. You cannot start dictating the terms two years in.” Rafferty developed a reputation as being an artist who was difficult to work with.

    There were more fine albums and hit songs, notably Night Owl which scored hits with the title track and Get It Right Next Time that were compared to the best works of Steely Dan.  Later came 1980s Snakes and Ladders and 1982s Sleepwalking.  Indeed, the Greatest Hits album released in 1997 is full of songs that one will hear and say, “Oh, that was Gerry Rafferty!”  The City to City track Whatever’s Written In Your Heart is a good example of a song so good it generated a fan letter from another notable songwriter, James Taylor.  Stuck in the Middle With You and Baker Street kept the royalties coming in (especially after Quentin Tarantino used the former in a pivotal scene in his movie Reservoir Dogs) leaving Rafferty with the income necessary to live a good life while trying to not be famous.  No matter how good his records were, he refused to tour behind them. Michael Grey, head of PR at United Artists characterized this phase of Rafferty’s career:  “He was very guarded, but I could understand that. I had seen many sides of the record business by then. He was very sure of his own talent and equally suspicious of how it would be exploited.”  Even his daughter noticed how the success of Baker Street changed the game:  “When Baker Street became the hit that it was, adults changed towards me.  They smiled more, gave me bigger portions of food at school lunches, and I remember feeling how fake and phony people became.  Children see things as they really are.”

    Martha also thinks that feeling disillusioned with the music business made her father seek some form of inner spiritual peace.  For a time he lived with Martha in California studying the teachings of George Gurdjieff, a Russian born spiritualist. The search for inner peace did not keep him from drinking and by November of 2010, he was on life support in the hospital suffering from multiple organ failures.  He was able to recover enough to spend a last Christmas with Martha’s family and to have an extended conversation with his old friend John Byrne. Byrne recalled, “Gerald and I blethered, laughed and shot the breeze for a good five or six hours non-stop. He was perfectly coherent and ready to quit this world for the next.  Two days later, he peacefully slipped away.”

    Byrne gave the eulogy at his friend’s requiem mass on January 21, 2011 attended by some 400 mourners including then Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond.  A tribute concert the next month featured Martha, Dickson, Rab Nokes, Jake Bruce and The Proclaimers. His home town renamed a street Gerry Rafferty Drive.  It seems the songwriter who didn’t want to be all that famous will be remembered for more than must the haunting saxophone hook in Baker Street.

    There are aspects of Gerry Rafferty’s story that don’t exude optimism, yet we can go back and leave the last word to him:  “And you wake up it’s a new morning – The sun is shining it’s a new morning – And you’re going, you’re going home.”  If you have ever heard Baker Street (and I am willing to bet you have), you now have Ravenscroft’s sax line stuck in your head. If this triggers a couple of choruses or Stuck in the Middle With You, I am sure Rafferty wouldn’t mind.


Top Piece Video:  After all of this talk about Baker Street, you didn’t think I wasn’t going to ear worm you with it, did you?