Chart Week: February 18, 1984
Song: “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” – Elton John
Chart Position: #18, 17th week on the chart. Peaked at #4 the week of January 28, 1984.
A countdown from 1984, my favorite musical year! So many fantastic songs to pick from. “Thriller” had just hit the top 10 in its second week in the top 40, the fastest rising song since 1972. Several other monster hits from 1983 were still scattered throughout the chart. “Jump”, the first huge song of ’84, was at #2. Some soon-to-be 84 classics were making their way up the chart: “Footloose”, “New Moon on Monday”, and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”.
But this Elton John track was the one that struck me. That might seem odd given the songs listed above. But with the significance of this week, it’s probably not a surprise that this was the one that got me thinking last Sunday.
Often when you’re a kid, you don’t realize what your parents are going through. I knew times were tough for my mom in the early 80s. I didn’t really appreciate how tough they were, though, because I was a dumb kid.
After working at a mall jewelry store for seven months, she finally landed a job with a decent company in the spring of 1981. Because of debt that was already hanging over her head, additional money issues incurred through her divorce, and my dad being unable to pay child support because he was unemployed, that job wasn’t enough. We always had food, even if sometimes it was purchased at the cheapest grocery stores she could find. We lived in a decent neighborhood, although in a duplex. I was able to play three sports a year. I always had clothes, even if they were knockoffs of the cool brands. Still I knew providing all of this was a struggle for her.
Late in 1981 she added a second job, working five hours a night, five nights a week, for a telemarketing company. At some point she started selling Mary Kay cosmetics, too. She spent about a year trying to move makeup on the weekends to bring in some more cash before she realized the revenues didn’t match what it was costing her. The lady had to sleep at some point, right?
Through that nighttime job she made friends with a small group of coworkers. Eventually we were often spending weekend nights with this group of three or four people. They were all single, all struggling in one way or another. And they were all the kind of super cool adults who weren’t bothered by me being around. They included me in their conversations, solicited my opinions, asked about my interests.
I remember one particular night late in 1983 when the group was hanging out at our house. We were playing board games, talking, eating, and music was on in the background. This song came on and one of the guys said, “Oh! This is a great song!” as he walked over to turn the volume up a couple notches. There were nods from around the table.
Every time I’ve heard the song since then – over 34 freaking years ago! – I’ve thought of that comment in that moment. Every time.
I wish I could remember the conversation that came after, because I know this group of 30-somethings talked about the meaning of the lyrics. I probably can’t recall that conversation because it was all waaaaay beyond comprehension at 12. I’m sure I just sat there, pretending to focus on the game while secretly attempting to file away their comments for when they would have value for me.
For years that was a warm memory; a memory of a night where I was hanging out with my mom and her friends, when there was fun and laughter and companionship punctuated by a good song that brought everyone together.
My feelings about that moment changed when I got older. I realized that wasn’t a happy moment. My mom and her friends were all living less than their best lives. They were working second jobs. None of them were in relationships. They had come together to stave off frustration and loneliness. That was good, yes. But they all yearned for something more fulfilling. This song spoke to their disappointment.
After that revelation, I began thinking less about the warmth of that night and more about the pain in my mom’s life during that period. A time of darkness that would get much worse over the next year as she battled serious health issues throughout 1984.
But I also think about my mom’s resilience and strength. How she didn’t drop out of college because she got pregnant at 19. How she worked her ass off, at the expense of her physical and emotional health, to give me a decent childhood. And of 100 other things she did over the course of her life.
In that moment in late 1983, she had a long list of grievances with life. But, as she did so often, she chose to forge friendships, to seek and offer support, to set a good example for me, and to look ahead and believe that the blues would pass and better times would come.
I take a certain pride in knowing tons of meaningless facts about old music. So I was super upset on Sunday when I learned that Stevie Wonder played the harmonica on this song.
Now it is entirely possible I knew this back in the day and just forgot it. But it seems like that is something I would not have forgotten; come on, Stevie Fucking Wonder playing on an Elton John song? I was utterly shocked when I heard Casey Kasem talk about Stevie’s contribution here. What’s the point of taking up space in my head with all this garbage if I didn’t know/couldn’t recall something as big as that?
Seriously, it almost ruined my entire day.
1984 was a big year for Stevie Wonder harmonica cameos. Late in the year he joined Chaka Khan on her cover of Prince’s “I Feel For You.” Throw in the regrettable, but massive, “I Just Called To Say I Love You” and 1984 was the last monster year of Stevie’s career.
There were a lot of Elton and Stevie albums in my mom’s record collection. I hope she knew of Stevie’s presence on this song and it pleased her.