Saturday Single No. 57

Originally posted February 16, 2008

When CDs began to take over the world in the late 1980s and music lovers rushed to replicate on disc as much of their record collections as they could afford, I sat it out, as I’ve indicated here before. My reticence was partly through an allegiance to vinyl and partly economic: I didn’t want to spend the money for a CD player.

But it was fun watching friends make their decisions as to which records to duplicate digitally. Some of my friends – those who saw music as a topic of study as much as they saw it as a source of pleasure – based their new collections on critical assessment and acclaim. They’d buy, say, London Calling by the Clash, saying, “I know I don’t listen to it very often, but everyone says it’s really good,” with everyone being the critics, of course.

Others would base their purchases of previously heard music on something else entirely, buying, say, the Bee Gees’ Two Years On, one of the group’s lesser-known (and critically less-successful) albums from the early 1970s, noting simply that it was music they liked, no matter what others might think.

(The two albums referenced above do fall into those categories for me: I’ve never listened much to the Clash – and own none of its music on CD – even though I recognize the group’s influence; and I love Two Years On even as I recognize it as a little bit light of weight.)

New music continued to be released, of course, even as previous collections were being reconstructed, leaving the music lover several rivers from which to fish: Critically acclaimed music that wasn’t necessarily emotionally satisfying, emotionally satisfying music that the critics hadn’t necessarily liked, music that was both satisfying and praised (one wishes there were more of that), and new stuff that could eventually go either way. Decisions, decisions!

This all comes to mind with a recent CD purchase: Down Two Then Left by Boz Scaggs, the 1977 follow-up to Silk Degrees, his massively popular and highly praised 1976 release. When it came out, Down Two didn’t find the success its predecessor had. But then, how could it? Silk Degrees had spent fifty-three weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 2. (Keeping it from the top spot were Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive and Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life.) And Silk Degrees spun off three hit singles: “It’s Over” went to No. 38, “Lido Shuffle” reached No. 11, and “Lowdown” went to No. 3.

Down Two Then Left didn’t do nearly as well. It spent eleven weeks on the Billboard album chart, reaching No. 11, and none of its singles reached the Top 40. “Hard Times” peaked at No. 58 during an eight-week run on the Cash Box chart. There may have been other singles, but I’m not going to dig for them this morning. It’s enough to say that the record was not a big hit.

Nor was it loved by the critics, who’d fallen all over themselves praising Scaggs the year before when Silk Degrees came out. I recall reviews of the newer album that said that it was dry and emotionally barren, that Scaggs was trying so hard for an air of cool detachment that he was not just distant from the listener but almost absent. Some pretty harsh things were said. Some of them had some validity: the record does sound a little closed off emotionally. Silk Degrees had its moments of ice, of course: “Lowdown” is about as detached emotionally as a song about a love interest can get. But it also had some heat, too, as in “Georgia,” and some tenderness in its closer, “We’re All Alone.” (That last was a Top Ten hit for Rita Coolidge in 1977; I much prefer Scaggs’ version.)

Still, with all its flaws, I like Down Two Then Left, and I greeted it with a smile when it came in the mail two weeks ago. I don’t like it any better than Silk Degrees, which is one of my all-time favorite albums. But I like it a lot more than the critics thought I would when it came out. It carries for me an emotional impact far beyond the touch of the music.

Why? Because on a Friday evening in January 1978, I went out shopping in Monticello, about six weeks after I’d moved to town and started work at the newspaper there. I wandered down Broadway, the city’s main street. Many of the businesses I stopped at that evening are now gone, as the city has become more suburban and the chain stores have proliferated closer to the freeway than to downtown. But on that evening in 1978, Monticello was still a small town and would be so for a few years yet.

One of the stores I stopped at was of a type that can only exist in a small town, I think. It offered small appliance repair, some hardware and some household goods. And it had a small selection of LPs, an inventory of maybe two hundred records. I pawed through them and found Down Two Then Left. I’d read a little bit about it, and I’d liked Silk Degrees, so I bought it. And something about that purchase made me feel somehow as if Monticello was becoming my home. I’ve never been able to figure out why, but every time I’ve put the LP on the stereo over the years, its music has carried with it a sense of how it felt to belong there in Monticello.

It’s always been a nice feeling, and it’s one that came again earlier this month when I slid the CD into the player. The sounds that came out were the sounds of a winter evening in a new hometown a little more than thirty years ago. There’s some wholesome comfort there, and if I’ve learned one thing about living, it’s that when wholesome comfort comes, it should be embraced. That’s why “Still Falling For You,” the first track on Down Two Then Left, is today’s Saturday Single.

Boz Scaggs – “Still Falling For You” [1977]


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