I bought Tom Petty’s forth album when it released in 1981. It was just another cassette in a very long string of cassettes that I bought at the Hastings next to the Safeway where I worked in downtown Sweetwater that year. But it was one of the first cassettes (Much like RX5) I played on my prized new stereo that I bought to put in the first car that I paid for by myself, a burnt orange ’72 Chevelle with an all-black interior. I spent countless hours cruising the drag and the blacktop highways surrounding Sweetwater, Texas in that car. Hard Promises was one of my mainstays, an album I came back to time and again.
I never bothered to read the track list. I had a purist’s sense of album-oriented music. The tracks were irrelevant back then, the album was what I listened to. I know what the track names are now, of course. The Waiting was one of my all-time go-to songs. Eighteen and still chained to my mother and my siblings, waiting is what I was doing back then. It was the hardest part. A Woman in Love was also achingly true at the time. My fiancée betrayed me for another man, another boy-child with better prospects, not too long after I picked this album up. On replaying it after the breakup the song could make me weep almost uncontrollably.
The third song was a puzzle. I never could figure out the words of the chorus. No matter how many times I replayed the album, the best I could make it out to be was Don’t Deny You Watch Me:
Don’t deny you watch me never made sense when coupled to the verses, and I felt like an idiot a few years later when I finally thought to read the track list. It might have helped me to understand what the title was and why if I had known that Tom Petty had a job as a security guard/groundskeeper through the years he was putting the Heartbreakers together and writing the songs that would eventually make him world-famous. The story of talking to the security guard that he credits as the inspiration for the song seems apocryphal to me. It’s a nice story to explain away the presence of the song on the forth album. It doesn’t explain the emotion of wasting your time away at minimum wage as a Nightwatchman.
I woke up with those lyrics in my head today. I’m trialing Spotify right now, so I queued up the song and let Spotify create a playlist based on that song. After a couple of false starts, it did pretty good at serving me up songs I wanted to hear as I was preparing breakfast. Then I hear the familiar funky bassline of My City Was Gone and I started to pass the song over:
Then I stopped myself. The intro music that Rush Limbaugh pilfered and abused for more than a decade is free from his taint now, I said to myself. I will allow myself to enjoy the song as if I was hearing it for the first time again. I never knew of the song before I first heard it being used as intro music for the Rush Limbaugh show (Much as I had never heard AC/DC’s Gone Shootin’ before hearing it used as an intro for Jeff Ward’s talk show) I made a dedicated effort to understand what the show was about and why people thought it was funny back in the day, after I first dismissed the show because it replaced the talk show host I had been listening to on 590 AM in 1988. The previous show had been about Austin and subjects around Austin and it was relevant if not actually always interesting.
The Rush Limbaugh Show was propaganda crafted for a particular audience and worldview, and try as a might I could not enjoy the show or the callous bastard that was the host of the show. I did catch glimpses of his humor, briefly. It never stuck and never stood up to later analysis in the harsh light of reality. His television show was completely laughable and deserved to be cancelled. Few people even remember his abortive attempt to take over television, but it was one of the first real setbacks the man encountered. I wish he had encountered more of them, he might have become a better person.
For years, the bassline that began My City Was Gone was my personal warning to change stations, and it was the only part of Limbaugh’s show that I really ever paid attention to. I lamented his use of the song because it destroyed my enjoyment of it. As usual, with conservative politicians, the songs they pick are selected for the tones they set, and not for the actual messages that the songs contain.
Born in the USA is a lament, not a celebration. That didn’t stop Ronald Reagan from using it incessantly to promote his presidency. My City was Gone is also a lament. A denouncement of all things corporate and consumerist and new:
Hynde’s particular stolen mental property is Akron, Ohio. And granted, this is no Norman Rockwell painting small town: it’s a big city. Even so, the parts of Akron Hynde loved best had been altered beyond repair during her time away. “South Howard had disappeared,” she sadly notes. South Howard Street is the historic center of Akron. When she continues with “reduced to parking spaces,” she’s referring to how this city center was leveled to make room for an urban plaza highlighted by a trio of skyscrapers and a couple parking decks.songfacts.com
The picture the song paints is not the picture that Rush Limbaugh or his fans would embrace. It is bleak and cold and heartless, like their beliefs are, but they fail to recognize. If they understood this fact they would change their beliefs. That they remain unchanged is more of a testament to their lack of understanding than anything else they might say or do.
I played the song through no less than a dozen times today, and I’ve enjoyed it more each time. Nightwatchman lead me to this song again, I can’t deny it. I do watch you, conservatives. I do watch you, and I condemn you. You can never have real music with the ideals you profess. Real music has soul, and your hollow capitalist ideal knows no soul.
Featured image is a capture from the live performance of My City Was Gone linked in this article about the song.