“Stranger on the Shore,” Mr. Acker Bilk’s evocative clarinet piece that topped both British and American charts in 1962, has some truly-mournful qualities to it, but to one woman, it’s the saddest song of all. It starts with a slumber party, and then:
Once the lights were out, we kept the radio on — very softly — while the get-together continued downstairs. I heard lots of songs on the radio that night, but for some reason “Stranger On The Shore” stuck in my brain, attaching itself to our musings on what adults did at parties and what it would be like when we grew up. We had all sorts of plans and ideas. And all of that talk was infused with the Acker Bilk music on the transistor radio.
How does so much stuff get wrapped up in an old song? Well, it does. I’m sure there’s some kind of psychological, sound-memory thing firing off between my dendrites, but I can’t help but think there’s more to it than just some scientific explanation.
I’ve had the best of all possible lives (well, except for the money part). I’ve done things that I could’ve never imagined at 10 years old while listening to a scratchy-sounding transistor radio on a Friday night in the winter of 1962. I’ve gone way beyond the wife and school teacher I thought I was destined to be.
Still, I keenly remember the visions of what adult life would be like. And reality is so, so different. Not many Holly Golightly-black cocktail dresses and witty, intelligent adult conversations at city-fied parties. But it’s more than that. There was something bigger. Some big adult secret world that I imagined as a child, only to grow up to find that world doesn’t exist the way I’d dreamed it would be. I don’t dwell on this stuff, believe me. Just when I hear that song.
I never went to any slumber parties, a perhaps-inevitable result of not having been born a girl, but I think I understand this. I have a similar reaction to Bert Kaempfert’s “Wonderland by Night,” which for me evokes a startlingly-exact mental picture. It’s a Friday night, somewhere between ten and midnight, and a convertible is crossing the bridge into downtown; reflections of the streetlights play on the pavement, on the hood, on us. Her little black dress has a row of sequins, and as we pass under the lights, they glow ever so slightly, but it’s nothing compared to the glow on her face as she smiles. “Now, you know we have to be back by….” She lets the sentence trail off.
“By when?” I ask.
She leans in slightly, faces me, crosses her legs. “Well, certainly before Thursday.”
I was, of course, too young to imagine how this narrative might have continued. But it seemed so very real, and one day not so long ago I contrived to be crossing a bridge into a city at the moment this song came up on the stereo and I swear I could actually almost see her. (And if I’ve ever seen you in an LBD, trust me: it was you I almost saw.) I don’t know what in Kaempfert’s arrangement, or in Charly Tabor’s trumpet solo, implanted these images, but they’re strong enough to have persisted for more than forty years.
And yes, there is sadness:
A lost, enticing, oh-so-cool adult world dreamed up by a 10-year-old girl listening to a song on a transistor radio in the lavender bedroom of her best friends in the winter of 1962. That loss is why the song is so sad to me.
I know what she means.