From City Slickers to The Pretenders

Value this time in your life kids, because this is the time in your life when you still have your choices, and it goes by so quickly. When you’re a teenager you think you can do anything, and you do. Your twenties are a blur. Your thirties, you raise your family, you make a little money and you think to yourself, “What happened to my twenties?”
Billy Crystal, City Slickers

Billy Crystal’s character Mitch Robbins, in the movie City Slickers, is talking to his son’s elementary school class on Career Day. Mitch has not been doing very well at work. He is about to become 40 years old, and is feeling pretty depressed with his current circumstsances. Rather than talking about his work to the class as expected, he talks about the challenges the kids will experience during their lives as adults, decade by painful decade.

He describes the 30’s as the time your family begins, as the time you start to make some meaningful money, and as the time to you start to look back. What happened to my twenties? Were my teenage years really already that long ago?

Yes. When you’re 30, your teenage years were really that long ago.

It can be hard to be 30, but as so beautifully and furiously captured in The Pretender’s 1983 masterpiece “The Middle of the Road,” the fight does not need to be over. The passion and the pursuit can still beat with a thumping confidence and challenge in your chest. You can still rock and roll with the best of them.

The Pretenders were never supposed to be as successful as they were. Not to suggest they were not talented or dedicated, but their road to platinum, stadium sized success has been complicated, tragic and a little twisted.

Originally from Dayton, OH, Pretenders lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Chrissie Hynde went to England in 1973 to write about music. She was in early versions of bands The Clash and The Damned, and eventually connected with Martin Chambers (drums), James Honeyman-Scott (guitar), and Pete Farndon (bass).

Their first two albums were released in 1979 and 1981 to critical and commercial success, but success took its toll. Farndon had to be fired due to substance abuse and Honeyman-Scott died of a cocaine overdose two days later. Farndon died of a heroin overdose the next year.

Hynde and drummer Chambers found new people to join the band and released their third album Learning to Crawl in 1984. The lead single was “Middle of the Road.” At only 32 years old, Hynde had already experienced so much breathtaking success, terrible tragedy and enviable adventure. And now here she is, looking back on her tumultuous twenties. A band she does not know. Her friends are dead. It was time to get to work.

For me, drums are the lead instrument “Middle of the Road.” There is a killer guitar solo by new member Robbie McIntosh and a searing harmonica solo by Hynde, but it is the drums. The drums carry the song with gutter scraping rhythms and complex fills. And, in a glorious cacophony of snares and high hats, the song begins with the drums. Only drums. The drums sound oddly syncopated, almost out of time, until the rhythm is revealed and Chambers is soon joined McIntosh’s heavy electric guitar lead and Hynde backing herself up with counter melody harmonizing, in the fine tradition of every great Motown girl group that ever walked into Hitsville U.S.A.

“The middle of the road is trying to find me
I’m standing in the middle of life with my plans behind me
Well I got a smile for everyone I meet

As long as you don’t try dragging my bay
Or dropping the bomb on my street

Now come on baby
Get in the road
Oh, come on now
In the middle of the road, yeah.”

Hynde is pondering a lot. With her original band dead and gone, and a largely new collection of musicians on stage by her side, she could see a future, but for right now, she was in the middle. Don’t get in her way or interrupt her momentum, and she may just have a smile for you. It may be wry and a little bit dangerous, but the smile is there.

The guitar is rolling, repeating its rhythm with every line. We hear the momentary portentous howl of a harmonica as Chambers pounds the drums relentlessly at the end of the title line. The Motown backing vocals return. Quickly, we find ourselves again in the middle of the road.

“In the middle of the road you see the darndest things
Like fat guys driving ’round in jeeps through the city
Wearing big diamond rings and silk suits
Past corrugated tin shacks full up with kids
Oh, man I don’t mean a Hampstead nursery
When you own a big chunk of the bloody Third World
The babies just come with the scenery

Oh, come on baby
Get in the road
Oh, come on now
In the middle of the road, yeah”

Walking the streets of London, during this tragic in-between time of her band, Hynde is seeing poverty and wealth. Record executives concentrate on her, and not on the world around them. She wonders where everybody is. Why aren’t they seeing what she sees? They sure as hell aren’t in the middle of the road.

Chambers comes back pounding the drums, interlaced with a sweet, buzzy guitar. Two beats, and a jab from the guitar. Three beats, and two jabs from the guitar. Two beats, and then the guitar takes it from there, swinging wildly, tightly. Jacked up and singing sweet. The solo goes on for several measures, the drums pounding in the background until everything comes back to center and Hynde quietly counts “One, two, three…” and on up to six. In between each number we hear a sweetly picked guitar melody, quietly counting along with Hynde. The song gets quiet. We hear the backing vocals again. Almost in a whisper, Hynde comes back.

The middle of the road is no private cul-de-sac.”

There is a slight echo, and then Chambers powers his way back with two massive clashes and we are immediately back to the power and the fury.

“I can’t get from the cab to the curb
Without some little jerk on my back
Don’t harass me, can’t you tell

I’m going home, I’m tired as hell
I’m not the cat I used to be
I got a kid, I’m thirty-three
Baby, get in the road
Come on now
In the middle of the road

The paparazzi is on her back, and she just wants to go home. She is no longer 20 years old. She has a baby at home waiting for her. She knows what’s behind her, she thinks there’s something in her future, but for now. For right now, she is in the middle. Right there, in the middle of the road. She can’t get the words out fast enough. Get in the road. Yeah!

And then, she scowls. She growls. In one moment, she sounds like a cat crossing a cornered raccoon. Don’t get in her way because she will mess you up. She blows the harmonica in a low droning note until Chambers catches up with her on drums, and off together they go. She is wailing. She is scatting. She is fused one with the harmonica, and the rest of the band is just trying to keep up. Chambers performs feats of thrilling magic as the song eventually comes to a breathless stop.

The song is over. Catch your breath. Shake your head back and forth in appropriate awe and amazement of what you just heard. “Middle of the Road” is absolutely 1Perfect Song.

What happened to your twenties, you ask? Who cares. Welcome to your thirties.

“Middle of the Road”
Written by Chrissie Hynde
Performed by The Pretenders
Released November, 1983

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