So-Called Liberated Days

July 2015

I have seen Rod Stewart live seven times: Calgary in 1984; Wembley Stadium in London in 1986 (“it’s not raining”, but it was); Brighton in 1987 (he danced with his mom whilst singing “My Girl” by the Temptations); Calgary again in 1988; Edinburgh in 2002 (“Scotland is my spiritual home”); The 02 in London in 2013; and last week on Prince Edward Island. There are a number of reasons why I keep going to see him. In part, it is a very small way of saying thank-you for all the times when listening to him has salvaged a bad day and improved a good one. In part, it is because he is now seventy-years-old, and yet he still clearly likes his job and he is still clearly having fun (worthy aims at any stage, I would say, but perhaps especially so when your twenties and thirties are firmly in the past). In part, of course, it is the voice, which so convincingly delivers such a wide range of emotion, from callousness and exuberance, through anger and whimsy, to hurt and self-deprecating mockery. In 2013, Elton John summed it up. Stewart, he said, is “the greatest singer that rock ‘n’ roll has ever had”.

What I think is sometimes overlooked, though, and one of the primary reasons I have been an enthusiastic fan for almost forty years, is Stewart’s ability as a song-writer, and particularly as a lyricist. Take “The Killing of Georgie” from his 1976 album, A Night on the Town. The song is about a young gay man who is murdered. Stewart, of course, is British, but the song is set in America in the “so-called liberated days” of the mid-1970s. Georgie is homosexual, and one afternoon he tells his parents that he needs love “like all the rest”. They don’t understand. His mother cries. His father is angry. They cast him out, “a victim of these gay days it seems”. George travels by Greyhound Bus to New York City, where he settles down and soon meets people who are far more sympathetic, including the narrator: “He said he was in love, I said I’m pleased”. But one summer evening, as George and his new love walk home arm in arm from the theatre, they are ambushed by a New Jersey gang. A fight ensues, Georgie’s head hits a sidewalk cornerstone, and he is killed.

The lyric is notable for a number of reasons. It is a ballad, as Stewart makes plain from the outset: “A story comes to mind of a friend of mine”. It covers a great deal of ground concisely, and within a solid structure of eighteen stanzas. But whereas ballads are usually written in quatrains (four verse lines) with a rhyme scheme such as abab or aabb, Stewart writes “The Killing of Georgie” in tercets (three verse lines) typically rhyming aab, a technique that puts a decisive emphasis on the opening couplet, and that quickens the overall pace of the lyric, as we (and Georgie) are hurried on after three lines rather than four:

Pa said, “There must be a mistake;
How can my son not be straight;
After all I’ve said and done for him?”

Stewart exploits a variety of different rhymes (including “end”, “internal”, and “slant”) that repeatedly energize the lyric, and that produce some of the most memorable lines he has written: “Youth’s a mask but it don’t last, / Live it long and live it fast”. Bigotry and gang violence kill Georgie, but the narrator eschews sentimentality: “Georgie’s life ended there, / But I ask, ‘Who really cares?’”.

Above all, of course, “The Killing of Georgie” carries what Stewart himself has called “a pro-gay message”. In the “so-called liberated days” of the mid-1970s, people were still attacked and killed in the street because of their sexual orientation, as the song relates. Forty years later, in what we might like to think of as our own liberated days, progress has unquestionably been made, including in the last few months when the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, and the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League signed Michael Sam, the first openly gay player in professional football. But it takes only a cursory glance at the hostile reaction to these two events in some quarters to see that we are still a long way from the acceptance and mutual respect that Stewart’s lyric asks us to imagine:

Georgie boy was gay I guess,
Nothin’ more and nothin’ less,
The kindest guy I ever knew.

When Stewart wrote the lyric, he reports that there were people at his record label who were “medieval enough” to fear that it might alienate some of his heterosexual following. “Stuff’em”, he replied. “It’s one of the songs that I’m proudest of” (Rod: The Autobiography (New York: Crown, 2012), p. 204).