“When you’re alone and life is making you lonely/ you can always go/ Downtown.” – Petula Clark, “Downtown“
If I had to define myself to the bureaucracy of some dystopian society, I would crib from Lucretius’s didactic poem, On the Nature of Things (de rerum natura), and scribble epicurean musings on atoms. But if I were asked to define myself in simple terms, I would say, “I’m a Downtown Woman.”
The thing about downtown: it shaped and defined me. It shaped the lives of several generations of women. Downtown was the snappy place where we idled after work, browsed in record shops, borrowed Angela Thirkell’s books from the library, bought nylons and pastel cotton sweaters on sale, saw foreign films with boyfriends, rendezvoused at coffee shops, bought too many books at used bookstores, stocked up on sketchbooks, and considered the merits of tacky cat jewelry. One of the metal cats broke off the wire of an earring, and the polymer clay cat bracelet snapped in two. A friend said, “You don’t want everything to scream cats.” (Well, but why not?) We walked from shop to shop, enjoying the fresh air and watching the people. There was weather. It wasn’t like the malls.
One of the great pop songs of the 1960s is Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” At the time, I was too hip and insecure to admit I was a Petula Clark fan, but I sang along to “Downtown” on the radio. And I still bounce a bit when I hear it: “Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city/ Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty.”
Downtown promises so much. You might walk into that diner or bar and meet the man or woman of your dreams – or at the very least, a friend you haven’t seen in years. You might find the perfect-fitting faded jeans at the vintage clothing store that reeks of Patchouli oil, where supposedly famous actors and rock stars have shopped. You might consult the psychic above the vintage clothing store and communicate with your best friend who died young, the one person you really miss and want to talk to. Downtown is a fairy tale where dreams might (though probably won’t) come true. And after a day at the office, everybody needs to dream.
I may have owned a single of Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” I did buy a lot of singles – or 45’s, as they were also called – back in my Vinyl days. I bought many Beatles singles: “Strawberry Fields Forever,” with “Penny Lane” on the flip side – and were these ever recorded on any of their albums? There were booths in the record stores, where we could listen to a record before we bought it. The owners were tolerant, happy to rip the plastic off the albums for us. We tried not to scratch the records. If we bought a scratched record, we could return it.
“Downtown,” written by Tony Hatch, is an energetic ode to the downtown of the 20th century. In the context of 20th-century women’s pop and rock music, Petula Clark’s performance was important. Because where were all the women rockers and pop singers of the mid-20th century? There were Janis Joplin, The Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell – and does that sum it up? Please fill in the blanks… We listened mainly to men.
Sadly, Petula Clark is forgotten. According to Wikipedia (sorry, I can’t tell if this source is valid), “Petulia Clark became the first UK female artist to have a US No. 1 hit during the rock and roll era and the second in the annals of US charted music.” Doesn’t that deserve R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as Aretha would put it? Even though “Downtown” is the only Clark song I know, I do feel it is evocative of women’s lives.
It could, in fact, have been the soundtrack of our lives. It captures a particular time and space where many of us shopped and also hung out with friends and lovers. Lost to urban sprawl and the passage of time, downtown is a space we cannot recover.