The real story of how I wrote 867-5309/Jenny

Jenny, I Got Your Number: 867-5309, the song that saved my ass
for a while

…Jenny don’t change that number…
(Tommy Tutone)

I wish there was a better story. Jenny was a girl that broke up with me and I wrote her number on the wall. Jenny was a good girl gone bad. Jenny was a transvestite hooker for the CIA. But I have to tell it the way it was. I’m so sorry.
There was a very pretty cherry-plum tree right out of a Japanese watercolor in my yard on Holly Street in Mill Valley. It was just passing out of bloom, leafing out, yet still drifting delicate white petals down on the light spring breeze. The sun was filtering through its green branches onto my shoulders as I sat on the wooden bench beneath it. Bees lazily worked the blossoms over. Does that sound Zen-like and pastoral enough for you? Yes, it was indeed just so.
I was out there strumming on my borrowed Ovation acoustic guitar looking for another song. The setting might have been bucolic, but I wasn’t writing in reflection of that exquisite moment. I was looking to fuckin’ rock out. I wanted to find something direct, something like the Stones or the Kinks. There was an old Stones’ song called Empty Heart that had a cool four-chord progression. I always liked that sort of thing. You Really Got Me by the Kinks was another old fave, a timeless rocker that’s akin to the archetypal rock’n’roll instrumentals that I dug when I was kid. I wasn’t looking to copy those songs, but I wanted to find something that had that primordial rock vibe.

The music of the sixties broke a lot of rules apart, the seventies were very progressive, but by the eighties we were using all up the known chord progressions up in our hit singles. It took Nirvana in ’92 to find new chords. Their dissonant but awesome music killed off a lot of eighties rockers for a while. Of course, post-millennial country and pop music has revived all those worn-out progressions and pounded them into that Elton-Cars-Aerosmith-meets-white-trash-pickups-with-skanky-hair-products-and-jeans- pretorn-in-China–music that now dominates the airwaves for those of us who haven’t gravitated to old blues and music from other continents. But I digress. Let us return to those golden days of yesteryear.

\What this thing needed was a distinctive guitar intro. My intro model always was, and still is, Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones. The opening lick gets you right into it. You know what it is instantly. What if I played the chords just up on the high strings? How could I make something that follows the progression? I just goofed around with the existing chords in the new position and bingo, I had it. I knew it as soon as I figured it out. Man, that was a great riff. I played that for a long time. 867-5309, 867-5309. Wow. I didn’t have a clue how to finish it, but I thought I’d go record it and see what happened.

It was pretty damn infectious even with just a name and number and no verse or bridge lyrics. The truth is, most hit pop songs are mostly about melody, hooks, and feel. The average person reacts to how a song strikes him or her, not to complexities of the lyrics. Just think about going to a rock concert. It’s the big hook lines, either lyrical or musical, that stand out, like 8-6-7-5-3-0-9-eeeyyyyeen!!! That’s what gets the fists pumping and the Bics flicking. Even with Bob Dylan, at first all you remember is It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

Jim Keller, the guitarist fro Tommy Tutone came by the studio to listen. I said, Jim, I just don’t know what the thing’s about.
Jim said something in his sonorous, radio jock voice that I’ll never forget.
Al, he laughed, It’s a girl’s number on a bathroom wall!
Shit! Of course it was! How stupid could I be not to see that? We both cracked up and blasted out some verse lyrics in about twenty minutes, finished the bridge with the I got it, I got it! bit, and sang it to the track. It was very fun and rockin’.
By around five we’d got it down on cassette and we headed off to my house. Dede was home with baby James. We put the cassette in the boombox in the kitchen and danced around, played it over and over and over. It was really funny and great. I laughed, well, no one will ever cut that, it’s about a girl’s number on the bathroom wall! But who cared, it was a really fun song.
So there was no actual Jenny with that phone number. No esoteric mathematics around the fact that 8675309 is a prime number. No story of unrequited love or evil stalking or a flirty girlfriend of the lead guitar player or any of the other tales I’ve heard over the years about the song. I suppose it would be more fun if there was.
The truth is it’s just a rather amorphous and vague song about a weird guy in a stall fantasizing about a good time. And it’s got a hook a first time fisherman could catch a Great White Shark on.
Who could have dreamed what would happen with this song? It wasn’t even supposed to be on Tommy Tutone’s record. It wasn’t going to be a single. It snuck out on the radio and stations got flooded with calls requesting it. It has had legs that have carried it, and me, many years down the road, and it looks to go a way further.
Maybe the secret is just to have good time and not worry about the end result so much.

It’s one thing to get a song right. It’s another to bleed it to death from over -examination. The great thing about the classic rock era is that there was a tremendous amount of artistic freedom, and rock music was still pretty fresh. Everything sounds so recycled now. I suppose that’s part of why the original 80’s music is still popular today, even among young people. Not made from overly recycled materials.
In any case, at the time I didn’t know it, but with 867-5309/Jenny I had written the song that would save my ass.
For a while.

( FOR THE REST OF THE STORY, buy the book at Barnes & Noble and Amazon online..hardbound (great cover) or for kindle and Nook

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2 Responses to The real story of how I wrote 867-5309/Jenny

  1. Valley Brown says:

    Okay, so it wasn’t about a real chick. I don’t care. It’s a fascinating look at how creativity can jump up and bite you. And it’s about the intrinsic beauty of sheer simplicity. Rock on, Alex.

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