No Rattlesnakes: the Truth about the day I wrote 867-5309

Jenny, I Got Your Number: 867–5309
The song that saved my ass for awhile

Jenny don’t change that number…
Tommy Tutone

I wish there was a better story. What do you want to hear? 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 black, transvestite hooker. But I have to tell it the way it was. I’m so sorry.

There was a 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 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 something that had that primordial rock vibe.

I tried various chords, just sliding around like I always did. How about F# minor, D, A, B? That’s weird! That was kind of cool. It didn’t go to the “normal” five-chord, E, so it didn’t resolve, or lead back to the beginning again. It just hung there on the number two-chord, B. Ta, tata, ta-ta, tata. So I had this progression that was different; at least I’d never heard it before. It had a great rhythm and some unexpected tension. That number two chord just stuck out there like a rock-n-roll fist. In your face, dudes and dudettes. I played that a few dozen times, just digging it. When I hit on a groove, a chord progression, a riff, something I really like, I’ll play it for a long time. Just like I used to throw the baseball against the school wall and catch grounders: over and over, because I really dig it. Each time around, a subtle variation emerges. When my son James was eleven or twelve, he came into my studio when I was working on a mix and said, “You play the same song over and over.”

“No,” I replied, “there’s something different every time.”

It needed a b-section, a part that takes it somewhere else musically, that leads to the chorus. I went to the “five” chord, E, then to D, and A. E, A, D. And again, E, D, A, and then back to the progression. That rocked! I dug it. It’s not easy to find a good rock progression that hasn’t been beaten to death already.
The music of the sixties broke apart many rules, and the seventies were progressive, but by the eighties we were using all the known chord progressions 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. Post-millennial country and pop music has revived 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. Many of us have accordingly gravitated to old blues and music from other continents. But I digress. Let’s return to those golden days of yesteryear.

I played my new progression and b-section for awhile and scatted along vocally and out popped this telephone number over the main progression. 8-6-7- 5-3-0-9. 867–5309! Where it came from I’ll never know. Maybe it was sent from the same deranged, earth-bound angel who made the cop look the other way when my coke bindle dropped on the floor of the holding cell. The number didn’t make sense to me at that moment, but it sure fit the progression and the rhythm. My main method of writing is to let it all hang out, play and sing and see what happens. There’s not a lot of thought involved. I don’t even have a subject to write about most of the time. I simply strum and go blah-blah and decipher it later. It happens fast, at least when I’m getting the initial shape of the song. I’ll chew the fingernails of the details down to nubs later.

What would go on the b-section? Jenny. You can’t go wrong with a girl’s name in a song. I saw her: She was five-six with green eyes and long, wavy, auburn hair. She wore a bun-hugging mini-skirt and a tight t-shirt that showed it all off. She chewed gum. I knew Jenny, or I’d sure always wanted to. In any case, Jenny was and is a great rock-n-roll name and it fit perfectly on the b-section structure. I mean, Ashleigh or Whitney wouldn’t do. Ashleigh I got your number… Sorry. Ashleigh is the girl you take to a nice restaurant and Whitney might discuss literature with you, but for a drive in a convertible to get late-night fries and some smoochin’ on a moonlit Saturday night, it’s got to be Jenny. Jenny, dadada da-da. Cool. I wanted to record this progression.

This thing needed 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 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.
I went up to my shed in San Rafael, turned on the gear, and had a hit of pot. Pot: the music-maker. One hit and you’re golden for a couple of hours. Two hits, same. Three hits, you’re eating popcorn and watching “I Dream of Jeannie” reruns at two in the afternoon.

Pot is the most innocuous of all the mind-altering substances. The laws prohibiting its use are absurd. You can get a quart of vodka at any corner liquor store and get homicidally shit-faced in few minutes. Alcohol is responsible for thousands of drunk-driving deaths each year. Spousal and child abuse and crimes of passion of all kinds are fueled by booze. We are a drinking and fighting society. Those pot-smoking hippies are a bunch of fag commie environmentalists who should be taken out and shot! They’re un-American. Besides, the liquor lobby owns Congress. If people smoked pot, they might not spend as much on booze. Money might or might not be the root of all evil, but it’s certainly down there in the dirt.

Silly old pot’s about creativity, about getting into it. I took a little hit, just enough to make me frazzled and excited. I got the lounge drum machine crankin’. The beat, as always, rock 1. I added a bunch of reverb to it from my little cheap spring reverb until the snare sounded like a cannon being fired inside a high school gym. I played the progression some more. Shit, I needed a bridge. Quick: uhh…C# minor, E, F# minor A, B, repeat, back to the intro riff. Okay, that’s done. I worked out some internal riffs for the verse on the acoustic guitar, added some bass. I was ping-ponging tracks down like crazy on the TEAC four-track. I was in hyper-drive. This was gonna be great!

I got the intro riff on there with my Strat. It fit fucking perfectly. I started singing, scatting along. The track rocked. Jenny! dada-da-da. 867–5309, 867–5309. I needed to find a story for the song, a central meaning. But by then, the dang pot was wearing off. That’s the trouble with pot, which I later in life gave up completely—heck, thirty years is enough of anything—it wears off and the second buzz isn’t the same. It was about two in the afternoon, almost time for those “I Dream of Jeannie” reruns. I needed verse lyrics. Hmmm. What ? What?
Suddenly, there was someone in the open doorway. It was Jim Keller, the lead guitarist for Tommy Tutone. I’d met Jim through a friend recently. He was a very cool guy, well-educated and well-brought-up, from the high-toned side of northern New Jersey. He could swing a hammer as well as a six-iron and he was a good guitar player, too. He was a tall, dark, and handsome lady’s man. His band had been playing around and I’d seen them at Uncle Charlie’s. They had a deal on Columbia and also were supported by the Mendocino Brewing Company, one of the first successful micro-breweries. Now, that’s how to have a good gig: have it put together by a brewery. Cold beer and hot girls. Tommy Tutone had a solid ensemble sound and a very distinctive singer in Tommy Heath. Jim and Tommy together had a unique vocal blend.

Jim had been listening at the door. He dug it. 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 about melody, hook, and feel. The average person reacts to how a song strikes him, not to the complexities of the lyrics. There are of course exceptions, but in general, that’s how it is. 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.
“I just don’t know what the fuckin’ thing’s about,” I said to Jim.
In his sonorous, radio-jock voice, he said something that I’ll never forget: “Al,” he laughed, “It’s a girl’s number on a bathroom wall!”
Shit! Of course it was! How could I be so stupid 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 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, playing it over and over and over. It was funny and great. I laughed, “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.

At the end of the day part of me said, Oh well, that was a blast. I’ll write a real song tomorrow.

(excerpted from my book “867-5309/jenny, the song that saved me”..Charles River Press. At Amazon or Barnes & Noble hardbound or ebook ..OR !!!! Autographed from me to you directly -message me at Alex call on Facebook or email me at one or two give one or two to give as Christmas presents)

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