Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #31

Michael Johnson – Bluer Than Blue

One of my closest friends growing up was Kirk Boutilier. We were distant cousins on my mother’s side, but never knew that until we were adults and the day of my first marriage put Kirk in a room with my grandmother, who connected the dots between his arm of the clan and mine. Kirk could always make me laugh, and he had (at least in my eyes) a sort of effortless-appearing cool. Kirk could get me to do things I wouldn’t otherwise have done just by suggesting them, like trick-or-treating in drag when we were 15. I expect he never did anything like that again (I can’t make the same claim): a dress and wig made him into his mother’s doppelgänger, which was commented on at pretty much every door we knocked on.

Robert Barrie was my main music-loving friend, and still is to this day, but Kirk lived just up the road from my house while Robert was a car ride away. So it was with Kirk that I would sometimes play my records, although neither of our dads was particularly fun to be around so it didn’t happen a lot. We would bounce around to The Cars’ “Just What I Needed”, make up silly alternate lyrics to songs like Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana (At the Copa)”, practise our falsettos to Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing” and our air sax to Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”, and channel our inner musical theatre nerds to “Grease”.

I owned all those records on 45, and tons more. I always played the “B” sides, and found some great tunes that way. But I never read the songwriting credits on either side of the record with any sense of purpose, so I missed out on the fact that, in 1978, I owned three discs where the “A” side was written by the same guy. Randy Goodrum was the pop genius who composed Anne Murray’s #1 “You Needed Me” (likely bought by my mother then merged into my collection), Gene Cotton’s Top 20 “Before My Heart Finds Out” and, my personal favourite, Michael Johnson’s Canadian Top 10 “Bluer Than Blue”. 

Kirk called “Bluer Than Blue” the most romantic song of all time. He was being sarcastic, but I wonder now if he wasn’t accidentally right. Having been through a few painful breakups, I have a new perspective on this song. The verses are full of positivity, as the narrator talks about all the things he’ll be able to get done once this woman is out of his life. He can watch his favourite TV shows, get more sleep, have all-night parties (not sure how those last two are supposed to work together), read more. Things are looking good. But the truth comes out in the chorus: he’s actually devastated by the end of the relationship, and life without her is going to be, yes, bluer than blue.

It opens with a melancholy piano, followed by rising strings, and that’s pretty much the song, with some low-key guitar, a gentle but steady backbeat on the chorus and an occasional mild drum flourish. Johnson begins with a matter-of-fact recitation of his future single life, but his voice starts to change halfway through the verse, and the sadness comes through in the chorus. He regains control for the next verse, but there’s a bit of a quiver, and then we’re back to his misery in the chorus. It’s an uncomplicated vocal for an uncomplicated pop song, but it’s amazingly affecting, and I get chills in places. Just a lovely way to spend 2:59.

Goodrum had broken through as a songwriter in 1977 with England Dan & John Ford Coley’s “It’s Sad to Belong” (yep, I owned that one, too), and he’s still at it, though 1978 was probably his commercial peak. Of his future compositions, I remember DeBarge’s sweetly sad “Who’s Holding Donna Now”, and have mad love for the cheesefest that is Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie”. Johnson, who passed away in 2017, had another minor pop hit in 1979 before moving on to a run of country hits in the late 1980s, and was releasing new music up to 2012.

My friendship with Kirk abated some as we charted different courses on reaching high school, reconnecting when we worked together for a summer at 19, then again at our 10-year high school reunion at 28. That one lasted a few years until the inevitable drift apart brought about by (1) distance and (2) us being men. Contact had been infrequent over the years when I learned of his terminal illness, and then, before we could reconnect once more, he was gone, only 52. I don’t look on this as a missed opportunity: our friendship was firmly in both our rear view mirrors, and he had people he loved and who loved him in the now that needed his focus, not some ghost from his past. But I miss him, of course, in a way I couldn’t when he was still alive and there was a chance that we would have one more run as close friends. He’s another of those people and moments who become alive to me again through music. To paraphrase Rick Blaine, we’ll always have “Bluer Than Blue”. I think Kirk would smile at that. I certainly do.

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