Gerry Rafferty and the Inanity of Fame

It's so damn sad to think of anyone spending years in a room, depressed and drinking and hoping for a better life. But it's worse when it is someone you thought "had it all." Reading about the death of Gerry Rafferty, whom you had to know if you turned on a radio once in the late '70s, was like poring over the news of someone Dickens might have conjured up. And once again proves that being famous, rich, or beloved by millions is hardly the life that we think it is.

Rafferty, who passed on Tuesday at age 63 from alcoholism that had ravaged his liver, was one-half of the infamous duo Stealers Wheel, whose anthem "Stuck In The Middle With You" was sung in the manner of a Dylan song because the duo was mocking how Mr. Dylan made everything folky sound so damn serious ("Clowns to the left of me /Jokers to the right"). But if you watch the myriad YouTube videos of young Gerry, with his dark glasses and his unsmiling mouth, you get the sense that being in the limelight was hardly what he wanted to happen.

Rafferty defined multi-talented: a fascinating lyricist, musical savant who wrote relevant and often sad stories about those around him. Gerry Rafferty was everything nearly all of today's pop stars aren't (do you need a list?). On that note, I think a lot of us wander by street musicians who aren't courted by conglomerate labels and think "Man, I hope you are going to make it big one day." But what if he doesn't? What if that isn't the case and the stoop is his big, happy, momentous break?

I found out last night that Rafferty released a comeback CD in 2009--more than a dozen gorgeous songs that I, a well-informed media comber, didn't even know existed. When he was interviewed a few years back at his home in Scotland, he explained that his slight outpouring over the years (a few songs, a few vocals, producing one record) was wholly due to his depressive state. It turned out that being famous and pushed/prodded/pumped for more (and Stealer writes about it in the song "Star") was light years from a reality he'd imagined. And he didn't want any of it.

This wasn't a half-assed "George Michael"-style moaning. He didn't publicly declare how fame made his life bad, boo-hoo. It was more complicated--and this is where I learned about Rafferty's Dickensian life: In interviews for his 2009 comeback--ironically titled "Life Goes On"--the musician declared that his life started out a mess (a drunk father who beat him and his mother), moved into the phase where he fought with band members until he was forbidden to record solo (hello, lawyers), and then released "Baker Street," a single that brought him to superfame and so defined 1978 for tens of millions that till death he continued to make $125k a year from it alone. (Rafferty wasn't living on the streets.)

He recorded for several more years after the success of his first LP, then stopped; got married and divorced in quick order; and tried to fight his way back into art by recording songs that, like the fast-paced "Right Down The Line" had been kept in people's hearts and playlists because they simply too good, and never seemed dated.

I didn't know what happened to Rafferty until now; posts like this one appear when the Twittersphere spends more than a day spitting out knowledge and wishes about a singer most of us didn't think about. But he wasn't neglected. Tarantino used "Stuck In The Middle" in that big bloody moment inside Reservoir Dogs. And when a Rafferty tune started, whether on Sirius, in a department store, on a DVD, or my Mom's cassette player, I wondered if there was a Gerry Rafferty out there producing tracks for newbies like so many other 12-hit-wonders after tiring of music business vultures. Yes, Gerry Rafferty was an icon and an idol for many generations; I learned this by browsing the thousand garage-band cover versions of "Baker Street" on every video site imaginable. No, Gerry Rafferty did not have a career during these undefined decades. It appears he was just trying to rise from a stupor.

I am left with a burning question. If he'd had a lesser fame like that of Steve Forbert, who in the 70's went gold with a single ("Romeo's Tune" or "Meet Met In The Middle of the Day"), would Rafferty have been able to live like Stevie and record a CD every year, change genres at will--Forbert is a kind of elder statesman in Nashville now--and keep doing what he loved most?

I can hope that would not have been drinking.

[Ending on a happy note: Take a sweet look at how much people adored Gerry Rafferty and watch this 2-minute random short film called Gerry Rafferty Takes Up The Bongos.]

--Richard Laermer is the author of the book "2011: Trendspotting for the Next Decade."