Recently, Rod Stewart re-released a newly imagined version of his 1978 classic, “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” with multi-platinum group DNCE. They premiered the single together on Aug. 27 at the MTV Video Music Awards, introducing Rod Stewart to a new generation.
While “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” is one of his signature songs, peaking at No. 1 in six countries, some of his other songs stand out for their lyrics and ability to raise social awareness. What many don’t know is that 40 years ago, Stewart wrote the first commercially successful pop song to address gay rights.
I have seen Rod Stewart live seven times: Calgary in 1984; Wembley Stadium in London in 1986; Brighton in 1987; Calgary again in 1988; Edinburgh in 2002; London in 2013; and on Prince Edward Island in 2015.
There are a number of reasons why I keep going to see him. In part, it’s my small way of saying thank-you for all the times when listening to him has salvaged a bad day or improved a good one. In part, it’s because he is now 72 years old, and yet still loves his job and is still having fun. These are worthy aims at any life stage, but especially when your 20s and 30s are firmly in your past.
In part, of course, it is his voice, which so convincingly delivers a wide range of emotion, from callousness and exuberance, through anger and whimsy, to hurt and self-deprecating mockery. Elton John summed it up in his acceptance speech at the 2013 BRITs Icon Award Show. Stewart, he said, is “the greatest singer that rock ‘n’ roll has ever had.”
What is sometimes overlooked, though, and one of the primary reasons I have been a fan for 40 years, is Stewart’s abilities as a song-writer, and particularly as a lyricist.
I teach and research 19th-century British literature for a living. But I have also spent time listening to and thinking about rock ‘n’ roll lyrics. Language is at the crux of both these projects, and it is a short step from one to the other. Great poems, like great lyrics, work in strikingly diverse ways. But at some level both almost invariably challenge set assumptions and break new ground – literary, political and social.
Take “The Killing of Georgie” from Stewart’s 1976 album, A Night on the Town. The song is about a young gay man who is murdered in the “so-called liberated days” of the mid-1970s. Stewart is British, but he sets the song in America, where he has lived full-time for more than four decades. “The Killing of Georgie” is the first successful pop song with a gay man at the centre of the story. Though the BBC initially rejected the track, it eventually hit the top of the charts in the U.K., the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands.
In the song, Stewart normalized gayness. One afternoon, Georgie tells his parents he needs love “like all the rest.” They don’t understand. His mother cries. His father is angry. They cast him out, “a victim of these gay days it seems.”
George travels by Greyhound Bus to New York City, where he settles down and soon meets people who are far more sympathetic, including the narrator: “He said he was in love, I said I’m pleased.”
But one summer evening, as George and his new love walk home arm in arm from the theatre, they are ambushed by a New Jersey gang. A fight ensues, Georgie’s head hits a sidewalk cornerstone and he is killed.
The lyric is notable for a number of reasons. It’s a ballad, as Stewart makes plain from the outset: “A story comes to mind of a friend of mine.” It covers a great deal of ground concisely, and within a solid structure of 18 stanzas.
But whereas ballads are usually written in quatrains (four-verse lines) with a rhyme scheme such as abab or aabb, Stewart writes “The Killing of Georgie” in tercets (three-verse lines), typically rhyming aab, a technique that puts a decisive emphasis on the opening couplet, and that quickens the overall pace of the lyric, as we (and Georgie) are hurried on after three lines rather than four:
Pa said, “There must be a mistake;
How can my son not be straight;
After all I’ve said and done for him?”
Stewart exploits a variety of different rhymes (including “end,” “internal,” and “slant”) that repeatedly energize the lyric and produce some of the most memorable lines he has written: “Youth’s a mask but it don’t last, / Live it long and live it fast.”
Gay rights not yet won
Bigotry and gang violence kill Georgie, but the narrator eschews sentimentality: “Georgie’s life ended there, / But I ask, ‘Who really cares?’”
Above all, “The Killing of Georgie” carries what Stewart has called “a pro-gay message,” as he put it in his 2012 autobiography, Rod.
In the “so-called liberated days” of the mid-1970s, people were attacked and killed in the street because of their sexual orientation, as the song relates.
Forty years later, in what we might like to think of as our own liberated days, progress has unquestionably been made on issues such as same-sex marriage and gay and transgender rights.
But we now live in a world with Donald Trump as a national leader, and it takes only a cursory glance at recent headlines to see that these topics continue to provoke hostility and backward-thinking. Among many other roles, great art and great lyrics frequently remind us of the battles that still need to be fought until they are won. We are a long way from the acceptance and mutual respect that Stewart asks us to imagine:
Georgie boy was gay I guess,
Nothin’ more and nothin’ less,
The kindest guy I ever knew.
When Stewart wrote the lyrics, he says there were people at his record label who were “medieval enough” to fear that it might alienate some of his heterosexual following. “Stuff’em,” he replied. “It’s one of the songs that I’m proudest of.”