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Steve Key: Songs/Lyrics

Record Time (33, 45, 78)

(Steve Key)
May 29, 2012
Steve Key Songs (BMI)
First released on my 1992 live CD, "Record Time". This version was recorded at a house concert in Maryland, May 2002, and released on the CD entitled "House Blend". Recorded and mixed by Heidi Gerber.

I've told audiences many times that this song got started around the time of my 33rd birthday. I thought about having a 33 and a third birthday party for myself, so I went to my local record store (Tower Records), but discovered to my horror that my record store no longer sold records!

Might be some truth in that, although if I was really shopping for party decorations, I would've gone to Goodwill. Truth is this song got started on the road. It was a cadence, a rhythm I pounded out on the steering wheel:

RAT-a-tat, RAT-a-tat, RAT-a-tat-TAT!
THIRty-three, FORty-five, SEVenty-EIGHT!

I was playing the song out even before I had all the verses down. It was a joy to play, an anthem, the story of my life:

"I'm spinning like an old turntable, three speeds going nowhere fast.
I hesitate at the door to the future, holding on to my bittersweet past."

A sad lyric, a downbeat assessment of the Rust Belt America I was seeing on my way to gigs in upstate New York, eastern Pennsylvania, northern Ohio. And yet sung in a major key, rocking out like Bruce in "Born to Run" or "Born in the USA". A celebration of my depression. Or a strong declaration that sounds upbeat.

I began listing all the things that were going out of style in my lifetime:

"Me and all of the percolators, Me and all of the rotary phones..."

My then-wife Karen came up "rotary phones". I had written "dial-face phones". Rotary to me meant a service organization, or a traffic roundabout. But rotary was perfect and accurate.

"Me and all of my vinyl records -- warped and scratched and out-of-date -- 33, 45, 78."

I was in my early 30s, and yet I felt old, late for the party, born at the wrong time, going around the folk circuit whose heyday had long passed. The ghost town that was Greenwich Village in the 80s, faded photographs at Folk City of Dylan and other 60s icons who had playing that venue, under a different owner, in a previous location.

I released a vinyl record, "Between Trains" in 1988, just as vinyl records were being phased out of record stores. The cassette version of the album didn't sound good to me -- too fast, tinny. So here I am on the Rust Belt, trying to get people to come see a folksinger they've never heard of, to buy my vinyl record and tinny cassette.

It's amazing I got as far as I did. "Record Time" got me there. Financial support from my wife kept me going in the four years I spun my wheels on the folk circuit, until "Record Time" found the ears of a singer who had the power to get that song out to millions of people, and finally bring me some measure of financial and artistic success.

More on that later, but now, back to the song, second verse:

"I got friends from my old hometown, we used to work at the Hometown News.
They got houses in a couple of cities, and I'm still singing the Hometown Blues."

My friends, Rick and Anita, recognized themselves in the song first time they heard it at a show on Cape Cod. We worked together at Meredith Newspapers in Cupertino, California. Rick was the editor of the Milpitas Post, my old hometown newspaper, but he got fired after a few months. Three months later, I got fired too. We had the bad luck of being hired by the same managing editor, and when he left, the new managing editor eventually brought his own team in.

But I stayed friends with Rick and Anita over the years. Rick became a PR guy for AT&T. Anita worked in book publishing, editing textbooks. They moved around, invested in real estate, which is what that line about houses in a couple of cities is about. They lived in Takoma Park MD at the same time Karen and I lived in DC, so we saw them often in the early '90s.

"I hear talk about a Great Depression, I hear the drummin' of the war machine..."

As I'm writing the song, the Gulf War under Bush the Elder is going on. Big victory rallies, supposed to make up for the way Vietnam veterans were scorned upon coming home. I remember playing in Pittsburgh, at an outdoor show where I was upstaged by the victory parade nearby. Another metaphor.

"I wonder if I'm stuck in the past, or if it all repeats, just like a CD..."

A calculated laugh line. Later, in the Bush the Lesser years, I tried adding another laugh line right after that:

"...or the Bush presidency."

Back to life on the road...

"I'm following the railroad line, another job in another town.
I skip around in record time and try not to notice the candle burn down."

I wonder if anybody caught the joke of skipping around, like a record skipping. Probably too subtle.

And here's the title of the song, buried in the third verse. I'm still a folksinger at heart, inspired by Dylan's "Rainy Day Women 12 & 35", which most people know as "Everybody Must Get Stoned". So I resisted calling the song "33, 45, 78", but that's the hook. People would come up after the show and mention the song, getting the numbers all wrong. "I like that 35, 48, 69, or whatever."

I entered two songs in the 1991 Kerrville New Folk / Emerging Songwriters contest: "Record Time" and "Change for You". Forty finalists were selected to play the main stage of the festival and compete for the top six awards. Out of hundreds of contestants, I got one of the 40 spots.

Back in my San Francisco days, circa 1981, I placed second in a songwriting contest. You had to write a song about San Francisco, so I wrote one called “Music in the City”. I was the only one who played solo. The winner had a song called “Cable Car Operator”, and he brought an actual cable car driver onstage, complete with the ringing bell. You gotta have a gimmick. I thought about that as I considered how to play the Kerrville contest. The day of the show, I decide to recruit Doug Clegg to play violin on “Change for You” and mandolin on “Record Time”. Doug suggested bringing in Washtub Jerry, who wore a gigantic cowboy hat while standing on a washtub and strumming a single bass string. Jerry rehearsed with us, deciding that he could do “Record Time” but not the ballad, “Change for You”.

The judges were Fred Small, David Olney and John Herald. I was surprised to hear my name announced first among the six winners.

My friend from New York, Josh Joffen, was among the mainstage performers that year. He learned the song and performed it in the Fast Folk Musical Revue 10th Anniversary, six shows over three nights at the Bottom Line nightclub in New York. It was February 1992, the weekend before the Grammy awards, and Grammy nominee Kathy Mattea was in New York, hanging out with Julie “From a Distance” Gold and Fast Folk’s Christine Lavin. They brought her to the Bottom Line show on the second night of the run. Kathy was going to leave at intermission, and was standing at the door when she decided to listen to the first song in the second set – Record Time.

I performed the song on the first night of the Fast Folk Revue, then went up to Vermont to open a concert for Cheryl Wheeler. I flew back to DC, where my then-wife Karen was waiting at the gate. She never did that – I wondered who died. Instead, she came bearing news that Kathy Mattea had called, expressing her interest in recording my song. We met Kathy a month later at The Birchmere nightclub, where we first heard her perform my song. She recorded it that year for her “Lonesome Standard Time” album on Mercury/Polygram. It wasn’t a single, but it was heard by many people around the world, and remains my biggest success to date.
RECORD TIME (33, 45, 78)
by Steve Key ©1992

I'm spinning like an old turntable
Three speeds, goin' nowhere fast
I hesitate at the door to the future
Holdin' on to my bittersweet past
Me and all of the percolators
Me and all of the rotary phones
Me and all of my vinyl records
Warped and scratched and out of date
33, 45, 78

I got friends from the old hometown
We used to work at the hometown news
They got houses in a couple of cities
I'm still singin' the hometown blues
Me and all of the drive-in movies
Me and all of the afternoon papers
Me and the free-form radio
Fading in and out of date
33, 45, 78

I hear talk about a great depression
I hear the drummin' of the war machine
I wonder if I'm stuck in the past
Or if it all repeats, just like a CD

I'm following the railroad line
It's another job in another town
I skip around in record time
And try not to notice the candle burn down
Me and all of the Rust Belt workers
Me and all of the hot type printers
Me and all of the family farms
Auctioned off and out of date
33, 45, 78
Singin' oh-oh, the percolator
Oh-oh, the rotary phone
All of my vinyl records
Warped and scratched and out of date
I'm just a 33, 45, 78