Saturday, January 09, 2016

Song Talk #4 "Underground Parking Lot Attendant" (from Made of Sky, Mylodon Music,1999)

 I must confess that I have never worked as an underground parking lot attendant. When I wrote this song (many years ago), underground parking lot attendants were a bit more common than they are today.  I have no idea whether these folks experienced the kinds of thoughts and emotions described in the song –but it wouldn’t surprise me. It’s always been to me an archetype of the low-status job: an opportunity for the underqualified to be underpaid, underground, understimulated, and underappreciated, for unending boredom flavoured with exhaust fumes.  Nowadays, if the function has not been taken over by a machine, it is most likely to be filled by a recent immigrant whose otherness and lack of fluency in English or French make better jobs hard to obtain.  When I was a student, it’s a job I might well have applied for, but the horror of doing it for a lifetime was the trigger for the song. 

On one level, “Underground Parking Lot Attendant” is straight social commentary about what working-class people endure just to make a living.  People heading out in their cars give little thought to the nameless stranger who collects their parking fee:

Thirty-two floors of concrete between me and the sky
Carbon monoxide makes the brain cells die

There is also a sustained thread of courtroom imagery in the song which provides a clue to its genesis.  The attendant is “riveted like a prisoner” in a little glass booth. (I was thinking of the bulletproof booths in which some extremely dangerous or controversial prisoners appear during their trials.)  He feels judged and condemned by the free and prosperous car owners, the “gentlemen of the jury” who pass him by on their way to the open air:

How can you reach a verdict when you can't see the scars
of the defendant?

More than anything, the song appears to me now as a young man’s cri de coeur about having to surrender most of his waking hours and energy –most of his life– to working for a living.  Since leaving Eden, humankind has never stopped resenting work; especially work that is not of our choosing. As the UPLA reflects bleakly,

I take the money and I give my youth.

“Factory Lad (Turning Steel),” written by Colin Dryden in 1969, explores this melancholy theme in perhaps a comparable manner:

But he made a speech and he said "good-bye" to a life time working here,
As I shook his hand, I thought of hell - a lathe for forty years.

(As Dryden quipped years later at a concert I attended, it struck him as ironic that as a young man the thing that had scared him most was secure employment...)

When we recorded “Underground Parking Lot Attendant” for the CD Made of Sky, producer James Stephens recruited Danny Artuso to do the haunting electric guitar work.  The deliberately adagio tempo reflects the way time drags underground, and was anchored by drummer Peter von Althen and by Martin Newman’s sombre upright bass.  For me the biggest revelation was what pianist Ian Clyne brought to the closing minutes of the song: a moody and yet playful, bluesy exploration that, along with Danny’s dreamlike guitar arpeggios, kept the song from becoming too gloomy.