In the summer of 1986 David Baerwald and David Ricketts paired up to record a series of stories set to music. At least that’s how I describe the songs on Boomtown, an album that managed to get to number 39 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart despite little support on the singles chart. It’s not an album to put on when you’re feeling down and want a pick-me-up. Instead it reflects a grim reality of a cast of characters struggling to get by in mid-1980s America.
The album takes its title from “Welcome To The Boomtown,” the highest-charting single from the release. Officially, it’s a Top 40 song, peaking at number 37. But it cracked into the top 10 on the Mainstream Rock chart, which is how I heard it. By the late summer and early fall of 1986 I was usually locked in to WLUP-FM in Chicago. I had gone from high school student to commuter by that fall and was in the car most afternoons listening to Bobby Skafish and his laid-back, friendly way of playing great music. On at least two occasions Skafish introduced me to a song that, after hearing it that afternoon, I bought the album the same night. One was Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s “The Way It Is,” and the other was this one. There was something so haunting and poignant about the track that made me head to the other side of the mall on my break (I was working for Kroch’s and Brentano’s bookstore in Orland Square Mall that fall) and pick up the CD so that I’d have it to listen to that night.
It could be a case of time meets place. The characters in “Boomtown” clearly aren’t in places where they thought they’d be. While my situation was nowhere as dire as the addicts in the song, I wasn’t where I wanted to be, either. My friends had all gone away to college, and I was left back in the hometown waiting for them to get home on break. At the same time, I wasn’t yet making new friends. That would come a year later when I enrolled at Lewis University and began working at WLRA. The period of 1986-87 was one of not realizing my potential. I was still following the “you should be in science” advice I got in high school, even though I didn’t want to be. To say I wasn’t happy with my lot in life was a gross understatement.
The true irony of the song hadn’t hit me yet and wouldn’t for some time. In the song Handsome Kevin “took a year off of college and he never went back.” I took my year off in 1989 when I decided to forego my college eligibility and turn pro. (When athletes do it, we understand. When some 20-year-old from the suburbs does it, we simply say that his act isn’t together.) The year off turned into ten years, since I finally went back in the fall of 1999. At least I wasn’t holed up in a Denny’s someplace selling cocaine from a back table.
The whole album is worth a revisit if you haven’t been to it in a while. Side 1 is exceptionally solid. “Boomtown” is followed by “Swallowed By the Cracks,” a brighter song only in that no one dies of an overdose. Instead, the protagonists – the singer, Eileen, and Steve – simply fail to realize their dreams of artistic success and settle down into mundane adult lives. It struck a chord with me at 20, and after further review in my 40s, I nod and say “Yeah, I get it.” But I also realize that I ended up in a pretty lucky place. Maybe it’s schadenfreude that makes the songs so appealing.
You can hear the succulent sound that money makes by clicking here.