A few years ago, I came upon the following pronouncement in a rock critic’s snarky column: “Listening to Primitive Radio God’s ‘Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand’ on YouTube is the equivalent of watching child pornography.” Obviously, this jerk takes his music too seriously — or child abuse not seriously enough. Hyperbole aside, this song is routinely derided because it epitomizes the morose sentiments glorified in the 1990s. I get it. Nobody wants to listen to a tune about the latchkey generation’s loneliness, especially if it transposes an African-American’s blues wail onto a modern rock pastiche. The comically long title doesn’t help. Nevertheless, I’ll hold my ground here because “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth” puts forth a vibe of sadness that, in light of recent events, continues to resonate.
“Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth” begins with a moping bass line ensconced in click-track percussion. Then these primitive gods hit you with a sample from B.B. King’s “How Blue Can You Get.” The blues legend sings, “I’ve been down hearted baby/ever since the day we met.” In the original tune, B.B. pours out his frustration with a woman whose material needs he can’t satisfy. I think the sample is from one of his live versions he released on Live at the Regal or Live in Cook County Jail. Further along in the original song, B.B. comes completely unglued as the audience wails right back at him.
The Primitive Radio Gods (really just singer-songwriter Chris O’Conner), however, don’t allow B.B. to get going, manipulating his vocals into a stammering outcry of absolute futility. Whereas the original song is a domestic argument over money (the subtext being that racist American institutions prevent African-Americans from advancing economically), “Standing Outside a Phone Booth” depicts a guy’s inability to achieve an emotional connection with his lover. Since the day they met, he has suffered from alienation from his feelings. Hence the lyric, “If I die before I learn to speak/Will money pay for all the days I lived awake but half asleep.”
O’Connor rocks a flat affect through a mélange of dadist images – my favorite is “you ride the waves/ don’t ask where they go/ you swim like lions through the crest/ and bathe yourself in zebra flesh” — and a bunch of fuzzy, sepia-toned sound effects that filter in and out. The tolling of a church bell adds to the solemnity of the whole scene. Before the final verse, a piano solo sprouts up that sounds like Thelonious Monk playing a tribute to fallen fireman on a piano prepared by John Cage. Finally, O’Connor blossoms into full voice at the end of the song, singing B.B.’s lines. It seems that he has moved from numbness to heart-break, which oddly enough is a move upward.
So why does all of this work? What saves “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth” from indie-rock oblivion? More to the point, why has the song outlasted phone booths themselves? One reason is that the song oozes the feel of the mid 1990s — a nadir between the overweening pride of Baby Boomers and the chemically-enhanced optimism of Millennials. The muted tones of the song — the very lack of ambition conveyed by its lo-fi soundscape — is a nice respite from the mean-spirited smack-downs on reality cooking shows and the constant “Work Anniversary” reminders on Linked-In. Nostalgic? Sure, I have nostalgia for a time when the most pressing political issue was the stains on Monica Lewinsky’s dress and corporations didn’t rely on consumer peers to do their marketing for them through social media.
The “Why can’t I love you?” narrative of O’Connor’s opus continues to resonate in an age when Edward Snowden is the only person who believes in intimacy. And of course, walking down a street with no cell phone coverage is just as lonely as standing outside a broken phone booth with money in your hand.