#7 DON’T GIVE A DAMN #2
I was the proverbial angry young man. No denying it. I didn’t like where I was, what I was or who I was. I hated school. I didn’t feel they were teaching me anything of actual use in the real world. The only classes I enjoyed were English Language and English Literature. And even then I couldn’t read all the books they wanted me to. I found Jane Austen to be a complete waste of my time. I didn’t care about her characters and therefore did not care about what happened to them. Years earlier, in what the English call Junior School (you leave when you’re around 11), I had fallen foul of my teacher by bringing one of my own books to school. It was Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell. I remember her asking if I understood it. Most of it, I replied. The look on her face was priceless, so relieved that I would be someone else’s responsibility within the year.
My next school was attended by1600 boys. It was part of a terrible experiment called the ‘comprehensive system’ in which kids of widely varying abilities were mixed together in the belief the brightest would challenge the less able to do better. Of course, the reverse happened and the smart kids were soon smoking behind the bicycle sheds with the way cooler bad boys. Throw into the mix the absence of girls and it was a recipe for disaster. Sex was not a talking point it was an obsession!
I could write a book about that school and the boys in it. But this is supposed to be about a song.
I realized, during my time at that school, that most teachers were like mice on a treadmill. They went round and round, each year seeing a new influx of boys into whatever class they taught. The English literature might change depending on what the syllabus called for that year but for others, like chemistry, math or language teachers, they went over the same ground endlessly, taking rare delight in the occasionally gifted student while beating their collective heads against stout British brick walls with the rest of us. Some managed to feign interest in their subject but with most it was painfully obvious it had become a giant bore many years ago. This led them into using standardized language. Your report card would be littered with mind-numbingly unoriginal phrases like, “Could try harder” or “Could succeed if he applied himself” and on and on ad nauseam.
Thinking back on this experience some years after I left…”burning the opportunity” as one teacher would say to go on to university…I wrote…
You got so many names for the things I do and so many more for what I am…
The rhyme leapt into my mind immediately and I added…
When’s it gonna get through to you – I don’t give damn.
The year was 1976. I’d escaped that school of horrors back in 1971. Even though I was struggling to find a job I really enjoyed I never regretted exiting the academic world. I’d asked the Careers Master at school in my final year what jobs would be open to me if I went to university to study English. Journalist or….er…teacher, was all the hope he could offer, making my decision remarkably easy.
No thanks to anything that happened at that place I later discovered the world of advertising, which seemed, and proved to be, the perfect home for a rebellious mind like mine. And that’s another book. One day maybe.
I completed the song and it became a high spot in the live performances of the band I played in called First Refusal and also the opening track of a vinyl EP we put out.
First Refusal on stage somewhere in the ’70s
Then it was forgotten. (Although it was later immortalized in the book 45 Revolutions as being “rare and collectible”).
Years and years went by. I gave up on a music career and was happy to have the creative and challenging world of advertising to keep me out of trouble. That is of course except when it was precisely my career choice that led me into trouble!
Then in 2002 my dad died.
I had always played guitar for relaxation and had always jotted down ideas for songs. But now what I can only describe as a deluge of writing poured out of me. I completed songs that had been lying around for years. And I was truly excited about what I was writing. The words had always come easily but now the music too seemed to flow from my fingers. I played some of these songs to my good friend Craig Snyder who immediately offered to produce an album for me. That album turned out to be Raised In Vain. The rest is not just history, it’s all here on this web site for people to listen to and hopefully buy.
Working on my 4th album, The Story Of It All, I found myself one day playing some chords that seemed very familiar. It was the chord sequence for Don’t Give A Damn. I liked them as much as I had when I wrote the song 35 years earlier!
I dug out the original lyrics and decided I was no longer the angry young man who had written them. But, that said, the basic idea of the song had stood the test of time.
I started singing…leaving off the affected ‘you got’…
So many names for the things I do and so many more for what I am – But it never got through to you I don’t give damn
I looked at those words. I wrestled with the tenses. Was this a rewrite from the point of view of someone looking back…in which case should it be “didn’t give damn” – no, the boy who didn’t give damn was still alive within me, I decided. I left the words the way they are, ambiguous as to time and place. To me, it retained their power. (The past and the present colliding turned out to be something of an unintentional theme through the album.)
The second verse survived almost unchanged…
You know I saw the plans you had for me – I saw the tattered blueprints on your wall…
Yes, the blueprint, the goal of those teachers who just wanted to pump kids full of the same information and squeeze them out the other end of the sausage factory. (Remember, this song was first written years before Pink Floyd would sing, “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control.”)
The bridge…I guess it’s not a chorus, as it doesn’t come after every verse…survived totally intact. It still captured my sense from all those years earlier that ultimately the teachers, like most people, were concerned with their own careers more than with the young men they were shaping. (There were one or two exceptions it has to be noted and I even included one of them in the thank you list on Raised In Vain – thanks again Richard Warren.)
Even back when I wrote the song and was performing it in pubs around Nottingham, England, it was a slightly movable feast. Verses would come and go. Sometimes all the verses would come together to make the song longer in performance than the recorded version. There were even times I think people thought it some kind of angry break-up love song. And sometimes I sang it as if it were!
It was when I reached this previously mutating third verse that I wrote something based on an old rhyme but with a new direction…
So many games you loved to play – and so many lies you told to me – Now at long last I look back and say it’s all history.
This version needed a resolution. However bad it seemed at the time, I survived. And maybe it was the anger and sense of dissatisfaction from those days that sent me out on a life that had me living on three continents in five or six major cities. Who knows? I say in the lyric booklet of the album that “melancholy seems to have replaced the original anger” but I’m not sure now that melancholy is the right word. I think I got that sense more from the music…that, while using the exact same chords as the original, came out much slower and more emotional…but lyrically some of the anger is still there. I may have found my resolution. I may have been lucky. But there is still a dissatisfaction…a hope I guess you could call it…that teachers today are doing a better job of preparing our young people for the real world. Mine didn’t.
And the need to revisit this song after so many years proves its truth..
I’ve had enough of your talk and your misplaced honesty to last a lifetime…
Recording the original version of Don’t Give A Damn in Rainbow Sound Studios, Nottingham, England, 1977.
Thanks to Jacy Oliver for kick ass lead guitar, bass and backing vocals, Mark Clarke drums, Peter Farrell piano and organ.