Classic Rock: Dead Letter Office

Quill and paper
Photo: sure2talk

Tryin’ to get to you. Pleading with the postman about news of your boyfriend, so far away. Lonely days are gone, I’m going home. And all because of a venerable social practice and convention of yesteryear; the art of letter-writing (and receiving). But, in this advanced technological age of Skype and IM, how has pop music assimilated these technological anachronisms?

Pop culture critic, writer, and music fan Geoff Moore gets out figurative pen and paper (figurative because otherwise the postage would cost a fortune …) to muse on the state of that key ingredient of pop – the letter ¬†– now a less common experience when checking your mailbox, so much so that the idea of ‘mailbox’ in casual conversations is much more aligned to Google than it is your friendly neighbourhood letter-carrier (or is that department-store-circular carrier?).

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In one of his greatest songs, a letter prompts Elvis to travel by night over mountains and through valleys to reach a distant love. The cost to get home was no object to Alex Chilton of the Box Tops when his baby wrote him a letter saying she couldn’t live without him any longer.

What if, in 1971, a mere pizza flyer dropped through the mail slot onto the floor of Burton Cummings’s vestibule instead of a letter sent from Indianapolis, IN zip code 46201?

A series of rotating strikes by Canada Post employees in June countered by management locking out workers and the subsequent announcement that mail delivery in this country will be reduced to just three days a week was met with… Well, the average citizen didn’t notice. The Crown corporation’s 2009 annual report states that Canada Post processed eleven¬†billion pieces of mail and delivered them to fifteen million addresses that year.

These are staggering numbers but they also reflect a decline in volume of some eight percent. Mail is now the realm of marketers and businesses and no longer a crucial link in intimate personal communication.

Since Time Magazine trumpeted the computer as Machine of the Year in 1982, the digital transformation of society has proceeded at a dizzying rate, seemingly too swift to measure. The new and improved normal becomes standard for one generation while the ones behind it may perhaps feel a little wistful about what’s being being lost.

A letter (and the inspiration written correspondence has provided to songwriters and other artists) will soon be as archaic as a record shop or a telephone number that cites the exchange: ‘Beechwood4-5789.’ This is neither to mourn nor moan about the passing of old ways, but to stand by awed by the sheer and shifting wonder of the brave new world.

Two of Rod Stewart’s most charming songs, ‘You Wear It Well’ recorded during his prime and ‘Lost In You,’ a bouncy little gem found along the long slope of his decline, are literally sentimental letters to loved ones from transient workers. While the narrators of Tom Waits’s ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’ and John Hiatt’s ‘Tennessee Plates’ have fallen a lot farther and harder than Rod’s characters, the storytelling device is the same although Hiatt’s incorporates an O.Henry-like twist at the song’s end: “Well, this ain’t no hotel I’m writin’ you from…”

Whatever happened to these letters? Were they stored in a trunk in the corner along with bills and demands? Did they make their way back stamped ‘Return to Sender’? Was the recipient waiting at the door begging, ‘Please Mr. Postman’?

Digitization has conferred a type of immortality upon numerous aspects of pop culture (not all progress is necessarily good); recorded music has especially proliferated in cyberspace. It’s a curious thing to consider that some day a new listener who stumbles across one of these tracks may very well be mystified by its context.

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Geoff Moore waxes poetic in the city of Calgary, where he is currently reviewing the manuscript of his soon-to-go-to-market second novel, Duke Street Kings. Meanwhile, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays this courier from the swift completion of his appointed rounds.