Nota Bene: On Wednesday, April 16, at 7:30 pm, David Giffels will be reading from his new book, The Hard Way on Purpose, at the Happy Dog as part of our Belt Out! Series. The reading will be set to live musical accompaniment by his band The May Company. This essay is an excerpt from the book.
By David Giffels
Sometimes my home did feel like the middle of nowhere. Or more accurately (and worse) like a confounding void in the middle of somewhere. Everything of note that was from here was literally from here. If it became known, it was almost a given that it no longer existed here. Devo, transplanted in Los Angeles, referred derisively to their Ohio hometown as “a good place to be from.” Chrissie Hynde, expatriated to England, wrote her long-distance ode to Akron: “My City Was Gone.” Even Firestone, one of the city’s signature corporations — motto: “the name that’s known is Firestone” — moved its headquarters away. And not once, but twice. First to Chicago, then back to Akron, then to Nashville, all within four years, as though to underscore the point of its departure.
I put my ear toward the radio. I heard it again, a startlingly familiar series of numbers. 867 was a local telephone exchange, and not just a local exchange, but the one in my own neighborhood.It seemed that if anything had potential, it left. It began to seem necessary, the only option. Half my high school class was gone by the end of graduation summer, and the others trickled away, one after the next after the next. And conversely, everything of interest came, conspicuously, from elsewhere. Whatever we saw on television or heard on the radio or read in a magazine came from another place, and almost always the big cultural centers — New York or Los Angeles or, occasionally, Canada. Which made us seem even more disconnected.
So it was with considerable interest, in the summer of 1982, that I heard this harmonized chorus … a song, a hit on the radio, by the band Tommy Tutone … a song of obsession, of unrequited love, for a girl named Jenny, whose number was found on a bathroom wall:
Eight six seven five three oh ni-ee-niyne …
Eight? Six? Seven?
I put my ear toward the radio. I heard it again, a startlingly familiar series of numbers. 867 was a local telephone exchange, and not just a local exchange, but the one in my own neighborhood. Everyone I knew in the blocks surrounding my house had a number that started with an 8, and most of them started with that very one — 867. Somebody had written a song about where I lived, and it was a good song, and it was a hit. My slowly emerging sense of art suggested that the most important songs were about real life experiences, which was why everyone seemed so crazy about Bruce Springsteen, because everyone who listened to him literally had a “hungry heart” and could therefore relate personally to his lyrics. But now there was a song about a real life experience that was not a familiar generalization; it actually referred to a specific aspect my own life experience.
America was vast and fascinating in its every region, infinite in its telephonic numerology, and the writer of that song (who was from California!) could have picked any exchange to represent any place — or could have picked “555-5309” to represent every place (which inevitably would have represented no place). But he didn’t. This Jenny person could be living a block away.
We knew what we had to do. We went to the basement, where there was a wall-mounted telephone next to the washer and dryer, useful for teenage privacies. My older brother took his position as overseer. I lifted the receiver and dialed.
I didn’t have a lot of experience talking on the phone to girls, and so the notion of cold-calling — and particularly someone famous — took all the nerve I could muster.
“Is? … Is Jenny th–”
It would be years before I learned the full truth of the song. The co-writer, Alex Call, said in 2004 that he was looking for a simple pop hook and something about the rhythm and syntax of those numbers found their way more or less randomly through his imagination.
We kept calling the local number from time to time, because more than anything else, that’s what teenage boys do: the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.“Despite all the mythology to the contrary, I actually just came up with the ‘Jenny,’ and the telephone number and the music and all that just sitting in my backyard,” he told an interviewer for songfacts.com. “There was no Jenny. I don’t know where the number came from, I was just trying to write a four-chord rock song and it just kind of came out. … I made it up under a plum tree in my backyard.”
Under a plum tree. In California. This suggests the meaningfulness-to-catchiness ratio was approximately that of “a-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom.”
Bruce Springsteen would later write a song called “Youngstown,” about the actual Youngstown, with a love interest also named Jenny.
Here in Youngstown,
My sweet Jenny, I’m sinkin’ down …
The name was literal, drawn from local history, and is well known in that beleaguered city. “Jenny” was the town’s nickname for the Jeanette Blast Furnace, part of a vibrant steel mill that shut down in 1977. Jenny sat rusting for two decades until its demolition in 1996, a year after Springsteen’s song came out.
This bold adherence to fact and emotional truth seemed almost like a make-up call from the songwriter community. But far too little and far too late for me.
It took a while for the news to reach us, mostly because it wasn’t really “news” so much as the opposite of news, but somehow that summer we learned there were 867-5309’s in other places — apparently lots of other places — and the one that was getting all the attention was the home phone number of the daughter of the Buffalo chief of police, who was pretty unhappy about the whole thing.
Which meant we were nobody again.
We kept calling the local number from time to time, because more than anything else, that’s what teenage boys do: the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. But we never so much as got the satisfaction of being yelled at, and soon we learned that even that part of the unraveling myth was not exclusively ours; apparently everyone in the area code who owned a radio had thought of the same prank and before long the seven precious numbers resulted in three atonal beeps followed by the sad familiar refrain:
We’re sorry. You have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this recording in error, please check the number and try your call again.
Excerpted from THE HARD WAY ON PURPOSE: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt by David Giffels. Copyright 2014 © David Giffels. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.