List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 2

2. Christmas In Cape Town—by Randy Newman.

This is possibly the darkest, ugliest song that Randy Newman has ever written, and he’s written some ugly ones.

Consider yourself warned: Listen.

The thing you have to understand about Randy Newman, though, is that he often writes songs from the viewpoint of despicable characters—polar opposites from the way he feels—to get his point across.  This song, about a bigoted white South African who sees his country going through changes he doesn’t like, could not be more bleak. The protagonist describes the locals lining up for work at the diamond mine: “They were staring at us real hard with their big ugly yellow eyes. You could feel it. This time you could feel it.”

“What we gonna do, blow up the whole damn country?” he asks at the end.

The song reeks of desperation.

Which will seem strange, when you consider what I associate it with in this list of “story songs.”

On September 22, 1984, I ran in the Busch Stadium Run in St. Louis. It was a 10K (6.2 miles) that wound through the streets of downtown, starting outside the stadium and finishing inside on the field near second base. Another twist on this race was that it had a staggered start; the very old and very young would start first, and then, in 30-second increments, other age groups would start, women before men, until it was the mid-20s guys like me starting last; the idea was that, in theory, everyone would have an equal chance of crossing the finish line first. The upshot was that for me, young and healthy and in shape (those were the days, eh?), I was starting at the back of this pack of hundreds of people, and so for the entire race, I was catching people and passing them. For a runner in a race, that’s almost the perfect definition of fun.

Like most runners, before a big race, I’ll generally focus on a particular song, and listen to that song right before the race so it’s still in my head while I’m running. Now, there’s no way that I would have picked a song like Christmas in Cape Town for that purpose. What probably happened was that I was planning on running to Newman’s  “I Love L.A.,” a considerably more upbeat song, which is the first track on the album Trouble In Paradise. But something happened; either I lingered in the car a little too long and the cassette went on to the second track—which is Christmas in Cape Town—or I just made the jump in my mind. In any case, as I ran the race, it was that darkest-of-dark songs that was playing in my brain.

To add to the mood, it was raining; that was one of the few races I’ve taken part in that was actually run in a steady downpour.

But here’s the thing: after I’d watched all the older and younger and female-er runners start ahead of me, and I got to start with all of my prime-of-life compatriots, something clicked. Suddenly, I was really enjoying myself. And Randy Newman’s song, although dark in tone, seemed somehow to be the perfect tempo for my mood. I started reeling in the runners ahead of me, a dozen at a time. The rain? Sure, I was wet. But once I was wet, I wasn’t getting any wetter, so why not just keep running?

And the running felt great. Joyous, really. Puddles, crowds: nothing bothered me as I glided through the St. Louis streets on my way back to the stadium. Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, but at 25 years old, I really was in the athletic prime of my life. Actually, that day, I probably did realize it. I finished the race in 38:05, which was probably a minute faster than any previous 10K I’d run up to that point, and it still stands as my fastest 10K ever.*

So now when I hear the song Christmas in Cape Town, I’m not thinking about South Africa or Apartheid. Definitely not about Christmas. I’m thinking about that long-ago September morning, when nothing was slowing me down.

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