Death by Power Ballad: Night Ranger, “Goodbye”
The Italian novelist Italo Svevo once wrote, “God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.” Maybe so, but it was probably also to let us relive great baseball seasons and marvelous historical events, zero in on where we left our keys, and to flog ourselves mercilessly for not kissing that girl we crushed on in high school because we were too shy and really couldn’t tell whether she wanted us to, so we just stood there and rambled like a fucking idiot for the better part of several hours while our opportunity ticked away and with it the first of many crossroads moments in our life that might have led to a happier, more prosperous adulthood with fewer haunting moments of lost chances and adolescent nights when we most certainly didn’t get laid but definitely could have had we not been such a scaredy-pantsed douchebag, even though there were probably good reasons for our inaction that could only come out in years of therapy, were we only adult enough to recognize we need help that is as close as the phone book, if we’d only seek it.
Memory can also bring back loved ones lost to the vagaries of mortality, but it takes action in the here and now to make peace with those who are no longer with us. Goodbyes left unsaid can wear down a soul like little else, bearing down on us when we least expect it, when we are least prepared. The idea of “closure” has become almost a cliché in our Oprahfied nation, but certain emotional pathways opened by memory are more easily navigated when we’re blessed with having given that final wave or parting kiss.
Night Ranger bassist/singer/little buddy Jack Blades wrote the lyrics to “Goodbye” some time after losing his brother to an overdose, and he has spoken in interviews of how healing it was to write the song, to say what he longed to say to his sibling but never got the opportunity to. Knowing Blades’ intent certainly lends poignancy to “Goodbye,” and gives added dimension to the little details in the song, the “time never far from my mind / On the beach, on the fourth of July.”
However, until about ten minutes before sitting down to write this, I assumed the song was about the memory of a lover, and the difficulty of taking part in a breakup with the collective weight of memory hanging over the lovers’ heads. In this interpretation, “Goodbye” is a lot like Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s “Where Do You Start,” one of the great breakup songs ever written. With the loss of a romantic relationship as context, Blades’ great line “It’s hard living life on this memory-go-round” mirrors the Bergmans’ “Which books are yours? / Which tapes and dreams belong to you and which are mine?” for sheer heartbreaking poignancy.
Of course, “Where Do You Start” is a pop/jazz standard, covered by such luminaries as Shirley Horn and Barbra Streisand. “Goodbye” is a power ballad, and who better to give voice to its sentiments than the mighty Kelly Keagy, Night Ranger’s leather-lunged drummer, the man responsible for voicing some of the greats of the genre, like “Sentimental Street” and the granddaddy of them all, “Sister Christian” (more on them in future columns)? Keagy wrings considerable pathos and gravitas from Blades’ words, giving life to those scenes on the beach, rendering the “memory-go-round” a real, breathtaking ride. His vocal is the centerpiece of the song, its driving engine, and rightfully so.
Musically, “Goodbye” perfects the standard figures of the power ballad arts, from the acoustic arpeggios that begin it, to the booming drums that call quits to the song’s fake ending, to the just barely controlled whammy-bar solo unleashed by gee-tar monster Brad Gillis. It is, as much as “Sister Christian” (its much-celebrated sibling), the ultimate manifestation of the genre, a classic piece of Eighties drama and power.