As a kid I spent a lot of summertime Friday nights with my mom and grandma at the drive-in down the street. For a poor family like ours, drive-ins were cheaper than indoor theaters, especially if you stayed late and caught two or three films for the price of one. The concession stands served fried grub as affordable as any contemporary fast-food joint. Until the feature presentation rolled at sundown, free preshow entertainments abounded. Audience members could set out lawn chairs and mingle with folks they know in the next parking space over. Kids could goof around on the playground in front of the screen. And in the years before some entrepreneur figured out how to patch the soundtrack into a short-range FM signal, you could hang one of the drive-in’s own heavy, tinny, awkward mono speakers on your window, crank up the plastic white knob, and listen to the prefab radio program spinning the exact same songs at every showing for years until the drive-in closed in 1982 and was demolished to make way for boring medical offices.
The track listing in general — borne from the post-disco days of “easy listening” lullabies, country/western crossover hits, and ’60s leftovers-turned-standards — was a parade of inoffensive AM-radio earworms cultivated for my elders who liked their sonic backdrops as plain as a pus-colored Tupperware cup of sugarless lemonade on a wind-free porch. In the years ahead I’d come to develop my own musical tastes as the opposite of all that. To this day they’re why I respond poorly to slow jams, twee ballads, and somnambulist Starbucks-CD jangle-pop. Despite my youngster’s apathy, one single would catch my attention above all others every time: Petula Clark’s “Downtown”.