"Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" - The Jam

"Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" - The Jam

Today I am thrilled to publish a new essay by Michele Catalano! She last wrote for I Enjoy Music about her youthful new wave escapades, and now she's back to recall a memorable experience with a particular song that still haunts her after all these years...sometimes a chune just gets ya good...without any further ado, let's Jam...

Down in the Tube Station at Midnight

by Michele Catalano

Patrick was about 6’3”, give or take an inch. I was intimidated by him, but it wasn’t just that he was over a foot taller than me. His head was shaved to within an inch of his scalp and he wore a black leather jacket and silver earrings and combat boots. He was a year younger than me, but he’d been in the punk scene since he was about 14 and that gave him a sort of elder statesman status to everyone else who worked in the record store. Patrick was looked up to as a rebel, a true punk. On his nights off he played in a band called The Dead Virgins. They put out an EP.

We both spent a lot of time working in the basement of Record World, unpacking shipments of records and cassettes. I started working there in early November of ‘83 and by the time the Christmas rush rolled in, Patrick and I had become pretty tight. We worked in tandem, him opening up the cardboard boxes with deftness, me putting stickers on the records or them or dropping them into plastic sleeves. 

With each box Patrick opened, he would pull out an album and ask if I ever listened to it. We’d go from Van Halen to Cocteau Twins to Tom Waits and talk about the bands and what we liked and what we hated (we were over Synchronicity but loved Power, Corruption & Lies). When he pulled Snap!—a double album of classic songs by the Jam—out of the box I mentioned that I only know a few of their songs but would like to know them better. Patrick’s eyes lit up. Turns out the Jam was his favorite band. We talked about Paul Weller and the Jam’s discography for a bit, with Patrick doing most of the talking. He was animated, he was smiling, he was glad that he had a willing, if captive, audience. The time he took to talk to me like I’m a peer made me feel important and special.  I was 21 years old, I had zero self-esteem, and Patrick made me feel like I was cool like him. 

A few days after our Jam discussion, Patrick corners me in the cassette department where I’m reorganizing Billy Joel tapes. He hands me his copy of the double length Snap! cassette. He practically begs me to listen to it, telling me it contains the Jam’s greatest songs. I take it home with me.

Later, when I’m home and in the privacy of my room, I take out the cassette and prepare to listen to it. There’s a whole ritual I go through before listening to something new and when I’m sufficiently high and comfortable, I open the cassette. Inside the case, Patrick had stuffed a sheet of yellow legal paper, folded about a hundred times. I opened it up and it was the lyrics to the Jam’s “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” a track from their 1978 album All Mod Cons, which also appears on the Snap! tape I held in  my hand.

It’s the 11th song on the tape and I decide to just listen to the whole thing, let it ride out until that specific song comes on. I find myself enjoying my way through “In the City” and “The Modern World” and realize I like the Jam more than I thought. This is good. This fits into my musical world view. 

Finally, track 11 starts up and I unfold the paper, looking at Patrick’s block handwriting, how he painstakingly wrote out these lyrics for me, and I realize this song is something special to him. I dive in. The song opens with the sounds of a subway and then:

The distant echo
Of far away voices boarding far away trains
To take them home to
The ones that they love and who love them forever
The glazed, dirty steps
Repeat my own and reflect my thoughts

Weller immediately sets the tone, and you are alone in the tube station with him. It’s late, he wants to get home to his loved one.

Whispers in the shadows
Gruff blazing voices
Hating, waiting
"Hey boy" they shout
"Have you got any money?" And I said
"I've a little money and a take away curry
I'm on my way home to my wife
She'll be lining up the cutlery, you know she's expecting me
Polishing the glasses and pulling out the cork"
I'm down in the tube station at midnight

The tone shifts from the anticipation of going home to being unexpectedly cornered by some thugs looking for money. I’m intrigued and just a little bit nervous. The music playing underneath the story is sort of menacing, frenetic. He’s putting forth a plea—let me go home to my wife—and I’m hanging onto every word.

I first felt a fist
And then a kick
I could now smell their breath
They smelt of pubs
And Wormwood Scrubs
And too many right wing meetings

I don’t know what Wormwood Scrubs is (I find out later it’s a prison), but it doesn’t matter. It’s all so sinister and dark and then:

My life swam around me
It took a look and drowned me in its own existence

I’m riveted. I’m nervous. I’m following along with Patrick’s handwriting, so clearly and carefully transcribed, and this line terrorizes me. I stop the tape, rewind, listen to it again from beginning, letting the story up this point unravel and reveal itself again. 

The last thing that I saw as I lay there on the floor
Was "Jesus Saves" painted by an atheist nutter
And a British Rail poster read
"Have an Awayday, a cheap holiday, do it today"

The music becomes frantic, noisy, and I imagine what’s going on in the singer’s head, this realization that he is about to sink into an oblivion, that his wife is home waiting for him, that this might be how he meets his end.

I glanced back on my life and thought about my wife
'Cause they took the keys, and she'll think it's me
I'm down in the tube station at midnight
The wine will be flat and the curry's gone cold
I'm down in the tube station at midnight
Don't wanna go down in a tube station at midnight

As I’m reading along, I realize these are the most harrowing lyrics I’ve ever read. “‘Cause they took the keys and she’ll think it’s me” rings in my head. I think about this guy lying in the subway, beaten, destroyed, thinking about what is going to happen to his wife when they get there with the keys. I am crying.

I hold the lyrics in my hand, read them over again, rewind, hit play. I do this several times. I know thoughts about this song will bounce around my head for weeks. And I know this is a song—and a band—that will stay with me forever.

The next day at work I thanked Patrick. I told him I appreciated that he knew how I would react to the song, that I would love the whole of it while loathing the story. We sat in the basement, unpacking boxes and talking about being in the tube station at midnight, about the Jam and Paul Weller, about life.

I kept the yellow paper for years, folded up in a jewelry box on my dresser. And even though I had the words memorized pretty quickly, I would take the paper out every time I listened to the album and read along with Patrick’s writing. It somehow made the song more intimate, more important.

I ran into Patrick many years later when he was doing some political canvassing at St. John’s University, where I was attending school. We chatted a bit and I told him I still had the lyric sheet he wrote for me and he seemed genuinely touched. We stayed in touch on Facebook for a while but he deactivated and I have no idea what happened to him after. All I really want to remember is how this intimidating punk rocker befriended me and brought me into his world. He gave me a gift with that cassette and the words he wrote down for me, words that have never left me. I don’t know what happened to that piece of paper and I wish I still had it. It was a genuine touchstone on my life. 

I learned a lot from Patrick: about punk rock, about life, about passion for music, about never wanting to go down in the tube station at midnight. 

Thank you Michele. Subscribe to her newsletter if you please—right now she's celebrating the 30th anniversary of a bunch of great albums that came out in 1994. And thanks for reading I Enjoy Music. If you like it, tell a friend about it.