Some people they treat me kind . . . some drive me away . . .
Some people they blow your mind . . . it’s not easy today –
Don’t say no.
I live on the borderline . . . you come from the void . . .
I beg you to cross the line . . . you take good care of your boy –
Don’t say no.
Don’t Say No began enriching the world on April 13, 1981–a Monday, no less. Billy Squier’s second album would go on to Triple Platinum status, embedded in various categories of the charts for 111 weeks.
So much for the sophomore jinx. If anything, Squier’s curse was that he couldn’t replicate an album as pure, as shimmeringly perfect.
You know what? When you make a record that great–with that much mythos–you don’t have to.
I remember when it first hit the streets, Valley Stream streets soon to become shimmeringly perfect in their own right with the savage heat of a Long Island sun and, like a slow-motion scene straight out of Hollywood, the equally savage friction of the legs of Italian-Irish-blend girls swooshing by in terry cloth shorts to the beat of “The Stroke.”
“The Stroke” may be a song about shaking hands and schmoozing to get ahead in show biz, but its relentlessly martial thump commands a kind of carnal obeisance. Squier even toys with a mock-Russian march toward song’s end, but all the goose-stepping Soviets in Red Square are no match for those power chords, that deep basso keyboard, and Billy’s bravado vocals.
Don’t Say No was an incredible musical gift for this 14 year-old and his friends, unforeseen yet instantly assimilated, devoured at once for its fresh jolt of the new while understood in the context of its antecedents, as Wallace Stevens puts it, “as an inevitable knowledge, / Required, as a necessity requires.”
In those early days of the album’s release, he was often referred to on the radio as “guitarist Billy Squier,” as if he was some kind of six-string mercenary. It’s an elite title for a guy who seemed to come out of nowhere and who, paradoxically, sang lead vocals. On television, Squier harnessed the nascent dynamo of MTV with what we view now as fairly primitive videos. On the merits of Don’t Say No he’d have done well without MTV; with it, guitarist Billy Squier reached an audience who may not have ordinarily tuned into FM Rock stations.
With decades of listening, something that may not strike our ears today as distinctly as it did when Don’t Say No debuted in 1981 is just how deeply Zeppelin its sounds and textures are. Like a decade before when The Beatles broke up, Led Zeppelin permeated the artistic air. Their last album, In Through the Out Door, was not yet two years old; their “bricklayer of a drummer,” as Robert Plant once described John Bonham, had died less than a year prior. Cue up “In the Dark” and imagine you don’t who the artist is; the drums, the guitar, the vocals–uncanny! It’s either new Zeppelin or solo Robert Plant.
A big part of that familiarly Zeppelin sound emanates from Bobby Chouinard’s drum kit–and it’s no coincidence. The depth of those booming toms, that bass drum’s pleasing thud, the delicious metallic tones and textures of his hi-hats, crash, and ride cymbals . . . Chouinard used big Ludwig drums and Paiste cymbals, the same gear as John Bonham. (Sadly, another thing Chouinard shared with Bonham was the Rock drummer’s propensity to exit the stage early: Chouinard died of a heart attack in 1997 at the age of 44.)
But it’s also Chouinard’s approach–and not just his fills but the way he lays down a beat: like a bricklayer. I’ll cite one song for two examples. His steady pounding on “Lonely is the Night” reminds this drummer very much of the iconic beat of “When the Levee Breaks;” the fill which Chouinard drops at the first guitar-then-drums break (at 1:36) could have been plucked right out of “Royal Orleans.”
For many years I listened to Don’t Say No and then, in my early 20s, I started living it. The album nails a young guy’s perspective–starting out on one’s own, settling into a solo stride. Its themes are the proper concerns of a newly-minted American male: drinking with your buddies (“went to see a friend just the other day / had a drink or two and we blew the night away”), taking home a paycheck then blowing it downtown (“spend all my money tryin’ to have a good time”), and, of course, chasing tail (“you got me runnin’ baby–you give me something way beyond revenue.”)
The ten songs of Don’t Say No comprise a catalogue of a young man’s moods and modes:
Euphoria and Self-reflection: “I may get around, I may laugh a lot, now you’d think that I’d be happy with the life I got, / Nobody knows, nobody sees, ain’t nobody really knows the inner side of me….”
Swagger: “There’s danger out tonight, the man is on the prowl….”
Doubt: “Never knew it could take so long–never knew it could feel so wrong without you.”
Highs and Hangovers: “Takes the morning after to forget the night before” and “I can’t remember the things that we said / Now all I got is this achin’ in my head.”
And being dealt those first retina-searing sexual experiences, those lapidary moments of lust and love: just listen to “My Kinda Lover.
Side 1 crashes on your ears with “In the Dark” and its first line sets the tone: “Life isn’t easy on the singular side.” The album’s most signature song (and maybe its most Zeppelin-esque), “Lonely is the Night,” chases that theme to its essence:
Lonely is the night
when you find yourself alone,
Your demons come to light
and your mind is not your own.
Lonely is the night
when there’s no one left to call,
You feel the time is right–
say the writin’s on the wall.
I spent my early 20s in the Army as an infantry officer assigned to the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks…. That’s on Oahu, folks, as in Hawaii.
Uncle Sam shipped my shiny white ’83 BMW 320i to the island. In that Teutonic traffic scalpel, stick-shift in hand, Honolulu’s glittering lights and its lovely-tourist-lined avenues were little more than 20 minutes away–and sometimes under 20 minutes.
On those magical Friday and Saturday nights driving down to Waikiki (“the Keys,” as we used to call it), Squier’s Don’t Say No took on new dimensions of meaning and mythos, a soundtrack that seemed to inform the night as much as it complemented it. How many evenings threading the needles of H1’s vehicular slaloms with “Whadda You Want From Me” cranking? How many mellow mornings with “Nobody Knows” providing wise and soothing serenade after the night’s excesses?
One of Billy Squier’s most inspired touches on the record is the way he sets up the album’s last song, its title track. The earnest repetitions of “I need you,” the refrain of the penultimate song of the same name, have diminished almost to the point of the inaudible when a new vocal, accompanied by the cleanest acoustic guitar strums, starts to fade in with ever-increasing volume:
We live in confusion times–my world is a vice . . .
Nobody gets out alive . . . but you can break through the ice–
Don’t say no.
Oh man, the way he titrates that song into your ear, setting you up for the hammer blows of drum and guitar as it kicks into gear! It’s a move that goes way beyond novelty. To have had that song at the start of the height of one’s powers, to have breathed it in as fully as the sweet-scented tropical air or the perfumed nape of a lovely neck, to have lived that song as much as one loved it . . . life can attain to no higher sweetness and, . . . truly, I feel sorry for all the young guys out there now who will never know such exquisite American joy.