In the tense moments before an RV exploded in downtown Nashville on Christmas morning, it broadcast a warning on a loudspeaker that a bomb was about to blow up and urged people to evacuate.
Confusingly, the parked vehicle also broadcast a song – Petula Clark’s 1964 cheerful hit “Downtown,” about how the bustle of a city can cure a lonely person’s blues.
The song begins like this:
When you’re alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go downtown
When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know, downtown
It sounds like something from a thriller – the cheery, discordant tune playing over the creepy scene that portends bad things ahead (see “Stuck in the Middle with You” from “Reservoir Dogs,” “Hip to be Square” from “American Psycho” and many others).
Seconds later, the blast ripped through a downtown Nashville block, injuring at least eight people and damaging more than 40 buildings.
“Downtown,” a No. 1 hit and Clark’s signature song, was inspired by the lights of New York and not the attractions of downtown Nashville, whose streets and honky-tonks are packed with tourists and revelers most nights. British songwriter Tony Hatch said the melody came to him on his first trip to New York, when he gazed up at the lights of Times Square.
But the tune, which climbed the charts during the 1964 Christmas season, celebrates the buzz of urban nightlife everywhere: neon lights, crowded sidewalks, music spilling from cafes and nightclubs.
Its bright melody also masks an undercurrent of melancholy. “You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” it promises. “Don’t hang around and let your problems surround you.”
Clark, 88, grew up in Britain, lives in Europe and still records and performs. In a Facebook post Tuesday she expressed shock and disbelief over the bombing and her song’s role in it.
“Of all the thousands of songs - why this one?” she wrote. “Of course, the opening lyric is ‘When you’re alone and life is making you lonely you can always go Downtown.’ But millions of people all over the world have been uplifted by this joyful song. Perhaps you can read something else into these words - depending on your state of mind.”
It’s not the first time a popular song has taken on a new quality after a startling act of violence. Cult leader Charles Manson said his 1969 murder spree was inspired in part by the chaotic Beatles song “Helter Skelter,” which sent listeners scrambling to decode its lyrics.
In Nashville, authorities say a man named Anthony Quinn Warner carried out the Christmas Day explosion and died in the blast. Warner, 63, lived in a Nashville suburb and was described by a neighbor as a loner.
It’s not clear why Warner chose “Downtown” as his swan song. Did the tune speak to him in some way? Was it just intended as a bitter joke? We may never know.
But some people in Nashville, and elsewhere, may never hear the song the same way again.