Adam Schlesinger loved the suburban strivers he wrote about, no more so than on ‘Utopia Parkway’
Last week, in need of a reprieve from news of the mounting corona-crisis, I turned up the volume on my kitchen stereo and cranked up “Utopia Parkway,” the kickoff track from the 1999 Fountains of Wayne album of the same name. It’s a tune that’s served as my sort of personal pop-balm for two decades now, partly because “Utopia Parkway” is so instantly jubilant: First comes a gently emphatic piano line, then a verse that crams a novella’s worth of detail into just a handful of lines:
Well I’ve been saving for a custom van
And I’ve been playing for a cover band
And my baby doesn’t understand
Why I never turned from boy to man…
Of the countless small-stakes, big-hook dramedies written by Fountains of Wayne co-founder Adam Schlesinger — who died Wednesday from COVID-19 complications, at the age of 52 — ”Utopia Parkway” is hardly among the best known. The song was never officially released as a single, and though the album bearing the same name was a critical hit when it arrived in the spring of 1999, it failed to make much of an impact on the air or the charts. The group, which included fellow songwriter Chris Collingwood, was subsequently dropped by Atlantic Records, and wouldn’t break into the Top 40 until a few years later, thanks to 2003’s hangdog-horndog anthem “Stacy’s Mom.”
Schlesinger, meanwhile, would find even more success on stage and on the small screen, writing numbers for such musicals as “Cry-Baby” and shows like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Yet “Utopia Parkway” is the Schlesinger song I’ve likely listened to the most in the last 20 years — the kind of album-opener that prompts me to hit the “repeat” button again and again. I’ve put on “Utopia Parkway” to wake myself up; I’ve played it cool myself down. When my father, a huge Fountains of Wayne fan, died two years ago, just those first few seconds of “Utopia Parkway” could cheer me up for hours. It’s long been a joy-buzzer I can press whenever I need it.
But you don’t just lose yourself in a song like “Utopia Parkway” — you actually cast yourself in it. Schlesinger excelled at touching, wryly observant tales of everyday-Joe ennui, and his characters were always uncomfortably recognizable: They were white-collar drones who were passed out at Port Authority, yet still vowed to someday “get [their] shit together” (“Bright Future in Sales”). Or they were wide-eyed suburban kids cruising down the Long Island Expressway, hoping to find salvation at a rock ‘n’ roll laser-light show (“Laser Show”). Even when he was writing about repeat-offender screw-ups, Schlesinger couldn’t help but view them with affection: The 2011 gem “Richie and Ruben” recounted the exploits of a pair of doomed, scheming would-be businessmen, told from the perspective of their equally doomed investor, who just can’t stop giving them money.
The narrator of “Utopia Parkway,” though, may be Schlesinger’s most lovable local hero: An outer-borough striver with big plans. He’ll get his van, grow his hair long and staple-gun his cover-band’s name wherever he can — all of which, he sings, will allow him to finally become ”the king of this goddamn town.” It’s a song about an untroubled dreamer, cradled within an equally dreamy arrangement, full of cascading harmonies, new-wave guitar squiggles and a gorgeous chorus:
I’m on my own
I’m on my way
Down Utopia Parkway
Those lyrics are all part of a very specific rock ‘n’ roll fantasy. But “Utopia Parkway” is relatable to anyone who’s ever dared aspire to some grand destiny, no matter how ill-advised.
The “Utopia Parkway” album had been inspired by albums like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and The Kinks’ “Muswell Hillbillies,” both long-form documents of working-class yearning. And every line in “Utopia Parkway” holds out that same promise of workaday greatness. It’s even there in the song’s very title, which Schlesinger took from a five-mile stretch of roadway in Queens: “The name is so evocative,” he told The New York Times in 1999. “It ties in all these different places and characters because there’s such a sense of longing about it.”
Maybe it’s that longing that’s kept Schlesinger’s tune playing on a loop in my head all these years. “Utopia Parkway” reminds you that no big dream ever truly ends — that you can always be on your own, and on your way, even if you never arrive where you’d once hoped. It’s not the most beloved song Adam Schlesinger wrote, but it may be his most loving.
And while the final line of “Utopia Parkway” is from the viewpoint of its wide-eyed hero, it could very well be about Adam Schlesinger himself: “They’ll never know what hit them when I’m gone.”
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