1988 Countdown #88: Michael Bolton, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”

Back from the commercial break, we are joined again by Kevin Seal, wearing a black jacket over a black t-shirt. “This is the top funky one hundred of 1988,” he says, and then hypes the “Big Bang ’89” New Year’s Eve event later that night on MTV: “We’ll count down the minutes to midnight, in the east,” he says, rolling his eyes. “There’ll be crowd scenes, it’ll be very exciting, it’ll be very live.”

Seal turns his attention to Michael Bolton, recapping his year. “He got to go on the road with Heart, you know, which I’d really like to do,” he says, exuding sarcasm through every pore. “And then there’s rumors going around that he’d take over the lead vocals in Journey,” he continues. Obviously, that didn’t happen. It actually would have been an effective move, if blatantly taken from the Van Halen playbook: fill the lead singer gap with an overwrought and marginally successful solo act. “And he got a new house,” Seal adds. “And he got the storm windows finally replaced on his summer place.”


In 1988, Michael Bolton turned 35; he had been kicking around the music business for about half his life, releasing albums with the hard-rock act Blackjack and under his birth name, Michael Bolotin. (Like the Carpenters and the Five Satins, by the way, Bolton hails from New Haven, Connecticut.) He was having more success as a songwriter, writing “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” and “I Found Someone” for Laura Branigan–you may recall Cher’s hit version of “I Found Someone” five spots back in this countdown. The year before, Bolton had a #19 single (“That’s What Love Is All About”), but he was by no means a commercial force yet; his album The Hunger peaked at #46. This was really his breakthrough single; it’s certainly the first time I remember hearing him.

“Hearing him” meant “wincing at this ham-fisted Otis Redding cover,” and time hasn’t improved matters. If Bolton were trying to break into the music business today, it wouldn’t take him two decades–he’d do great on American Idol. He’s technically proficient, has a veneer of soul (or maybe that’s just the Aqua Sheen), and oversings this song from start to finish, punching every single line as hard as he can. Redding’s mournful restraint on the original is much missed. And whoever’s playing guitar is flashy and aggressive, but lacks the soul of Steve Cropper.

So, the video. I am sure you will be surprised to learn that Bolton spends most of it, yes, sitting on the dock of a bay. The clip somehow manages to be simultaneously incoherent and dull.


We see a boat and a pier, and an olive-skinned guy in a hat, brooding. There’s mist blowing over the wharf, and then an artful cut to the steam coming off a pot in what looks like a crappy one-room rental. The squealing sound of the steam turns into the squawks of seagulls. We cut to a closeup of–a trumpet?

A few more establishing shots of the pier bring us to Bolton, in what looks like an open-air storage room on the dock. Bolton’s curly hair is flowing magnificently down onto his shoulders. He’s wearing jeans and an overcoat. Outside, men in coats and hats mill around, pulling their collars up against the cold. A rowboat rests on the sand. Bolton is not alone, it turns out–there’s an electric guitarist in the room with him. Who is this nimble-fingered hack? Why, it’s Neal Schon of Journey!

It’s not clear whether Schon’s been there the whole time, or whether the power of Bolton’s voice is so great, it compelled him to take that rowboat across the bay and plug into a waiting amplifier. But now the camera pans across the rest of the band, who have also mysteriously appeared, and it sure looks like the dock is hosting the Hall of Fame of Douchebag Eighties Haircuts. There’s also three female backing singers, who at this point in the song have no vocals, so are assigned the task of swiveling rhythmically. We alternate for a while between close-ups of Bolton, shots of the band, and more moody footage of the misty quay.

We reach the bridge of the song. At the risk of undermining his lyrical interpretation, Bolton stands up, leaning against a post. It appears to be later in the day; there’s now a fire burning in a trash can. (I’ve always had a soft spot for videos that were obviously filmed in one day and get dark towards the end just because they ran out of time. There’s usually a fire burning in the later scenes. Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” comes immediately to mind; there are many more.) We now get some off-dock narrative: clips of a shirtless man in what looks like a cheap hotel room. He’s left his clarinet on a wooden chair, next to an ashtray with a burning cigarette. Slowly, as if he’s making an important decision, he picks up the clarinet.


Bolton has moved away from the post, so as better to be able to throw back his head and howl. Schon plays his solo; it’s dark now, so he stands in front of the flaming trash can. It’s cold enough that we can see the condensation on Schon’s breath. The backup singers have bare shoulders; they still don’t have any vocals, and seem to be dancing just to keep warm at this point. Some of the performance footage is from earlier in the day, so we keep cutting back and forth between day and night.


We see scenes of another hotel room, this one more expensive. A young man in an undershirt sits on a bed; a dark-haired model in a black slip is reclining on it, so still that she briefly looks like she’s dead. The guy stands up and pulls on a shirt; the model sits up and looks out a window. In the cheaper hotel room, the shirtless guy leans back and plays his clarinet. I don’t know if the director was trying for a multithreaded narrative about musicians making big life decisions about leaving their girls and going on the road, and then had his footage rendered incoherent in the editing–or whether there was just a record-company directive to shoehorn some good-looking people in their 20s into this video by any means necessary.

We’re reaching the end of the video: at last, the backup singers get to lip-sync. Final three images: The model slowly lies back down again in a state of languid exhaustion, Bolton sits on the dark pier with his hands in his pockets, the water washes against the shore.

When this single came out, Otis Redding’s widow Zelma said that it was “my favorite version of my husband’s classic.” That always made me sad.

Michael Bolton’s version of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” hit #11 on the pop charts. You can watch a slightly truncated version of the video here.

posted 17 July 2008 in 1988 and tagged , , , , . 2 comments

2 Comments on 1988 Countdown #88: Michael Bolton, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”

  1. Chris M. Says:

    Man, further to my point from your Traveling Wilburys post: What is this doing on MTV?

    In my writing about the charts over the years, I’ve often pointed to the ’90s as the dawn of the evil that media programmers call “narrowcasting,” but man–the dividing line is bigger and brighter than I thought. I submit to you: just two or three years after this, the idea that, not just Bolton, but any act with his demographic appeal would appear on a station programmed for teens and 20somethings, would be unheard of.

    I suppose I should be wistful that MTV would once have played a video by Michael Bolton, an artist VH1 programmers of the period would have created in a lab if they could (30something housewife appeal: check, pretensions toward soul: check, Boomer referents: check). But this is one instance that actually makes me glad narrowcasting was invented. Only Michael Bolton could make me feel that way.

  2. Scraps Says:

    This countdown is very entertaining to me, but it’s also informative, because 1988 was the tail end of the few years I’d stopped listening to new music (burned out by the few years I’d spent working at a chain record store). On the one hand, I missed the advent of the Pixies; on the other hand, I have never heard this desecration of one of the greatest songs ever. And I never have to.

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