Soma, “Orange”

If the story of my band were turned into a film, or even a VH1 “Behind the Music” special, I’m certain that the opening credits would be superimposed over the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young.” (“God, what a mess / on the ladder of success. / Well, you take one step and miss the whole first rung.”) (1) Yeah. I often feel that way when I think about the little band that couldn’t. Or, indeed, that could have if not for a series of prototypically teenage miscues. (Or, perhaps, some media-perpetuated heresies. That sounds better, right? Yeah. Damn the Man.)

We were, or, in all honesty, I was preoccupied with the band’s “image.” There is, of course, the necessary teenage device of signifying “I’m in a band” by dressing/acting like dizzy, beflanneled messiahs from the Pacific Northwest. (This was the early-to-mid nineties.) Beyond that, there’s the leftover punk/grunge remnant which suggested that playing instruments well was secondary to the atmosphere which the band affected. (This continues to this day. I’m looking at you Marilyn…and, I suppose if we switch out “atmosphere” for “train wreck,” then I’m averting my gaze from you Britney, Paris et al.) Beyond that, there was the fact that I was a teenager writing the sort of stuff that everyday teenagers write. And, more or less, that’s how the first twenty minutes of our VH1 special would go – stuck in my parents’ basement, and wondering, as Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted (Theodore) Logan once did, whether or not we should learn to play our instruments.

And then Andy would show up. (2) Up until this point, the soundtrack to the show would be full of the works of other artists. Truth be told, we wrote a total of six songs before Andy joined our little “sonic gang,” and none of them are really worth discussing from a musicological vantage-point. Amongst their titles were such gems as “Faded Memories,” “Will You Stay?,” and “Satin.” They’re as good as these titles suggest. At any rate, we’d probably either have to use other people’s music for the first twenty minutes (We covered R.E.M.’s “Country Feedback” and Green Day’s “Dominated Love Slave” among others.), or play the same ten seconds over and over, as if we were one of those bands like Kajagoogoo which only ever wrote one song. (Or may as well have, anyway. Apologies to Kajagoogoo disciples.)

Digressing slightly, have you ever noticed that some of the bands on “Behind the Music” really aren’t people you’d remember at all? I mean, even if you were really into eighties pop, are you going to stay up late to watch the Falco “Behind the Music?” No, me either. (Incidentally, though, he’s dead. Died in a car crash. In 2004, there was a play in Berlin called “Falco meets Amadeus,” and I would’ve given my left leg to be there. (3) Sigh.).

Returning, however, to my own hypothetical episode, the story of Brand X Detergent (later Soma, Other Voices, Brand X, and _______ (adj + noun) for those playing at home…) would rapidly become vaguely-interesting once Andy Hicks arrived. Andy was the real deal: a songwriter from Westford (where the rich kids are, and the minorities aren’t), and he came prepared one Saturday afternoon to rock. And he did. Once Andy decided to join our band, we worked almost entirely on his tracks. Sure, Chris and I contributed our own songs, but the story of the band was Andy’s. (And I say this without resentment or jealousy.) It’s funny, though, as the nineties meant that many of his finest songs were unusable once they became popular. By this, I mean that having a “hit” was about the least-cool thing you could do in the nineties. Artists like Pearl Jam and Nirvana were constantly apologizing for this, and it seemed as if a great many people got famous entirely by “accident.” (Of course, following through on this, bands that stalked celebrity – like Oasis and Hootie and the Blowfish – were often quite unpleasant.)

Anyway, on the scrap heap, were songs I positively loved: “3 O’Clock and Sleeping” and “Leprechauns Sledding Down a Hill of Vaseline” being two of my favorites. (I’m glossing a bit, but that’s because I’m planning a post on “3 O’Clock.”) What made this somehow survivable, however, was that Andy never stopped producing quality material. In fact, he’s still doing it. But we’ll get there…

Our band took a cue from the playbook usually reserved for bands that have at least a majority of performers that can, well, perform, and we made a demo. This demo was produced by the guy who was the drummer for Boston, and it was recorded for $666 in 13 Hours. I’m not one for superstition, but here’s one place where this postively unholy combination didn’t disappoint. I would like to say, for the sake of those few people I still owe two bucks to (4), that we really did try. Part of the problem was that we hadn’t rehearsed much, and part of it was that the production was very professional (except for the producing), and we just weren’t up to that standard. Still, what really made the demo a bust was that we tried to record six tracks – two from Chris, two from Me, and two from Andy. Like most things, we would have done well to focus on our strengths. A demo of four Andy songs would’ve rocked. It would have, however, forced people to remove Andy from our band at gunpoint if necessary. Intervention Culture was alive, even then.

Now, I’m not saying that Andy wasn’t without his faults, but the truth is that he was always better than us. This isn’t in the “Russell from Stillwater” sense of the phrase, but in a pure, honest discussion of musicianship. Andy came ready with songs, worked hard on his demos, and was generally earnest about his craft. We were there to a) be in a band, b) goof around, and c) impress people with our lack of pretense. Having said that, I wish you could’ve been at the last show we ever played. For one night only, all the frustration that goes with being in a band like that turned into something else: music. Actual, danceable music where everyone contributed. It was also the night that Andy, and our drummer, quit. What can you do?

I know it seems like I’m skipping a lot, and I am. There are so many stories from the band that I want to tell, and I’d hate to rush them, or jam them all into this one micro-post. So, instead, let me assure you that we’ll be coming back to the band in many of the entries in this series. There may, if we get people to sign waivers, be some samples of the music. We’ll see. Having said that, let me get where I’m headed. Andy went on to work in another local band that instantly became our archenemies. You know, in that West Side Story sort of way. We didn’t have team jackets, and they didn’t wear team colors (black would’ve been obvious as their band was “Dark Thoughts,” but I doubt I would’ve given up wearing black for anyone). Still, it hurt to know that Andy had gone on. I think the reason I resented them so much, apart from the obvious issues of vanity, was that I knew just what I was going to miss out on. And, on this point, at least, I was right.

In much the same way that Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails, Andy Hicks is now The Pluto Tapes. His/Their new album is out on iTunes, and you can find some sample tracks on the myspace page. I’d really encourage you to check it out. (My current favorite is “Guernica.”) I wouldn’t say that I’ll refund your money if you don’t like it, but I’ll buy you a drink and tell you why you’re foolish. How’s that? Still, what I really want to talk about is the one thing that charges into mind whenever I listen to Andy’s music (and, honestly, I’m probably one of the most astute collectors of Andy’s material out there): the session where “Tree Song” became semi-polished.

One of Andy’s songs that we managed to play at almost every “gig” was “Tree Song.” (5) The guitar was a real Catherine Wheel (circa Ferment, especially “Black Metallic”) kinda thing, and the vocals were catchy in the way that Seventeen Seconds era Cure stuff is catchy. I was, and remain, in love with this song (6) . It also, actually, constitutes my proudest moment in music. Neither the concerts I played in Europe with my school orchestra, nor the time a genuinely-qualified person (who, though I’m sure this is incidental, happened to be a pretty girl that I liked) looked at me wide-eyed and told me that my voice was “beautiful,” could rival the joy I felt when I contributed the song’s keyboard lines and they stuck. Now, these were simple things: rather like the sort of thing that Lol would give to Cure albums. Which is to say that they were effective, integral parts of the song (just barely), but you wouldn’t ever mistake them for something off of Disintegration. Even so, I made something that became an established, well-liked part of one of Andy’s songs, and this made me the happiest person in the world.

The reasons for this are obvious: 1) it’s a huge ego-boost to contribute something meaningful to the art of a person you genuinely respect, and 2) it was one of the rare moments where our band actually rose above its silly faux-angst and created a truly excellent, if angst-ridden, bit of music. There are a handful of moments from the band that will stay in my heart until the day I die. This is one of them. The other that comes immediately to mind was the feeling of performing that last gig. Beth, our bass player, really stole the show with playing that did everything to destroy the shyness and timidity she brought with her red, star-adorned bass. Ken’s keyboard playing did not dissolve into “Jump,” and those of us not named Andy or Jeff did nothing to embarrass ourselves. In fact, people cheered and danced through the middle of our set.

This is a secret I’ve not really told anyone, but I’ll tell you (as long as you promise not to tell or write it on the Web, k?): When I sing out loud, I am usually thinking of three different places, and some very-specific audiences. This is one of them. In the heart that sings, I’m forever eighteen. Which is just the right age for doing the unstuck.

The ironic footnote to that keyboard line, though it really wasn’t totally unexpected, is that the demo recording is completely screwed up. The keyboard is out of sync, and generally sounds horrible. At least, some of it does. Sigh. Some people are meant to create art, and some are meant to be road crew. At least I like to dress in black, right? But, seriously, if you give me a quarter, or promise to assist me in my quest through time to destroy all copies of the demo, I’ll play it for you. In fact, I’d love to play it for you.

Shortly before I erase your memory. (7)

  1. In fact, in the screenplay I have co-written on this very topic, this is precisely the case. Do I have a gift for clairvoyancy, or what? [Back]
  2. Is it telling that it disappoints me that I don’t get to be Rufus in this story? Is it any better that I’m only disappointed because George Carlin is the man? Not The Man, mind you, but “the man.” Just so we’re clear. [Back]
  3. You won’t really be able to say much more than “eh,” but I want to point out that I’m a very good person for not inserting the obvious (probably exclusively to me) joke about wanting to give my arm to be the drummer in Def Leppard. [Back]
  4. There’s a contact form above, folks. [Back]
  5. The song became “Orange” in one of Andy’s truly transcendent “Billy Corgan” moments. The other one was where he yelled at everyone in the band for not being able to play his songs fast or well enough. He was right to do this, I suppose, but it was still scary. The sort of yelling you imagine Beethoven doing all the time. Or, at least, your dad at any point in time where the words “car” and “insurance” are uttered in relation to an unknown third party. (Sorry, Dad.) No, the transcendent moment was this: We were in the process of recording our demo in a part of Malden where the Orange Line passes by. Andy was asked what the name of the track was (for the purpose of labeling the reel), and he said: “Orange.” Generally, for reasons not-limited-to-but-including that we once tried to make our band name into an anagram that worked out to “Tori Amos”, we didn’t question Andy on his lyric/title changes. However, this change struck us, and someone asked what happened to “Tree Song.” Andy remarked that the train was going by, and that’s how he chose the name. Corgan did something similar with the best track the Pumpkins ever wrote, claiming in an interview that song titles didn’t really mean much. (Paraphrase follows…) “Open the fridge, there’s a jar of mayonnaise, so, ok, it’s called “Mayonaise.” There you go. [Back]
  6. Missy, who I was dating at the time, said that the track was her “heartsong.” When asked what this meant, she said that it sounded like a dream, and a perfect feeling of warmth in her heart. I honestly loved that she could feel that about this song, and I wasn’t at all surprised. (Note: that’s not ego, but, again, Andy worship.) [Back]
  7. Until that day, enjoy “Bastards of Young” by the Replacements. In fact, don’t just enjoy it… get your lighters out, kids. “The ones who love us best are the ones we’ll lay to rest. / And visit their graves on holidays, at best. / The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please / If it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand them…” I’ve always loved that verse best, even if the first one makes more sense for this story. [Back]

24 thoughts on “Soma, “Orange”

  1. Great entry! I wonder if we have audio of a good performance of “Orange” sitting around somewhere. Like you said, we played it a lot. So it seems silly that we don’t have a good recording of it. Just checked my video of the practice before the Bradford show, but that one’s not great. That’s the only one I have, aside from the performance at the Bradford show itself, which is hard to hear (and probably not great either).

    I’d give anything to hear the tape of that first WA show again. I heard it once, right after the show, along with Andy. We were listening to it on someone’s Walkman, and I never heard it again.

    A recording of the Chelmsford Common show or the final WA show would be even better, but the only recording of either of those is the recording of “Shame About Ray” that WA had back in the day.

    And there are at least a couple of tapes I saw once back in the day that I have no idea where they are anymore… tape of the re-formed band in your basement (without Jeff)… tape of the show at Nicole’s house (good for audio only, as I recall, because the video camera decided to stop working)…

    Anyway, great entry. We really should get all of the audio and video together someday so that we can all (privately) relive the glory days when we want to. I have some things, and maybe Andy has some things, and do you have anything?

    Alright, I’m really going to stop typing now.

  2. Hi Chris,

    I’m really glad that you enjoyed the post. It’s hard to know how to find the right tone for band-related things, but I’m glad it works in this post. It would be really awesome to find a way to bring back “Orange,” you know, without having to re-record it. Although, perhaps if we pay people five bucks each we can get a chant going at a Pluto Tapes show…

    We’ll have to find the mysterious “walkman kid” on our quest through time. He should be easy enough to spot – what with the mark of evil on him, and all. As for listening to old tapes, I’m perfectly happy to relive the “Glory Days.” Well, so long as the process doesn’t even barely resemble the Bruce Springsteen video of the same name.


  3. Oh, by the way, how are those footnotes working for you? No trouble, I hope? (They link down, and then back, which makes me love them…)

  4. That’s actually really nice of you, and it’s kind of mind blowing that something I wrote when I was 15 on a snow day still gets brought up from time to time. I loved your keyboard part – a huge part of the problem with the recording of that is that we couldn’t hear each other, and we didn’t know we were supposed to be able to hear each other. Feh. I’m not saying a demo of all my stuff would have been any better – “The End” always had a ton of potential and it sucks we never got to do “Proposal” or “Never Forget” on tape. “Spun By You” could have also been better – when it worked, it worked like “Six Different Ways” or one of the battier Cure songs. When it didn’t.. bah. No one’s fault, we were 16.

    Part of why I changed it from “Tree Song” to “Orange” was because there was already a Led Zep song called Tree Song, and, as a devotee of 90s alternative music, “I FUCKING HATED LED ZEPPELIN.” Despite Pearl Jam sounding a lot like them. This sort of thing happens to me a lot – The Pluto Tapes song “Nikita Says Love” had a name change because of The Cold War Kids (it used to be The Cold War) and the chorus made reference to a “beautiful disaster”. 311 I can rip off, but not Kelly Clarkson, who went and recorded a song called Beautiful Disaster. So.. I will bury you in silence.

    Anyway… does anyone have the second/third verses of “Orange” anywhere? I’m sort of thinking I want to record it as a Pluto Tapes B-side, just for kicks.

  5. Awesome. I will agree that our studio setup contributed to the weirdness of the recording, but I’m not sure that I’m entirely willing to absolve myself. Meh. Anyway, as you say, we were 16. I find it somewhat surprising, actually, just how much I think about some of those songs. Apart from “Orange,” I’ve always wished that I could hear “Graveyard Song” again. (It had a line: “It’s a perfect night for stargazing…” if that helps?) I loved that song.

    Given that little bit of information on “Tree Song,” I can assume that you were also a fan of Screeching Weasel’s “I Hate Led Zeppelin.” I had no idea it was so anthemic. 😉

    As I’ve said before, the Pluto Tapes stuff is just brilliant. (Hint: BUY ANDY’S STUFF!) Sorry, did I just turn into Nicole? I think I did. Omgponies!

    I’ll get that “Orange” material to you immediately, good sir. Let me fire up the Winamp…

  6. That’s fun, I hate Led Zeppelin because of the pre-Andy guitarist.

    I, too, like this entry. I like reading just about anything about the band because, while really embarrassing in some ways to think about how naive I was, it was a great time. Even if I was always shamed by my abilities.

  7. Yay – it’s Beth!

    Yes. Let us never speak of the “Rain Song” again. Ever. (Boo.)

    I’m glad that you liked the entry. It really is important to me to consider that I’m not doing a disservice to those who were there – and, indeed, who made it so very special. And, really, there’s no reason to feel ashamed: 1) We were all young and learning, and 2) You were actually really good. Chris and I often talk about how the best part of that last Westford Academy gig (and I think Andy agreed, once) was getting to hear you turned up and grooving. It really was awesome.

    I’ll keep this a touch short, as I’m in Rome on a wireless connection – but I’ll certainly be writing more when I return… you should consider writing, too… I’m always eager to find new voices for the site. 🙂

  8. I agree more than once that Beth rocked during our last show. And yeah, we were all young and silly, and I’m stealing that line about “in the heart that sings, I’m forever eighteen” for something. 🙂

  9. I’d be honored, good sir. 🙂 Not that I have much choice, of course, as you’re Andy F-in Hicks! By the by, I was just listening to “Band of the Year 1995” when you wrote…and it’s eerily familiar, if you know what I mean? But yeah, brilliant stuff…I was especially pleased to hear that snippet of “Lightning Crashes” as it was, in life, the first song I ever heard you sing. Cool, that.

    Wow… I should be in bed. 🙂 Let me know what becomes of my meager line!

  10. Oh yeah… the first verse of Band of the Year ’95 is about you, me, and Stander on the T. Which was, oddly enough, the same day as the Oklahoma City bombing. “and you can design our cover art/revolution on your 16th birthday” definitely nicole. I’m most proud of “in the back row of American history”, because THAT’S OUR GENERATION, MAAAAN….

  11. Heh. Awesome. 🙂 Yeah, I remember that trip. I bought Screeching Weasel’s “Boogadaboogadaboogada!” album while we were there. Weird. I actually still have the thank you card/poster that Nicole designed for us, as well as Chris’ insert for the demo.

    Is it strange that I feel dirty just thinking about the demo? 😉 Whatever the case, your song has, among other things, made me sad for the lack of OK Soda in the world.

  12. I forgot about OK Soda…that stuff was good!
    Ahhhh, the demo. I still have it, but I no longer own a tape player…except in Ben’s car.

    I got to see Andy F-in Hicks unexpectedly last night! Hooray!

  13. Just re-reading this post and the comments and had to say hi from 2010 to the 2007 versions of all of us. I’m still thinking about all of this stuff. The album I contributed to for the RPM Challenge last month was about the band to some extent (at least sonically).

    Anyway, y’all just made me smile on this rainy Sunday morning.

  14. I’m always surprised by how much I didn’t know about the band’s drama. I feel like I was just there, a supporting character, “okay, we have a band. Okay we don’t have a band. Can we still practice?” I also realize now that, while maybe I had talent, I didn’t have any music-writing ability. And that’s where a lot of my “shyness” came from.

    • I think we’re stuck with this one, Beth. Like war survivors, or people who saw Gigli… some things can never be forgotten…

      Seriously, though, I never thought of you as “incidental” to the band. Not ever. It was great having you there, and I still think one of my favorite moments was when we could finally all hear you, and how well you were playing, at that last Westford show. And if nothing else at all, you were probably the only sane person in the room at any given moment. So, even though it has taken me many years to remember to say this: Thank you for chaperoning us. 😉

      See you both here in three years?

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