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)
- 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]
- Is it telling that it disappoints me that I donâ€™t get to be Rufus in this story? Is it any better that Iâ€™m only disappointed because George Carlin is the man? Not The Man, mind you, but â€œthe man.â€ Just so weâ€™re clear. [Back]
- You wonâ€™t really be able to say much more than â€œeh,â€ but I want to point out that Iâ€™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]
- Thereâ€™s a contact form above, folks. [Back]
- The song became â€œOrangeâ€ in one of Andyâ€™s truly transcendent â€œBilly Corganâ€ 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 â€œcarâ€ and â€œinsuranceâ€ 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: â€œOrange.â€ Generally, for reasons not-limited-to-but-including that we once tried to make our band name into an anagram that worked out to â€œTori Amosâ€, we didnâ€™t question Andy on his lyric/title changes. However, this change struck us, and someone asked what happened to â€œTree Song.â€ Andy remarked that the train was going by, and thatâ€™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 didnâ€™t really mean much. (Paraphrase followsâ€¦) â€œOpen the fridge, thereâ€™s a jar of mayonnaise, so, ok, itâ€™s called â€œMayonaise.â€ There you go. [Back]
- Missy, who I was dating at the time, said that the track was her â€œheartsong.â€ 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 wasnâ€™t at all surprised. (Note: thatâ€™s not ego, but, again, Andy worship.) [Back]
- 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]