[See earlier installments here and, I guess, here.]
I was 14 years old in October 1996, two months into my freshman year of high school. My friends at the time were pretty much limited to the few relationships I’d forged at my church’s youth group. School was a much more lonely and daunting place, and I actually spent most of my freshman year eating lunch by myself on the courtyard benches outside the cafeteria. I’m not saying this to engender sympathy; I’m just trying to talk about how I experienced the world back then. I wasn’t happy with my situation, but I was familiar with it.
One of my closest friends — who’d become my best friend, a man I’m still in touch with today — was a kid I knew from the youth group. He went to a different high school, but we bonded over movies. We had similar tastes in film and a shared desire to explore the art form in ways that our other friends didn’t care to: My friend and I were probably the only teens in Texas to leave a Bible study early to catch American History X. He taught me about music, too, and he’s now someone I turn to regularly to discover artists I know I’ll love.
But all of that was later. In 1996, at 14, I was just a quiet, lonesome boy who didn’t know much about anything. My friend turned me onto a band called Fountains of Wayne when we were hanging out at his house one night, and the plaintive, witty power pop was the perfect soundtrack to insular evenings spent playing video games and talking about how much we didn’t understand the girls in our lives. We were listening to Fountains of Wayne’s self-titled debut, which came out that fall and received a modest amount of attention thanks to the fact that frontman Adam Schlesinger had penned the title song for Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do!, which hit theaters four days after the band’s album dropped. “Radiation Vibe” and “Sink to the Bottom” were released as singles, but all of the album’s bright, poppy explorations of heartache felt radio-ready. The one that stuck with me, though, was “Leave the Biker.”
“Leave the Biker” is an angular, jangly, downright perfect pop song about a boy or young man beating his head and heart against an invisible wall, wondering with all his might why the girl of his dreams was spending her time and energy on a slovenly thug who didn’t appreciate her (and, it should be noted, had been a real dick to the singer’s character). The singer talks about feeling trapped in his hometown, being unable to find a date, and wondering how he’ll ever make things change. These feelings are, to put it mildly, extremely resonant for lonesome high school freshmen, and the song stuck with me for its frankness and piercing heartbreak all wrapped up in a bubble-gum package. I learned the lyrics without ever trying to, and it became one of those songs everyone has that they sing in the shower or hum to themselves at odd moments. It just became my song.
I stayed with the band from then on. I liked 1999′s Utopia Parkway well enough, especially “It Must Be Summer” and “Red Dragon Tattoo,” but I adored 2003′s Welcome Interstate Managers. That was the album that introduced most of the rest of the country to the band: Its first single, “Stacy’s Mom,” was the band’s biggest smash to date, earning the video regular airplay and bringing the band an oddly timed Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, despite having formed almost a decade earlier and releasing two albums before this one. “Hey Julie,” another great song, earned some play thanks to placement in a few TV shows.
Welcome Interstate Managers stayed in a regular rotation for me for years — it became default road-trip music, for instance — but I never let myself get too far from their earlier songs or “Leave the Biker.” The band’s 15 minutes in the MTV spotlight ended, and they went back to being mine, in that way all groups do for fans who’ve been around before the fame hit and will be there long after it’s gone. Traffic and Weather, from 2007, had some great songs, and their latest, Sky Full of Holes, is wonderful.
When I met the woman who’d become my wife, I was living in California and she was living in Texas, which meant many, many phone calls. We discovered not only similar tastes in certain movies and music, but a shared history as singers, too: We both participated in the choir programs at our schools and universities, though her natural voice is stronger than mine. One night on the phone, she asked me to sing for her. I was scared for all the predictable reasons: Our relationship was still young, I was nervous, I wanted her to be impressed, I wanted her to like me, I didn’t want my voice to crack. She wasn’t auditioning me, but asking me to open up. So I did.
I sang “Leave the Biker.” At the time I told myself (and her) that it was the first and easiest song I could remember, and that it wasn’t too much of a strain in terms of range or melody, so I knew I’d be able to easily sing it over the phone. But the truth is it was also a song that had been with me for half my life at that point, and singing it meant saying This is who I am and where I’ve been. It wasn’t just a song I knew; it was something that had gotten me where I was, and a representation of the things about yourself that can only ever be expressed through music. I sang to her, softly, sitting on the edge of my bed in a crowded room in a Los Angeles apartment, reaching out to someone 1,600 miles away. It meant something to share it with her, the way it always does when you find someone so important that you’re willing to disclose the awkward ways you became who you are. That’s why there’s always going to be a divide between what people say is the best band and the one they claim as their favorite. Some stuff just stays with you that way.