Studio


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Sometimes, the the best things you can do while you’re on the road are things you would ordinarily do at home anyway. In our nation’s capital over 4th of July weekend, we delayed a side-trip to Annapolis because we could not tear ourselves away from this year’s epic Wimbledon men’s final (which lasted over five hours including rain delays). We had no choice but to just sit there all day on the couch, glued to the wide-screen TV.

McEnroe was beside himself in the booth, and it was clear that this was one for the ages. Afterwards, when he went down to the locker area to interview the players, McEnroe was completely lit up by what we had all just witnessed — the ferocious and transcendent quality of the tennis on display, even up to the bitter end. He was gushing like a little kid.

Eventually he asked Federer, who was ever-gracious in defeat (one gets the impression that Federer and the equally gracious Nadal actually like and respect each other) if there was any consolation in knowing that he had just participated in what was arguably the greatest final in Wimbledon history. Federer smiled a kind of sick, sad smile and I don’t even remember what he answered. But in any case it was clear that the real answer was “no,” that there was no consolation at all in fighting that hard only to come up a whisker short.

And I thought of the many equivalent sporting events I’ve seen over the years, and I’ve always had the exact same feeling as Johnny Mac — that when you play in one of those it should offset the disappointment of losing. It should be more than enough just to have engaged in such a thrillingly high level of competition. That’s certainly how I would feel if it were me. (I am perhaps a bit too comfortable in seeing things from the loser’s perspective.) But of course to the Federers of this world, it’s not nearly enough. Champions play to win; it’s part of what makes them champions. Yet another stunningly obvious life-lesson I had never quite figured out before.

To help me sort it all out later, I was thankful for the company of Harriet The Spy:

I WILL NEVER FORGET THAT FACE AS LONG AS I LIVE. DOES EVERYBODY LOOK THAT WAY WHEN THEY HAVE LOST SOMETHING? I DON’T MEAN LIKE LOSING A FLASHLIGHT. I MEAN DO PEOPLE LOOK LIKE THAT WHEN THEY HAVE LOST?

And to top it all off, an aptly themed romantic melodrama from the Nightmares playbook.

Perfume

The Nightmares

Hear the glasses clinking in the air
When I reach for one, well it’s not there
I light the room with candles one by one
I’ll burn a lot more things before I’m done

I was stranded, a dirty roadside
Stuck out my thumb and caught a ride
Ended up in an old saloon
The ceiling fans whirled me across the room

They sang, all that’s left of you is just a little perfume
All that’s left of you is just a little perfume

Well, I heard you were asking Danny how I was
That’s very kind, thank you very much
I do the crossword puzzle in the New York Times
But I can still remember different times

I was frightened, a dirty roadside
Hit my knees and there I cried
Later on I was in your room
The bottles on the dresser played forgotten tunes

They played, all that’s left of you is just a little perfume
All that’s left of you is just a little perfume

All that’s left of you
All that’s left of you dear darlin’ is the smell of your perfume

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I wrote this song in my head wandering home drunk after work one night — from 97th and Madison to the East Village. Sometimes when you have a band, it makes it easy to write this way — what’s playing in your head will somehow be pre-tailored to the musicians’ individual styles and strengths, anticipating what everyone will do with their parts. Or rather, everyone’s styles and strengths will inform (and dictate to a certain extent) what’s playing in your head. At any rate, it’s distinctly different from going in with just chords and a melody and working it out.

The verses were my sincere attempt to write a love-that-nobody-else-understands song, a sideways homage to Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know” which I played endlessly in those days. (That would be the Tracy Ullman version, of course — I had barely heard of Kirsty MacColl back then.) I found the notion of unsanctioned romance utterly captivating. I did not know then what I know now, which is that if no one you know approves of your paramour it’s usually because he or she is bad news or the relationship is wildly unhealthy. (Though there are exhilarating exceptions, god knows, and thank god for that.)

The chorus was meant as a semi-joke: a list of over-the-top romantic attributes followed by a verbal shrug. I vaguely had in mind the famous scene in “Caddyshack” where Bill Murray talks about caddying for the Dalai Lama and being given the gift of total consciousness on his deathbed in lieu of a tip. As virtually everyone reading this already knows, Bill tries to play off his bragging with typicallly masterful nonchalance and says something like, “So I got that going for me, which is nice.”

Everybody’s Gotta Have Something

People talking about you, baby
Saying you’re no good
I pay no attention, darling
Though I probably should

‘Cause I see something special
When I look into your eyes
I see a burning pool of fire
And a love that never dies
And everybody’s gotta have something

All the things that they’re saying, darling
I don’t wanna hear
I’ll meet you in the Marlin, baby
And we could have a beer

And we could sit in the back and they’d leave us alone
For a little while
‘Cause nothing’s ever wrong when I’m holding your hand
And I see you smile

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I’m more than a little abashed at having posted so much inane blather about my songwriting “process” the other day. And of course, I couldn’t help but remember more innocent times, when committing to a song was not such a matter of sturm und drang.

The Real Thing (Trad.)

The Nightmares

It’s the real thing
In the back of your mind
What you’re hoping to find
Whoa, yeah, it’s the real thing
(Coca-Cola is coke!)

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We were sitting around Gideon Rosen’s parent’s house in Larchmont, where, as fate would have it, there happened to be a guitar and, you guessed it, a copy of a certain magazine sitting on the coffee table. And, not only did we consider this a proper song, but as is evidenced below, we actually paid real money to record it in a proper studio.

Consumer Reports

The Nightmares

Consumer Reports, everybody needs
Consumer Reports, everybody reads
Consumer Reports, Consumer Reports
Consumer Reports, yeah

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Mary and I had just split up and I was a drunken, zombified wreck, beyond misery, when Ned casually slipped Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” into a Nightmares rehearsal. At the time, things were strained between me and Ned, and we could barely stand to be in the same room together.

I learned the song, but it wasn’t until later on that I realized his intent hadn’t been so completely casual after all. I think he was looking out for me, in his way, and whether that’s true or not, singing this song night after night definitely helped clear out my head and bring me back to the world of the living.

Sometimes the kindest exchanges between two people are the small, silent gestures made when things have degenerated so badly that civil conversation is next to impossible.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (Bob Dylan)

The Nightmares

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“Harold” was a term we used as shorthand for appreciating those all-too-common situations that betray the handiwork of a sadistically ironic god. “That’s so Harold,” we might say, shaking our heads over our cocktail glasses. Or simply, “Uh-oh, Harold!”

I say “we,” but really there were only three people I know who used the term this way: Me, Jon Frankel and Bill Arning. I think at first we were making fun of a Times book review that used the word “Haroldian” to describe something in a play by Harold Pinter. And knowing very little about Pinter or his oeuvre back then, we may have believed that mordant irony was the defining characteristic of his work. (I still know very little of Pinter’s writing, and for all I know that actually may well be its defining characteristic. Or not.)

Anyhow, the term soon took on a life of its own, having absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Pinter. “Harold” became just “Harold.” And for those weeks-on-end where one’s life became a boiling cauldron of sadistic irony, one could say that “Harold” had moved in.

“Puppies” was written on 109th Street, utter living room nonsense, as the lyrics certainly attest. But of course, sometimes it’s easier to sing nonsense with heartfelt sincerity than it is to resist singing lyrics that cut closer to the bone with affected detachment. The song became a Nightmares live staple, and allowed Reno to execute one of the trickiest maneuvers in all of rockdom: a short and tasteful drum solo.

Puppies

The Nightmares

I woke up on Moday morning
Without any warning
Hey hey hey

And when I went to bed that night
You know I woke up with such a fright
Hey hey hey

‘Cause if the puppies don’t bring the shoes home
If the puppies don’t bring the shoes home
If the puppies don’t bring the shoes
Well, hey hey hey

I was watching television
Trying to make a big decision
Hey hey hey

I was writing with a pen and paper
Trying to compose a criminal caper
Hey hey hey

‘Cause if the puppies don’t bring the shoes home
If the puppies don’t bring the shoes home
If the puppies don’t bring the shoes
Well, hey hey hey

I was killing myself with pennies
Pretty soon you know I didn’t have any
Hey hey hey

And then Harold came to stay
It doesn’t matter what the people say
Hey hey hey

‘Cause if the puppies don’t bring the shoes home
If the puppies don’t bring the shoes home
If the puppies don’t bring the shoes
Well, hey hey hey

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People talk all the time about how this or that obscure pop song is “an alternate-universe hit single.” And God knows, Larchmont, where I spent my high school years, was nothing if not an alternate universe, with its own decadent manners & mores and its own spit-and-bailing-wire soundtrack. In other words, it was not unlike many affluent, drugged-out, psycho suburbs at the waning of the putrid ’70s.

Matthew Tolley was a huge star and catalyst in that universe, for all the same reasons that he could barely scrape together a life in this one. He hated me at the end, and when I went to his memorial service I hadn’t spoken to him in over ten years. The final straw was The Nightmares recording his song, “Trudy” — which, after Ned’s “I Could Never Know You,” is perhaps Larchmont’s all-time greatest hit. Matthew saw that as the ultimate betrayal, and he was furious.

“Trudy” was a very sad, simple song Matthew wrote about a girl named Trudy he had met and fallen madly in love with when he was in the mental hospital. Like all of Matthew’s songs, “Trudy” mainly existed in the alternate-universe ether, but it was something everyone I knew at the time could sing by heart — from depressed little freshman girls at our high school to members of Blondie.

It’s stunning to think that the only actual physical artifact of this song was Matthew’s original alone-in-my-bedroom-casette, and I can still remember people sitting around Matthew and his cheap little tape recorder, in awe of the song and of the atmosphere he conjured so simply — and of a spirit no one gathered there could ever hope to replicate.

Google turns up this letter Matthew wrote to the New York Times in 1986. He’s ostensibly writing to them about what an actor’s job is, something he understood exceedingly well, but his words apply with equal weight and wisdom to all of us mere players.

Jon writes:

“Matthew Tolley wrote one song, Trudy. He never intended to do anything with it, but it was his song, and it was perfect. He had met Trudy in the madhouse when he was in high school. Other than that, I don’t know who Trudy was. But I’m sure it was the purest form of Devastationalist crush. He wrote a simple, punky love song to a girl he didn’t really know, but for whom he had the deepest feelings of love. Matthew was a sort of damned Idealist, a Gnostic stranded in mortality.

He was obsessed with both innocence and its loss. His loss of innocence in the madhouse left him without anything at all, except for a sense of humour. He worshipped fame, fallen fame. Suicides and nervous breakdowns. Hollywood Babylon stuff. He was in love with the story where he was Patty Duke collapsing on the beach in “Valley of the Dolls.”

When we were first living together on First Avenue he got a few boxes of codeine cough syrup and a giant bottle of Phenobarbital. The cough syrup was okay, but it had a decongestant and it dried out your nasal passages till you started to wheeze. Matthew drank it on the rocks. Sometimes he washed the phenobarbitol down with it, sometimes he went to Mudd with Eloise and swallowed the pills down with booze. He managed it for several weeks but one morning I awoke to the phone. It was his mother asking if he was there and if so, was he awake? He had called his psychiatrist and asked, “What happens if you swallow a hundred Phenobarbital?”

I got off the phone and started dragging him around by the lapels to keep him conscious till the EMT guys arrive. They came in with a gurney and some smelling salts. When I told them what Matthew had said to his psychiatrist they were contemptuous. But later when they pumped his stomach there were forty undigested pills in it. The nurse said to us when we went to visit, “Your friend pulled the tube out of his nose. So they put a catheter up in his penis.” Matthew was mortified.

He saved me some of the bread they gave him at the hospital. It came in a plastic bag and was ageless. It hung on our Christmas tree for nine years.”

Trudy (Matthew Tolley)

The Nightmares

Trudy, you know I love you
And though you’re still there
I really don’t care

‘Cause Trudy, it’s what you do to me
You nearly blind me
Must be your beauty

I love you
You know I do
I miss you
I really do

Trudy, you’re really groovy
You’re like a movie
You’ll always move me

Trudy, although you’re crazy
Christ, you amaze me
You’ll always daze me, yeah

I love you
You know I do
I miss you
I really do

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Mary was a real girl. At the time, too real for me, alas. It was Kristian Hoffman who urged me to use real names in my songs. He had a song called “Suddenly I Know a Lot of Dead People” where he sang, “I never thought, I never knew/Anders and Allison, to name just two.” Anders and Allison were, of course, two real dead people that he knew — or had known, I guess you should say. (I knew them too. Allison used to change my guitar strings for me.)

I have no idea what might have been going through Mary’s mind the million times she saw The Nightmares perform this song. I do know that on the very few occasions I’ve watched people sing songs that I knew were about me, I felt extremely uncomfortable, dizzy to the point of nausea. (I’ve heard that an aversion to “taking it” is not uncommon among disher-outers.)

But then, I would always say that this song wasn’t really about her. I just used her name. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but listening to this song now, it seems to me that what it’s really about is getting wasted and listening to The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society nonstop for a week.

Mary

The Nightmares

I know someday we will laugh about this thing
And I know someday we’ll be better
But until that day can be
We’ll be all right, just you see

And Mary, whatever you want to do
It’s all right with me
And Mary, wherever you want to go
It’s all right with me
And Mary, whoever you want to see
It’s all right with me
And Mary, whatever you want to wear

I hope someday we’ll be smarter than we are
And I hope someday we are better
But until that day can be
We’ll be all right, just you see

And Mary, whatever you want to do
It’s all right with me
And Mary, wherever you want to go
It’s all right with me
And Mary, whoever you want to see
It’s all right with me
And Mary, however you wear your hair

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Where to begin? Well, once upon a time there was a sensitive young man from Greenwich Village named Alex Garvin, and though he was a bit of a prig, before he completely fell off the face of the earth he had at least one undisputably brilliant idea, which was to have a Big Star-esque pop group that played only toy instruments.

Alex wrote earnest, catchy songs about his bohemian life and he took the whole thing quite seriously — he didn’t make a big camp joke about it, but played things (mostly) straight. He looked at the band as an art project and he was genuinely interested in the unique, off-kilter moods that could only be generated using Toys ‘R’ Us gear. I thought that was genius. That group was called Pianosaurus, and I had the great good fortune to spend a year or two banging on a Smurf guitar with Alex and his cohorts, drummer Steve “Reno” Dansiger and keyboard player Bianca “Flystrip” Miller.

Alex and I didn’t really get along, which is almost certainly down to my bad personality in those days, but after he kicked me out of the group (which happened one night on stage at Folk City, where I finished the set drinking at the bar) at least The Nightmares got a drummer out of it, and for awhile I continued to cover Alex’s pretty song “Eleanor Day,” the title of which was a pun on the actual name of a Philadelphia art-school classmate of his. (And while we’re at it, I also used to cover Bianca’s sucker-punch Devastionalist classic, “Red M&M’s,” which I still do sometimes. Man, I love that song.)

Anyhow, this is all sort of besides the point, which is that around the same time I was in love with a completely different girl named Eleanor who wrote and sang these really strange, beautiful, bad-dream kinds of songs. Which is not to imply that Eleanor and I were ever a couple or ever much wanted to be. Nothing really “happened” between us, and we were both involved with other people. Our romance, such as it was, consisted almost solely in drinking and music and the bond that is forged when two people can listen to, say, a Pretenders song with single heart.

But from a certain point of view, that’s everything right there. Locked inside certain songs are entire universes of information, and when you share the key with someone else — and when that’s your principal way of knowing yourself and the world — it’s insanely seductive. Certainly at the time I thought so.

Our attachment was no less deep or intense than other, more obvious kinds of romance, and our “break-up” continues to haunt me. I still miss her sometimes. The best I can figure in retrospect, our crash was inevitable — too much anger, meanness and self-destructive Devastationalism was mixed into the glittery glue that held us together, and when we both wanted to get better we could only figure out how to do that apart.

Afterwards, too much reflexive fear accumulated over the years around the (unfounded) belief that renewing our friendship — that secret language, the understanding we shared — would mean diving into all that again.

But for a good, long run there, we lived the days of wine and roses together. (Indeed, with me and Eleanor the question was never, “Should we take a cab there?” but, “How many six-packs will we need for the cab ride over?”)

Muse, I think, might be a good word for what she was to me. This is one of many songs I wrote with Eleanor in mind. The Nightmares, from the B-side of “Baseball Altamont.”

Hold On and Pray

The Nightmares

Sitting in a restaurant
On West 4th the other night
All the pitchers of sangria
No they couldn’t put it right

‘Cause you’re a crazy mixed-up darling
Though I’m with you all the way
Now let’s hold on
Hold on and pray

Took a cab to Georgie’s
It was an uneventful ride
I just wanted a nightcap then
To warm me up inside

Back in my apartment
I lit a smoke and drew the blind
Cracked a final tall boy
And I threw on Chrissie Hynde

As I go back through old recordings, it’s amazing how many songs amount to stern & scary warnings to myself. “Shape up! Get it together, man!” Good examples all, of why self-awareness is by itself an inadequate mechanism for healthy change.

And I keep trying to remember the mind-set behind songs like these, to try and determine if I was secretly romanticizing (i.e., bragging about) the behavior I was ostensibly shaking my finger at — but I don’t think so. As usual, I was trying to be funny, but also I think I was genuinely scared. Of course, I had no idea how scary it would get.

Ned and I used to credit all of our songs as co-writes, though we never really wrote songs together. The one exception is, I think, this song, “Baby Talk.” I distinctly remember Ned writing this bridge, words and music.

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Baby Talk

The Nightmares

When you’ve got something good in the palm of your hand
But you throw it away ’cause you don’t understand
Then the mail doesn’t come and the phone doesn’t ring
And you can’t comprehend why you don’t have a thing

You don’t have a thing

Well you can’t stay awake, and you can’t fall asleep
‘Cause you’re wondering why they all think you’re a creep
So you go to the bar and insult everyone
Well you are getting drunk, but you’re not having fun

You’re not having fun

You’ve been watching all the signs
But you just don’t comply
If you don’t want to die alone
You better try

While you’re thinking this out, drinking vodka and lime
You had better drink up, ’cause you don’t have much time

You don’t have much time

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