Wake Up Sleepy Jean

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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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11 Replies to “Wake Up Sleepy Jean”

  1. Being both vain and old, it’s just force of habit for me to keep my time-lines fuzzy. But on the off chance you’re not completely kidding, Mrs. Kennedy, I’ll clarify:

    While Matthew did indeed write “Trudy” in high school (’77? ’78?), by the time the Nightmares covered the song it was years later and the alternate universe had long since collapsed. The recording’s from 1986, when we were all around 23/24 years old.

  2. That was a great recording of this tune by the Nitemares. And don’t worry too much about Matthew’s feeling “betrayed” by the fact that you covered it. If you hadn’t done this, he (evidently) would have found some other betrayal to be upset about.

    It’s a shame he never wrote any other tunes. And a bigger shame that he isn’t still here.

  3. Just for the record, Matthew didn’t literally write only one song. There were others, a few of which I can still hear pretty clearly in my head (“Plastic Ships,” “She’s Really Placid” and “She Hates Me,” to name at least three). And they were all great songs. He had a very strong and distinct style.

    I don’t want to speak for Jon, but I think he was implying that “Trudy” was the one song Matthew created that completely trancended (even as it embodied) the limitations of the Larchmont alternate-universe aesthetic, and that Matthew was well aware of it — and very protective of his accomplishement.

    It is an absolutely perfect song. I think more people should cover it.

  4. Didn’t Matthew also write that (lower case) nightmarish song about spiders — something like, “turned on the tap, out ran hot and cold spiders”? Suitably creepy melody? I think the first time I heard both “Trudy” and “spiders” was one afternoon when you played them in succession as sort of an intro-to-Matthew package. Ring a bell?

  5. If “Danny” is THE Danny of Mystery Dates fame (a band not mentioned on this blog), I believe I have heard him singing Matthew’s tunes. And probably singing them very well.

    Thanks to the miracle of MySpace, I have been hearing a lot of old tunes lately by people I remember more as friends/ enemies/ unindicted co-conspirators from my misspent youth. And I am surprised by how good the music was as music qua music.

  6. Leah, wow.

    Hats off to your excellent powers of memory. Of course. “The Bouncing Chick” — it’s all coming back to me now. And Matthew even had a band called The Bouncing Checks. (With Laurie Osmosis on guitar, right?)

  7. fuck I miss matthew. he was brilliant and funny and always had good drugs and chocolate at his house. We used to drive to pathmark at three in the morning and once, while “Thriller” was on the radio, we saw a UFO.
    I loved him so much that when we had that ridiculous car accident in that ridiculous car on the way to see Leah for some free food at the diner, six of us in the black beetle, all I could do was scream his name. I miss you, Matthew.

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