Because You Can
I’ve bought a lot of new old things lately. Most of them make noise of some sort: an old 50s bass drum, a West German air organ, a Tom Thumb piano from 1928, a Victrola radio from 1939. They have found their way into my house from antique stores and auctions and have joined the menagerie of instruments and misused office furniture filling my modest home studio.
It’s feeling a little familiar. This is how things were, back when I started recording songs on my own, shortly after high school. In dorm rooms, apartments, and one musty converted horse stable, from New York to Boston to Philly, we collected old instruments and equipment — not ones we carefully bid on at auctions, but things adopted, abandoned, or saved from certain dumpster doom.
When the right instrument couldn’t be found, we enjoyed finding the acoustic properties of pretzel tins and rubber bands. There were lots of things to strike and shake and each location had a box where they were stored. There was the novelty moo-ing toy, that groaned every time you turned it over. There were the toy store “Karaoke Mics,” plastic microphone-shaped toys that, despite having no real power or amplification, could create a reverberated alien belch when you slapped them on the palm of your hand. When the box was bare or its contents left us bored, we’d drag a microphone out to the pool and record the strange, suctioning sound you could make if you laid stomach-down on the cement after a swim.
We were playing around and it was fun. It was also incredibly silly and often led to ridiculous recordings that were only songs because we found that once you recorded something, titled it, and listened back to it, you could call it that. We were delighted when we realized that if you collected a lot of them and put them in a sequence on tape, titled that collection, and dubbed more than one copy, you suddenly had an album. Because we filled up ten 90 minute tapes of hundreds of songs, it meant we were not only a band: it meant we were the greatest band ever.
We were motivated by Ween, fellow Pennsylvanians, and later by Guided By Voices, bands that entertained any idea for a song. We learned from them that you didn’t have to romance and fuss over a song. Songs could be one-night stands, late night affairs you had trouble remembering in the morning, curious mixes of pride and regret. Both groups celebrated being prolific over being professional. The only good song was a finished one and the best one was always the one you were working on. (This last point still feels very true for me.) You could play poorly, use a drum machine, sing in a fake English accent. We were too late for punk, and anyway, none of us could affect any genuine cool, seethe any real anger, or even fake the required amount of disinterest to take ourselves seriously. We had none of that direction nor ambition. We’d switch instruments, playing ones we didn’t play all that well. We’d pass a piece of paper around until every one had written a stanza of lyrics. We tried to outdo each other. It was a contest to see who could be more inappropriate, obtuse, or verbose — sometimes all at the same time. We took turns singing and screaming and rapping.
We called ourselves Share the Pain. Pat preferred Pussycats in the House, but was outvoted one afternoon as we compiled the songs for our eponymous debut. Either choice is a horrible band name, but only in as much as most usually are. (My friend Marc has always maintained the only thing worse than a band’s name is the story behind it — and he is routinely right.) It would be tempting to follow the path of self-validation and pop psychology that emanates from most rock documentaries and claim that this casually agreed-on name was the perfect choice because we shared our pain and poured it into our songs, but it’s much more accurate to view this name from the point of view of our listening audience. It was a real chore for anyone beyond the band to listen to these songs. Some were so deliberately unlikable, little sonic dares. Others were so half-hearted it seems impossible now to believe that we actually rejected others. (Though, predictably, we gathered those rejects together for what we referred to as EPs, despite the fact they were also 90 minutes long. One is called Poopchute Monsoon, if that gives you any idea.) While we persisted in trying to entertain and amuse our other friends with our musical misadventures or tried to point out some of the more accessible merits to our eye-rolling girlfriends, really, the intended audience was each other. To an outside set of ears, they were inside jokes. But in our defense, lots of songs are inside jokes. Lots of art comes from accidents that become purposeful and important (or at least confident) after repetition and familiarity — or willful insistence. An old jazz cliché says there are no wrong notes in jazz — as Miles said, “only in the wrong places.” Share the Pain kept kept hitting sour notes, over and over, through 400 songs, in all sorts of wrong places, and we never stopped to care much.
In the absence of real fans, real shows, real ambition, we had to create a mythology for ourselves. No one else was going to do it for us. Our artifacts — the legal-pad lists of possible song titles; the lyrics written on the back of junk mail; the masks we would wear while recording — the Frog and Old Man, in particular; the island-box of lost musical toys; the early draft of our proposed coffee table book; the unfinished documentary, We’re Better Than You Think — were, unlike a diary, a shared history, one we were happy to revisit the moment there was something new to add to it. Matt once created an alphabetized cassette mixtape collection of our hundreds of songs — A to Z every title — a task that likely took him several weeks to complete. This is an exercise you would expect from an obsessive fan, one linked to a popular blog. We had no need for this fandom. We were our own entirely self-contained entertainment ecosystem.
But nothing was more pleasing than a new song freshly magnetized to a cassette tape. It provided us immediate nostalgia. Listening back to the songs, we’d reminisce about last week or last night, or sometimes, as we often do today, the last half hour. That sort of gratification was quick but not i-Instantaneous as it is today. The smartphone is always on record now, capturing every moment and then passed around for validation. In the 1990s, it still took some effort and you were the only one in charge of collecting your memories and songs and photos. No operating system compiled and organized the chaos of your life. We took film to be developed; we had to sit through the real-time making of our mix tapes; we had to cut and paste a collage together and then take it to Kinko’s to make each album cover — they had color copiers! There was still something physical about the storytelling of your life.
The cassette 4-track, mine a Yamaha MT2X, was a very tough, physical piece of machinery. Cassettes themselves were nearly indestructible plastic shells. You could angrily throw one across the room. You could leave one in your car for a few years. If the tape started to unspool, you could take a pencil and wind it back into place. If you wanted to protect the tape from erasure, you could pop out the top tab — and if you changed your mind, you could just put some scotch tape back over the divot. However, it was hard to judge a cassette. There wasn’t a good way of knowing when you were getting to the end of one. It looked like you could probably fit one more song on there, but you never knew for sure. It was a medium filled with these kinds of approximations. It was a nuance-free medium perfect for our nuance-free band.
The verbs we used were different then, too. In modern computer recording, the program asks you to scrub, click, drag, copy, paste, render — words that make more sense at a cosmetic counter or a tannery. But back then you’d jam in a cassette, slam down the tape door, hit fast-forward. And when you ejected a tape, you better watch the fuck out. On some machines, that tape would jump out, like toast from a toaster.
Our generation was the first to have somewhat easy access to this new recording equipment. Four track recorders were just affordable enough and we were just old enough to have the means to purchase them. (We had practice years before, when at nine years old, Matt and I were already starting to develop a technique, recording comic books into more ancient cassette decks and dictaphones. Matt found that if you held play and record half-way down, the sped up tape, when played normally, made for a very realistic Jabba the Hutt voice.) This new technology changed the setting. Where the kids in the 70s and 80s were happy to escape the house and find a garage where they could crank their guitars and annoy the neighbors, in the 90s, armed with our own 4-tracks, we went back inside with our friends to the bedroom or the basement.
We recorded whenever we were bored and that was nearly all the time. We were still in college, still a few years away from serious jobs, and nothing and everything was important. I was living in New York going to NYU; Mark at BU was a T ride from Matt at Emerson and a car ride from Pat at Clark. Steve was in Providence at Brown. We were all just close enough. Despite living in different cities during the year, we’d reconvene at school breaks, but mostly over the summer in between temp jobs and cross-country trips. We rarely got together for the purpose of recording; it just happened. Some songs were captured in one take, while others sat around for a while until someone bothered filling up the last track. Unlike the persistent glow and blink of the computer, the cassette 4-track was just another stereo component and it asked nothing more than you’d expect from a piece of furniture balancing on a milk crate.
The nature of recording one track at a time meant that you didn’t really have to practice a group performance and worry about precision and cues and such. It also allowed for more unpredictability. If Pat was going to lay down a slide guitar part on track one, Pat, the guitar, and the tape, had no idea what Matt would scream over it onto track two. At that point, track three could sort of negotiate between those two ideas. Maybe Mark would sing a high harmony while shaking a box of rice or double the slide guitar on bass. Track four could try to salvage the chaos by imposing some connecting element — a Yamaha DX7 patch bubbling underneath it all, but most of the time it was an excuse to kitchen-sink the song, get everybody to yell during the chorus. Thankfully, the limitation of four tracks, forced a reluctant economy on the finished result. Are there any tracks left? No? Okay, then. Next song. As we wrote and sang in “Hold Your Breath”: If we’d had eight tracks / We’d have half as many songs.
Our first release, 1993’s eponymous album, features titles like “Sex Bus,” and “That’s an Awful Hot Falafel Jimmy Hoffa.” The following year’s Season of Squeezin’ gave the world — (you’re welcome) — “Guillotine Pleasures” and “Spallamzami” — the latter a song named for an 18th century Italian priest and biologist who was the first man to perform an in-vitro fertilization of frogs, among other things.
SOS (any self-respecting, myth-building band needs to use acronyms) was followed up with The Most Promising Astronaut, I’m Out of Coupons, The Prose and Cons of Frozen Ponds, and Cartoon Ghetto, four albums that celebrated b-movie actors (“Rae Dawn Chong” and “Tom Selleck Movie”); made wild claims (“All Jokes Come From Prison” and “I’ll Win You With My Gumption”; issued imperatives (“Give ‘Em The Boot” and “Run Like A Man (Away From a Gun)”). Other titles contemplated Han Solo’s “Carbon Dreams” or “The Day The Balloons Died.” There were duets (“I Loved You When Your Parents Were Out of Town”), prog-rock musings (“Author of the Universe”), raps (“U Got Funky and I Got Spanish”), sludge-y punk screaming (“Shut Up!”), covers (including Prince’s “Strange Relationship”), and an obligatory sitar-featured song (“Sitar Dialogue”). What kind of band are you if you haven’t written a song with a sitar yet?
While having fun was enough to sustain a lot of this output, we might have stopped a lot sooner had it not been for the fact that every once in a while — and sometimes twice and thrice as the years went on — we’d stumble on a song that was downright pretty good, and maybe even great. Steve, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Share the Pain — matched by his equal devotion to David Bowie, Elvis Costello, and Prince — is good at reminding that there were, as Bowie once said of his early songs, a few “peppercorns” in our “manure pile.” He’s right. Maybe no one needs to hear “Maybe Don’t Wash the Baby “ or “I Survived Pat Croce,” but if they miss “Move and Remove” or “Goodnight, Girls,” that’s a shame.
Despite our attempts at keeping potential listeners off balance, we were a creative and talented bunch. Matt was our poet laureate. I’ll be writing a few more decades before I can match the creative output that Matt achieved from the ages 5 to 25. As childhood friends, I loved going over to Matt’s house to look through his homemade comics, each one meticulously laid out and illustrated. A sci-fi fan, Matt was producing his own Starlog magazines, creating interviews with movie stars, and designing ads. He was writing fan fiction before that was a thing. We used to host a radio show together, broadcast over an intercom for an audience of one: his mother as she stood at the ironing board. Later in high school, we made movies: the Ranger Fred sci-fi trilogy; the psychological thriller By Ear; the docudrama Knobby Knees; the dark comedy Quick! Hide the Balloons Daddy’s Home; our unfinished Twin Peaks knockoff, Gum. But when he turned to poetry, we’d hit the jackpot. The rest of Share the Pain, loved paging through Matt’s notebooks — pages and pages filled with ornate and odd lines, or empty ones with curious titles on the top, waiting for the proper inspiration. He had a knack for twisting cliches. He’d turn spirituals into “Burn Rubber, Sweet Chariot” or get nostalgic for the “homesickness queen.” He was a fearless writer and performer. Armed with only a microphone, he’d extemporize for 15 minutes as I played the piano. We often hit record and one of those resulting songs is called “Life.” I don’t know what it’s about, but I can’t wait to find out.
Pat was the closest thing we had to a rock star. At 6’4’’ and holding that Travis Bean guitar with its machined aluminum neck, he looked the part. It didn’t hurt that he somehow looked like Robert Plant and Charles Bukowski at the same time. He brought a Tom Waits ethos to the group. He encouraged our artful, wild sloppiness and protected us against corniness — often perpetrated by me and my piano pop sensibilities. Any object in his reach was potential percussion. Curses sounded more convincing coming out of his mouth. Pat lived at home with his mother in a small house a few miles from my own. Matt, Mark, Steve, and I lived in more sprawling suburban homes with our parents and, while it wasn’t an other side of the tracks situation, we were old enough to feel some embarrassment about what we had. We were lucky to never want for much. All of this narrative made Pat part literary character, a more grown-up man, at least to the rest of us — an impression that was solidified when he mentioned to me one day that he bought extra large condoms.
Our dark-horse-George-Harrison was Mark. I think he was the one we were all trying to impress. This was partly due to his quiet nature, but maybe more because of his taste. His record collection and concert-going far exceeded the rest of the crew. When a bunch of us went to Pulsations, the only all-ages dance club in our area, he already knew how to dance in the Alternative room — eyes closed and loose-armed. I watched closely and copied his movements. He could pull off the torn-t-shirt-sleeve-as-a-headband look. Later, he was the first to shave his head. He and I would read the impenetrable short story that accompanied Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and wonder what it was all about. (He looked an awful lot like Rael, the Peter Gabriel character depicted on the album’s cover.) We watched 120 Minutes together, MTV’s alternative music video program, and got equally creeped out and fascinated by The Cure’s “Lullaby”and Metallica’s “One.” He was discovering bands and introducing them to us: Mercury Rev, Teenage Fanclub, The Bentmen. He’s the one that brought a sitar home with him from a backpacking trip to Europe. Somehow on his return trip, he managed to carry it on the New York subway system on his way to meet me at my apartment. When we lived together in Boston, he’d spend hours in his bedroom making robots.
As STP’s scholar, Steve was our archivist, our negotiator, and our greatest fan. To this day, the reason I remember most of these details is through Steve’s memory. His ears and eyes have catalogued every song and album — both literally, as he took up the task of transferring everything to a digital format, and figuratively, in that he’s stored all this information in his impressive brain. He was a big part of the earliest songs recorded at Pat’s house, alluding to Percy Bysshe Shelly in a gangster rap, among other feats. But in between then and the later records, Steve hung back in the mix, either in his geographic absence or as a backup singer. This distance — sometimes showing up right after we had finished recording a song — must have given him some perspective the rest of us couldn’t manage. He enjoyed it the most. He laughed best and loudest. When he returned from studying abroad, he came back with songs of his own, all recorded in a thin-walled, sad little flophouse in Japan. He tied a microphone to the long string that hung from the room’s one light. The songs were beautiful. You could hear a soft rain falling in the background. Later, as we recorded the last full-length, Cartoon Ghetto, Steve even brokered a truce. After I had made the stupid decision to date Pat’s ex-girlfriend, Pat and I hadn’t spoken in a couple of years. Despite this fact, Steve arranged a long distance collaboration. Steve and I wrote “I’m Not to Sorry to Say I Love You” late one night and before the end of the month, Steve had taken the lyrics and the 4-track tape to Pat in Boston to finish up. All of sudden there I was singing backup to Pat’s voice. It’s one of my favorite things. Even after all the recording had stopped, Steve put together one last collection, a post-breakup record of forgotten castoffs, titled The Lost Art of Fixing What You Don’t Love. Steve was our shaman, performing resuscitations and postmortems.
What role did I play? I was the musician, I guess. While Matt and Jason played trumpet in the marching band, and Steve played cello in the orchestra for a while, I had been taking private lessons — in piano and saxophone — since I was young. I’d been singing in the church since I was younger than that. I wore a medal in the boys’ choir, for god’s sake. You’ll find my name most often in the album credits, programming keyboard sequences, singing, playing the guitar poorly or the piano well, squawking John Zorn-like saxophone solos, striking drum machine pads. I may have even notated some horn parts for “Same Old New Year’s.” Looking over the liner notes now, it’s pretty clear that I must have been the most pushy. I’d like to think I was the closest thing we had to a leader, but that’s making the mistaken assumption that we ever wanted or needed one. I wanted to think of myself as a serious musician, so I convinced myself to enjoy the irony of our work. We were having a laugh, taking a piss. Both are fine reasons to enjoy anything, but at some point, when the songs and our skills at recording them got better, it occurred to me that I’d been learning how to write songs the whole time. As we worked on a sequence for one of our last albums, I made an off-hand comment about how we needed a more serious song to follow a group of silly ones. “Which one do you mean?” Steve asked me. I remember suddenly feeling self-conscious, that I was about to admit to some earnestness after years of shrugging it off.
We had our share of part-time players, too. Dave appeared on some of the very first songs. He once rapped, “I chill like a painted room, waiting for fixtures / Screw me in, and turn me on, I’ll light up your pictures” — a prescient line now that he’s worked with Scorsese and Spielberg as an art director and set builder. Jason always added a classy flair, playing muted trumpet on “Blue Bossa” and screaming his near-fluent German curses during “Sex God.” Bill married into a folk music-loving family, and one day walked out of the tiny bedroom in the apartment he and Mark shared with “She’s Coming Home To Be With Me Tomorrow” — a perfect, little love song he wrote for Molly, his eventual wife.
Despite the nonchalance and freedom, we were good at knowing when it was time to settle up. Often the end of our fun was the end of the summer, when we had amassed enough material to fill two sides of a 45 minute cassette. If it was mid-August, we had a new album. It occurs to me now — along with the limitations of tracks — that these brief windows of opportunity we shared were an important part of the creative process. We didn’t have unlimited time or tracks, so it was easy to move on. The music could have been better, but that seems beside the point. Sometimes things don’t have to be good; they can just be fun. At least they’ll be things — your things.
It’s worth mentioning, of course, that this nonchalance was possible because we were in our early 20s and hadn’t yet amassed much debt or entered into any mortgage agreements. Like scuba divers coming up slowly from the ocean floor or astronauts returning from outer space, we were in the decompression chamber, in quarantine, careful not to get the bends, in no rush towards adulthood. It’s not something you can put off forever, but when you get the chance, you should take it.
There’s an unfortunate correlation a lot of us feel when we get older: that each year should make us a little more serious, that wisdom should replace foolishness. I’m happy for whatever wisdom I’ve gained, but a little wistful for the collaborative foolishness. My time with Share the Pain is a good reminder that the best entertainment often comes when you and your friends are in charge of entertaining yourselves, that a good enough reason for doing anything is because you can.
It’s a lesson that feels even more obvious when I’m hunting down these new old things at auctions these days. No one, not even your advanced computer operating system, is going to tell your story for you the way you want it to be told. When you pass away, many of your belongings will find themselves lined up on long folding tables at an auction house. Your collection of books and records and little glass birds will be catalogued and sold to the highest bidder. Someone will buy your 1950s bass drum — and, I suppose, my old cassettes. These are your possessions, but they’re not your content. Your thoughts and ideas and stories and pictures and songs make that up and are yours to collect and compile — and the more the merrier. Take it from Share The Pain: they are best collected — and shared — with the help of your friends.