Birth Of Words
At the time, opening for The Samples seemed like a pretty big deal.
The year was 1990. I was a 19-year-old junior at Syracuse University. In its first year, my band, Smokey Junglefrog, had already made something of a mark (primarily because we bombed the campus with posters, but whatever). We had released our debut recording (they were cassettes in those days), “Crumble,” which had actually gotten a spec of ink in the local weeklies. The local high school and college stations were playing some songs. We were about to release our second record, “Au Gratin.” And we had graduated from house parties (which still rate atop my list of all-time favorite shows: nothing beats an attic full of drunken co-eds and kegs) to local venues like The Lost Horizon.
The Lost Horizon wasn’t much to look at. It was basically a great big old house on Erie Boulevard, a long, wide, gray slab of concrete on the edge of a long, wide, gray slab of a city. But for touring acts of a certain size, The Lost was the only game in town. Bands as varied as Sonic Youth, Marillion, Brian Setzer, and The Mighty Might Bosstones (we opened for them too) played there. A whole bunch of local heavy metal bands with names like Dracula Jones and Bone China held down the weeknights.
Smokey Junglefrog, then, was something of an anomaly at The Lost. We were pretty damned poppy. At the time, we called it “alt.pop.” Which is to say, it was danceable, but the guitars were distorted. If I were to cite our influences (based on what we covered, and what we listened to in our then-copious free time), I’d say The Pixies meets R.E.M. with a bad case of schizophrenia. Truth is, we were pretty good. Slightly aimless, a little youthful, but pretty good.
Somehow, though, we became one of The Lost Horizon’s favorite bands. We played there all the time (and sometimes, we even drew a crowd). And I gotta tell ya, we thought we were rock stars. Especially when they tapped us to open for The Samples.
Now, bear in mind this was the early nineties. Earth Day was still a big deal. Dudes wore Guatemalan pants. Chicks wore tapestry-print skirts. Ponytails were happenin’ (or at least I thought so, but I was doing a ton of LSD at the time). So the Samples earnest, crunchy granola vibe was right in my wheelhouse. I might have even considered them something of an influence at the time. I dunno. I just know I was stoked, and it was a big deal. Heck, I think my brother flew in from Cleveland for the show (and I’m sure he packed an, ahem, big bag).
One memory emerges through the haze of time. I step into the bright lights, and the din of perhaps the largest audience we’d yet entertained. We’re opening with a silly, fun little number called “The Hamster Song.” This particular tune — a set opening staple — comes complete with its own dance (aptly dubbed “The Hamster Dance”) in which I basically wave my arms over my head and spin around in circles. Without fail, the audience always followed suit.
So there we are in the blinding spotlight of The Lost Horizon, the crowd’s going nuts, I’m smiling, Fish starts his drum fill, and Jamie and Paul come in with a discordant THUD! Paul’s bass is out of tune. Like, WAY out of tune. He looks at Jamie and in an instant — an instant in which I’m waving my hands over my head and spinning around in circles — decides to stop, retune, then start the song again. It is what we refer to in the business as a train wreck. And I’m the car stuck on the tracks.
I storm off stage in embarrassment. I find the nearest piece of furniture to throw my fists into, but throw my entire body instead. I slam my head into the table. Everything goes black. I stagger back on stage as the band begins again. And we’re off.
Later, after their set, I see Samples front man Sean Kelly talking to a blonde from my ETS 301 (“Reading Dreams”) class. He is wearing black Converse high tops, black jeans, a black t-shirt, and a black motorcycle jacket. He’s expounding on the plight of Native Americans. And she is completely rapt.
Even now, I can’t quite explain it, but I lost just a little bit of my innocence that night. Sometimes I think I’m still looking for it.