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December 29, 2009

Reflections on Toad the Wet Sprocket

Glen Phillips tweeted today that he was suddenly 39. I've been 39 for seven months or more now, but back when I was only twenty, or maybe nineteen, Glen Phillips and his band Toad the Wet Sprocket had already come to mean a great deal to me, for reasons which hopefully will become clear forthwith.

I was at Syracuse University, in the strange hinterlands between a BA in commercial design (unfinished) and a BA in Religious Studies (completed 1992, with minor in Philosophy and concentration in Cognitive Science), and it was winter. I don't recall the year, whether late 1989 or early 1990, but I had by then had a whirlwind relationship (cooled by then) with a girl from New Hampshire who now had a boyfriend in Worcester, Mass. I also had a good friend from high school who was attending Anna Maria College, a Catholic school north of the city, with the extra irony that he was more or less a scion of a lapsed Jew from New Jersey, so when she asked if I wanted to share the drive and expenses, I jumped at the chance.

I'll call her Ellen, for the sake of having a name to hang on her. I'll call him Mike, because that was his name. Ellen and I drove from Syracuse to Worcester, old friends by then, talking and laughing and driving in silence as the gray skies threatened and probably listening to music from time to time, though I forget what. We got to Worcester, she dropped me off with a promise to pick me up in two days, and Mike signed me in at the door.

The weather was all mid-winter gray promising to turn to white, so we were a bit concerned about being stranded, but Mike assured me that they had both food and plentiful if not top-quality libations so we shrugged and waved as Ellen drove off with the car to meet with the boy who we would much later protect her from, jealous and abusive and wrong, but that's a different story.

So for now, Mike and I just got started with the introductions, it being a fairly small school and me being a sort of novelty (or oddity, or both, depending on your perspective). Remember, I was a religious studies student, or was to soon be one, so this was in some eyes a natural setting - among the children of the deeply religious observant Catholics of Massachusetts. But the problem was I was of what my major professor called "the unchurched", and a pretty staunch unbeliever at that point, with an ax to grind against the whole science-denying edifice of the bureaucracy and the wide-eyed ignorance of the flock. And Mike knew this, but it didn't bother him, and half of the folks he introduced me to were pretty blasé about the whole thing, so we got along well, planned the snowstorm party, and got to chatting.

I don't recall what they called the punch they made in that trashcan, but I do recall it involved enough Mauna Loa and cheap, clear spirits to be a clear violation of both the spirit and the letter of the law and of the bylaws of the institution responsible for our safety, and I also recall that it was pretty good considering.

I have a vague recollection of a conversation about truth with a kid who earnestly pressed a handmade cassette recording of Toad the Wet Sprocket's Bread and Circus into my hands, and urged me to listen. I shook my head at a girl who hoped one day to help mentally disturbed children with "art therapy", which as far as I could understand was designed to make them forget they were depressed, or autistic, or manic, or schizoid, or whatever, for as long as she could make them draw archetypes with blunt drawing instruments, poorly. She was, of course, nearly passed out and having her hair held as she barfed into a small dorm room trash can. If I recall correctly, she was also diabetic. And, apparently, an optimist.

I also met a small, quiet, cute girl whose name I have long since forgotten, who was also betting on therapeutics as a career, only her approach involved music. I knew a bit about art, or thought I did, if nothing much about music, other than that it involved more mathematics than I had, and the really good stuff touched something deep inside.

We did get socked in that night, with drifts of snow flying into the foyer of the entrance hall every time someone went out to play and throw snowballs or whatever they were doing. And Ellen stayed in town with her boy, and I stayed in lockup with Mike and the rest of them, and I had to sleep somewhere. The music therapist and I had struck up a conversation, sharing a disdain for the "crayon girl" and her ideas, and sharing a love of music as a way to shape mood and thought and perspective.

There not being many places to stay, I stayed with her that night. My intentions were noble, and we just slept in the same bed, occasionally waking to share a thought or to look out on the dark skies with their swirling flakes in the streetlights' glare. She, I think, was shocked to find me honorable, maybe even disappointed, though I'd hazard a guess relief was more likely. She played her music, and I listened. I didn't have any music, except for the tape Earnest had pressed into my hands, so we both listened to that, in the hush that snowstorms can bring, and in the morning when the snow had died down and the sleepless plows had done their work, and Ellen could get through, I left the girl with a hug and Mike with a silent nod of thanks, and got on the road.

I asked if Ellen minded if we listened to the Toad tape again, and she said no, and so we listened all the way back to Syracuse, flipping the tape over and over again. I got back to school, and bought the CD, and Pale, and later Fear and the others. And each reminded me of that night in Worcester, though other memories were layered atop as I went through subsequent romances and failed romances. And each tracked me as I grew a little, and as they grew, and as their music grew. And I remember being surprised to find how young Glen Phillips was when we had such insights and turned them into words.