Song of the Week: Secret Handshake


This week’s entry is a request from Ian Farrell, who wrote in asking about this song. It was one of the first written and recorded after Mutiny, though it was left off …Finally since the groove didn’t really sequence well with the punkier numbers on that one. We did play it a lot on tour in ’94 and ’95, and it eventually came out as a bonus track on the CD reissue of Green Eggs and Crack.

Lyrically, it’s about what we tried to do with the band – if “Theme Song” was about how we behaved on the road, “Secret Handshake” was about what the quest was for: namely, some kind of genuine connection with like-minded individuals. Since it was written after being dropped by our major label, it was also an acknowledgement that there might not be tens of millions of such connections to be made, and an attempt to accept and, just maybe, even celebrate that fact. Even when it doesn’t feed you, there is serious joy in the notion that art can help you shake hands with someone you’ll never meet.

If all that sounds too pretentious, or if the lyrics themselves fail to say it better and more succinctly, then you might at least be interested to know that the second verse really happened. My wife Donna and I were enjoying the first perfect day of spring in Washington Square Park. We’d just bought some ice cream cones, and sat down on a bench in the northeast corner of the park to eat ‘em. It was one of those days after a long and miserable winter when everyone in the city was so happy for the nice weather that they make a point of smiling and being polite to strangers, and one of us was saying something about how gorgeous and pleasant it all was when we heard a noise that sounded wrong, heard some screams, and suddenly watched people being flung through the air in a horrifying manner. It wasn’t immediately obvious what was going on, but soon we saw a car just tearing through the middle of the park, running people over.

Grim doesn’t begin to describe it. It is a strange thing to watch actual people actually die, and at moments like that I think the brain tries to construct a narrative that makes sense. The most logical explanation to me was that the driver was doing it on purpose, that something in his or her brain had snapped, and he or she had decided to run down as many people as possible.

Donna and I ran to a phone to call 911. I think at least 10 other people in the park were doing the same (back in those pre-cell phone days, every street corner had banks of pay phones). We briefly debated running into the melee in case we could help the wounded, but decided we’d probably do more harm than good. So we went to a bar on Bleeker Street and drank a bunch of pints of beer, which didn’t seem to make us drunk, or to make what we’d just saw make any sense. I remember the bartender was irritated when we insisted he switch away from the baseball game that was on to a local newscast, so we could find out what exactly had happened.

Turned out it was an old lady who forgot the gas pedal was not the one that made the car stop, no matter how much harder you kept pressing it.

Anyhow, that went into the mix as well, because sometimes having a genuine bond with someone – like we now did with everyone else who’d been in the park that day – isn’t so desirable after all.