Song of the Week: That’s A Lie

For some reason, our video for “That’s A Lie” has disappeared from the interwebs, which is a shame, since we made some crappy videos, and that one was far and away the least crappiest.

So we’ve taken the liberty of rectifying the situation with this here fifth-generation copy. It will also live permanently on our Videos page.

The cover tune came about in the first place because we were listening to LL Cool J’s Radio album (well, cassette, actually) in the van somewhat obsessively, and every time “That’s a Lie” came on we’d all remark on how much like a Too Much Joy song it seemed, lyrically.

So we punked it up a little, made up our own suburban lies, and wrote a new third verse (my dad really did used to tell me, “Never tattle, never lie,” usually when I ran to him after my older brother had just punched me in the face for being younger than him). When we played the song live, it had a choreographed dance routine, which we thankfully did not film for the video.

LL Cool J did the shoot as what I can only assume was a favor for our shared PR maven, Leyla Turkkan. Years later we ran into him at the Mondrian Hotel in L.A. and talked to him like we were buddies. He was pretty clearly mystified, so we reminded him about the video, and he said, “Oh, yeah, those Too Much Joy guys.”

We figured some poor shmoe at MTV would have to slow down the part with all the text on the screen to make sure we weren’t cursing or telling kids to kill themselves, so we included a message just for him telling him his job was kind of lame and he should quit. Years later we ran into that guy, too, though not at the Mondrian. He came up to us after a show and told us we were right, some shmoe had indeed had to scroll through all the verbiage frame by frame, and he was that guy. He hadn’t quit, but he’d appreciated the offer to come tour with us. He was less enamored of the bits in Latin, which he’d had to translate to make sure they didn’t include curses or instructions for kids to kill themselves, either.

It all seemed pretty hilarious at the time.

The track itself was recorded at Radio Tokyo in Venice Beach, California, along with the rest of Son of Sam I Am. I think the sessions lasted six weeks. I had to fly to Maine in the middle of them to watch my mom get married, which I was not very pleased about (though I was less displeased than my younger brother, who got drunk and punched the groom after the rehearsal dinner).

I don’t know why I’m making my family sound like brawling maniacs. There was very little punching among us, if you average it all out over twenty or thirty years.

Anyway, the point is that when I returned to California, the band had laid down the harmonica, which was played by some guy they saw in some restaurant, but who turned out to be a relatively well-known harmonica dude, and who later recorded the theme to Roseanne.

And it sounded awesome.

Song of the Week: William Holden Caulfield

catcher-in-the-rye-coverJ.D. Salinger died today. He was 91. He was also something that’s very hard to imagine in 21st century America: allergic to fame.

Like most alienated youth, we loved the way The Catcher in the Rye spoke to us, about us. And like a lot of over-educated alienated youth, we moved on from Catcher in the Rye to Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and the rest. If you haven’t read “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” go do so now.

“William Holden Caulfield” owes more than just 2/3 of its title to Salinger. It’s all about a fierce desire to maintain Holden Caulfield’s jaded but idealistic mindset into adulthood, and the fear that doing so might not be possible.

Typing this today, as an almost-45 year-old (which means I’m not even halfway to the grave, if I live as long as Salinger managed), I have to say we were half right. A lot of that adolescent insistence that things should be more just and anyone who settles for less is a sell-out does, in fact, bleed away, no matter how hard you try to prevent it from happening.

But not all of it. Never all of it.

In memory of Mr. Salinger, the band is giving away a live version of “William Holden Caulfield.”

Download a Live Version Free!

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.

Song of the Week: Sort of Haunted House


We’re focusing on a track from Mutiny this week. Here’s what Sandy remembers about “Sort of Haunted House”:

The initial riffs for SOHH were composed to my rinky dink drum machine. It was a period of time when we were ripping off beats from some of our favorite hip hop songs (need I add, clumsily) and seeing what came out (“Unbeautiful” began the same way). Of course, when we took the song into a live setting, Tommy brought it to life in his own inimitable way.

When we recorded it we laid down that original rinky dink beat to retain some of the loopy vibe, and you hear a snippet of it in the song’s outro — followed unceremoniously by Tommy destroying said drum machine. Tim and Jay must have taped it back together. 🙂

Since Tim can’t say it, I will: these lyrics are awesome – maybe some of our best – and the song was fun to play, though rarely performed (while I was in the band).

My own recollections pretty much match Sandy’s, though I’m not quite as fond of the lyric as he is (personally, I think the bassline is what makes the song; it’s up there with the bass riff in “James Dean’s Jacket,” in terms of bouncy goodness). To me, the lyric was just an exercise in writing a story-song that Johnny Cash might sing. The title comes from a stray line in Don DeLillo’s Libra — a particularly DeLillo-ish sentence in which a character describes the overall vibe of some location with five simple words: “Very sort-of haunted house.”

Like a lot of DeLillo sentences, that one made me pause in admiration, and the song grew out of that pause, as I tried to imagine what a literal sort-of haunted house might be like to live in. I figured the phrase “sort-of” meant there’d be a ghost, but not one you were particularly afraid of.

For some reason, this one never found a permanent home in our set lists, although we did play it live a bunch before we recorded Mutiny. I remember, because the band had an argument about whether or not to play it at some show in Minneapolis that was being broadcast on a local radio station. I wanted to play it, because then we’d have a decent recording of a brand new tune, but the other guys feared it wasn’t solidified enough to get documented for all time like that.

I don’t believe the bashing metallic noise you hear at the end is an actual drum machine being broken. We may well have recorded Tommy kicking a drum machine to bits, but if memory serves the actual sound of that wasn’t particularly dramatic. So we set up a microphone in the kitchen of Messina Music and did numerous takes of us dropping a container of a bunch of random metal objects (washers, hammers, and other stray crap) onto the tiled floor. We kept adding more metal junk and dropping the box from an ever higher point until we got a noise that sounded sufficiently cathartic.

The fact that it also sorta sounds like a guy with a noose around his neck kicking the chair out from under him and making whatever pipe he’s tied the other end of the noose to go “Sproing!” is just a bonus.

Update: Bill just sent through his own blurbage about the tune:

When we first discussed my producing the album that was to become Mutiny (or, Don’t Worry, Bea Arthur) one of the songs on the demo the band sent me was “Sort Of Haunted House.” And in many ways this was the song that helped me ‘get’ them. Its lyric sensibility (like the fact that it’s a SORT OF haunted house) seemed to me to typify the band’s whole smart, arch, self assured (wise ass!) but also self deprecating aesthetic.

That IS TMJ. No other band could have written it.

Song of the Week: Making Fun of Bums


This one began life as “a rock opera for two voices and bass,” which Sandy and I wrote in an apartment in Tuckahoe, NY one drunken night so we would have something to perform at a scheduled appearance on Wesleyan’s college radio station that Jay couldn’t attend because he was in California.

Because we were A) lazy and B) didn’t have much time, the “rock opera” was little more than some repeated riffs with half-spoken/half-sung narration that attempted to string together a couple of random songs we’d already completed which didn’t actually have anything to do with each other: “Sense of Power,” “God’s a Fag” and “Connecticut.”

The whole thing was pretty stupid, even by TMJ’s lax standards at the time, and it completely bombed when we played it at the station, so we wisely trashed everything but the title after the disaster at Wesleyan. A few months later the girlfriend I’d been sharing the apartment with went off to medical school. The band was heading to California to start recording what would become Son of Sam I Am three weeks after that, so I asked my dad if I could crash at his new house in the interim. His exact words to me were, “Guests, like fish, smell after three days,” which is a quote from either Ben Franklin or Mark Twain, depending on who you believe.

It wasn’t his warmest moment, but he’d just finished divorcing my mom, and had sold my childhood home in Scarsdale and moved into a new place in Chappaqua, so I guess he wanted to start his new life unencumbered by memories of his previous one. And it gave me an actual subject for the snarky title.

Many years later, my dad told my wife that Son of Sam I Am was his favorite TMJ album, because it ended with the words, “Hi, Dad.” Donna said, “I guess he never read the lyric sheet, huh?”

I said I guess not. But I’m glad he likes it.

Here’s the song as it eventually appeared on Sam:

And here’s a hint of what the rock opera version sounded like. As I said, it’s royally dumb, though I’m fond of Sandy’s dramatic delivery, and I still chuckle when the bum says, “I have epilepsy, just not at the moment.” The version below is just the bits that were meant to go in between the actual songs. It was recorded as it was being written on my answering machine, which accounts for the loud BEEPs you hear whenever we pushed pause, as well as the stray bit at the end from my friend Leslie, who called while we were working.

Song of the Week: “Good Kill”

Cereal KillersAs I said when we launched this refurbished site, we’re hoping to force ourselves to keep it updated regularly by creating some recurring features. So here’s the first in what will be a continuing series if we don’t flake out. It probably won’t always happen weekly, but “Song of the Undetermined Interval of Time” isn’t quite as catchy. Hopefully I won’t be the only one writing these. Anyway, we’re starting with a track from Cereal Killers called “Good Kill.”

Like a lot of TMJ lyrics, this one began with the title, which was spoken from a Navy F-14 in 1989, after its pilot had just shot down a Libyan MIG (it’s how the radar weapons officer told the pilot his missile had found its target).

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