“Don’t call me at work again no, no the boss still hates me / I’m just tired and I don’t love you anymore / And there’s a restaurant we should check out / where the other nightmare people like to go/ I mean nice people, baby wait, / I didn’t mean to say nightmare” from “They’ll Need A Crane”
One band’s music spans three decades of my life (and threatens to last even longer). They Might Be Giants, the geek rock originals, have a strange staying power. Few bands put out music that is so readily recognizable. Despite this, I don’t actively listen to the band frequently or play the part of a fan to any great extreme. Most playlists I make include one TMBG track, but weeks can go by without the two Johns passing my thoughts.
TMBG—Johns, Flansburgh and Linnell—are like friends who keep popping back into my life or relatives I genuinely like but never spend enough time with. Too much of my own musical awakening has their albums for soundtracks. So many of their songs call up strong memories—and always good ones. From simple memories like staying up late to catch their performances on Conan O’Brien to celebrating their success with the theme song for “Malcolm in the Middle” to the more specific moments below, I cannot deny them.
“She’s an Angel” (They Might be Giants, 1986)—I am in two places at once. In the auditorium at my high school where a friend has used this song as the backing track for the credits of his documentary (and I am floored by the contrast between verse and chorus). I am also in my room, listening to the song again and again as I moon over a girl (and I say ‘a’ because this scene could be (and was) recycled).
“Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” (Flood, 1990)—I am at “geek camp” where the counselors have perversely organized a dance for adolescents who are beyond awkward. We are cynical enough to mock “Jump, Jump” by Kris Kross, too self-conscious to approach the opposite gender, only to be suddenly liberated into a strange frenzy of joy running in circles when this song comes on. Soon after, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes on. The scene suddenly and irrevocably changes.
TMBG function for many people (well, for a geeky set) as a gateway band from the safe rock of our parents, from show tunes, and from gag music. When I was young, my musical world was dominated by the narrow tastes of my parents and the church (with the exception of a brief flirtation with NKOTB). When my lack of coolness began to first dawn on me, I remember trying to fit in—by memorizing “U Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby”. It was Weird Al Yankovic cassettes copied from friends that I first wore out on my father’s Panasonic personal tape player (followed by, unsurprisingly, every Monty Python cassette). The first ‘rock’ album I wore out was Flood.
“Fingertips”—Apollo 18 (1992) I am at an after-party in a private school student basement after my band has played our first gig. I am talking to students, strangers, from other schools. TMBG come up. Someone mentions how amusing “Fingertips” is (a track made up of samples or ideas of song ideas). One of us sings the first part of it; before I know it a group of 5-7 of us has sung through the entire song (all 20 segments). We start again.
“Road Movie to Berlin” (Flood, 1992)—I am on a bus traversing Italy from Naples to Venice sitting next to an older girl who has been giving me seriously mixed signals during the entire tour. She is way too cool to like TMBG, I think, but something about the constant riding makes her think of this song. I sing it for her from beginning to end. We don’t kiss that day, but eventually we do. When we return to the states I learn to play the song on the guitar. I never end up singing it for her (the relationship ended quickly), but for a while, my band covered it.