Toad the Wet Sprocket: An Appreciation

Toad the Wet Sprocket: An Appreciation

The year was 1992. George H. W. Bush was the president. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Metallica, Def Leppard, and Bon Jovi were some of the biggest bands in the world. Wayne’s World was cracking teenagers up and Home Improvement was making their parents chortle. I had just graduated from high school in the little town of Lake Butler, Florida, had cut off my mullet a few months before, and was steeped in hair metal and southern rock–not to mention all the bands mentioned above. I had recently discovered Marc Cohn’s songwriting, and it would be another year or so before I happened upon Rich Mullins, but at the time my guilty pleasures were still bands like Slaughter and Steelheart and Stryper. Then one night while watching The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, I saw this:

“Wait–is that a mandolin?” I thought. “And is he barefoot? And is he not trying to sing as high as possible? And none of those dudes have long hair. What could it mean?” Mixed in with all those thoughts was the dim awareness that “Walk On the Ocean” was a good, good song. It was evocative and utterly unique in my experience. Not only that, it told a kind of story (“somebody told me that this is the place where everything’s better and everything’s safe” “half an hour later we packed up our things”). But the band was called Toad the Wet Sprocket! I would have assumed this music would be super-weird and/or eclectic, a la They Might Be Giants, but this–this was different. The internet wasn’t around yet so I had no way of learning that the guys had jokingly named the band in high school after a Monty Python sketch. (The name stuck and the Brits let them keep it.)

Not long after this video aired, I bought the tape—the tape, mind you—of an album called Fear and listened to it for the next several months straight while the band I was in drove around the country. I loved the music, which was a mashup of folk and rock and pop, the melodies and chord progressions somehow seeming both simpler and more complex at once. But the lyrics, rather than being brainless and banal like so much of what I listened to, were lyrical and mysterious, flavored with enough of a narrative to keep me engaged.  Here’s an example,

Bradley says it’s haunted
The house up on the hill
And if we met at 4 A.M. then we would know for sure

We carried the ladders
And leaned them against it
And climbed them as we looked

Someone kicked the ladder
Bradley took a spill
Said his leg was broken
So we dragged him down the hill

Through the door
What do I see?
Something is happening
Is it for me?

Not only was there real songwriting happening here, the sounds were organic and warm–neither the slick pop-metal of Def Leppard nor the gritty grunge of Nirvana. The metal bands that I gravitated to in high school seemed mainly to be about the coolest riffs, playing the shreddiest solos, finding the highest screamers, every song striving for some climactic awesomeness that makes you want to bang your head. On the other end of the spectrum were the emerging Pearl Jams and Nirvanas, great bands in their own right, whose music seemed to be chiefly expressing raw (and typically less than cheery) emotion, giving voice to the angst of high schoolers all over America. The songs represented a new generation’s personal zeitgeist, riding the wave of the shifting cultural tide so that in the end the song itself was secondary the Great Social Statement being made, whether explicitly or in the greater context of the band’s cultural influence.

But then came Toad with their B-3s and accordions and mandolins, their short hair and poetry, their baritones and songcraft and utter lack of pretentiousness (indicated by an utter lack of eyeliner). It’s surprising now to think about how odd it was to see a band in the nineties actually being themselves. Now that I think about it, other than the simple joy of discovering a pleasing batch of songs and sounds, I was intrigued by the fact that Toad was less about self-expression (grunge) or musical indulgence (hair metal) and more about (dare I say it?) beauty. They seemed to want to write good songs, to come up with great parts to embellish those songs, to make something excellent rather than something cool-right-now. Of course, my 40-year-old self has the advantage of perspective and reflection. I never would have articulated it this way then. All I knew was that I had suddenly outgrown whatever music I was into before.

I would love to give you a play-by-play of the album Fear (1991), but I won’t. It features the song “All I Want,” which is perhaps their most recognizable song (next to “Walk On the Ocean”). I sat around with my roommates in college playing these songs over and over, sometimes on the street corners of downtown Orlando. Fear also features “Hold Her Down,” the subject matter and language of which is as dark as the title implies. Toad has worked to support a local rape crisis center in their hometown, and Glen had this to say about the song in an interview:

It’s uncomfortable to have the song released as a single at all…it has the potential danger to be taken at face value because of its somewhat graphic nature. It’s not a pleasant song. It’s angry and ugly, but sexual assault can’t be portrayed as anything but ugly. It is, however, a very personal piece, and not a contrivance. It should be a disturbing song, but it’s not without hope.

The album as a whole, however, even though it’s titled Fear, doesn’t strike me as dark, maybe because it ends with such a joyful, epic song. “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted” is one of my all-time favorites by anyone, ever. Picture this: I’m a freshman in college in 1993. My girlfriend Jamie and I are at her parents’ house. I think she’s beautiful and I’m afraid to date her because I know it will lead to marriage. She knows I play guitar and that I sing when I’m alone, so she asks me to play her a song. I demur, telling her that I never sing in front of people. She insists. I agree to play her something on one condition: she can’t look at me. She has to face the other way. I took a deep, trembling breath, and sang “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted.”

One part of me just wants to tell you everything
One part just needs the quiet
But if I’m lonely here, I’m lonely here
And on the telephone
You offer reassurance

I will not take these things for granted
I will not take these things

How can I hold the part of me that only you can carry
It needs a strength I haven’t found
But if it’s frightening, I’ll bear the cold
And on the telephone, you offer warm asylum

I’m listening: music in the bedroom
Laughter in the hall, dive into the ocean
Singing by the fire, running through the forest
Standing in the wind, rolling canyons

I will not take these things for granted

The next day I discovered a note from Jamie in my college mailbox. It had a smiley face and the words, “Awesome singing!” I still have it somewhere. I had no idea how true those Toad lyrics would ring twenty years later when I’m traveling the country with my guitar, calling home to speak to the woman who knows me best and offers me reassurance and warm asylum—whose love is a constant reminder to never take for granted things like “singing by the fire,” and “running through the forest,” and “rolling canyons.”

In 1994, Toad released their fourth album, Dulcinea. You literary folks will remember the name Dulcinea as Don Quixote’s true love, which is part of what makes the song “Windmills” so awesome. “I’ve spent too much time raiding windmills,” it begins, and Randy Guss’s drums drive us the rest of the way home. (Here’s a live clip of Glen Phillips and the great Chris Thile performing it.) As good as Fear was, Dulcinea surpassed it. Song after song after song–hits like “Something’s Always Wrong” and “Crowing” stand out, but I’m pretty sure every single song on this album is a non-skipper, starting with the rousing opener, “Fly From Heaven,” which seems to be about the Apostle Paul, though I’m not certain.

It was also around this time that I first heard Jars of Clay and thought, “I bet these guys are Toad fans.” (Turns out, they are.) Already Toad’s influence on music was coming to bear, and it would continue to do so–especially when it came to the electric guitar parts, thanks to Todd Nichols. My buddy Andrew Osenga, one of my favorite electric players, has played on almost every record I’ve made, and every single time we’ve been in the studio together I’ve said at some point, “Hey, Osenga, I was kind of hearing a Toad type guitar part on this one,” and Andy, bless his heart, knows exactly what I mean. (You can hear it on “You Came So Close” and “The Havens Grey” and “So Long, Moses,” for example.) At some point in the early 2000′s I remember hearing a producer mutter, “Everybody wants that ‘Toad’ guitar thing right now,” just like how a few years ago everybody was shooting for a “‘Coldplay’ sort of thing” on the drums.

In 1997 they released Coil, which was as good as anything they ever did. It was grittier in places, but in the best way. The band seemed to grow and grow with every release, and then I got the news that Toad was breaking up. Truly I say unto you, it was a sad day. I even called a few buddies to share the news. I only have a few artists that I go bonkers over: three of them are Rich Mullins (who died in 1998), Marc Cohn (who releases approximately one album per orbit of Halley’s Comet), and Toad the Wet Sprocket who was now calling it quits!

But WAIT. Glen, the lead singer, wasn’t finished. Turns out he released a few solo albums. Then I found out from Sean Watkins (of Nickel Creek) that Glen and Nickel Creek recorded an album together called Mutual Admiration Society. (Sean gave me an unreleased copy of it when he and Sara Watkins played the Christmas show back in 2002.) Then I heard that the other guys formed a band called Lapdog. Toad may have officially died, but the ghost still haunted the premises. Several years back my friend Justin McRoberts called to tell me that Toad had reunited for a concert with Counting Crows in California, and I seriously considered cashing in some frequent flyer points to see it.

My last little anecdote about Toad. About twelve years ago Glen Phillips played at a little Nashville club called 3rd and Lindsley, and I slunk around after the concert to give him a CD of my yet-unreleased album Clear to Venus. As it usually goes in situations like that, I made a dork of myself and I sincerely hope that he’s forgotten all about it. But I did have the bizarre experience of thanking the guy who wrote “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted,” because in a weird way that song not only paved the way to my marriage but got me into songwriting and provided the first of many opportunities for Jamie to be the ruthless encourager that she is. That’s something I will never take for granted.

Last year I toured with a great band called Colony House, and I told them one night on the bus, “You guys sound like Toad sometimes.” They looked at me blankly, and we figured out that some of those guys weren’t even born yet when I was driving around Lake Butler listening to Fear. These young guys are carrying around an influence without even realizing it! That, to me, is a testimony to the legacy of this band. So I suppose this little essay is me saying thank you to Glen, Randy, Dean, and Todd for the music you’ve put out for the last twenty years or so. Some of us never stopped listening, and for the small army of Toad fans out there, it’s easy to hear how your work has seasoned a new generation of artists—artists who weren’t even born yet when you were California kids recording Bread and Circus for $650.

In closing, I’ll say that last night I sat with Andrew Osenga, Pete, Matt Conner, Arthur Alligood, John and Janna Barber, and a few other Rabbit Room friends at the Ryman and listened to Toad the Wet Sprocket and Counting Crows. They played so many of my favorite songs, and it turns out some of those favorites are from a brand new Toad album called New Constellation—their first record in sixteen years. The new songs sound both new and old, and are just as good as (if not better than) the early ones, which is inspiring to a 40-year-old dude like me who’s supposed to be writing for a new record. The concert last night was the best kind of reminder to keep working, to keep growing, to remember that there’s no way to ever run out of things to write about. It’s also good to remember that you don’t have to reinvent yourself—rather, when it comes to music and art and good work, you can just be yourself.

Let time do the reinventing for you. I can’t wait to see what these guys do next.

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If you want to check out their music, I’d start with New Constellation, then go back and try Dulcinea.