Sometimes, how and when certain music finds you is as important as whether or not that music is actually any good. For the last several weeks, I've been thinking a lot about my relationship to the music of the Pants. The ruminations have been inspired in part by the upcoming premiere of local filmmaker Bill Simmon's documentary, High Water Mark: The Rise & Fall of the Pants, this Saturday, March 26, at the Higher Ground Ballroom. (Read Ethan de Seife's piece.) But also, I just tend to think about the music of the Pants a lot. There has never been another band, local or otherwise, that had as profound an effect on me as Tommy Law, Hutch, Pistol Stamen and Tad Cautious. In a very real way, the Pants changed my life.
I remember exactly where I was when I first heard them: a sophomore chemistry class in 1994 at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg — where, incidentally, front man Tom Lawson and drummer Neil Cleary had once also been students. When my good friend Jon Murray came into class that morning, his thin, boyish face was glowing, framed by a floppy haircut and a roll-neck sweater — hey, it was the '90s. He joined me at our lab table and slyly pulled his Walkman out of his JanSport backpack. Once the coast was clear and our teacher had turned his back, Jon handed me the headphones and whispered, "Dude."
I slipped in one earbud, and he took the other. He hit "play," and the jangly opening chords of "None of That" tickled my ear for the first time.
(By the way, in another sign of '90s-ness, Jon had heard "None of That" the night before on WRUV 90.1 FM. That morning he called in to the station to request the song and then recorded it onto cassette from the radio.)
I fell in love immediately. I'd never heard anything quite like "None of That." That was partly a product of my own limited exposure to underground rock at the time. But it's also, as I would come to learn, because no one penned songs quite like Tom Lawson. Something about the way he wrote about love and alienation, always with a slightly askew perspective and cheekiness, resonated with me to the bottom of my adolescent soul. It still does.
The next fall, Jon and I joined the junior class council. We had absolutely no interest in student government. Rather, we had but one objective: to join the prom committee and hire the Pants to play our prom. After a months-long fight with the other members, we scored a narrow victory. Sort of.
I've never shared this next bit publicly before. In order to convince a skeptical council that the Pants were prom material, we put it to a vote among CVU juniors and seniors. The early returns did not go in our favor. So Jon and I employed a bit of electoral chicanery that would make even Florida Republicans blush: We stuffed the ballot box.
Questionable ethics aside, the Pants did indeed play our prom, which was held aboard the Spirit of Ethan Allen. Even though I went stag — or maybe because I did — it was one of the best nights of my high school years. That especially included the moment when the captain of the hockey team angrily threatened to throw Lawson off the boat if the band didn't play a slow song. Until that point they had stuck mostly to the rock, so they obliged with an epic cover of Prince's "Purple Rain."
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The Pants, Fred Sex
But the Pants were more to me than just a cool band that played my prom. They were my entry point into local music, my gateway drug. My junior and senior years, I devoured everything I could about local music. I religiously turned to Brad Searles' Scene & Heard column in the Burlington Free Press and would snag my copy of the local music zine Good Citizen every time I made the pilgrimage to Pure Pop, often to buy local CDs and tapes.
Jon and I, along with several other friends over the years, spent countless school nights worshipping at the altar of Club Toast, the now-defunct lower Church Street rock club that served as the scene's epicenter in the 1990s. Even though we were obviously underage, we somehow always got in. Because of the Pants, we discovered bands such as Envy, Snowplow, the Fags, Slush, Guppyboy, WideWail, Jesus Nut, Chin Ho! and Rocketsled. Those bands, and surely countless others I'm forgetting, formed the soundtrack to my teenage years in Burlington. They also set me on the course that would shape my life, very much including my chosen occupation.
In my senior year, Jon and I started a ska band called Ska-Ka-Doodle-Doo. At the time, every CVU senior had to complete a yearlong project called Graduation Challenge in order to graduate. Ours was running the band, getting gigs, and making posters and lousy four-track recordings. Part of the project included enlisting a community adviser. We chose Tom Lawson. In hindsight, I can't say that he offered much in the way of guidance. In fact, I'm pretty sure we ended up forging his signature on most, if not all, project documents. (Note to CVU: Sorry! Please don't revoke my diploma.)
Even Lawson's lackadaisical student mentoring was formative, in a way. Through him I found validation in my own slacker tendencies. It was kinda cool that he cared as little about the project as we did — the whole thing was pretty silly, after all. But here is the real reason the Pants' effect on me was so profound: They made the idea that I could devote my life to music seem real and tangible.
Over the years, I would play in bands myself. I don't know that Lawson had any overt influence on my songwriting, except that he inspired me to write songs, and to write them my way, in my own voice. Because that's how he did it. And every time I would step onto the stage at Toast, I would think about being a starstruck kid in the crowd and marvel that I was getting to play on the same stage as my heroes. That never got old.
Nor did the music of the Pants ever lose its luster. Ten years ago, the band played a reunion show at the Higher Ground Ballroom — that's the event that inspired Simmon to start working on his documentary. But I couldn't go. That day in Jamestown, R.I., we held a funeral for my grandmother. My siblings and I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to race back to Vermont after the service to make the show. That would have been a terrible thing to do, though it shows you how badly we wanted to see the Pants. Instead, we went a different route.
There are two things the Bolles clan does pretty well: drinking and playing music. As we gathered at my uncle's house for the wake, the booze began to flow, followed shortly by the instruments. In homage to the return of a band the three of us loved, my brother and sister and I sang the Pants' "Wounded (You're So Fine)," right around the time we figured they might be taking the stage. (As an aside, if I've ever made you a mixtape, there's a good chance that song is on it. It's my favorite and has been a mixtape staple since I was 16.)
Shortly after, I was approached by Simmon, who had heard that we'd played the song at our grandmother's wake. He said he was doing a documentary on the band and asked if we would perform the song for it. I don't think I've ever been more flattered in my life. Or more terrified.
If you go see the flick on Saturday, and I strongly urge you to, you'll hear some of our version of the song. Even better, if you stick around after the screening, you'll hear Tom Lawson sing it, too, with Swale backing. (Disclosure: My brother is in Swale). You'll also hear a slew of other Pants favorites, some sung by Lawson and others voiced by old friends such as Jason Cooley, Heloise Williams, Craig Mitchell and Ryan Ober, among others.
And you'll find me in the front row, singing along with every word like a giddy teenager.
A peek at what was on my iPod, turntable, eight-track player, etc., this week.
Bonnie "Prince" Billy/Bitchin' Bajas, Epic Jammers and Fortunate LittleDitties
Various Artists, Wayfaring Strangers:Cosmic American Music