It is the autumn of 1997. My band, Soma, is several months dead and gone. In my dorm room at Bradford College, armed with the Hewlett-Packard PC that my mother had helped me to procure over the summer and the full-sized Casio synthesizer I’d purchased with my birthday money earlier that October, I begin to compose songs on my own for the first time. The first tune that comes is an instrumental jam over a pre-packaged drumbeat. I’m using a raw, 80s-sounding sawtooth tone, and I’m layering my improvisation over a progression of three power-chords that I’d laid down earlier. There are no words yet, but I can sense that something special is happening here. Without really trying to, I’ve written music for a verse, for a chorus, and for a bridge.
I lay down several other parts. There is a pan flute, an homage to my late sonic gang’s most popular song; there is a long, orchestral intro; and there are digital ocean waves at the end. Later, when he comes to visit, my friend Nathan Keyes will add a fast, swirling string section to the main body of the song. And though it will forever remain low in the mix, I will never be able to hear the song again without it.
In my electronic music class, a class I’d signed up for when the band was still together, when I was anxious to prove myself a more valuable member of the group, we are asked to compose a one minute song as a final project. I can’t help grinning. I already have six minutes or so sitting on my computer on the other side of campus.
It occurs to me, after many, many listens, that I have an honest-to-goodness song, that I have finally done it. I write words now, lyrics about the sad state of my love life. Because, why not? The writer’s credo is to write what you know, and what I know is heartache. I gave up my virginity to a girl who dumped me two days later. I sent a scary love letter to a girl I’d been becoming close friends with and I had been met with rejection. And over the summer, when, for the first time, I discovered that I was the object of someone else’s affection, it turned out that my pursuer was a girl who had pursued every guy in our band and, only when every other option had been exhausted, decided to pursue me.
Nathan is coming by more frequently now, writing songs of his own on the computer. Soon, we have enough material between us to perform a short set. Him and his guitar, me and my computer. It’ll be amazing. It’ll blow every wannabe singer-songwriter on campus out of the water with how sophisticated and professional the performance is. We’ll call ourselves Thin, and I’ll never be sure why.
At the next coffeehouse/open-mic/whatever night, Nathan and I are presented with the opportunity to open the show. We start the computer up with about a minute’s worth of dead air, enough time for us to get off stage. Once the stage is clear, the computer spews zeroes and ones through a MIDI cable and into my keyboard, and my orchestral intro fills the campus center. We let the excitement build—and, honest to God, there does seem to be some excitement building—and then, after a minute or two, we take the stage to a relatively thunderous applause. Nathan and I are juniors now. We have a following, if you could call it that. Or, well, he does.
The computer counts off the song and we go. We’ve muted the power-chords on the keyboard so that Nate has something to play on his guitar (he’ll chide me later for writing such a repetitive, simplistic part). I sing lead and the plan is for him to chime in on the chorus, or at least I think that’s the plan. Whatever the case, I don’t notice anything but how alive I feel as I sing the words. The crowd cheers when we’re done. We play two more, one of Nate’s and a cover of Garbage’s song from the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack. Nate’s supposed to sing both, but he’s having trouble playing the part on the Garbage song and singing at the same time, so I fill in.
We are universally praised by everyone who bothers to say anything about the gig.
Two years later, as I am choosing songs for the first album I will release under the moniker of Pop Bubblegum Trash, “U Don’t Know” is an obvious candidate. I excise the orchestral intro on the advice of my girlfriend (now that I’m in love it seems like maybe that bit was a bit too much, after all) but the rest of it I leave intact.
Many years after that, it remains a song that I can listen to with pride. When my band was done, when I was faced with the harsh realities that I could barely play an instrument, I still managed to make music. Maybe not great music to anyone else’s ears, but music that still makes me want to sing along.
Long before GarageBand made it possible for mere mortals to write music, and even before Sonic Foundry (and, later, Sony) made waves with their loop-based Acid Music products, I wrote a song on my own. And for a kid with major self-esteem issues, for a guy who has always struggled to find a way to feel like he was worth a damn, knowing that I was capable of creating something good, something appreciated by others, something I appreciated myself—that was pretty damned special.