The Toad Years

Time is a world class editor. Something you just know you will never forget is gone, replaced by the new thing you are sure you will always hold onto. 

The things that stay lodged in your memory matter. They are significant. They changed you in one way or another. Enough so that they were selected as the keepers. 

For me, one of those keepers is a concert— no, concert is way too big a word— is a performance by Toad The Wet Sprocket in Los Angeles, California, in 1990. 

A friend kind of dragged me to this small bar where we were to see the latest hyped up indie combo try to impress the music industry crowd. 

On the way there, my friend and I popped the band’s first, self-recorded, self-financed album into the cassette player. It was more a long form demo than a proper album (at that time, I think maybe 600 of them were pressed and recorded to tape). 

As soon as the music started, we stopped talking. That was unusual. Record biz guys, which we were at the time, were way too cool to let something like a band’s tape stop them from regaling each other with stories of conquests professional and personal. 

Yet there was an urgency to this music. A confident, laid back urgency, that demanded attention. I rewound Way Away two or three times to try and get the words. And also to decide if this was merely another competent Athens influenced combo or a band singing and playing something that mattered to them. 

Before I made up my mind, we were at the gig wearing the stock record biz dude implacable expressions on our faces. 

Then the band came out on stage. And I saw they were kids. I was only 23 at the time. They were even younger than me. And the lead singer seemed so uncertain about performing for this audience, that he began hugging himself as he started to sing. 

I was transfixed. The singer, Glen Phillips, might have been of two minds about selling himself to the highest industry bidder, but he was clearly of singular purpose in the putting across of the songs. 

As I watched him, and the band behind him of Todd Nichols, Dean Dinning and former drummer Randy Guss, I knew I was seeing something rare: the real thing. 

The songs were great. The playing was great. And Glen sang with the clarity and style of someone who’d been at it for decades though he was only seventeen. But it wasn’t the individuals that convinced me. It was the collective spirit of what was going on. These guys vibed off each other. 

At the time, I had no idea they’d met in high school in Santa Barbara. Or that the band had started as half hobby/half something to do. Or that they had already recorded a second album, Pale, that represented the kind of artistic leap it usually takes bands four albums to make. 

But I could see that this was a real band. And that they were truly alive as they were up there doing it for us. 

Over the next two weeks, I replayed that performance in my mind hundreds of times, especially the way Glen seemed to warm to his task, to trust the audience, to open himself up to us, invite us in, eventually getting us to sing along to songs we had never heard before. 

And then I started driving to Santa Barbara to see them play, spend time with them, talk to them about their future. 

Which is all to say, I have had a very good perch from which to watch Toad The Wet Sprocket over these past 30 plus years. 

After all this time, it still blows my mind that they are this good. And that they are this underrated. Yes, they have a loyal fanbase that comes out to see them year after year. And yes, they have millions of streams on all the services. 

But the sheer quality of the music they have made seems to sometimes get lost in the era they came from, the name they gave themselves, their own refusal to compromise their integrity for wider acclaim. 

Here’s something fascinating about Toad: they have never made a bad album. Never even made a mediocre album. When they go into the studio, they go in with great songs, and they don’t stop until they nail ‘em. 

On this, their newest album, that tradition continues. Song after song hits with power and melodic precision. And once again, Glen opens himself up and invites us in to see the world as he does, with love, hope, communion, despite eyes that miss nothing of its darkness, loneliness and despair. 

It’s easier, as we get older, to not allow ourselves to really feel anything. To kind of half-listen, half-engage, so as not to get stirred up. I urge you not to do this with Starting Now. Or with Toad in general. 

This is a band still committed to music, each other, and us. And in a world that seems to want to divide and conquer, it’s more important than ever to lend them an ear and to try to sing along. 

Today, I posted a list of my favorite Toad songs on Twitter. And I was immediately besieged by rival lists, by additions to mine, by friends and strangers who were thrilled to get to talk about Toad again. 

Time is a world class editor. There are whole months in 1990 that are gone for me forever. But that one night— the night I first saw Toad the Wet Sprocket, that night will stay with me until I am no more. 

If I close my eyes right now, I’m there, with Todd and Dean singing harmony and playing their guts out, and Glen holding onto himself, his eyes closed too, as he screams out the words to Know Me. And the best news is, you have the chance to make a memory like this with Toad, too. Just put on Starting Now, or buy a ticket to one of the shows, and listen. 

Published by

Brian Koppelman

I'm co-creator/Executive producer of Showtime's Billions. Some of the films I've either written/produced/directed are Solitary Man, Rounders, Ocean's Thirteen, Knockaround Guys, Runaway Jury, The Girlfriend Experience & the 30/30 Documentary on Jimmy Connors. I'm also the host of the podcast The Moment. iTunes.com/TheMoment

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