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. 

A short twitter Christmas Remembrance (from an atheist Jew)

I did this as a twitter story yesterday. So, in case you missed it…here it is. 


A short twitter Christmas remembrance (from an atheist jew). 

 6th grade. My best friend was Italian, Chris P. His mom, Mrs. P. was the nicest woman on earth. 

 Mrs. P. was always more aware of my judaism than I was. And thought even secular jews were kosher.

 So, I’d be a their house and she’d make amazing Italian feasts for the family, pasta and sauce redolent with pork.  

 And on my plate, a turkey sandwich on rye, which she would call “a nice jewish turkey sandwich”. I’d eat it while pining for the pasta and pork.

 But she was so sweet, and I knew it mattered to her. That she really cared. 

 And would always say things like: Your mother would kill me if I let you have that veal parm: it’s cheese and meat.

(my mom made veal parm). 

 Chris was less sensitive. Once, while playing ping pong, a ball I’d struck hit the net chord before dropping in. He called that a “cheap jew shot.”  Mrs. P. would not have liked that, I’d bet. 

 I didn’t actually care. I knew he didn’t mean it. At all. And would’ve beat up anyone else who said it to me. And the shot was kind of a cheap jew shot. 

 One Christmas, Chris and family took me on a trip to Boca Raton, Fla. And we went to Midnight Mass.  

 Mrs. P. and Mr. P. (a lawyer with, everyone whispered, deep mafia connections) sat in the back of the church. 

 Chris, his two sisters, and I sat in front. This was a big, huge, giant church.

 Lovely service. Nicest mass I ever attended.  

 And then came time for communion. I had no idea what it was. Chris said to follow him. So I did. 

On the line we went. I watched, fascinated, as the priest went through the ritual, blood and body and all that.

And I was hungry and thirsty. 

 Finally, I was at the front of the line. I had watched Chris, so I knew what to do.

Stuck out my tongue. Priest had the wafer ready to go, when… 

 I felt myself YANKED back by my shirt collar. Mrs. P., had come running from the very back of the church. 

 The entire congregation watched as she dragged me away from the alter. “He’s a jew! His mother would kill me!” she said.

 Which made me, ya know, a little self-conscious. 

But it also led to an honest conversation later that night which ended with me finally getting to dig in to that delicious, mind-blowingly great pasta.  

So in the end, it was a Merry Christmas for all. Which this atheist Jew hopes all of you have as well.

What should I write?

Right behind the Most Asked Question is this: which genre should I write in? And, of course, its companion: which genres should I avoid? There’s also this variation: how do I know which of my ideas is the most commercial given the current market conditions? 

Ten years ago, I hardly ever heard these questions asked. Sure, there were magazine articles about what types of screenplays sold and which ones were made, but there wasn’t this idea out there that the screenwriter had to be as calculating and careful as a scientist plotting the course of a space craft, where a mistake of even one centimeter could have horrific and permanent implications. 

I think these questions come from twin desires: 1) the desire to feel like we’re not wasting our effort and 2) the desire to believe that we can reduce the odds of failure.

And I get it. Nobody wants to feel stupid or vulnerable or like we deserve the blame for failing. It’s so much easier to look to external conditions, outside advice, expert opinion and say: but I listened, I did the right thing, I did as I was told. 

The problem with this is it’s a false construct. There are no experts. Nobody knows what anybody will want to buy, watch, read or sell. Nobody ever has. Which is why most movies and television shows fail.

So why do so many people claim to know which genres are viable and which are losers? 

Because they want you to feel like you don’t know, like you don’t have an internal compass, like you NEED them. 

But you don’t need them. In fact, what you need to do is shut them out. 

Is it true that certain genres did better at the box office this year? I’m sure it is. Is it true that certain others did worse? Again. Yes.

But ask yourself this: would any of those experts have told you to write The Butler? Or Enough Said? Or even American Hustle? 

No way. 

Somewhere inside you, you know where your storytelling passion is. You know what you have a true point of view on. You know the story that only you can tell in the way only you can.  If you write that one as well as you can, if you are consistent and rigorous and honest with yourself, if you are brutal with the screenplay, get all the bullshit out of it, get all that you know and feel into it…hey, it’s no guarantee of anything but this: that screenplay will give you the absolute best chance you have to make an impact, get noticed, get started. 

I know that’s not the same kind of promise many of the clowns leading seminars at the Radisson will give you.

But it does have the advantage of being the truth. 

Now dig in.