Blue Laws and Fountains of Wayne

It happened on a Sunday in early 1997. Because of Bergen County’s blue laws that kept most stores closed, I had driven down to Wayne, NJ, to shop for some new music. I’d been going to Willowbrook Mall and the other area shops around Wayne for as long as I could remember. As a kid, my neighbor’s mom would take her two sons, my brother, Matt, and I—with our pockets full of quarters—to the video game arcade at the mall. Years later, while I attended nearby Montclair State College, I would often go with friends to eat, shop, hangout, or sing karaoke in a basement bar of one of the restaurants (Casey O’Tooles?).

But that Sunday in 1997, I had gone by myself to The Wiz (an electronics and music store near Willowbrook, but not in the mall) to search the rows of CDs for something new. At the end of one of those rows was a special display, a rack of CDs featuring local artists. And that’s when Fountains of Wayne’s self-titled debut album caught my eye.

I recognized the name from the Fountains of Wayne lawn ornament, outdoor furniture, and Christmas-festivity store I had driven by on Route 46 countless times, but I didn’t know there was a band with the same name. I dug the cover image of the boy clutching a rabbit and looking like he’s about to soar like Superman. In the 1980s, I often bought vinyl albums based on the cover art alone without hearing a single note. Holding the Fountains of Wayne CD in my hand and being less than a mile from the Fountains of Wayne store, how could I not get this CD?

I listened to it the second I got home. Sometimes covers can be misleading. You can end up with a dud. Not this time. From the first strums and lyrics of “Radiation Vibe“—Are you alone now | Did you lose the monkey | He gave you backaches | And now you slouch—to the final song “Everything’s Ruined,” I was hooked. An instant fan. That disc was free from its case and under a laser more than any other that year. But when I mentioned Fountains of Wayne to friends, they just shrugged—at the time they had never heard of them—which was was fine with me. It felt like I had the band and the music all to myself.

Until I met my future husband a few months later.

There was a time when scanning a potential mate’s (or even just a friend’s) record collection or CD case would help you decide whether or not you’d get along. The first time I was in Danny’s apartment, I went straight to his CD collection, tilted my head sideways and took note of his taste. The Cure, Depeche Mode, Neil Diamond, Dixie Chicks, Erasure, so far so good. Then I saw it. Well, it saw me, peripherally, before my focus landed on its shelf. Nested somewhere between Donna Fargo and Genesis was my Fountains of Wayne CD. Well, not mine, his. Separately ours together. I liked this guy even more. He just might be a keeper.

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Danny was the only other person I knew who owned and listened to that CD. After the awe of this fact wore off, I asked him how he had heard of the band. Like me, he said he had bought the CD sound unheard. But why? Turned out when he first moved to New York City in 1994, he worked at an Outback Steakhouse in Wayne. He’d ride the bus past the Fountains of Wayne store, transfer to another bus at the Willowbrook Mall, and then use part of his tips for the bus fare back. So when he saw the CD in a record store, he knew he had to give it a listen.

Back in his apartment, we put the “record” on and listened together. Of course we both loved “Radiation Vibe,” but for some reason in the coming weeks and months, we often found ourselves randomly singing “Survival Car” or “Leave the Biker.”

Every couple has a song (or songs) they call their own because it reminds them of when they first met. The Fountains of Wayne songs became our songs. While there were songs by other artists that also remind us of our early years, like Third-Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” in 1997, and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Shut Up and Kiss Me” from a few years earlier—I was a rabid fan of MCC and made Danny one, too, and since he didn’t talk much, the title fit our relationship to a tee—as for an entire album of songs being our album of songs, that belonged to Fountains of Wayne.

For the next twenty years, we’d always get their latest album as soon as it was released. The soundtrack of our lives just got better and better. With tunes like “Red Dragon Tattoo,” “Prom Theme,” “Hung Up on You,” “Hackensack,” “All Kinds of Time,” “Valley Winter Song,” “Fire Island,” “This Better Be Good,” “I-95,” “Planet of Weed,” and “A Road Song” being among some of our favorites.

Red Dragon Tattoo:

I brought a .38 Special CD collection
Some bactine to prevent infection
And in case I get queasy
A photo of Easy Rider

Red dragon tattoo
Is just about on me
I got it for you
So now do you want me?
With nothing to prove
Will you be my honey?
oh yeah
In you I confide
Red dragon tattoo
I’m fit to be dyed
Am I fit to have you?

Valley Winter Song:

Remember New York
Staring outside
As reckless winter made its way
From Staten Island to the Upper West Side
Whiting out our streets along the way

Hung Up On You:

And I can’t dial the phone just now
Even though I know your number
Can’t bring my broken heart to be untrue
Like you did today
You’ll say goodbye the same old way
Ever since you hung up on me
I’m hung up on you

Traffic and Weather:

Chuck Scarborough turns to Sue Simmons
Says sugar you don’t know what you’re missin’

Although these snippets are out of context, detached from the whole song (and album), with fun lyrics like this, what’s not to love? (Then there’s that time Sue Simmons turned to Chuck Scarborough and said “what the fuck are you doing?“)

Sometimes when artists cover other artists it makes me love the covered song more than the original. For example, Cake’s cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” Fleetwood Mac’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” Sturgill Simpson’s cover of When In Rome’s “The Promise,” and Joan Osborne’s covers of Dolly Parton’s “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?” and Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky” are spectacular renditions. (As tribute albums go, Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne and Just Because I’m A Woman: Songs Of Dolly Parton are among the best.) Fountains of Wayne does some great covers. On Out-of-State Plates, they cover Jackson Browne (“These Days“), but also Britney Spears (“…Baby One More Time“)?

In 2003, Danny and I finally went to a Fountains of Wayne concert at Irving Plaza in NYC. It had been a few years since we’d gone to any kind of live show. Having a kid can do that. Our son was almost three, in the throws of a year-long tantrum phase, and we desperately needed a night out. Our friend Chuck, god bless his soul, came over to baby sit so we could find some peace and love.

Danny and I got to Irving Plaza early. No early bird special, just Ben Lee, whose entire warm up set was a treat. The next day, we bought his CD. We nursed our beers until our band took the stage and we escaped into the hops and the music. In the moment, cares aside, Danny and I were in no better place, dancing and singing along to every song.

Today, our CD cabinets are gone. All of the music has been ripped to MP3s. We gave away or sold most of our collection (over 700 CDs), except for the ones (around 200) we just couldn’t part with, which included Fountains of Wayne.

Recently, I became more active on Twitter and followed Fountains of Wayne. Soon after, Chris Collingwood, Fountain of Wayne’s lead singer and songwriter, followed me back. And I’m glad he did. It’s the only way I learned about his solo project called Look Park. (Social media is good for something.) I’m sure if I had seen the album in a record store, I would’ve bought it for the cover.

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Look Park has been on my iPod in heavy rotation for a couple of months now. But Danny doesn’t know about it. He hasn’t heard one song. I’ve not shared the find with him yet. I think I might be keeping it to myself because, deep down, I’m hoping he discovers it on his own. And then, on some future Saturday afternoon, when “Shout Part 1” shuffles to the top of our collective iTunes playlist and Collingwood’s voice pours out from our living room speakers, we’ll recapture the awe of discovery and then sing along like we did twenty years earlier to “Radiation Vibe.” Shine on, shine on, shine on.

The Fountains of Wayne store.


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