or “Waiting For October: Reflections on the Band that Lives Inside Your TV”
by Dave Teodosio
I hate September. T. S. Eliot dubbed April “the cruelest” but September is right up there. It’s the Monday of the months. It triggers a PTSD response to being forced back into the school year. September’s all the summer heat and stickiness with none of the vacation. Seasonally speaking, it’s apathetic and boring. October, on the other hand, boldly commits. It categorically belongs to autumn. It has it’s own unique climate, colors, scents, foods, wardrobe, traditions, and vibe, and it culminates with an awesome holiday.
Every September – I’m waiting for October.
This has everything to do with the song, “Waiting for October,” by perhaps the cultiest cult band of all time – Polaris. You know them as the “house band” from the hit ’90s TV series The Adventures of Pete & Pete. The show was The Wonder Years on acid, a series about a grungy set of redhead brothers and their bizarre coming of age, set in the non-specific fictional town of Wellsville – which seemed in perpetual states of late summer and early fall. Over 3 inimitable seasons, the show saw a slew of cameos – Iggy Pop, The B-52s, Michael Stipe, Gordon Gano, et al. – and turned around the heads of kids growing up in the edgy golden age of Nickelodeon.
Each episode is nostalgically steeped in the bliss of summer and the bracing stoicism of an October afternoon. And each year around this time I gravitate towards Polaris’s lone record – released three years after the show’s cancellation in an unceremonious “Oh well, why not?” kind of way – and aptly titled, Music from the Adventures of Pete & Pete.
MFTAOPAP is so much more than a soundtrack. It’s a cohesive album. But in that, it’s an anomaly. It defies genre – sonically and tonally, it’s beyond classification – and was for years unavailable, save for a premium cassingle that was, for a very brief window, available in boxes of Frosted Mini-Wheats.
Polaris never recorded anything before or after this flash-in-the-pan, one-off dozen songs. They never played a live show.
The mastermind and creative force behind the three-piece outfit, Mark Mulcahy is even more cult than the cult band he formed. Mulcahy is a guilty pleasure, an also-ran of sorts from the post-punk-becoming-alt-rock era. He’s also very quietly prolific, from his New Haven, CT-born band Miracle Legion – which earned modest college radio renown in the mid-’80s – to a late-blooming solo career that continues to bloom today (his song “Hey Self Defeater” is a brow-straining deep cut on many a mix tape).
Mulcahy never garnered commercial traction or much of the pundits’ praise, but he earned the respect of diehard fans and peers. He’s been an inspiration to so many artists who actually did “make it”. Mulcahy’s wife, Melissa Rich, passed away suddenly in 2008, leaving him to care for his 2 young daughters on a musician’s salary. In an effort to raise funds, contemporaries and friends like Thom Yorke, Dinosaur Jr., and Stipe, to name a few, banded together and covered Mulcahy’s songs on a double-disc tribute album, Ciao my Shining Star.
But Mulcahy is ever the definite giver, not a receiver. He’s an unintentional muse, a guru behind so much great art. He made September bearable.
I had the great fortune to the see the first-ever live Polaris performance at the Pete & Pete reunion show in 2012 – a truly special nerd-a-thon of a night. I was sitting second row, with my little brother, at the Orpheum Theater in Downtown Los Angeles, and we got to witness the members of this fictional TV band come out to a greeting worthy of the Beatles.
Until that moment, they had no clue what they had done.
Polaris, as we know the band today, were a complete accident. The creators of Pete & Pete paid Mulcahy a fee to write four songs each year the program ran, to which Nickelodeon would, without limit, own the publishing rights. From those four compositions would come various mixes – volumes of isolated instrumental tracks – that gave the production a huge Polaris library. The resulting 3 seasons thus yielded 12 master compositions – enough for a record.
The first track is the lyrical enigma and title theme from the TV show, “Hey Sandy.” No person has ever correctly guessed the words that came out of Mulcahy’s mouth in that auspicious session. But perhaps the most interesting fact about “Hey Sandy” is that it (deliberately) never references the show’s title, or anything remotely tied to the Petes’ narrative. It’s a total non-sequitur. Yet, somehow, it is the show. How does such an abstraction become an anthem? You’ll have to ask the cult gods on that one.
“Hey Sandy” will take you back, but once that’s out of the way, the rest of the album will take you in. The first “real” track is the ballad “She is Staggering”. For fans of the show it’s a familiar reprise of the relationship between Big Pete and his girl-next-door flame, Ellen. But on a closer listen, it’s an ode to a paradoxically ideal woman, and the first lines are a Freudian slip that sort of sum up Mulcahy’s under-the-radar career to that point: Are you crazy man/You didn’t notice her?/You must be blind.
Mulcahy is a multi-talented musician, but his voice is his strongest instrument. His rare larynx produces the sweetest, the truest, falsetto. He’s a moody artist, a self-deprecating crooner, an impressionistic lyricist, and a sarcastic storyteller, with a gift for blending the silly child and the jaded grownup that seem to constantly clash in his head.
The album dances through jangly ditties like “Summer Baby,” “Saturnine,” “Coronado II,” “Recently,” and “The Monster’s Loose,” cheerful-sounding songs couched in some pretty gloomy themes. But the same can be said of fairytales. No matter how dark the subject matter of his songs, or how thrown his characters’ feelings, Mulcahy’s melodies inevitably – but not predictably – come to the rescue. And the voices that come to life are unabashedly true. The way he wields the “you” pronoun is a powerful opinion, but also puts the listener squarely in the POV of these fictitious forlorn lovers and lost souls. And they all seem to rise above life’s peccadillos in spite of them – they’re “happily deranged,” as Mulcahy yowls almost unintelligibly on “Hey Sandy”. (The bottom does drop out on one track; “Everywhere” might be the saddest song I’ve ever heard, with a harmonica solo that rips my heart out every time.)
“Waiting for October” is the third track on the album, but it feels like a closer. It’s an introspective jam punctuated by the stock effect of an atom bomb going off. The song is about Christian Evangelist Bill Graham’s 1991 Central Park appearance, where, before a quarter of a million people, he proclaimed the world would end on October 28, 1999. Mulcahy’s response to such nonsense is both funny and poignant. The song takes the meaning – and meaninglessness – of life and makes you want to stop trying to predict where it might go and live it.
I’m listening to “Waiting for October” as I write this paragraph. I can see the colors, smell the smells, and taste the tastes of autumn. I also feel those last exhalations of life before the school year began, and the lessons I learned from a scripted TV series about the preciousness of childhood.
Mulcahy’s music is, in a word, evocative.
You might argue that this sensory recall is conjured not by the music, but rooted in my own memories of the show, and that without Pete & Pete there would be no Polaris. That’s entirely valid. But here’s a fact: without Mark Mulcahy, Pete & Pete as we remember it would also not have been. The show’s entire conceptual foundation came from Miracle Legion, from a tune called “The Backyard” (off their eponymous album) – a song about being a kid in the summertime. Pete & Pete was all along a fossil in Mulcahy’s backyard, buried for a decade before it changed the lives of two showrunners, the lives of a musical trio, and the lives of millions of impressionable children of the ’90s.
Think about that while you’re waiting for September to end.