Sarah Hepola

Someone to Love

On Fountains of Wayne, coronavirus, and the kick drum of the human heart

Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne

I was driving the long solitary highway to Alaska when the guy in the passenger seat asked if I knew Fountains of Wayne. Was that a statue? Was that a waterfall? It was a band, he explained, named after a store in New Jersey. That guy was not my boyfriend, but I hadn’t given up yet. I kept studying him, trying to find the secret door. He unsheathed a silver disc from an enormous CD binder and held it by the hole in the center, like his index finger was wearing a sombrero.

“See if you recognize this song,” he said. He slid the disc into the player, and a kick drum announced the beat.

Are you alone now? the singer asked.

I did recognize the song. “Radiation Vibe.” It was catchy and slightly generic in that way of pop radio. Baby baby. Come on, what’s wrong? It was opaque in that way of pop lyrics. What was a “radiation vibe”, anyway? Was it good? Was it bad? I’d never given the song much thought. It was wallpaper from 1996, hooky and hummable. More than five years had passed since then, but I could still sing the chorus. It was easy. Shine on, shine on, shine on. 

We listened to the entire album. The guy’s CD binder contained a hundred discs, and our plan was to listen to every one, because that’s how long it takes to drive to Alaska and that’s how much I wanted to learn him. Pop music had once been a private pleasure, a little girl making swirls in the red shag carpet of her bedroom as she danced to Prince and Michael and Whitney, but as I grew older, and more love-doped, I saw the way pop music could grant you access to boys. Knowing the right bands might make you the right girl. 

I had learned my older brother once. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, 80s metal. I learned my high school boyfriend. Elvis Costello, Steve Martin, Monty Python. I learned my college boyfriend. Tom Waits, Anthony Bourdain, Martin Scorsese. And I learned so many other men along the way. Sometimes I cringe at how I ditched my team for theirs, how I tripped over myself to learn their boy languages and their boy books, but I don’t know how to separate that relinquishment from the young woman whose mind was set aflame. Those songs and mythologies and images shaped me. I still love them all. 

The guy in the car liked to pantomime the songs as I drove, a karaoke performance for one. I can still see him pointing out the windshield of my Honda Accord and then into the sky as he lip-synced the second track, “Sink to the Bottom”:  

Cars on the highway, planes in the air. Everyone else is going somewhere.

The verse struck me, because it was the opposite of our situation. There were no cars on the highway, since we were on a 1200-mile stretch of asphalt so desolate it sometimes felt like driving on Mars. There were no planes in the air, since we were in remote British Columbia. We looked up to find jay birds and woodpeckers and eagles that turned out to be hawks. I liked the self-pity of the last line — everyone else is going somewhere — because it’s how I felt in high school and college, watching friends jet off to Europe and ski resorts and exotic beaches as I stayed grounded in Texas, but now I was twenty-eight, and I was finally in motion. I was in the midst of a five-month solo road trip around the country, camping in national parks and crashing on friends’ couches, and it had been the guy’s idea to join me for this two-week jaunt. He flew into Seattle so we could hit the Al-Can Highway to Fairbanks, and I happily agreed to this plan, because a) who doesn’t want to go to Alaska? but also b) What if this was the secret door?   

The guy drew my attention to track seven, “Sick Day.” Many songs have a fade-out, the guy explained, but this song had a fade-IN. He turned up the volume so I could savor the slow crescendo of the kick and the snare, like the sun sneaking onto the horizon. “Sick Day” wasn’t as chipper as the earlier songs, so eager to sink their hooks in you; it had a laid-back melancholy.

Check out the girl in the Harbor Tunnel.

Crawling to work, six feet under

And the day has just begun. They’re all chewing gum

And laughing at the voice on the cracking radio station

Lead us not into Penn Station

Cause the best part’s just begun.

We’re all becoming one. Again.

I didn’t know much about songwriting, but I knew about storytelling, and damn. This was a world summoned in a few couplets. It captured the ache of being alone together on that highway, one of the central sadnesses of modern life at the turn of the century. We had not yet learned the alone-togetherness of the internet, of social media, of sexting. Well, I hadn’t anyway. My mind snagged on the crisp sonic detail of the crackling radio station. The pun on the Lord’s prayer, clever and irreverent. But what sunk me was that line. We’re all becoming one. Again. Part deliverance, part give-up. Salvation and strip-mall sameness. I imagined the mid-size sedans and the hulking SUVs and the honking taxi cabs jockeying for position, locked in battle but forced to get along. I wanted to become one with someone. I worried it would never happen. I had wanted to merge with another person for a long long time.

“Sick Day” instantly became my favorite track on the album. I liked how the song took as its subject the mundane routine of ordinary life. There were lines about coffee creamer, a copy machine, a cubicle. Pop songs tend toward the exceptional: The wildest nights and the hottest women. But this song was quietly observant and minor note. There was a line that nearly made me gasp it was so familiar. She’s a hell of a girl, she’s alone in the world.  I guess it felt like that line had been written for me. 

This ability to elevate suburban details into memorable pop music is what I think of when I think of Fountains of Wayne. I liked how the songs, sung by co-conspirator Chris Collingwood but mostly written by bassist Adam Schlesinger, offered the texture of life in another town. A childhood of laser shows and shopping malls, a trip on the Acela train, traffic on I-95. Later I would learn Schlesinger was influenced by the Kinks writing about London, and Springsteen’s Born to Run, but I was at the age where I wanted to write about important places, part of why I was taking that extravagant road trip, and I liked being reminded that places become important because we write about them. That small lives matter.

The guy never became my boyfriend. Of course he didn’t. He flew back to Texas, and I kept driving, and I kept listening to Fountains of Wayne. It was good driving music. Gen-X ironic, silly, singable. I drove down into the Badlands and up along the ribboning roads of blue-sky Montana, out to the craggy black-rock shores of Maine, I drove with my windows down and my shoes kicked onto the floorboard, I liked finding unusual harmony parts; it felt less like singing alone.

I moved back to Texas. I got a real-live boyfriend. He was eager for me to settle down with him, which confused me, since I’d become accustomed to straining. The third Fountains of Wayne album Welcome Interstate Managers came out the next year, and it was a hit, and I felt ahead-of-the-curve in a way I rarely did with pop music. The breakout hit was “Stacy’s Mom.” It was an ear worm with a comic punch, a teen boy fantasizing about his friend’s hot mother, a conceit that felt very of-the-moment even as the tune had a dose of 80s nostalgia, The Cars meets Fast Times at Ridgemont High. 

It bothers me a bit that a band I love so deeply will be remembered for the MILF song. Over the years, this is how people identify Fountains of Wayne when I ask if they know them. “Oh they wrote that song about MILFs?” Yes, it’s true, but also other things. There are better songs on that album, more intricate jewel boxes. The blue-collar pining of “Hackensack”: 

I used to work in a record store, now I work for my dad,

Scraping the paint off the hardwood floor, the hours are pretty bad.

The tragic collapsed narratives of “Mexican Wine”:

She lived alone in a small apartment

Across the street from the health department

She left her pills in the glove compartment

That was the afternoon her heart went

Novelistic. That’s what the critics called it. To me, they were like Edward Hopper paintings or Raymond Carver short stories set to 4/4 time. And yet the legacy of the album, and the band, is something like “Stacy’s Mom has got it goin’ on.” Look, it’s a good MILF song. It’s funny and snappy, and it captured a shifting attitude toward middle-aged women that would become screamingly apparent to me when I got on the dating apps in my forties and discovered half my suitors were in their twenties. The Mrs. Robinson dynamic is nothing new, of course. But something was happening in the early aughts — porn, American Pie, Pilates and Juicy Couture, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher — to inspire that Fountains of Wayne anthem, and to push a media conversation about the erotic appeal of older women (the cougar: term of empowerment or objectification? debate in the comments!), and it removed the stigma young men might feel for fantasizing about women two or three decades older. The strange fact that I was rejected by twenty-something men in my twenties and pursued by them in my forties? This is a story for another time. 

I interviewed Adam Schlesinger once. I’d moved to Brooklyn, and I was single again. I lived in a rambling shotgun apartment where I smoked Parliament Lights out my kitchen window underneath a wooden placard I bought at Office Depot that read, “No Smoking.” I wrote freelance articles for a website that ran Q&As with cool musicians. Fountains of Wayne had a new album called Traffic & Weather. The interview has disappeared from the Web; the site folded. They told us the internet was forever, but it’s subject to the same brutal forces that carved the rest of civilization. Empires burn, neighborhoods crumble. The best story that’s every been written will disappear in a flash of coding, and somebody’s stupid Geocities page could last till the end of time. Anyway I’m glad the interview is gone. I don’t think it was very good; I was nervous and fan-girly. I remember talking about New York news anchors Chuck Scarborough and Sue Simmons. The album’s title track imagined a sizzling sexual interplay between them off-camera, and we got a good laugh out of the way the mind invents stories, latches on to billboards and strangers in bodegas and talking heads on a TV screen, all the ways the human animal seeks a companion for its lonely cage.

The first single from the album was “Somebody to Love.” A little on the nose, that title, but what can I say? It spoke to me. I once heard a musician describe pop music as all about cars and girls, but it was never about either for me. Pop music was about someone to love. The ache of not finding that person, the ache of finding that person and realizing they were the wrong person. I was singing along to those songs, not just because my voice needed expression but because my soul sought harmony. I was dancing to those songs, not just because my legs needed movement but because my body sought rhythm with another body. 

I was in line at a sidewalk counter on Lower Greenville in East Dallas when I heard Adam Schlesinger died. It was April 2, 2020, two weeks into the global pandemic re-shaping our world in real time. I was standing six feet from other people in line, waiting to place my order, when my brother texted me. I’d given him a few Fountains of Wayne CDs over the years, and he’d become a fan; education was a two-way street between us now.

I tapped a link that took me to the news that Schlesinger died of coronavirus at 52. I felt dizzy, like I might fall. I scanned the story, struck by details I hadn’t known. Father of two. Wrote songs for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. (Not surprising, those songs are brilliant.) Collaborated on Stephen Colbert’s A Colbert Christmas and the musical version of Cry-Baby. I looked for details nobody mentioned but we all wondered. Underlying conditions? Smoker? Asthma? Fifty-two is not old. My brother turned 50 last month.

The server asked what I wanted, and I’d promised myself I’d eat healthy, but I ordered a cheeseburger instead. The server was cute, blue eyes and the light scruff of a beard and a charming smile, and I tucked a lock of wavy blonde hair behind my ear as he took my order. I moved over to the cashier, who handed me a receipt tacked to a clipboard with a moist towelette to use before picking up the pen and signing. I overheard the server talking with the young woman behind me. She’d lost her job at a sushi restaurant down the street, and he was explaining how to file for unemployment, and as I watched the two of them bond over this, I wondered (stupidly, needlessly, helplessly) if he found her more attractive than me.   

Dammit, I couldn’t believe Adam Schlesinger was gone. It was so weird, the gut punch of this loss of someone I did not know on this sidewalk corner in the midst of this insane upside-down time. Should I even be out here? Storefronts boarded up around me, the once-vibrant street turning ghost town. I had the urge to share the news, I didn’t like holding it by myself. I texted the guy from the Alaska trip, who was still a buddy of mine. I texted my college best friend at the exact moment she was texting me the same thing. “Jinx, you owe me a Coke,” we used to say back in the dorm, two young women playing elementary school games, but now we were middle-aged women playing at adulthood. “It’s awful,” she said. “”I’m sad,” I said. What more was there to say? 

I tapped a few buttons and summoned the opening of “Radiation Vibe,” the first song on the first album, the place where it all began, and the kick drum announced the beat.

Are you alone now?

Music is a trap door. Music is time travel. I could see the Honda hurtling down the long solitary highway to Alaska. I remembered the night we drove so far north the sun had not set as it neared midnight, and how disorienting it was to break the rules of ordinary existence, like we’d outrun the moon. 

The server called my name, and I walked to the counter as he set down a paper bag, careful to leave a cushion of space between us. “A little hydrogen peroxide to disinfect this,” he said, spritzing the lip of the bag and wiping it with a paper towel. “Give it a couple seconds,” he said, waving the air with his hand, and I nodded.

“Thanks for working today,” I said, flashing a smile.

“Thanks for saying that,” he said, smiling back, and our eyes met and hung there for a tic longer than normal, and it gave my stomach a jolt. It was the most sustained eye contact I’d had all day. It was the most sustained eye contact I might have for several days. I used to think that zap was attraction, chemistry, but I wonder if it isn’t something simpler, more fundamental, something more like human connection.

Alaska somewhere near midnight, 2002