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Pagan Love Song: My Band in the Late 80′s That Became the Story of My Early 20′s

From ages 0-20, I recall having a longing desire for adventure, one from which I felt I was being kept by all the expectations from parents, school and small town mentalities with closed-minded opinions of the world at large. I secretly envied those I knew who seemed free to do what they would, who would go as they pleased and who had solid dreams they were chasing. My dreams seemed all but impossible to achieve, much less any adventures seeming likely to happen along the way. But somewhere after my 20th birthday, something changed for me, and I wish I could say with exactness, what that was. I believe it was just the fact that I had just about enough of staying quiet, holding back, and doing things everyone else expected me to do. It culminated in a decision to drop an empty pursuit of Engineering studies to pursue a career as an artist, a decision which would change my life forever, and though it would not define me, would change me in a way that would at last allow me to become the person I was always destined to be. And that became one of my favorite life stories and an adventure I will never forget.

In June 1989, having just moved to Tucson Arizona (2 weeks prior to my 21st birthday), I answered an ad posted on a bulletin board on campus at the University of Arizona. The flyer, it’s scissor-frayed-edge, tear-off phone number strips waving at me to stop and look, read: “Alternative Band Seeks Drummer. Call Elyssa or Romi”. Little had I known that the next call I made would be the start of an entire chapter of my life, one which included personal and professional growth, group dynamics, musical influence, camaraderie, conflict, new genres, religion, friendship and, yes, even romance and heartache too. All told, this band was to become a major part of my existence yet seemed merely an opportunity to play.

After making a call to respond to the ad, Elyssa and Romi came to my apartment to meet me. They were best friends, a year out of high school, and seemed extremely cool in my estimate. Romi was to sing lead vocals while Elyssa would to decide whether to play bass or drums depending on who they recruited (a bassist or drummer). As they told me about the music they wanted to play and about the talented guitar player named Dave they found who was from Saginaw Michigan (everyone out there is from somewhere else!), I reveled in the idea of being in a band with a chick bass player. It was something new. I was also enjoying the conversation with the two Tucson natives. New in town, only having been there a week and drastically far out of my Hudson Valley element, which was all I knew, I found this particular conversation felt like a new frontier, one of meeting and making new friends. I had no audition tapes, yet after chatting about my resume of drumming experience, I was given the gig on the spot. I was in the band and totally pumped. In town 5 minutes and I’m already in a band!

1989, Me standing In Elyssa’s living room (our rehearsal space) in front of Her “No God”-emblem-bearing drum kit.

Then I went to the first rehearsal.

Rehearsals were at Elyssa’s house (a rental she and her brother Chris shared just off campus) in her living room. The house was an older, desert-style, 1-floor home, kept dim inside to keep out the beating, 110-degree desert sun, cooled by a “swamp cooler”.

It was a plus that Elyssa was a also drummer and had a kit at her place as it meant I only had to lug my snare and some cymbals to practices. Our first practice tape consisted of only a couple of tunes, of which “I Will Follow” by U2 sticks out in memory, simply because it was the first song we worked on as a band. I enjoyed the tunes as they were a step outside of my listening repertoire.

When I arrived for the first practice, my enthusiasm quickly dampened to mixed emotions and indecision. No, I haven’t skipped ahead in our story. This was rehearsal number one. It actually started off great. The place had a perfectly sized living room with only a twin bed for furniture which left plenty of room for amps, drums, etc. Guitarist, Dave made an instant connection musically and personality-wise with me. He was an eight-year-older guitar-playing version of me. We instantly hit it off and the few licks I heard him play in warm-up were pleasing to say the least. But then the first of the conflicts arose.

First off, there was a new thing for me – I noticed a sticker on the front head of Elyssa’s bass drum with a “No God” symbol. A life-long Roman Catholic, of the my-parents-made-me-go-to-church-every-Sunday-since-birth, never-dared-question-that-faith, obey-and-fear-God variety, I was offended to find out that Elyssa was a devout Atheist despite knowing my religious descent. Admittedly my small-town, closed view of the world growing up kept me resistant to many things – my new contact with Atheism included. Still, this was not by any means a deal breaker and I was 99.9% into the idea of this new project, until what inevitably happened next.

Dave at our rehearsal space: the living room of Elyssa's house
Dave at our rehearsal space: the living room of Elyssa’s house

I am not a critical person by any means, but always one to encourage. But from the first word of the first verse of “I Will Follow” it was clear that, plainly, Romi was not a singer. This is not in the academic or professional sense. The girl, likeable enough as a person, simply could not carry a tune, even to the standards of a casual listener – it was that obvious. With the fact in mind that this band was to be a professional alternative band, with bar-gig potential in a major college town, of all places, I could feel my large pool of enthusiasm evaporate under the hot desert sun of off-key melodies and burned by jeers from future drunken college students.

Getting through the rest of the tune was painful for me, not because she was out of tune, but because of the thoughts in my head that this was one of the two band leaders, that they were best friends since high school, that I didn’t know Dave and that he had been friends with Elyssa and Romi for a few weeks. I didn’t know what to think or say but felt reluctant to speak up. I mean, if she was this bad at it, wouldn’t they have already known? Maybe someone would bring it up after rehearsal.

No one said anything.

Quitting was not an option for me. Mind you, this was my first gigging band (or band with gigging potential) so I was reluctant to entertain any idea that things wouldn’t work out. Simply put, I wanted to be in a band so badly. So I just continued attending practices and getting tighter with Dave and we progressively became good friends. Eventually, over a couple of beers one night at Club Congress (a nightspot, bar and club that played “Industrial Music” on weekends in Tucson’s historic downtown Hotel Congress), the dreaded Romi issue came up.

I don’t recall who spoke first but there was a resounding sigh of relief with a “thank-God-you-brought-that-up”-type release. Somehow we found a way to bring it up with Elyssa who was equally disappointed despite her long-time friendship with Romi, yet feared tackling the subject with anyone. We had all been worried about it for weeks but feared the others would not agree. Lesson in communication learned!

Suffice to say, Dave and I left things up to Elyssa to have the talk with Romi and we began advertising for singers.

We auditioned one particular guy, a U of A student named Brad who was the a typical clean-cut, frat-boy-type, Suzuki Samarai-driving, my-parents-have-money-and-I-like-to-party kind of guy. He definitely had that “frat-boy” look about him and really fit the bill as to the image of a front man in a band, especially a college band. He wasn’t the strongest vocalist I had ever heard but he could sing and had the motivation and skills to be the front man we so desperately sought. After much deliberation we hired him, satisfied he was the right choice and that we had considered all angles. Just when you think you’ve covered everything though, sometimes unforeseen circumstances can arise.

Brad and Elyssa started to lock horns almost immediately. Whereas I had been able to maintain a decent working relationship and casual friendship with her, despite our religious disagreements carefully staying off the subject and casting aside my idea that Elyssa was an Alternative Music “Snob” of sorts, common ground was desperately needed between these stubborn lock-horns. I have seen romances with less passion and this was far from romance. This was something else entirely!

A few band meetings led to some new agreements on material. Part of the calming of the heated Brad-Elyssa debates came from my stepping in and finding points of agreement among us all and bringing our attention back to material. I also shared some of Brad’s desire to perform covers from bands like the Police with his submission “Message In a Bottle”. In fact, one particular band meeting went so well, we became much tighter. Agreement on material started to prevail as our guiding influence.

Meanwhile, Elyssa and Dave came up with a band name: Pagan Love Song. Brad and I, ironically the two Catholics in the band, both went along with it, though it did develop a bit more tension between Brad and Elyssa about the taboo subject of religion. I myself loved it!

First of all “Love Song” by the Cure with the release of their Disintegration album was all over the radio. Further, the whole Pagan thing seemed to symbolize an idea of middle ground between these religious extremes, as a watered-down version of the spiritual with a lesser disbelief than the atheist, to ease tension generated by the reverse polarity and friction between Elyssa’s atheism and Brad’s insistence in existence of the Divine, catalyzed by my extreme belief that “there had better be a God or I am in big trouble!”

Nonetheless, I delighted in the irony and embraced the name.

Our newly updated repertoire made for a practice tape that consisted of what would have been a very enjoyable mix tape back then and, today, would make for a magically nostalgic iTunes playlist. To this day these are among my favorite artists and tunes and I listen to them often. The Pagan Love Song set list consisted of:
•I Will Follow – U2
•Gloria – U2
•Two Hearts Beat As One – U2
•There Is a Light That Never Goes Out – The Smiths
•Just Like Heaven – The Cure
•Jumpin’ Someone Else’s Train – The Cure
•Boys Don’t Cry – The Cure
•The Innocent and The Honest Ones – In Tua Nua
•Melt With You – Modern English (Humming part played with Kazoo’s!)
•Lips Like Sugar – Echo & the Bunnymen
•She Sells Sanctuary – The Cult
•Don’t Change – INXS
•This Time – INXS (My first, accidental discovery that I could sing harmony)
•I Found That Essence Rare – Gang of Four
•Balloon Man – Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians
•Hard Day’s Night – Beatles
•Stay Up Late – Talking Heads
•Message In a Bottle – The Police
•Dear Prudence – Beatles
•Exhuming McCarthy – REM
•Driver 8 – REM

The four of us began going out to bars to solicit gigs. The time was getting near. We were finally good enough to play out and had enough material for a set or two and had diluted enough of the tension to actually pull this thing off. It was leading to a climax we hoped would be playing in front of bar rooms crowded with college students.

The band was clicking so well. There soon became the idea of a band trip to see The Cure who would be playing near Phoenix on their 1989 Disintegration tour. “Love Song” and “Pictures of You” were receiving tons of radio airplay and at long last the Cure had opportunity to become more mainstream. The trip and the Cure themselves had become the glue which held us together and all of our various viewpoints in check. Even more than the symbolic implications, this trip proved to be one of the best, most influential concert experiences of my life. We were blown away. We seemed to have a new-found impetus to play and get gigs. And for a moment we all felt good about each other. For a moment things were better than they had ever been between all of us.

For a moment, anyway.

By our next practice, sparks started flying again. Elyssa and Brad refused to get along. Dave and I feared the band would break up over it. It was getting intense.

During this time, it was Elyssa’s birthday and Dave and I took Elyssa out to a campus bar called “Rosie’s Cantina”, featuring 99 cent Margaritas in many exotic flavors, served in beer mugs, dispensed from “Slurpee” machines. We had a few laughs. Dave and I had an ulterior motive to get Elyssa back in the swing and reconcile with Brad lest the band fall apart. It should be noted that this was a genuine birthday celebration among friends, which the three of us were becoming more and more, but obviously had not included Brad.

Later that night, we made a last-minute, midnight decision to jump in my car and drive to Phoenix to see what was happening on the ASU campus. Road trip! We literally jumped in my car and drove only to find after the 90 minute drive that it was dead quiet in Tempe on campus. We drove back with Dave sleeping in my back seat and Elyssa repeatedly nudging me, punching my leg to stay awake behind the wheel.

From left to right: Dave, Elyssa, Me

During the ride back, I got a much higher insight into Elyssa and realized we had many more similarities than differences. I found out a lot of truths about her and that, despite my conclusions otherwise, she liked suprisingly more than alternative music. We really connected while Dave snored on my back seat and we became closer that night. I was pleasantly surprised at my newfound admiration for someone who seemed so unlike me.

I did however fear that, in getting to know her better and becoming closer, I became biased on the whole Brad thing and, thereafter, was less objective on things, a fact which did not help derail the speeding train running toward the end of the line. All I could think of was our cover of the Cure’s “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” and how I may have been jumping one myself instead of staying on course for the good of our act.

The next day, after getting to bed at sunrise and sleeping in, I was more interested in getting together as friends than as a band. In exchange for a closer friendship with Lyss, as I had begun calling her affectionately at this point, I felt myself accepting the inevitable and eventual loss of Brad as a front man and a possible end of the whole band as I also sensed her doubt about continuing the project at all.

Even so, all may have been fine at this point. But, although I had made progress in accepting her for who she was and had come far to really admire her and value her as a closer friend, there was about to develop another point of tension between us – something about her on which I could not agree.

Enter Lance.

Elyssa had a side gig playing drums in a wedding band with a bass player named Lance. I instantly didn’t like him upon meeting him and never trusted him. There was something about him I could not place. Elyssa couldn’t say enough about what a great musician he was. I sensed something underneath. Over the coming weeks, I learned more and more about him. Elyssa, age 19, had known Lance, age 40, since she was a child, He had been a family friend, tight with her parents. As time passed, and as I became closer friends with Dave and Elyssa separately, more details were revealed until it surfaced that Elyssa and Lance were involved in a full-blown relationship. He and Elyssa were keeping this secret from her parents and everyone else. For some reason, I couldn’t get past this. This became a point of contention with us. You would have thought that Lyss and I were in a long-term relationship or marriage for how loud and often we shouted and fought over this subject.

Dave and I were getting together, hanging out and co-songwriting quite a bit at his dad’s trailer on the west side of town. We were pretty tight as friends the entire time we both lived in Tucson and never had any points of disagreement. We were planning out some more projects to work on despite everything else. Our songwriting, though brief, was actually quite productive. The band, hanging by its last thread, was an entirely different story.

Pagan Love Song climaxed with a final blow-up between Elyssa and Brad. The resultant aftermath of that typhoon sent Brad storming away and following close behind him were any last hopes any of the remaining three of us had of having a band quite like that one. Quite apathetic in retrospect but so beautifully sad and dramatic in a time of our lives where things are really that way, hot, fast, adventurous – dramatic!.

Elyssa declared that she would not be willing to play anymore. My growing friendship with her became bitter-sweet because of this. I had such a major loss on this band. So did Dave. He was about as lost as I. We drank beers and discussed it, completely disgusted. And then just quietly got together to write music once in a while. I can’t express how much of a heartbreak it was to have no band after all of that.

Elyssa continued to gig with the wedding band. As she and I became even closer, I anticipated she would not survive the Lance thing which was obviously going to end badly. I could sense the relationship wouldn’t last and that she would be the one to get hurt. Lance wreaked of it from when we first shook hands. I was still having a loss on the band and therefore wasn’t as focused on the whole Lance affair however, Elyssa and I began to argue about it increasingly. Finally we had very strong words on the phone one night and after spoke no more. I guess we both finally realized we could not come to agree. I figured, she is her own person and would have to endure any loss she would experience from her relationship with Lance on her own, a loss which was eminent. I decided I would have to step back, let her make the mistake on her own and be there to help pick up the pieces when it did. I realized I just had to let it go and let the worst happen.

Elyssa and I at Mount Lemon, Tucson AZ
Elyssa and I at Mount Lemon, Tucson AZ

It did.

I heard through Dave that Elyssa left Tucson and drove North, out to Oracle (home of the Biosphere) to stay at her parents house for a while. I found the number and called and spoke to Elyssa who was completely destroyed. We spoke for several hours per day until she was feeling better and I even visited her. She came back into town and we started hanging out all the time. Our friendship was back stronger than ever and she realized that I had been protecting her from what she could not see. She really appreciated it in the end. We started finding things about each other that we liked. I recall one time, hanging out at her place, going through her album collection shocked to find Madonna and Aha! So much for the alternative music snob!

In spite of improving friendship, things just weren’t the same without the band. Around Thanksgiving, Dave decided he would give up and head back to Michigan after the first of the year (1990). Lyss and I tried to convince him to stay to no avail.

We hung out up until my trip back East for the holidays. The three of us were inseparable with Elyssa and I even closer friends than ever. With Lance behind us, and the loss of Pagan not so unbearable, things were good…

Enter Lisa.

Lisa was my lab partner in college Chemistry back East, with whom I had had a brief “fling” months prior to moving to Arizona. She had written me letters throughout my first year in Tucson and was eager to see me at Christmas, mostly to find any sparks that may still be there. I had for months looked forward to seeing her, unattached as I had been my first 6 months in Tucson. One gets a little lonely sometimes 2500 miles from everyone he used to know.

Although it had not bothered her when we were casual friends, now, Elyssa had an open disapproval about this and the tables were turned. I found it a little funny and ironic. Mostly, it pissed me off a little – equally ironic. I went back East anyway, determined to see Lisa as I had been planning and eagerly anticipating since I left.

Dave and I songwriting. (Elyssa is behind the camera) at Mount Lemon, in the woods high above Tucson AZ.
Dave and I songwriting. (Elyssa is behind the camera) at Mount Lemon, in the woods high above Tucson AZ.

I arrived back in Tucson for New Years after having discovered on my trip that indeed a few sparks did still exist between Lisa and I. Dave, my best friend, naturally, got all the details, privy to the entire situation past and present.

One evening, the three of us were driving in my car, undoubtedly the Cure or the Cult playing on my car stereo’s cassette player, and Elyssa asked if I had hooked up with Lisa in a very disapproving, almost-jealous-sounding and accusative tone; so much so, Dave reprimanded her for asking, in an almost fatherly tone, himself knowing the truth. He asked her what business it was of hers. It felt good to have tight friend stick up for me that way. Though we quickly dropped the subject, it was then that I knew that Elyssa and I had a little more than friend potential. We had a little more negative feelings about each others relationships than we had any right to.

There we were, two virtual opposites, becoming steadily closer to each other in the aftermath of the great Pagan Love Song – one of the greatest losses of my life – I really loved that band. And, January 6, 1990, the night before Dave was to leave town, it happened. We connected, and Elyssa and I were involved for nearly a year after that. Incidentally, it was likely one of the more bumpy, rocky-road relationship experiences to date, but I have never looked back on its beginnings with anything but nostalgic and warm feelings.

Hindsight, I can follow the downward spiral of the group, friendships, and connections and eventually our new-found relationship. We were happy for a little while anyway. Despite all the bad things that happened, and though we have not spoken since 1996, I have nothing but fond memories of this particular time – of back-packing trips to the mountains with Dave and Elyssa, writing and playing music in the woods at high elevations on Mt Lemon, far away from the scorching city below, the trip to Compton Terrace near Phoenix to see the Cure in the desert air and under the stars, falling asleep at the wheel coming home from Phoenix, getting close with Elyssa and even hanging out with Brad. We were all becoming ourselves on so many more levels than just musicians or twenty-somethings. We were living the adventures we wanted to and loving it every step of the way.

To this day, when I hear the Cure, The Smiths or U2 on the radio, or when I see pictures of Tucson or Phoenix I vividly, and in minute detail, remember the days of Pagan Love Song, my friends, relationship and all it meant for me and to me in my personal growth. It lives in memory among the best times and most thrilling experiences of my life, one’s that I can say I miss the most. What an adventure it was. I plan to have many more which may be bigger and better, but can not approximate that time of our lives! And I wouldn’t change a step of how it went.

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