by Billy Warden
Not even the makers of Viagra have pitched the restorative powers of their product as insistently as proponents of rock ’n’ roll.
From Bruce Springsteen to Joey Ramone to Pink, billions of decibels have gone into claiming for the music the mantle of all-purpose elixir, mender of broken hearts, guardian of the faithful’s most delirious dreams.
Truth? Hokum? This summer, I got my chance to find out.
On the evening of April 20, while playing catch-up with another blown tax deadline, an email arrived from the organizers of the Be Loud! Sophie Foundation. Would my old band reunite for the foundation’s annual August fundraising extravaganza at the Triangle’s venerated mecca of indie rock, The Cat’s Cradle?
The tax sheets melted away along with the political argument in the kitchen. The email swept me back to the riotous late-’80s heyday of The Connells, The Pressure Boys, The Veldt, Three Hits, and my baby, The Floating Children.
Of course, a reunion was out of the question. Completely impractical. What with family obligations and business responsibilities. Naturally, I replied: “Oh HELLZ YES.”
Now, a quick word on how ill-advised this may have looked to an outsider. The Floating Children were not a stand-and-strum band. A writer of the era described us as “the New York Dolls run amok in Pee-Wee’s playhouse.” We were an anarchic, confetti-spewing mayhem machine.
So as I lay in bed that night, troubling questions commingled with chronic back pain: “How could a middle-aged reunion NOT fall flat?” “If my wife leaves me in shame, which car will she take?” And, “how to make a reunion count for something beyond nostalgia?”
The answer to the last question, counterintuitively, was to up the ante, heighten the risk. The next day’s proposition to the rest of The Floating Children included the reunion performance – plus, “how about we write new songs?”
New tunes would mean stretching beyond old tricks. They would require creativity and commitment. They would be a more profound test: Did we still, somewhere inside, carry that spark of inspiration?
The band didn’t balk. We went to work emailing lyrics and texting demos – me, Jeff Holshouser, Jody Maxwell, James Olin Oden, Steve Eisenstadt, and Larry Burlison in the Triangle; Sam McDonald and new guy Matt Thomas in Norfolk.
Craggy reserves of creativity
Sure, everyone had jobs and workaday duties. But everyone also had craggy reserves of creativity to uncork. Two new tunes came together fast – and with considerably more melodic hooks than 25 years ago. I couldn’t vouch for each band member’s bodily fitness, but creatively we were in fine form.
Soon, the rehearsals revealed our physical and emotional conditions. Physically, the eight of us looked to be a collective 90 pounds or so overweight – not exactly Olympian, but certainly respectable by middle-aged standards.
Emotionally, we were a ragged parade of humanity straight out of a Bob Seger double album. Divorce, money woes, exhaustingly complicated bachelorhood, kid concerns – they were all in the mix. But none of it slowed us down. When we played, energy and optimism gushed.
We recorded the new tunes in a daylong blizzard of missed notes, surging solos, profane pep talks, and tequila shots. Then came the show. Creating new music had limbered us up. We were rock ’n’ roll acrobats again. And when our original background singer and “dance diva,” Tracey Brown, entered the dressing room, confetti bucket in hand, we were beyond inspired.
Backed by an overzealous fog machine operated by my first-pumping teenage son, The Floating Children ’16 put on what some longtime fans called our best show – period. And, by the grace of the rock gods, we picked up new fans. They included 17-year-old guest saxophone player Lee Sullivan, who noted approvingly, “Putting on weird clothes and playing freaky music. The Floating Children go hard.”
Indeed, we did – and not just musically. There were ridiculous twirls and foolish shimmies and other moves that away from the adrenaline rush of the stage would land me in intensive care.
I hugged each Floating Child at least 120 times that night. While every embrace was an expression of genuine affection, maybe I was also trying to get a firm hold of something more ethereal. The magic that generations of stars and nobodies had promised was real. I wasn’t 22 again; but nor was I the same harried businessman/dad I had been on the night the reunion offer arrived.
As The Floating Children prepare to share those new tunes with the world via technologies that we couldn’t imagine a quarter century ago, I am – we are – back to square one. Hoping that a few folks out there get it and groove along. The gamble is electrifying. The secret, then, of rock ’n’ roll’s restorative power is simply, beautifully this: The risk is the reward.
Billy Warden is the co-founder of the marketing agency, GBW Strategies, and an incorrigible song-and-dance man. The Floating Children’s new songs are available on Facebook, SoundCloud, and YouTube.