The Boston Phoenix
September 16 - 23, 1999

[Music Reviews]

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Girl talk

Waltham's Waltham

Waltham The band are from Waltham. They're called Waltham. They sing for, and about, girls. A few months ago they were entirely unknown. Of late they have become the name to drop in rock-insider circles, if you're into that sort of thing.

That the band themselves couldn't care less -- except inasmuch as it means more girls come to see them -- only adds to their numerous charms. They have disarmed the iciest of cynics while proudly, unironically, even stylishly sporting various combinations of the short-long (a/k/a the mullet) haircut and playing a version of rock and roll based almost exclusively on one of the most reviled names in early-'80s Top 40. But this is not, I sincerely hope, the story of the latest retro fad to grip the jaded masses. It is, rather, the story of how five suburban blue-collar kids redeemed the music of Australian-born soap-opera star Rick Springfield. And were themselves redeemed.

It all started at the Milky Way in Jamaica Plain, at the CD-release party for Fuzzy's Hooray for Everyone. Depending on who's telling the story, Waltham sounded like .38 Special, Loverboy, or Journey. But it's safe to say that the buzz started at the exact moment when the singer shredded his T-shirt Lou Ferrigno-style. "You know how it is," explains Fuzzy's Hilken Mancini. "A lot of the bands who played [that night], everyone's seen before -- and it's a party, so everyone's walking around drinking and talking. But when Waltham played, everybody just stopped what they were doing and they were just stunned: `What the fuck is this?' Like, `Is this funny?' They didn't know what to think. Waltham blew everyone away."

Word got out: they're from Waltham, they're called Waltham, the guy points to girls and sings to them and rips off his shirt. By the time they returned to the Milky Way a month or so later, they'd become a cause célèbre. And soon the spectacle was repeated elsewhere, converting members of Cherry 2000, Honeyglazed, and the Sterlings at Cambridge's Green Street Grill and a packed crowd of metal/hard-rock illuminati at Allston's O'Brien's. "Their whole peer-appreciation group -- all the musicians who are really excited about them and come to the shows -- is this little enclave of Boston rockers that I would never guess would be entertained by what Waltham do," says Milky Way booking agent Darcy Leonard. "Chris Brokaw was here, and Winston [Bramen], and Jim Buni. I mean, Fuzzy, Buttercup, and Come -- I can't think of three bands that are less like Waltham."

A couple of weeks ago Waltham opened for current indie-pop darlings the Sheila Divine at T.T. the Bear's Place. It was, perhaps, their seventh or eighth show ever. Each number was as elusively familiar as, and more compulsively catchy than, the last. They did a song that began like the Cars' "Just What I Needed" but ended up like something else. They did a song called "Maria," for which the singer said, by way of an introduction: "Is anybody here named Maria?" There was a hesitation in the audience. "Does anyone want to be Maria?" They did a song that sounded vaguely like Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," and another that sounded like .38 Special's "Hang On Loosely." They played a song called "Diana." The singer said, "Is anybody here named Diana?" Then, "Does anyone want to be Diana?" This time there was a taker, and the singer clambered off the stage to sing to her, putting her hand on his heart so that she could feel it beating beneath his T-shirt -- and she ripped his shirt right off. "Does anyone have a longer mike cord?" the singer asked. "There's girls over by the pool table that I can't even get to."

They did songs with lyrics like "Last night we went all the way," and "Baby, you are the first." They did a song called "Cheryl," in which the singer notes that he really wants Maria but, as had been established a few songs earlier, Maria doesn't care. At the end, the singer said, "Aaron Perrino from the Sheila Divine was all over the radio today, talking shit about us, saying we sound like Rick Springfield." There was a mischievous smile on the singer's face. "You don't think we sound like Rick Springfield, do you?"

With that, they launched into "Jessie's Girl," and I, for one, was hooked. Let me tell you about them. They're from Waltham. They're called Waltham. They sing about girls.

It was the end of summer, and 20-year-old Dave Pino -- by trade a construction worker/landlord, by avocation a prolific rock-and-roll songwriter/guitarist -- was mowing his bass player Dave Illsley's lawn. In just a year Pino's rock-and-roll dreams had peaked and plummeted. The blue Jeep that belonged to Dave Pino's brother Frank -- who had sung in their melodic heavy-metal band, Dirty Larry -- sat in the driveway with its stereo blaring. Dirty Larry had been a going concern, under various names, for a decade. Their gimmick was ending each set in a flurry of impromptu pro-wrestling-style sports entertainment. The previous year they'd finally recorded a CD, Damp, Hot, and Itchy, that had won them a contest. The prize, the previous October, had been a gig opening for Queensrÿche at Great Woods. The manager who would eventually guide Godsmack to platinum was calling every week. But Frank Pino had blown out his voice at the Queensrÿche gig (an injury that required reconstructive vocal-cord surgery), and since then everything had gone downhill.

But as Dave Pino mowed the lawn and listened to the Jeep's stereo and talked to Dave Illsley, he realized that he wasn't paying attention to what Illsley was saying anymore. Instead he was listening to Rich Springfield's 1981 hit "Jessie's Girl," from the platinum album Working Class Dog. Two years later he still remembers this moment very clearly -- mowing the lawn, hearing a song that should have been familiar to the point of invisibility, but hearing it differently this time. He is still at a loss to describe exactly how the song made him feel -- he remembers laughing hysterically and perhaps simultaneously realizing he had stumbled upon his ideal songwriter.

He listened to "Love Is Alright Tonight," "Daddy's Pearl," and "I Feel Excited." "The songs, the names of them, what they were about -- it was hilarious. It was everything that I've always wanted to sing about. I'd been trying to figure out a way to sing songs about girls but without being a pussy. I'd been writing songs before, but the songs I came up with were real poppy and Weezer-ish -- which is cool, I'm wicked into Weezer -- but it was too loser-rock for me. I wanted to play music where you're a winner -- but you come from being a loser and then you're a winner. And Rick Springfield figured that out."

The proposition that emerged was simple and sturdy, and Waltham are beyond dedicated to it: girls want to be treated nice. They want guys to say nice things to them. They want to be singled out and told they're number one. "I've always wanted to say this stuff to girls," says Frank, "but I could never like, you can't like . . . "

"It's stuff every fucking guy wants to say but just doesn't have the sack to say it," brother Dave interjects. "Because it's not accepted for a guy to reveal themselves this way about girls: to say, `I'm really fuckin' into you.' That might come off as too soft, but we came to the realization that we all work, like, real jobs. I'm a construction worker, he [guitarist Tony Monaco] is a fucking carpenter, he [Illsley] works on a landing. [The line-up is rounded out by drummer Darryl Grant.] We're tough guys. I can be soft to a girl because I know I'm not a fuckin' softie, know what I'm sayin'? We're working-class dogs, man."

"I feel like Elvis when I'm out there singing my brother's songs," Frank explains. "It's like early rock and roll. There's no pretense to it. We're singing about girls. If you're a girl, you should come up to the front, 'cause I guarantee you that sooner or later you're gonna hear something nice said to you. If I'm looking at you, I'm talking to you."

This is their one true thing: they're from Waltham, they're called Waltham ("I wanted the name to be like Boston," says Dave, "but Boston was already taken"), they sing about girls. "I can't just shit out a song," says Dave. "I have to meet a girl first -- something has to happen between us, good or bad, in order for a song to come out. And before, we didn't have that many songs because there weren't that many girls in the picture."

He means this quite literally. Maria, Diana, and Cheryl are all real people. "We got `Nicole,' `Laura,' we got `Trish,' " says Dave, rattling off their set list. "There's `Lily,' there's `Lucy'; there's `Emily,' but that one was a depressing acoustic song, so it won't make the album. There's a Melissa song, but we can't put that on the album either -- she was a stripper, so it came out too Southern-rock."

Waltham have a theory about girls, and that theory is the foundation of what they do as a band. "This is the theory," Frank reveals. "You're talking to a girl, and you're telling her about this other girl that you would totally want to fall in love with. But while you're telling this girl about the other girl that you want to fall in love with, the girl you're talking to is falling in love with you. Because she's like, `Oh my God, I can't believe that he feels this way about this other girl. I wish he felt the same way about me.' And that's Waltham."

Frank will also tell you about the night he was having trouble with a particular song, so he summoned his girlfriend, Tracey Hoxie (also the band's de facto manager and den mother), into the studio. "And as soon as she came in, I started, like, posing for her, and pointing at her and singing to her, and she's laughing and stuff." It was the first time he heard what he was looking for. "It's like if some random kid in high school was to get up on stage and pour his guts out. He's not a singer. He's got a bunch of words in his head, and he wants to sing 'em to this girl. So it's all attitude. It's the girl that you want."

And here we're getting closer to what I think Waltham are all about. Because what the Pino brothers found in Rick Springfield was not only a forgotten template for power pop but a way of singing about themselves that had previously eluded them. Hearing Waltham play is a revelation, not simply because they excel at their format but because to watch them perform is to watch, in real time, their own process of self-discovery. In fact, Frank hadn't really figured out what Waltham were about until the moment, on stage at Fuzzy's CD-release party, when he felt his brother's song flowing through him, and feeling it as he did -- feeling he would come right out of his skin -- he did the only thing he could think of: he ripped off his shirt. That's Waltham. They're from Waltham. They sing about girls.

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