I spent nearly three hours underneath the Colfax viaduct last weekend, sweating and pacing back and forth in the parking lot like a caged gorilla. As Lou Reed would say, I was waiting for the man. More than nine months had passed since I'd last tasted, and I'd been fiending like a mofo ever since. But when the man finally showed up, he was empty-handed.
"I have nothing official," Chris Fogal said flatly. "I'm writing songs, and when they're done, I'll put together a band."
I'd waited almost a year to hear that?
Last summer, Fogal -- one of Mootown's most talented and celebrated songwriters -- and his band, the Gamits, delivered Antidote, a career-defining masterpiece. But soon after, the Gamits were history: On December 18, 2004, the act performed publicly for the last time. And just like that, Fogal's songs became a memory.
Fast-forward to this past Saturday. Virgil Dickerson, chief of Suburban Home Records, had invited me to Suburban Home's warehouse for a day-long celebration of the label's ten-year anniversary. The festivities were to begin early with a punk-rock flea market featuring rare merchandise and a handful of acoustic performances by local musicians, Fogal among them, and would culminate with a rare headlining set at the Ogden by another group of lauded locals, Pinhead Circus, who'd reunited just for the occasion.
But there must have been some secret memo I didn't receive, alerting everyone else to the fact that much of this celebration would be an informal gig among friends. Because as I made my way around the warehouse parking lot -- which had the distinct look and feel of an unsanctioned day party at SXSW combined with an old-school swap meet (imagine a yard sale where you could buy vintage releases from Qualm and Call Sign Cobra and pick up rare prints by acclaimed poster designer Lindsey Kuhn) -- everyone just kind of smiled and nodded like Garth from Wayne's World as I went on and on about how eager I was to hear Fogal's new stuff.
Even Fogal himself was more interested in catching up with old friends and getting in on a game of washers -- a mutant variation of horseshoes and skeeball that involves tossing industrial-grade washers at a pinewood box from about fifteen feet away -- than he was in discussing his latest songwriting ventures. I kept pelting him with questions, though, and finally he confirmed that he'd be playing some new songs -- just a few quiet, acoustic numbers.
While I had Fogal cornered, another Gamits alumnus, guitarist Scott Swarers, started churning out a set of stirring ballads on the makeshift stage, which doubles as a loading dock during the week. Someone had already tipped me off that Swarers evokes the late Elliott Smith, but as he sang through a crackly SM57, his guitar amplified with sound-hole pick-up (both of which added a lo-fi dimension similar to that of Smith's early recordings), the resemblance was uncanny. From his gaunt appearance and dark, shoulder-length mane to his delicate voice and intricate, finger-picked arpeggios, Swarers was a dead ringer for Smith. But toward the end of his set, when Fogal joined in on harmony vocals for a phenomenal rendition of the Beatles' "You Won't See Me," the true source of Swarer's influence became clear.
Next up were Maylyn Martinez and Kyle Loving from Le Boom, who offered another stunning performance. Although I've seen Le Boom several times, Martinez really blew me away in this acoustic setting as her buoyant vocals glided effortlessly on top of effervescent, sun-kissed melodies.
Finally, it was Fogal's turn to give it a go. Fumbling his way through the first verse and a partial chorus of "Golden Sometimes" from Antidote, he looked a little awkward with an acoustic guitar in his hands rather than an electric. He even abruptly stopped the song and started over -- a move that might have seemed cringe-worthy coming from anyone else. But here, the clinks and clanks and missed notes added a certain humanity, a wholly organic feel. And stripped to its core, the song's inherent beauty shone through, revealing Fogal's masterful pop sensibility, which had often been obscured by heavier pop punk sheathing.
Fogal next took on a series of covers: "Butterfly," by Weezer, "If I Fell," by the Beatles and "In My Room," by the Beach Boys. There's an unspoken rule for musicians: Don't go near any of those acts unless you can pull off their material at least as well as they did. With this performance, Fogal proved he's a worthy exception to this rule. But it was his surprising version of a sappy ballad from the '70s -- "Alone Again, Naturally," by Gilbert O'Sullivan -- that really spiked a nerve. "Okay, this is the hardest song I have to play today, so I'll probably butcher it," he offered. "It's one of the saddest songs ever. It's also one of my favorite songs ever, but most likely, unintentionally, it will become more comedic this performance than sad."
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But there was nothing funny about it. Listening to Fogal sing the words -- which I'd managed to miss even though I'd probably heard the song a million times before -- I finally recognized their incredible sadness: "In a little while from now/If I'm not feeling any less sour/I promised myself to treat myself and visit a nearby tower/And climbing to the top/Will throw myself off/In an effort to make it clear to whoever what it's like when you're shattered." By the time Fogal made it to the last verse, which resonated deeply within me, I was feebly wiping my eyes, hoping no one had noticed the tears.
As I pulled myself together, Fogal introduced "Sinking Ships," a new song whose revealing lyrics hint at the final days of the Gamits and the constraints that Fogal must've been under in a punk band whose definitive sound didn't allow much room for growth (he'd alluded to just that in a brief interview last December). "I know how this ends/Right where it began/All the same places/I don't recognize the faces/Not today," he sang. "I've been at it for so long/Can you abandon the ship and leave the baggage gracefully?"
After seeing further glimpses of Fogal's brilliance, I'd say he's earned the right to take as long as he wants "making up" those new songs. However long it takes, they're certain to be worth the wait.