Mile High Makeout: Riding that "Train" again

The Roches.
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Earlier this week, my ex-wife and I were chatting about music, and she asked me who sang a particular song. All she could remember were the first few words: “We are Maggie and Terre and Suzzy.”

“Oh, that’s the Roches,” I said. “From the self-titled album.” She had heard something that reminded her of that song, which I used to play a lot when we were married, on a scratchy, old, vinyl copy.

“I’d love to hear that,” she said, so I went out and acquired a digital copy to share with her. I’ve been wanting to replace my vinyl with digital anyway (I know, I know. Don’t start with me), so it was a good excuse.

Within no time, I had the old album, which came out in 1979, loaded onto my iPod. As the familiar opening of “We” started, I couldn’t help smiling. I wouldn’t normally say I’m a fan of this particular kind of music – close female harmonies, syrupy melodies, and the vague suggestion of a capella – but the wit and humor of these three women gets me every time. The record is a joy to listen to, with the exception of a couple of duds. “We” is a hilarious introduction to the sisters. “Mr. Sellack” insightfully chronicles the tension between trying to become a famous musician and having to pay the bills in dead-end restaurant jobs. “The Troubles” is a surprisingly goofy and light-hearted ode to an upcoming trip to Ireland. The album’s most famous track is probably “The Married Men,” a problematic song about infidelity that was recorded later by Phoebe Snow.

But when “The Train” came through my car speakers, I almost had to pull over. With trademark incisiveness and insight, the sisters turn a mundane ride on a commuter train into a simultaneously funny and sad take on the space that can come between two human beings, even when they’re sitting next to each other. It’s a beautiful and sobering song.

He doesn’t look at me, I can’t look at him…I want to ask him what’s his name, but I can’t ‘cos I’m so afraid of the man on the train.

In spite of the depth and pathos of the track, what really struck me were the memories it evoked. I remembered years ago – it’s probably been more than 10 years now – sitting in a Berthoud basement with an old friend and my ex-wife. This old friend was a pretty gifted guitar player and songwriter. We used to sit in that basement, drink beer and sing a lot of duets. Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” was a popular choice, but we often fell back on a Colorado classic: Big Head Todd’s “Bittersweet.”

On this particular evening, though, my friend introduced us to the Roches, by singing “The Train.” At the time, I think my ex and I were as struck by the song itself as by my buddy’s heartfelt and naïve performance. As he sang with his bell-like tenor and eyes closed, he seemed to fully inhabit the song. It almost seemed as though it had been written for him. I think I went out the next day to find that old vinyl copy at Bart’s in Boulder.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that friend, but listening to the Roches coming through the speakers of my Honda, I felt like I was sitting right next to him on the train, with the distance of years, careers, families and some pretty deep misunderstandings occupying the space between us. In spite of years of friendship and a lot of shared history, we’ve fallen willfully out of touch. And that’s the way things sometimes go. I hold no ill will toward him, and I’m pretty sure the opposite is true. We just aren’t participants in each other’s lives anymore. He doesn’t look at me and I don’t look at him. But I’d love to sing one last chorus of “Bittersweet” with him.

Can’t we have a party? Would he rather have a party? After all, we have to sit here, and he’s even drinking a beer.

– Eryc Eyl

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