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Friendtors! Part 2: My High School Music Heroes

Updated: Mar 6, 2022

My second Friendtor piece I dedicate to my high school friends who inspired me musically (and professionally), helped to overthrow the townies, and became the cool kids in our school in 1992.

What are the conditions that lead to friendship? For most people it would be proximity, similar age group, common interests, sense of humor, being in a difficult situation together, and/or shared hatred of things. In some cases though, friendship might evolve out of something much deeper: the desire to pick up a new skill, to acquire a trait that you admire in another person, or perhaps that friend even pushes you to realize an inner potential that you never knew you had. As a result, your life is propelled in a different direction that otherwise would not have been possible if it were not for that friend. I call these mentor-friends, or “Friendtors” if you will, a term coined by a Fisher Price colleague / copy editor Paul Castiglia. I like the term because it sounds like a He Man character. This is the second in a series of blog entries dedicated to such Friendtors. Without these people I would not have accomplished what I did with Tri-State Conspiracy or other aspects of my life. And to that I salute them!

1992 was a great year. It was the year that I saw my first concert: The Cure at the Hartford Civic Center. They had graduated from being the cool older brother underground college radio band to having the smash hit, “Friday I’m in Love” on MTV, thus setting the stage for the more commercialized “alternative rock” radio format of the ‘90s. If a weirdo like Robert Smith could make it big in this world then so could I! It was the year that Bill Clinton was elected president, our first Democratic president in a decade. While I was not that much into politics at the time, it was exciting to me that someone who seemed a bit more fresh and in touch with the younger generation was making his way into the white house. Someone more forward thinking and in tune with those hip Wesleyan University students next door who ran the coolest radio station in the state and less like those crotchety older people and townies in Cromwell who were stuck in their ways. Funny enough Bill Clinton actually jogged on our high school track that year while staying in Cromwell during his campaign trail which immediately brings me back to this Phil Hartman skit:

1992 was also the year that a handful of my coolest musician friends challenged the authority of the townies and became the cool kids in our school.

Allow me to take a moment to talk about small town life versus big city life, because I’ve become a bit of an expert on both in my lifetime. Now I sure do love ragging on my hometown, because that is of course the thing you do when you move out, but there’s plenty that I do love about my old neck of the woods. It’s quiet, it’s safe, it’s clean, the air is fresh, the grass is green, and the rent is cheap. I especially loved the fall and the foliage and have fond memories of running on our cross country team through the more wooded trails in the neighboring rural towns. I loved Lyman Orchards and getting fresh cider and apples (no I’m not into pumpkin spice lattes but was briefly into pumpkin spice beer in the ‘90s). I love how gothic New England is: the rain, the fog, the thunderstorms, the shadowy thick woods. Given its colonial history you hear all sorts of legends about witches, ghosts, and Satanists in Connecticut which makes Halloween extra spooky and special this time of year, especially when the Warrens, a famous Connecticut couple who were legendary for their books about visiting haunted houses, would go on college lecture tours. I think this is why I love horror movies so much. The people are pretty chill too, something that I always appreciated when I was living in New York and would go home to visit. There’s plenty of room to stretch out so no need to fight each other over space or resources. People let you finish what you have to say before they jump in. There’s an intellectual vibe running throughout Connecticut, too. The schools are excellent and even a public school education even in a tiny town like Cromwell, population 10,000, is still better than most public schools elsewhere in the country. That combined with a complete lack of a nightlife or public transportation led to a lot of philosophizing and creativity amongst my friends…and marathon gaming sessions, too: RPGs, video games, and Magic the Gathering. It’s only 2 hours away from both Boston and New York if you ever want to go on a day trip to both. Last but not least, several of my closest friends still live there, hence the inspiration for this blog.

Here’s what I don’t love about my hometown. The brutal winters (although I do love me a good snowstorm from time to time to add to that gothic feel), the lack of a good music scene, the humidity, the mosquitos, and the townies. Now just to be clear I have no issue with people who live in small towns. It’s the townies I can’t stand. Allow me to differentiate. Townies are the “O’Doyle rules!” kids from Billy Madison. They’re the ones whose families have been living in the town for generations and don’t make you feel very welcome. They know everyone, the cops, the teachers, the first selectman (we didn’t have a mayor at the time), and other folks in town hall, and will remind you whenever possible that you’re not local and never will be. They crack stupid jokes at you to get a laugh and a lot of people often do because of their status.

They’re the big fishes in a small pond and have everything they need and for that reason they don’t like the big city, not even to visit. In fact, they even hate the city. I still remember the day when I was moving out of my parents’ house, was at the Farmers and Mechanics bank withdrawing my funds and the clerk literally shuddered when I told her I was moving to New York They’re narrow minded. They don’t travel very much and if they do it’s only within the US. They’re not used to interacting with other people who don’t look like them, in fact they might even be afraid of them. Here’s a good example to illustrate.

Every year there was a tradition where the incoming seniors would graffiti the shed that housed all of the equipment at our high school track. I’m not sure exactly when this tradition started, but I remember my brother talking about the other kids doing it when he was in high school. It was a pretty harmless school spirit kind of thing where the seniors would paint “Class of ___ Rules!” and other such O’Doyle nonsense. My friend Derek Lipscomb, the most talented artist in the class ahead of me and younger brother of Dave Lipscomb (a punk rock influence for me who you can read about here), recently told me a racist story about how he and a few other friends were recruited to help paint the track shed and had the cops called on them for doing what the white kids did literally every senior year before them.

“I remember during my last day of summer before Senior year we were painting the barn with ‘Class of ‘92”. These 2 yuppies playing tennis nearby were irate that we were damaging school property that would ‘come out of their taxes’. We told them to fuck off and they left and called the cops on us. We got surrounded by squad cars. In drives in the principal who proceeded to lecture us about how this school is starting to look like a ‘city school’ now. The horror on his face was apparent”.

Allow me to pause this scene for a moment while I reflect, Scorsese style. Okay, maybe saying “fuck off” was not the best strategy to handle the yuppies, but a whole squadron of police cars? Really? For showing school spirit and painting a shed with “Class of ‘92”. And that “city school” comment reeks of racism. I mean what’s the problem here Mr. Principal, was the artwork on the shed too good for you this year? Too much flair? I have to say that I’ve met real “big city” taggers in my life since high school, funny enough many of them in the toy business, and I can tell you that not a one of them would be caught dead expressing their school spirit through tagging. After Derek told me this it suddenly came back to me that I was part of the shed painting tradition the following year and the principal’s son was part of it, too. I think the principal even dropped by to say hi during it. Derek also shared with me another story about the same principal:

“I learned from this upperclassman (who was from Middletown originally and was black) that she, her cousins, and friends once got angry with the principal in class and scared him so bad that he was standing on top of his desk surrounded by them”.

I use these stories to illustrate the fear that townies have of outsiders and the big city. As for me I hadn’t yet fallen in love with New York. My only experiences were doing the usual touristy things like going to museums and Broadway shows which are in awful parts of the city like midtown and Times Square that I still hate even to this day. I had yet to discover the Village, Queens, and Brooklyn, but that’s a story for another time. I did like Boston a lot, like many Cromwellians did, due to it being less congested and highly walkable. And I’ll tell you what I did love the most about big cities: music, movies, and art. The cities were ahead of the curve and knew what was going on before anyone else. They were on the cutting edge and I wanted to be part of it.

Let me tell you who was not on the cutting edge though. The fucking townies. This was most evident in the talent shows that were usually hosted by the student council. Literally anyone could put on a performance, however the majority of the people who did were the popular kids: the athletes, the bullies, the good-looking people, and the more affluent kids. If you weren’t popular there was the risk of getting heckled if your performance was anything less than amazing. As a result, most of the acts were pretty terrible yet met with thunderous applause and laughs because the performers had a built-in fan base. They usually consisted of comedy skits where people would replicate existing SNL characters, musical performances that were just lip synched to pre-recorded audio, or dance numbers that were a bit like “Sparkle Motion” from Donnie Darko.

It was very rare to see live music performed at a talent show and if it was, it was usually stoner kids playing outdated classic rock. All of that changed in 1992 when my friends Matt Zimmitti and Bryan Titus decided to form their first band Life O'Reilly and performed at our high school talent show. Matt was a year younger than me and Bryan was just a Sophomore. Neither one of them were involved in the music department in any way, however they were very much into music, especially anything that was on MTV or being lent to them by cooler older siblings. For Bryan it was his older brother Jeff who left him a stack of vinyl records which included the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Clash. Bryan also had the added bonus of being the son of a Wesleyan University professor / viola player which made him leagues more cultured than most of Cromwell High, even as a sophomore. For Matt it was his sister Amy who went to the University of Rhode Island:

“Amy had much more access to diverse music than I did. I was a junior in high school when she went off to URI where I would often go to hang out with her and check out shows. She eventually started mixing live audio for shows in Providence and up in MA (worked the Middle East for a good stretch) and whenever we hung out it would be with musicians and sound gurus. She was always a great sounding board for sounds and bands. I was listening to stuff like Ice-T, Public Enemy, a shit ton of Living Colour, Slayer, and Pantera. which I got turned on to through YO! MTV RAPS and Headbangers Ball. Amy turned me on to things like ska, electronic, and other likewise subversive genres that I never would have listened to. She has always had an amazing ear for things ‘you should listen to’".

Matt and Bryan had been kicking around the idea of Life O’Reilly for a while prior to 1992, “The band name was derived from "living the life of Reilly", an idiom that comes from an sold song titled, ‘Is that Mr. Reilly?’. Basically it’s a what-would-I-do-if-I-was-rich? thing. People then used it as a term for anyone living super well, the daydream. It went out of style. One of us dug it up somewhere and it just fit”. What made the band a reality though (and not just a “Reilly”) was a music theory independent study course that they took with my old band teacher Mark Vickers (you can read about him here). Here he taught them the fundamentals needed to get their first DIY project off the ground.

I still remember this talent show like it happened yesterday. There are certain rare performances in your life that you will never forget, ones that are so impactful that they literally make a difference in your life, in more ways than one in my case. The talent show program said that they would be performing Under the Bridge by The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I didn’t know the song since my parents didn’t have MTV but I heard that they were all the rage. These scrawny nerdy underclassmen took the stage and as soon as I heard the opening guitar part I thought to myself, “Oh no, this song is too mellow. They’re going to get killed up there!”. I had heard that the Chili Peppers were a funky punk band, so it was not what I was expecting. Then Bryan starts belting out, “I don’t ever wanna feeeeeeeeeel! Like I did that day!” and the whole audience lit up. Girls were screaming at them like they were The Beatles or something.

Keep in mind that I was a senior at this point and starting to think that I was hot shit myself. While I was not in with the in crowd, I had gotten over my fear of the stage, not only from my years performing with the Cromwell High School band, but also through comedy and acting. As mentioned in my last blog here, I wasn’t all that passionate about playing in bands, but I was very much into theater and film. I was a member of the drama club, was obsessed with sketch comedy, specifically SNL and Monty Python, a regular subscriber to the Hartford Stage matinee series for high school students, something our English teacher encouraged us to do, and dreamed of being a filmmaker one day. In 1992 I made an epic zombie film titled, "The Dead Awakening" with my friends out of sheer boredom and no editing equipment whatsoever. Here's a clip:

These talents were recognized by my peers the previous year who asked me to help write a skit for Spirit Week, which was sort of a propaganda tool used by the school to drum up excitement for our basketball team. Each class would compete in different ways to earn points for “most spirit” by wearing themed outfits on different days (Hawaiian shirt day, etc.), painting banners for the hallways, etc. The headlining act of Spirit Week was a sketch comedy show where each class would try to rally everyone up with some laughs, often involving the jocks dressed up as women. Total Revenge of the Nerds type fare. Forget about it though if a non-jock dressed as a woman as he would be met with a homophobic slur. In retrospect though I now have a better understanding of Spirit Week. It was an attempt for the school to improve relations between the creatives and the athletes who were often at odds and competing with each other over the same resources in our tiny high school, mainly funding and talent. It also helped to bring the nerds out of the shadows to get some admiration from the jocks. I’ll admit that it did kind of work. I forget who it was who approached me to write the Spirit Week skit… it might have been my other friend Matt (my hipster friend who quit the concert band) and his girlfriend Jen who were part of student council. It didn't take much effort to talk me into it.

At the time I was obsessed with Late Night with David Letterman, especially the goofy low budget little bits that they would do with Chris Elliot and Larry “Bud” Melman, so I tried to imagine the ways in which David Letterman, the sarcastic New Yorker, might make fun of the backwards rural towns that we competed against. I also enjoyed interviewing people around this time and would often take my pocket tape recorder with me on band trips to interview random people on the streets, much like what Letterman would frequently do on his show for laughs. And here I am decades later interviewing old friends for my blog via Zoom. I turned in the script for approval (that principal who I mentioned earlier was very conservative, as you can imagine, and would not allow anything too controversial) and thought my job was done at this point but then was encouraged to play the part of David Letterman, too. “C’mon Jeff, you’re so funny. I think you’re the only one who can pull this off!”. So I did. I’ll never forget the intensity of being on that stage in front of that rowdy crowd, many of whom were upper classmen who didn’t want me up there and were heckling and throwing coins at me, a major insult back then. This helped prepare me for playing punk shows at CBGB years later. To be honest, I very much enjoy rowdy audiences. It builds up the adrenaline and lets you know that there are living and breathing organisms out there who are having fun and actually paying attention. I will take a heckling, coin-tossing audience any day over a silent crowd of bored people staring at their phones. What propelled me though was the confidence in knowing that I had written something funny and was excited to unveil it. I made full use of my friends and AV club connections to incorporate audience plants who received their own spotlight. I cast Matt Zimmitti as one of the plants who winced while delivering his lines as coins were whipped at his back. We suffered for our art back then. I guess the comedy must have resonated well because we actually beat the seniors with our skit. Something that was unheard of for Spirit Week.

Anyways enough about me, Life O'Reilly humbled the shit out of me at that talent show. Seeing Bryan, this stringy haired, scrawny underclassmen with braces, get the reaction that he did with music, something that I never once received with the Cromwell high school band or jazz band and only through comedy…. well, that changed everything for me. I knew that I needed to play in a band. Not sure exactly when, where, or how but I was processing all of it in my head big time, “These guys are doing something right and I’m going to take note of it!”.

Something else also happened in 1992 that was pretty special. The Cromwell High School music department held their own talent show for the first time, separate from the Student Council. There was a little bit of uproar over this and I have to hand it to Mr. Vickers, he did know how to shake things up in that school. I remember a lot of other students were talking smack about it. They said no one would go because it would just be a “bunch of nerds” performing. I remember this one kid going off about it in my Spanish class, too. He kept saying, “band” in a derogatory way. I said, “I don’t understand what the big deal is”.

“Jeff think about it. It’s a BAND talent show”.

I’ll never forget how sarcastically he emphasized the b-word.

“…with BAND people. The BAND is not cool, no one is going to go”

“Yes, but people in the BAND actually know how to play music. Unlike the STUDENT COUNCIL talent shows where kids just lip synch”. He didn’t get it.

Anyways, the BAND talent show turned out to be pretty fucking awesome. The turnout was great and I got asked to MC due to my comedy which I’m sure was just silly nonsense (I think there’s a VHS tape floating around somewhere). The real talent were the musicians. My friend Aaron Sinicrope who is an amazing piano player did a perfect rendition of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” by Billy Joel. My friend Kate Rados did a rendition of “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls with her friend Amy and I remember being blown away by how good their vocal harmonies were. I didn’t know the Indigo Girls (again, didn’t have MTV) but it sounded like Simon and Garfunkel to my ears. This is the first time that my own friends were performing music that impressed me and made me want to get better.

Things were really looking up for us music geeks after 1992. Life O'Reilly became the cool kids who started playing the big parties, dating upper classmen, and throwing parties themselves where they performed as the headlining act. Doing the Animal House ending credits thing where we pause the screen and explain where people ended up:

-Aaron went on to study music at UConn and is currently a high school music teacher himself.

-Kate started to study music more professionally at the Greater Hartford Academy while she was a senior and went on to Wagner College in New York where she majored in musical theater and performed off Broadway.

-Bryan also pursued music professionally and went on to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. In 2007 Brian hopped around the US with his wife: first Los Angeles, then Ojai, hiked 2,185.9 miles of the Appalachian trail, lived in Minnesota for a bit, and then settled in Santa Barbara, recording several fantastic albums along the way including his most recent project the Brian Titus Trio. He has opened for such artists as Albert Lee (Everly Brothers), Paul Thorn, Lucinda Williams, Shooter Jennings, Marc Broussard, & many others.

-Matt Zimmitti is now a video game developer in the greater Boston area working for WB Games.

As for me, I graduated in 1993, the same year that Bill Clinton took office, and was on my way to college to do the engineering thing and discover ska music. The nerds had won, at least in my mind, and the future seemed so bright and hopeful. We were part of a new generation, a changing tide that was happening everywhere else in America. Smells Like Teen Spirit had debuted on MTV only a year earlier, so already high school students across the country were getting tired of outdated institutionalized popularity, pep rallies, and the like and was looking for something new. During my conversation with Mark Vickers he said that band membership really swelled in size after ‘92. Sorry to cue up this played out Fleetwood Mac song, but it was Clinton’s campaign theme at the time and fits the Cameron Crowe/Wonder Years feel to this exact moment:

I caught up with Bryan Titus and Matt Zimmitti recently via Zoom. Bryan and his wife moved back to Connecticut since the pandemic has put the kibosh on the 6 tours he had lined up for 2020. It seems microscopic townies have won for now, however his tours are still on the books for 2021. Bryan whipped out his acoustic guitar during our Zoom call, completely unprompted, and started playing “Under the Bridge” for me which has been the highlight of my pandemic so far. It was like a Netflix series of my own life unfolding on Zoom. The two reflected on their early days pre-band where they would go on epic walks around Cromwell for miles just philosophizing about life, sometimes on the way to play Street Fighter II at 7 Eleven. They recalled the Mark Vickers independent study class where they learned a lot about music theory and even got to dabble in electronic music. This gave them more of an appreciation for the tech side of music which led them to build their own guitar pickup for shop class. While they got a poor grade due to it not functioning at the deadline, it gave them better understanding of how to produce and process sound. This suddenly gave me a flashback to high school when I was sitting at the diner with Zimmitti, Titus, and their other friend Joe, who were talking about guitars and electronics for what seemed like hours, “Yeah Jerry Garcia was a genius, not only in playing, but he actually designed and built his own guitar. He did this thing with the pickup where…”. I had nothing to contribute but still eagerly listened as best as I could because I thought they were cool, which is very similar to when I hang out with my RPI friends. During our conversations I mentioned that I was “such a nerd” for being a fan of Huey Lewis and the News in high school which immediately led them to recall their very first concert together seeing Huey Lewis at the Oakdale Theater and how much they were blown away by the musicianship of his band. Thus underscoring my earlier point that Huey Lewis rules. Not long after that they were going to see bands like Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hill, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones at venues like The Sting in New Britain and The Tune Inn in New Haven. Bryan shared more of his perspective from that time of his life and both Matt and Bryan opened up about their stage fright then and now:

Matt: “I was, and always have been, terrified of performing. I hate it. Working with you Jeff definitely taught me how rewarding and truly fun it can be. I always have loved the creative process of getting people to feel something (optimally happiness and absurdity). I think, in part, that's why I got into making games as a career. All of the creative juices, none of the direct stage light. I remember really looking up to folks like you and Sinicrope who really had a stage presence going. Who knows if you guys felt it at the time but every time y'all got on stage in those days it felt to me that you just owned it, like everyone watching was your guest”.

Bryan: “I remember having crippling self-doubt at that age and was completely terrified when Life of Reiley played that talent show. The only thing that helped me was the brightness of the lights which made it difficult for me to see the audience. I knew it’s something that I had to do though because the kids who ran the school would never let us be part of their scene. We had to carve our own path”.

Bryan’s words actually inspired me to quit my job this summer and start my own company. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while and I came to the realization that my current situation was exactly like his, especially under a boss who was very much an “O’Doyle rules” townie. I’ve been in corporate America for 20+ years and will never be executive material, because frankly, it’s the same type of people who run companies who also run high schools: the affluent people, the good looking people, and the bullies. Line review meetings are not far off from the talent shows where the popular people get laughs just for being popular and not because what they are doing is actually funny. I need to carve my own path and start my own scene, one where I’m the MC. I thanked Bryan for inspiring me professionally which caught him off guard and he said, “Wow! Congrats! I’m humbled that I had anything to do with your enterprise”.

Now I just have to keep staring at the bright lights to distract me from my own fears and self-doubt.

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I’m so happy I found this blog. I google you and TSC periodically to see if you guys might ”get the band back together”. My first time seeing TSC was at Webster Hall when you opened for Fishbone. That show was great and made a huge impact on me. I was a little late in discovering TSC but became an avid fan. Your humor really comes through in the music. I am “ binging“ all of these posts right now and hope you continue. Please post if you plan a reunion. I‘ll be there with my dancing shoes on. Best of luck with you new venture. Mary Walker

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