Oh sure, I can point to an endless number of works of literature, film, and song that suggest otherwise, but for the most part they’re either complete garbage or don’t tell the whole story. Or perhaps they attempt to tell the whole story but they’re just way too broad, so they skip over a lot of the details.
Then again, isn’t pre-packaged love with a nice soundtrack what we have all been conditioned to look for, anyway? It’s certainly less complicated than being in a relationship or being married, and our modern world certainly allows ourselves to encapsulate first glance to last kiss in a narrative. I certainly am guilty of polluting my girlfriends’ lives with mix tapes that were sometimes so awful that I am shocked that I wasn’t broken up with after the first listen. But for as much as my musical taste has been questionable throughout my life, I know that at least a few time I found a gem among what Sir Paul once called “silly love songs.” In fact, it’s happened several times, including when I first heard Great Big Sea perform “Sea of No Cares.”
Great Big Sea is a band I stumbled upon in the summer of 1999 when Amanda and I were house-sitting for a friend. While we spent a good amount of time exploring the greater Arlington/Alexandria area and seeing every movie that was in theaters at the time, I spent much of my days hanging out while she went to the internship she’d started after graduation. Most of that time, I was working on a novel and the various 1980s mixes in my car were wearing thin, so I went diving into her friend’s CD collection and found Rant and Roar. I’d heard of the band because I’d seen a video or two on MuchMusic, but wasn’t that familiar with them.
They didn’t need to do much to make me a fan, to be honest. The band was from Newfoundland, which is where my grandmother hailed from, and they had a boisterous sound that was what I was looking for after spending most of the last four years trapped in my roommates’ Grateful Dead/Phish/Jimmy Buffett death spiral. A year or so later, they played the Birchmere is Alexandria to support Turn. It was a great gig and I knew I wanted to see them again, so when my sister heard that they were playing the Maritime Festival in West Sayville on July 13, 2001, I was on the phone the minute tickets went on sale. I mean, when you come from a town that’s as obscure as mine, you definitely jump at the chance to see one of your favorite bands play there.
So we went, and in the hot July afternoon right next to the Great South Bay, the band started with “Donkey Riding,” which had become somewhat of a staple as far as opening numbers were concerned. The next couple of songs were from a few albums back and then, the band decided to play “Sea of No Cares,” which was going to be the title track to the new album. Amanda was standing next to me and humored me by letting me hold her even though by that point we were both sweaty and gross, and Alan Doyle began: “When you’re in love, there’s no time and no space/There’s a permanent smile on your face/Your friends all complain that you’re goin’ insane/But the truth is they’re just afraid/Hey, hey, hey somewhere/You threw your fear in the sea of no cares …”
Almost immediately, I found myself struck by the lyrics, as if they were some sort of revelation. Or, at least, I flashed back to an earlier point in our relationship where those first few lyrics rang true.
I used to get a lot of shit for having a long-distance girlfriend when I was in college (this should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, because I used to catch shit for a lot of things), especially when that meant that I spent most of my weekends away from school and was not there to participate in various drunken shenanigans. Now, instead of taking it for granted or ignoring my absence, my friends seemed o focus what I thought was an inordinate amount of energy on trying to make me feel guilty for my relationship by pulling pranks, and my usual overreaction would be me with “Take a joke!” which I have to say is not what I wanted to hear at the time. It was particularly bad during my senior year when the combination of six guys living together and the sweet smell of a looming graduation led me to more or less spend as much time as possible outside of my room.
Concurrently, I was writing a column for The Greyhound, Loyola’s student newspaper, called “From the Nosebleeds,” and each year I had done a Valentine’s Day-related column. The one I wrote during my sophomore year was an incredibly sappy ode to love called, “Live, Love, the Quad, and the Little Red-Haired Girl.” The next year’s was almost completely in the opposite direction: “Testosterone and the Meaning of Love” was a guy’s look at Valentine’s Day. For senior year, I was looking to do another piece on the holiday, not because I liked writing about it but because it was an easy topic to tackle and the relationship columns always seemed to get me the most emails. Granted, they were usually from freshman girls, but fan mail was fan mail.
Amanda was the one who suggested that I write about our relationship, but with a funny tilt to it instead of gushing about it (which I’d done already). In fact, she told me to start with “I hate long-distance relationships. Too bad I’m in one,” then do 1000 words on the bullshit that accompanies being three hours away from the woman you love. It was a brilliant idea and I began writing about the thing that suffered the most from my weekend trips to see her: my car. I had been driving a near-death 1991 Hyundai Excel that my old roommate Dave had dubbed the “Tombox” and for those thousand words of Greyhound space I gave a laundry list of the crap that my car had been through, though I ultimately know it wanted me to have my relationship because it prevented me not from seeing her but from getting out of her driveway and going back home. I even titled the piece “106043.8” which was my odometer reading.
The joke, at least I thought, was obvious and I got the usual emails from freshman girls who said, “That’s exactly what it’s like! I know how you feel!” My friends, however, didn’t get it. One of my roommates left me a note that literally added up the amount of time per week that I spent away from school versus the amount of time I was at school in order to reach the conclusion that I was not in a long-distance relationship. I didn’t major in math, so I don’t know if he was right, but I have to say that I found it odd that people who kept telling me to take a joke didn’t get it when I actually did.
It all seemed to come to a head one night about a month later, when I had stayed at school for a weekend and went to Fells Point with my friends. These trips were usually pretty chill because I’d drive, they’d drink, I’d drive home, and I’d either start drinking when we got back to the dorm or stay sober to once again chauffeur their drunk asses to Denny’s at 3:00 in the morning. This particular night, however, as we were standing around Max’s Taphouse, a couple of my inebriated compatriots decided to take the opportunity to ream me for writing a column where I more or less said that my relationship was actually important. I think I tried to explain myself as best as I could, but they didn’t seem to like hearing that they should take a joke.
So standing on the field at the Maritime Museum, hearing “When you decide that what counts is inside, your friends all say it’s a lie/But there’s no brighter light than the look in her eyes when you’re walking her home through the night,” even though I’d been two years gone since college and was now living with the girlfriend from that column, I almost immediately decided that this was the song and I couldn’t wait to get the new album.
Except it didn’t sound that way on the new album. Sea of No Cares came out during a period of time when Great Big Sea was headed in a more pop-oriented direction and had been collaborating with Chris Tapper, the front man of The Push Stars, whose song, “Everything Shines” they’d covered on their live album, Road Rage. I liked the Push Stars but Great Big Sea being more pop-sounding was off-putting at times and when the album version moved with a slightly faster tempo, I was disappointed. I wasn’t used to the sound and it seemed that the romance had been taken out a little bit.
Of course, I wasn’t in high school or college anymore, so the need to express myself via the songs of other people was dwindling; still, I remembered that “Sea of No Cares” had spoken to me, so I went onto Morpheus (or was it Kazaa? It was 2001 and it seemed like I was changing illegal file sharing platforms once or twice a month) and searched for “Sea of No Cares Live” and snagged the live, acoustic, slow version. I think I even justified it by saying that it was not a released song so I was getting something that was rare and I had already paid for. Then again, that’s just about as bad as bootlegging the concert, which I’d seen Rerun do badly with a Doobie Brothers concert on What’s Happening! When I was a kid and had vowed never to attempt, probably because I would be as bad at doing it as Rerun. Anyway, the song was downloaded and burned to a CD I was making to listen to in my car.
To their credit, the band seemed to understand the popularity of that version, too, because on their 2008 live album, Courage, Patience, and Grit, Allan Doyle tells the audience that the band was going to perform it as it was originally written. Most YouTube clips of this call the version the “Living Room Version” which sounds a little cheesy and reminds me of the B-side of “Stay (I Missed You),” but bad labels aside, finally hearing that version on an album reminded me what I really loved about that song to begin with (oh, excuse the audio on the embedded video. I highly recommend finding the official album version, though).
The last verse of “Sea of No Cares” has a line that takes me back to that night in Baltimore when I was “called out” for writing that column. “Back at the bar, getting cynically stoned/Your friends are drinking alone/But it’s funny, they don’t even cross your mind/When she asks you in to her home.” I mean, my relationship was never a struggle against adversity—in the real sense or in the we-had-a-tough-time-winning-the-Super-Bowl sense. It was simply a relationship in the context of a world of immature behavior. I was happy and proud when I married her, but not because I “proved them wrong” or something like that because: a) that’s selfish; b) it’s a really dumb reason to marry someone; and c) I never felt that my relationship was a competition, nor did I have anything to prove.
But I do have to say that there is something about making it through a long-distance relationship and then continuing on and being able to really say that yes, this is the person you want to grow old with. In writing that column eleven years ago, I was deliberately trying not to be too mushy, mainly because it didn’t really fit with the humor of what I was going for. But I did wrap up with: “After all, I’m in love, and to me, anyway, that’s all that really matters.” Which, honestly, is the only way I can think of ending this piece. I mean, I’m reflecting on something from a decade ago because it came to mind and it’s Valentine’s Day and I have something to write for it. But when I think about the two of us before during and since then, I can’t help but going back to that one sentence because it still rings true.
And that is how you write a love story.