BOSTON -- My high school, just an hour's drive north of here, wasn't big enough for a band -- unless you count the garage-rock outfits that banged out Grateful Dead covers in the dorm rooms. It wasn't until I got to college when I crossed paths with "pep band people," strange creatures who tended to keep to themselves in classrooms and traveled in tight packs. My own attempts to speak to them or lab-partner with pep band people never worked out, and there was that disastrous pizza-date with a pretty clarinet player in sophomore year. To an outsider, the band was a private and uncrackable code, a secret circle of fifths I couldn't join unless I played a handheld instrument. As a failed piano prodigy, I never had a chance.
Everybody seemed to look down on them in their personalized satin jackets, which they wore everywhere around campus. But in the arena, especially the basketball games in March, nobody looked down on the bandies. Those "nerds" became heroes, almost as important as the athletes on the field. Winning time outs was as crucial and vital as gaining the upper hand in the periods of action between them. They were our musical ambassadors, the ones we counted on to be louder and prouder and hipper than our enemies. They knew we needed them, and that's why they weren't desperate for anyone's attention or love.
And on a cold and crisp New England weekend, I was able to fulfill a lifelong curiosity and gain entrance to that club, if only just for an afternoon. I joined the band.
Northeastern University's pep band is a group that numbers around 100, and the basketball band is a rotating volunteer subsection. Hockey clearly rules here, but since the school don't have an American-Style Football team anymore, men's hoops is taking a more prominent place in NU's sports culture. For a key Saturday CAA matinee against VCU, the host Huskies were riding a 10-game win streak into a clash with the defending league champs. They were lured into action by free pizza as well as the chance to watch a Division I basketball game from floor level, right underneath one of the Matthews Arena baskets.
"Signups all done online, there are no sheets tacked to a bulletin board anymore," Northeastern band director and industrial engineering student Brandan Holbrook explained when I asked him how enlistment worked. "The pizza helps with recruiting."
On this particular afternoon, Brandan had a crew of 14 musicians at his full disposal. Flutes and clarinets up front, two each; a brass line of two trombones, three trumpets and a pair of saxophones; a pair of tubas in the back; and a percussion section consisting of a cowbell player and alternating drummers. Actually, I forgot one... make that a band of 15.
Several minutes before tipoff, the director made a short announcement. "We have a guest today," he said. "Everyone say hello to Kyle. He's going to be our kazoo player."
And there I was, in my black logoless shirt and jeans, with my "axe," a green plastic kazoo from a recent birthday party of a friend-of-mine's kid. I was an awkward, overtall and overaged kid standing in the back with the tubas. I grinned and waved weakly as everyone turned around. I was just trying to blend in as well as I could, and not draw any excess attention to myself -- I was part of a collective, after all. But after the band launched into its first full number, a tight and streamlined take on "Johnny B. Goode," I knew that was going to be tough.
"Kazoo solo!" a couple of fans in a nearby section shouted out. "Give the kazoo player some!"
Nathan Vaughan was taking the day off from active band duties, but he kindly took the time to introduce me to the culture of the band. "This is 'All Hail Northeastern,' that's the fight song," he said as we paged through the songbook. "We don't sing the third line -- We give salute to thee
-- unless we win. Our repertoire is about 60 songs
, and we put in five new ones at the start of the semester. We have the ones we always play, like 'Louie Louie,' 'Hey Baby' and 'The Stripper.' That's all up to the director, and because they're generally always seniors, we're constantly taking out and adding songs every year."
"I took out 'Rock & Roll All Night' and 'The Peter Gunn Theme,'" said Brandan. "They were just a little dated for my taste. We don't do too many of the newer popular hits, like some bands do, but we are working on a Lady Gaga song. We actually have people on campus who are writing up an arrangement for us. We could order it, but we prefer to do it in-house, so to speak."
There are songs that are true band classics, ones that will live on long after everybody's forgotten who Lady Gaga is. Songs like "The Muppet Show Theme," or "Techno" (a/k/a 2Unlimited's stadium jam "Get Ready For This") are so well-rehearsed and long-played that Northeastern's band members don't even need the book for them. And there are the musical moments that aren't listed in the repertoire, like the five ascending, scale-climbing stabs played as the quintet of starting players are introduced to the crowd.
And when the game began, the band picked up other duties. We took the lead on the standard call-and-response cheers ("More! De-fense!
") as well as those specific to Matthews Arena ("Baptiste! Bataille!"
). We reacted to Northeastern's two-point dunk shots and big blocks ("Oooooooh!"). We raised their arms before free throws, pulled down triumphant closed fists with a "whoosh!" for makes, and flopped our arms wanly to the side on misses. We made fun of weird-looking players on the other team. We were happy when the home team was doing well, and acted a little apprehensive and dejected when the breaks were going the other way.
All the while, there was no talk among us about the CAA standings, or offensive strategies, or tempo-free stats. That didn't make us any less serious about basketball, though. The band members were watching and enjoying a basketball game with their best friends in the world, the ones they spend nearly all of their extracurricular on-campus time with. Years from now, they'll relive these days over glasses of beer and wine, wonder where the good and simple times all went, and try desperately to recapture that teenage feeling
But for now, the band members were in the heat of a basketball moment, but they couldn't fully lose themselves in it. Even as they enjoyed each other's company, the band spent its idle moments applying oils to instruments, cleaning out spit valves, nervously adjusting buttons and tightening screws. There was another performance coming up, after all, one that required mental preparation.
For the most part, however, the band was preempted during the first half of play. At the initial media time out, the cheerleaders came out and performed to prerecorded hip-hop music. At the 12-minute MTO, there was an on-court contest during which little kids dressed up in giant Huskies uniforms and tried to make layups. Then there was something called the AT&T Replay. Brandan stood calmly at the side of the band in his black shirt, red tie and tan slacks, communicating through a Motorola headset with the scorer's table. All of us in the band stood in anticipation, but the director waved us off each time.
As the first half drew to a close, the Huskies edged out in front. At the fourth media time out, the band was finally let out of its cage with the Reel Big Fish song "Sell Out." Like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish is a ska-rock band that's been forgotten by the mainstream public, but I hope its members take solace in the knowledge that they will live forever in the repertoires of college bands across the country. I lifted the green kazoo to my lips and took the trumpet line.
Halftime came. The overhead video board featured a head-to-head "Rock Band" contest -- with the sound off, so it looked more like audience-participation Bejeweled. The band ripped into the two pizza boxes, and I chatted up some of the members. There was one other person among us who wasn't in regulation band uniform; a young man in a red cape and a Star Wars mask, wielding a tiny brass instrument with tightly-wound tubing. I asked him if it was a flumpet, the flugelhorn-trumpet that occasionally shows up in jazz settings.
"It's a pocket trumpet
," he explained. "B-flat. It has full range, so I can play a standard trumpet part. You can get a lot of power out of this thing."
We were interrupted by the waning moments of halftime, and the reemergence of the teams from the locker rooms. The band quickly reassembled and gave the Huskies their entrance music, another runthrough of "All Hail, Northeastern."
At the first media time out of the second half, the people in charge ordered up a round of the college classic "Hey Baby." The cheerleaders ran out on the floor and freestyled their way through a few tower routines, as we serenaded them, complete with the construction-worker "unh, ahh!" part. As play restarted on the court, one of the saxophonists intimated that today's basketball band turnout was a bit higher than usual. "We actually have enough people today that we could sing," he remarked. "We all usually have to play all the way through."
I'm not sure how much my presence had to do with that, but I found myself gravitating to the left of the brass section. The trumpet parts seemed odd and forced for a kazoo, and during "Hey Baby," I finally gave in and took up with the trombones. I slid down the line, and read over their shoulders as I tooted the song's loopy, loping bass progression.
Out on the court, Northeastern was slowly extending their lead and taking full control of the contest. Because these things are well thought out in advance, VCU was shooting towards the basket we were standing under during the second half. That gave us the opportunity to wave and act crazy during the Rams' free throws, and we attempted to make their attempts fall short. A trumpeter suddenly had an stroke of inspiration. "Let's hold our arms to the side, and then move them over really quickly all together," he said. "I saw that on TV once."
The band all took up the idea, resulting in a couple of VCU misses. We all high-fived each other, and were generally well-pleased with our negative impact on a Division I basketball game, and then it was time to fine-tune the concept. "OK, which one's best?" asked a drummer. "Should we all wave to the other side when he's shooting, or when he's getting ready to shoot?"
At the eight-minute MTO, the band once again sprung into action. Pounding drums signaled the onset of what's known in the Northeastern book as "The Hey Song" -- not "Rock & Roll, Part 2" and not the National Anthem
. Northeastern's Boston home is in the section of Hoops Nation that punctuates the chorus with a "you suck!", unlike down in the CAA's core, where VCU fans go with "Go Rams!" And Huskies fans are among those who, when the buzzer cuts off the band, continues to sing... just so they can get in another round of finger pointing and three more big and throaty yells of "you suck!"
"'Vehicle' is next," said Brandan. In larger bands or at Northeastern hockey games, the director uses a whiteboard to communicate the playlist. But NU's musical basketball crew can still get away with word-of-mouth."Vehicle"
is a funk-rock big-band hit by the Ides of March
that predates even my own life. It's one of the most-played and most-hated songs every March at the NCAA Tournament, because every single band in the country plays it. I asked Nathan what the deal was.
"It's really fun to play," he said. "But have you ever paid attention to the lyrics?
It's all, 'Hey little underage girl, come in my car.' Really, really creepy."
But no, it's the Gary Glitter song that gets blacklisted. We never had the opportunity to play "Vehicle," though, because at the game's final media time out, the band was once again preempted -- this time, by another tradition. This was one just as ubiquitous, one that started just a few blocks away at Fenway Park. "Sweet Caroline" (bah, bah, bah) came over the PA system, and the crowd sang along. The good times lasted for the remainder of the game, as Northeastern solidified and cemented its lead.
Then, yet another timeless college convention. The band members took out their keys and jingled them, the "warm up the bus" chant unnecessary but fully implied. It's an especially harsh statement with no true rejoinder, especially in the new CAA, where many of the teams are hundreds of miles apart. But I took the time to contemplate why all band members everywhere seem to keep their keys on lanyards. Why is that?
And finally, the last buzzer sounded. Northeastern was victorious! And the band played its last and first tune, the old fight song. But this time, it was okay to sing that third line, the one that's reserved for wins.All Hail, Northeastern, we sing in jubilee,
All Hail, Northeastern, March proudly, ever free;
All Hail, Northeastern, we give salute to thee,
Through the years, we ever will acclaim
Thy glorious destiny.
The band packed up its instruments, fetched coats from a giant hamper situated out near the hockey dashers, and exited into the cold Massachusetts afternoon. I hung around to pick Brandan's brain. From a musical standpoint, if he was ever to take on a regular, full-time kazoo player, where would he put him or her? Since there's no sheet music specifically written for kazoo, what part would a kazoo player play?
"With the bass brass, most probably," he replied. "I'd say you gravitated to the right spot. You know, I heard about a college band with a full kazoo section once. I forgot where that was, though..."
The day was fading, and so was my time in the band. I cleaned my instrument, slipped it into my jacket pocket, and walked back to the Northeastern press room, where VCU head coach Shaka Smart was giving the Huskies a lot of credit for playing a tremendous basketball game and executing their game plan. It was another boring old press conference, and I was once again a boring old journalist. I had passed out of the doorway, from a world of endless youthful fun, filled with endless music, back to a land of useless quotes and dull statistics. There was no song for any of this
Yet standing there at the back of the room, I felt an overwhelming compulsion to reach into my pocket, pull out my "axe," and launch into an impromptu kazoo version of "Hey Baby."
The trombone line, of course.This is the fourth in the ongoing Kyle Doin' Work series. Previously: Assistant Coach, Assistant SID, Stat Crew Spotter.