I don’t recall the moment that we settled on Casual Observer as a name. What I do know is the feeling I was trying to capture in suggesting it, an emotion that gripped me in adolescence and has never entirely left me.
To put it bluntly, I was (and still am, to an extent) the kind of person who gets lonely in crowds. The bigger the party, the more I began to detach, feel isolated, and start taking mental pictures of the scene around me. “These are the things we do to fill the time,” I would often say to myself, whether at a wedding or a funeral or a birthday party. I realize it’s a morbid reflex, but a reflex is what it is. I don’t really know where it comes from, this feeling that I’m a crasher even at events to which I was invited.
Not long before we began writing songs, I found myself on a school outing to Washington, DC. In the midst of a party during which we were not very well supervised, Gary, a classmate I didn’t know very well, asked me if I would like to leave and accompany him to go buy some cigarettes. I agreed. We spent several blocks walking in search of an open store before we realized that neither of us smoked. It was a cool night, and we both sat down at the base of an ornamental fountain outside the venue where the event was being held. Gary, who I would never speak to again, began asking me about my life, about my relationship with my then-girlfriend, which was famously, publicly volatile, why I wore field jackets and trench coats all the time, and in general why I seemed so disconnected.
With the candor possible only when you’re speaking to a complete stranger, I confessed to my feelings of alienation. “There’s a lack of ease I have in my relationships with others,” I said. “You have it. All of you seem to have it.”
He didn’t understand what I meant by “ease.” Just then, a pretty girl named Allison, who had a round, pale face and ringlets of long, black hair, came outside. “Watch this,” I said, smiling grimly. Allison spotted us and, smiling, walked to us and sat down next to Gary. She threw her arm around him. He casually encircled her waist with his arm. There wasn’t any kind of romantic relationship between them; it was just friendly. “See?” I said, gesturing towards their embrace. “That would never happen to me.”
“What would?” Allison asked, and Gary told her what we had been talking about. She disagreed that it would never happen to me, and argued that there was no reason why it shouldn’t or wouldn’t. At one point she stood up to talk to me directly and I thought she might put her arm around me to make her point, but she didn’t. I never spoke to her again either.
These are tough topics to discuss when you’re a teenager, and hard to talk about at any time without seeming self-pitying, but it was a confusing time in life and these thoughts needed expression. Rick was already writing music at that time, a story we will no doubt tell at a future date. When I found out what he was doing, I immediately had the sense that if these thoughts couldn’t be spoken or written then at least they could be sung. I could tell stories of what it was like to be the one outside looking in (to quote from our first song here on the site), the one who watched the drama unfold but didn’t participate—maybe he wanted to, maybe he didn’t. I wanted to, I think, but this was a way to not need to participate, because sometimes being the one who gets to make the wry, ironic comment at the end of a scene is better than starring in the scene itself. Going away from “Romeo and Juliet,” who remembers Romeo? It’s Mercutio who gets all the good lines. I think that’s why Shakespeare killed him off halfway through the play; with him in it, the show threatens to become “Romeo and Juliet and Other Dense Types Who Aren’t Half as Perceptive as Mercutio.”
Not all of the above had made itself clear to me at the time we started, but the feeling of being outside and not knowing how to get in is apparent in one of the very first songs that we wrote, “Four Days, 1000 Nights.” This very simplistic lyric, composed after yet another trip spent watching others hook up and detach like trains at a switch, is addressed to “You,” by which I meant me, and advising him to just “take it in and lay back”—all he, I mean I, really felt comfortable doing anyway.
All of the characters in the song, “The Golden Girl,” “Dr. Robert,” “The Junkfood King,” “The Indigent Penguin,” were people I knew (two male, two female) and had interacted with, perhaps unsatisfactorily to one degree or another. “Will you get free?” the second verse asks. “You have to try not to care.” I was resigned—again—and yet, it didn’t make me feel that much better. Singing the words with good friends though, that was liberating, and thus began the process of dispelling the cloud that surrounded me.
In doing so, the nature of our music changed, and though the name Casual Observer remains, the stories we were telling through our music rapidly became more sophisticated. Being a participant was essential to this next phase, as the songs would help to explain, soothe, and sometimes motivate the often mystifying adventures of our early twenties.