Episode 6 I'm With the Band

Scenes & Songs is a feature focused on the intersection of music and film, or in this case, TV. Each installment intends to examine movies and shows that involve significant musical subject content, distinct soundtracks, or maybe even just an excellent song used for a specific scene.

This is a special series devoted to the first and only season of Freaks and Geeks, one of my favorite TV shows for many reasons (outlined in more detail here), especially because it used music very well. For 18 weeks I will write about the music in each episode. I’m also going to share some stories about my high school experiences. For more detailed recaps, be sure to check out the ongoing write ups by Todd VanDerWerff at the AV Club, or the 2007 posts by Alan Sepinwall.

This episode made me think a series focused on the music of Freaks and Geeks would be possible. It marks Nick’s first turn in the spotlight, and, unsurprisingly, music is a huge part of his plot. A lot of the groundwork laid in little details comes to fruition with this episode. Each of the previous five made clear how much music meant to Nick, in particular being a drummer. We saw the 29 piece kit, his sticks were present at school a few times, he discussed bands and musicians, and he often wore musical T-Shirts. He and Daniel referenced their own band, and now we finally see Creation in all its glory. And it turns out they are not that good, making us all the sadder since we have been primed to know how important it is to Nick.

The basic gist of the episode: Nick is in a band with Daniel, Ken, and minor character Shaun. He takes it more seriously than they do. He feels pressure because his stern father doesn’t approve. At Lindsay’s suggestion, he pushes the others to practice harder for the upcoming battle of the bands. Instead of gelling, they quit. Then, she encourages him to try out to be in the local band Dimension. He fails spectacularly. As she watches him realize his dream is crumbling before him, Lindsay kisses Nick, marking the beginning of their relationship as a couple.

Almost all of this plays out in memorable musical scenes. Let’s start with the opening teaser, one of my all-time favorites in this or any show. Watch below:

What a piece of film-making. I love the slow build before we actually see Nick behind the kit as the song kicks into gear. The action is synced perfectly. For awhile, Nick appears a total rock star. He’s got the lights, the dry ice, the band is cranking, and he’s in his element. Jason Segel’s enthusiasm is just perfect. I’ve always loved his unabashed giddiness. Rush has a suitably epic vibe, and “The Spirit of Radio” as a song about the importance of great songs is a good choice since the scene depicts a character's deep connection to music. It is a connection that I have felt many times in my life and it’s undeniably joyful. Or at least, the first half is. Because soon his father comes downstairs and we hear how it really sounds. It’s a masterful, if harsh, reveal. He’s more of a rock star in his mind than actuality.

We as viewers know the dream and the reality do not match right away. Nick learns it in his audition. It's like he can finally hear himself outside the headphones. You can watch that below:

Jason Segel’s acting is incredible. How he manages to modulate between an array of emotions, particularly the moment when he finally gets truly excited and cracks a big smile immediately before the audition cuts off and the panic and anxiety surge back, always wows me. The drumming performance demonstrates his energy and passion, but also his lack of technical skill and confidence. “Crossroads” is a fitting song since it takes him out of his comfort zone yet does so in a way that he can’t protest (he suggested “Sunshine of Your Love"). More subtly, it references that he now is likely to travel the other, less desirable, of the two paths he envisioned for his future. Being a drummer no longer seems possible

It’s pretty stunning to me that the show wanted to show a young person’s dreams being crushed. All the more so since I had this exact dream of being in a successful band in high school. If you read any interviews about the episode or listen to the commentaries, this outcome was completely intentional. Paul and Judd and the creative team wanted to puncture the "after school special" mentality of everyone being told they are great and able to achieve anything. It is defensible because I certainly can relate to how much popular culture has ingrained this view into my perception of my own life, and some of my greatest turmoil has derived from a similar recognition that I can’t do everything I want. That is honestly part of why this episode hurts so much. I’m very afraid of failure and wonder which of my dreams are legitimate, particularly when it comes to any creative pursuit.

I feel like not enough happens for Nick to really know he can never be good. He’s still young. For the first time in his life, he has someone encouraging him and opening his eyes to what really goes into achieving a dream: hard work. Who’s to say that wouldn’t spark some development? But why I have to ultimately side with the show in this particular case is because of how we see that Nick doesn’t have the true ambition to work at overcoming whatever he lacks in pure talent. The impassioned speech he gives to Lindsay reveals how much he cares in words. But his words betray him when he admits he knows it’s ultimately not him. “I’ll never be that guy.” And more significantly, so do his actions. Even though the last scene shows him inviting Lindsay to help with his act (she has dry ice duty), it’s evident that having a new girlfriend means more to him. When he says, “I play so much better when you’re around,” it reveals a true lack of understanding the pathway.

In this episode and the previous two, we have seen a new Freak character come into sharper focus. But it’s important to remember how much these episodes are ultimately about Lindsay. More so than her deepening understanding of Kim or Daniel, her interactions with Nick show how naive her worldview can be. A lot of it emerges to a brief scene she has with Daniel, where his realistic, if overly cynical, perspective clashes with her optimism. He is upset she is filling Nick’s head with big, foolish ideas and taking away from his brief remaining window of fun before life starts to get serious. She is shocked he can be so callous and misses how it comes from a place of care. Who’s right? The truest way to look at things is probably somewhere between the two, but when you are young, it’s so much easier to take an extreme black or white view.

A lot of heavy stuff happening, isn't there? The band practice clips have that element too (You can see a spliced together version of the two scenes here), because ultimately the last we see of Creation is their breakup. Yet, they also show what makes the activity so special. Paul was in a band and so were writers Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah. I think anyone who ever was in a band for any length of time in high school has fond memories. It’s just fun. Not all the time, sure, but enough that it will continue to be something teenagers all over the country do. Even if they aren’t good, you can see that Daniel likes the posturing and Ken really cuts loose. There is a charm to this sloppy performance.

The other musical uses and references in this episode:

-It’s probably overkill, but Nick wears a Kiss shirt and Ken has on Van Halen in an early cafeteria scene. Also, Nick has a Jethro Tull poster in the basement, which is the band Dimension opened for when both Nick and Daniel had seen them. Nick later wears a Rush shirt, and when the band is getting back together they discuss possible Ramones and Iggy Pop covers (foreshadowing Daniel’s dalliance with punk). I also love when Ken and Lindsay argue about Creation and Lindsay calls “Baba O’Riley” “Teenage Wasteland.” Ken correcting her confirms his belief that she's a misguided Yoko Ono type.

-I didn’t mention the Geeks at all. Their plot is that Sam doesn’t want to shower after gym, despite it now being required by Mr. Fredricks. This contradicts a lot of the gains Sam had made by being fearless in previous episodes, but it does lead to an amazing dinner table scene where the Weir family encourages Sam to not be ashamed of his “beautiful body.” Feeling self-conscious about your body is another harrowing part of adolescence, so this episode really packs a punch. The music used includes a third Cream song, “White Room,” which soundtracks a lovely slow motion locker room bit, and then Madness “One Step Beyond” for Sam’s naked run through the school. Watch all that here.

-The commentary track was really insightful as relates to music. Besides informing me how Paul, Gabe, and Jeff were all in the episode, I also learned that the generic drum or band shirts came when the producers couldn’t clear rights (I didn’t know that applied to shirts!), how originally the practice song was going to be “Back in Black,” how using “White Room” was Samm Levine’s (who plays Neal) idea, and how composer Mike Andrews was a great asset but he couldn’t quite do a Madness soundalike the way they wanted, so they got the real thing.

Now it’s time to shed a little light on the legend of No Dice, my high school band. As has been discussed previously on this site, Dave was in it as well. It’s a big part of how our friendship cemented. We both played guitar and besides us, there were four other guys: brothers John (also on guitar) and Tom (bass), Pat (drums), and Steve (vocals). That’s right, a three-guitar, two-Steve six piece. Like Creation, we practiced in a basement. We only existed for one year, my senior year, until Pat, Steve, and I graduated and went off to college.

Oh, but what a year it was. While I think we were decent, and Dave has gone on to become a magnificent guitar player, it would be a far stretch to call us an amazing band. The main point, though, was that it was just so much fun. I am considering writing a series of posts on the days of No Dice since there is a boatload of memories, but the general feeling that stands out is just how much we enjoyed being together. It was incredible chemistry, musically and socially. I loved playing guitar, sure, and it gave me a lot of pleasure to learn my favorite songs from bands like the Smashing Pumpkins and Weezer and other 90s hits (we didn’t really get to originals, though we were starting to attempt it towards the end), but we probably spent just as much time hanging out not playing and it was equally awesome.

Just about every Saturday I’d drive across town and spend the day practicing and hanging out. I looked forward to it all week. We would rock for a few hours, then usually end up playing video games or going for a drive. I may or may not have read a bunch of Steve’s sister’s Seventeen magazines to better understand girls. Spoiler alert: it did not work. Talking about girls was a big part of the band, and our name would prove eerily prophetic. Except for Pat, he got a girlfriend after our first live performance. The rest of us who got any attention at all? Goth chicks.

So many inside jokes and wacky theories and conversations are still etched in my mind. For instance, we debated the financial benefit of sperm donation, causing Dave to remark, “Just think about how much money you could have made!” right as Steve’s mom came downstairs saying “Youse guys want some pizza?” clearly having listened to the whole thing. Sometimes, the music feels incidental to being in the band, but we did play “gigs,” namely, a few performances at our high school and some graduation parties. For me, the highlight was doing “Tonight, Tonight” to kick off an assembly. Dave went out to an empty stage and played “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” on piano. As he finished, the curtain opened, revealing the rest of us plus five violinists. Everyone nailed their part. It was so, so cool. I will always remember it and always be grateful for the times spent with Dave, Steve, Pat, John, and Tom and the opportunity to play music with such great friends.

There’s a lot to discuss here. What are your thoughts on the episode? Do you agree more with Lindsay or Daniel about dreams and future? Were any of you in bands in high school?

Other installments in the series:

  1. The Pilot + Styx "Come Sail Away"
  2. Beers and Weirs + "Jesus Is Just Alright" as performed by Nick and Millie
  3. Tricks and Treats + Cheap Trick "Gonna Raise Hell"
  4. Kim Kelly Is My Friend + Van Halen "Ice Cream Man"
  5. Tests and Breasts + Love Unlimited Orchestra "Love's Theme"
  6. I'm With the Band

Listen to the songs in the show on this Spotify playlist: