I’ve always been a sucker for singer/songwriters. The ability to take a feeling or idea, put it down on paper and set it to music is a talent that many have. But like poker, it takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. Some people, your Guthrie’s, Dylan’s, Springsteen’s, seem to have an innate ability to take a whole group of people’s frustrations or hopes and put them to song. That’s a great thing, but not necessarily the only criteria for me to consider you a master of the art form.
Pete Droge went a different direction. Instead of tackling the bigger issues of the world, he internalized. Broken hearts are a great place to start when you’re writing a song, and judging by the material on Droge’s first couple of records he must’ve gone through his share of messy relationships (or maybe just one REALLY messy one). He’s a guy that wears his heart on his sleeve and isn’t afraid to say the things that most of us worry will make us uncool. He’s a romantic in a world of cynics and naysayers, and I dig that about him. Like my favorite films protagonist (Jefferson Smith), he thinks that there is good in every person and that we can all contribute to making the world a better place.
Brendan O’Brian produced Droge’s first album, Necktie Second. O’Brian is famous for working with a lot of the Seattle grunge scene’s finest; as well as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stone Temple Pilots, and Rage Against The Machine. Necktie is a far cry from Evil Empire to say the least. It’s a great credit to O’Brian that he allowed Droge to be so breezy and loose. It’s just a light folk/rock record that happens to hold some of the finest songwriting for which you could hope.
The lead track is probably the only one most of you have heard. “If You Don’t Love Me (I’ll Kill Myself)” was used in the blockbuster megahit Dumb & Dumber to great effect. That song almost doesn’t even belong with the rest of these tracks. As great as it is, there isn’t anything else that sounds like that on Necktie. The closest we come is “Two-Stepping Monkey,” but even those similarities are few and far between.
At its heart, Necktie is about wanting to be with someone who has decided they’d rather not be with you anymore. It’s something that Droge comes back to often, unable to let go like his unheard partner. “Northernbound Train,” “So I Am Over You,” “Faith In You” all hit the theme pretty dead-on:
When I read to you baby from the book that you wrote
I got a choked up feeling in the back of my throat
Was it a love sick virus or the knot in my noose?
You say, your backpack’s heavy bitch set the bricks loose
“Hampton Inn Room 306” is not only a great end to Necktie, but one of my favorite closers of any album. Brilliant in both its simplicity and execution. Sure he steals a bit from Lionel Richie, but who doesn’t? He’s singing a tune that conveys exactly what I imagine life on the road would be like: lonely, sad, terrifying.
I’m not calling to say I love you.
I’m not calling to say I care.
I’m not calling to say I want you here.
I think by now those things are clear to us both.
But I tell you every day, cuz it makes me feel better babe.
It’s a reminder that despite all the bad times, the sad times, the gloomy mad times if there’s love in your life everything will be alright.
O’Brian returned to produce Droge’s next album, 1996’s Find A Door. This time he played with his backing band The Sinners, which gave the whole record a little more heft. They took the songs a bit further out, especially tracks like “Dear Diane,” which sounds like a classic Petty track all reverby and fuzzed out.
The first couple songs are the weakest on the album, but from number 3 to 11 it’s pretty much all gold. Droge’s still singing about a lot of the same stuff, but with his band/friends behind him everything is a bit more upbeat.
“Brakeman” sounds a little like The Everly Brothers covering “Helter Skelter” in the best way possible. A bit rockabilly juke joint fun is just what you need in the middle of this album and Droge is happy to oblige. There’s some great guitar work on here from Peter Stroud (Sheryl Crow, Stevie Nicks) that kicks it up a notch.
Musically, Find A Door seems to be everything Necktie isn’t. If one of the concepts behind Necktie is “one man trying to make it on his own” then Door is a “Community rallying around its leader”-type story.
It’s weird how these albums compliment one another so well but seem so at odds at the same time. I suppose that’s a compliment to Droge’s ability to write songs that dig deep into his own desperation one minute and flip over to have some fun another.
It’s been almost 20 years since Find A Door, and Droge hasn’t done a whole lot that’s been commercially mainstream since then. One place you may recognize him is from the amazing Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous. Yeah. You know that scene where Kate Hudson is walking Patrick Fugit through the hotel and Jay Baruchel is talking about Zeppelin? When Fugit looks into that room and there’s a couple playing a folk song sitting across from one another? That’s Pete and his writing partner Elaine Summers singing “Small Time Blues!”Crazy, right?
He was also one-third of a band called The Thorns. It was him, Matthew Sweet, and Shawn Mullins. I know. The freakin’ “Lullaby” dude? But no. They were actually pretty good. Only put out one album in 2003, which you can find on Spotify. Kinda Jayhawks-y stuff, if you’re into that.
Despite the lack of hits, Droge is keeping busy. Some of his work was used for the interview show Off Camera with Sam Jones, he’s working on music with Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, and always recording with Elaine. They released The Droge and Summers Blend vol 2 last year.
Jamie Wyatt is a name you may or may not know. Pete produced a record she put out a number of years ago. She has a new one that came out in March that features a song co-written by Pete and he plays guitar on it as well.
These two records I’ve talked about here were pretty big for me. Seminal us a heavy term, but it would apply to my relationship with Pete Droge’s first two releases. I was too young to really appreciate seeing him live when I was 12 or so and he opened for Tom Petty. If only time travel existed so I could force myself to pay attention instead of staring up at that stupid disco ball.
Find Pete Droge here.