Friday Fun: My Top Ten 90s Songs, #6

#6: "Walk on the Ocean" by Toad the Wet Sprocket (off of fear (1991))


It is cliche, but it is true.  There are songs that get locked into your consciousness and become associated with a particular time and place.  This is an example of such a song.  It reminds me of high school, and in particular early high school over-night trips for various competitions.  I hear this song and I am immediately 15 or 16 years old for a few minutes while it is playing.

The biggest problem with being a teenager, ultimately, is the information gap involved.  Lots of new and bewildering things are going on, and all of these things feel entirely sui generis, as if you are the first person to go through them.  This is of course entirely untrue--I don't believe there is a single person who has ever lived who has not struggled through adolescence on one level or another.  Perhaps there are teenagers who understand this fact, are not scared by it, and can just roll with the punches.  Perhaps, but I was certainly not such a teenager, and I cannot right now think of any such teenager or former teenager I have actually met.

What makes this dynamic more difficult is an phenomenon that I hadn't had a name for until Frank Strong's piece--"pluralistic ignorance."  Pluralistic ignorance is the notion that we can never really know what it is like to be someone else, but we have a tendency to assume all sorts of things about other people.  In particular, we tend to project on to other people a lack of all of the deficiencies we perceive in ourselves.  We are confused, and we assume everyone else has a clear picture; we feel awkward and incompetent, and we attribute skillfulness to others.  Meanwhile, this supposedly competent and skillful other is doing the same with us.

If there is a single thing that I have taken away from the theology of James Alison and the anthropology of Girard, it is that all of us are radically and fundamentally the same.  We are all confused and we are all scared and we are all broken, and yet we are all also beautiful and special at the same time.  At it's most fundamental level, Christianity is about recognizing and responding to both parts of that dual reality.

Anyway, back to Toad the Wet Sprocket.
Toad the Wet Sprocket was a sort of like that group of mid '90s pop bands such as the Gin Blossoms, except that they came earlier and were better.  This is one of those bands that the songs of theirs you heard on the radio were pretty generic, but the deeper cuts were much more interesting and experimental, giving people a bit of a distorted picture of the band.

This particular song is probably their best known, and it is an exceptionally well put together ballad.  Here are the entirety of the lyrics:

We spotted the ocean at the head of the trail
Where are we going, so far away
And somebody told me that this is the place
Where everything's better, everything's safe

Walk on the ocean
Step on the stones
Flesh becomes water
Wood becomes bone

And half and hour later we packed up our things
We said we'd send letters and all those little things
And they knew we were lying but they smiled just the same
It seemed they'd already forgotten we'd came

Now we're back at the homestead
Where the air makes you choke
And people don't know you
And trust is a joke
We don't even have pictures
Just memories to hold
That grow sweeter each season
As we slowly grow old

My connection to the song has mostly to do with timing, but the lyrics perfectly capture the time period for me.  It is a song about going somewhere, not knowing where you are going, finding your destination to be not what you thought it would be, and then struggling to deal with the consequences of that experience.  As an adult, this is a phenomenon that you experience on a regular basis.  You can contextualize it and move on to the next location on the great journey.

As a 15 year old, you have no such context to draw on, and this experience is existential and terrifying and sad, and you think that you are the only person to experience such a thing.  This song captures that experience in the moment of maximum confusion.

People move on and grow and learn to integrate these experiences into a happy life.  But it is worth while to be reminded of what it is like to feel that isolation and loss every once in a while.  And this song does that.

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