“Get a Life, Jerk Weed!” or: How I Became a Music Fan Through The Adventures of Pete & Pete

Rewind
11/28/2018
Dusty Henry

With Rewind, KEXP digs out beloved albums, giving them another look on the anniversary of its release. In this installment, KEXP writer Dusty Henry delves into his experiences with the music from The Adventures of Pete & Pete on the 25th anniversary of the beloved television show’s first episode.


This was never supposed to be possible. It’s 2015 and I’m standing in the front row of The Crocodile, quite literally looking up at one of my favorite bands of all time, a group that was said to only exist within my television set. Yet here they were in the flesh – Polaris, the house band for Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Pete & Pete which aired its first episode 25 years ago today. I’m told by friends who attended with me that I’ve never quite lit up at a show as I did for this one, singing and bouncing along to sensational pop-rock tunes of “Hey Sandy” and “Waiting For October.” In a moment that still feels surreal, I looked up at the stage and Muggy – the alter ego of singer-songwriter and former Miracle Legion frontman Mark Mulcahy – glances down and wordlessly hands me his guitar so he can walk across the stage and belt out a fiery harmonica solo.

 

The moment instantly takes me back to the TV show from whence Polaris came in an episode called “Hard Day’s Pete.” In the episode, the younger of the Petes (aka Little Pete) stumbles upon Polaris jamming in a neighbor’s garage. Little Pete had previously been agnostic toward music, scoffing at song requests even as he ran his own pirate radio station WART. But then came Polaris, wrapped in scarves and thermals while they blitzed through the sizzling love buzz of “Summerbaby.” There’s a look Muggy gives Little Pete near the end of the song, a cool and slow nod of approval.

“As he raced toward school, a strange new feeling raced through him,” Big Pete narrates in the next scene. “It wasn’t supposed to happen. He wasn’t supposed to care. But as the feeling blasted through his heart, he knew nothing could ever be the same. He had a favorite song. A song he could call his own.”

There’s a lot that makes The Adventures of Pete & Pete so charming, beloved, and ingenious. The show was composed like childhood mythology – suburban folklore that you can imagine your own neighbor kids retelling and expanding upon across generations. Even with characters like the pajama sporting hero Artie The Strongest Man in the World, the show never loses its grounding in reality (though Artie does perform mindboggling feats like slightly lifting a house and having a Kryptonite-like reaction to the Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster”). The titular Pete Wrigley brothers become our avatars for experiencing the surreal life in their hometown of Wellsville, from payphones that won’t stop ringing in the summer to trying to time travel by outracing Daylight Savings Time. It’s episodes like “Hard Day’s Pete” that really capture the magic of the show for me, retelling common aspects of our lives with an imaginative, childlike sense of wonder. Even finding your favorite song can be a larger than life moment.

There’s more to “Hard Day’s Pete” than just Little Pete discovering a love for music. After hearing Polaris jam in the garage, he’s left wondering how he’ll ever hear the song again. He doesn’t know what the song’s called or even the name of the band. He forms a band with the intent to learn how to play the song from memory and broadcast it out on WART airwaves. He even enlists his mom to use the metal plate in her head to scan radio waves across the world for the song. It constantly feels out of reach, nearly giving up before inspiration strikes him at the very end of the episode and he’s reunited with his “Summerbaby” once again. That endless, tiring pursuit for music felt prophetic for me in retrospect, even with the same exact band that Little Pete obsessed over.

 

For a long time, I thought I’d just dreamed up Pete & Pete. I’d apparently watched the show as a young kid in its initial run, but the images and scenes that came to mind were so vague and disorienting that it never made sense. As an inarticulate child, it was hard for me to get anyone to know what I meant asking about a show with “two kids who have the same name and they have a superhero friend and it’s like real life but different.” The clearest image I could conjure in my mind was that of Polaris in the opening credits playing in The Wrigley’s front yard – particularly a moment with Mulcahy standing on top of the bass drum while the wind whips his curly hair. Years later when I entered middle school, I rediscovered the show in syndication and it felt like an epiphany. The town of Wellsville felt like it was ingrained in the back of my mind. Finding out that it wasn’t just something I dreamed up was reassuring.

Long before we entered this so-called “Golden Era of Television,” I spent an embarrassing amount of time in front of that glowing screen. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to realize that maybe I watched an unhealthy amount of TV. I can recall oddball, swiftly canceled cable series and daytime talk shows more than I can shenanigans with my own neighborhood friends. In fact, I had no neighborhood friends, family drama kept me away from cousins, and it wouldn’t be until high school that I really started to hang out with friends outside of class. Quintessential “indoor kid” stuff. But I never thought of it as sad. TV (and later, the Internet) was good company and TV Guides gave something to look forward to. I’d always been good at keeping myself busy and staying out of trouble, but Pete & Pete would help awaken a new passion in me.

It took me a few days and several attempts watching the speedy credits scroll at the end of Pete & Pete before I finally found the information I was looking for: “Opening Theme Song and Original Music: Polaris.” I repeated the name to myself again and again while I hunted for a piece of paper to write it down, afraid it might escape my mind at any moment. As I’d gotten into the show, I became obsessed with the soundtrack. In particular, I was desperate to get a copy of the opening theme “Hey Sandy.” Finding that name blurrily streaming by in the end credits felt like it’d take care of my pursuits, but it really only started and sprawling journey of hunting down music – the first of many musical rabbit holes I’d go down pretty much for the rest of my life. When I typed in “Polaris” into the search engine on my grandparents’ bulky Gateway PC (maybe Google, probably Dogpile or Ask Jeeves), I did not get my answers. Instead, I got a bunch of results about the North Star and snowmobiles.

It’s funny to think back on those first attempts trying to wring information out of the still sorta-nascent Internet. Trying odd combinations of keywords just to try and get in the right direction, something I still do constantly. Trying to hunt down Polaris was a bigger task than I’d imagined. With how catchy and approachable the songwriting was, I guess I’d just assumed that there were hordes of fans all raving about the Pete & Pete band. Instead, the little I was able to find sent me down a road full of niche message boards and fan sites, all trading what little information they each had. Even the lyrics to “Hey Sandy’ were (and still are) up for debate. Up until this point, my experience with music had been with superstar artists. My mom’s cassette and CD collection ranged from Prince’s Purple Rain to Aerosmith’s Pump, artists who I’d seen fawned over again and again on MTV and Vh1 binges. I was stumbling into the unknown.

Eventually, I’d find out that Polaris did put out an album aptly titled Music From The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Back then, buying things online was met with skepticism and wasn’t always an easy sell to my parents. For years, any time I went into a record store or even a department store electronics section, I’d walk up to the counter and ask the clerk if they had the album. They never did, often giving my quizzical looks for asking. I’d pine for it as I waded time on Mulcahy message boards and replayed the two Polaris mp3s I was able to hunt down on Kazaa. Finally one Christmas my mother bought me the CD, my holy grail. I’d play the CD on loop in my room for hours, grinning in pure joy as I finally heard the full versions of songs I’d only ever known as snippets.


Polaris was not the end all of Pete & Pete music. As I found scouring the Internet, the show was host to a slew of underground artists. The Magnetic Fields, Apples in Stereo, Luscious Jackson, Drop Nineteens, Syd Straw (who also played math teacher Ms. Fingerwood on the show), The 6ths, and more were all soundtracking my childhood without my knowing. That’s without even mentioning the famous artists who cameoed on the show like Iggy Pop and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. The music in Pete & Pete reminds me of another icon of the 90s. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was famous for namechecking his favorite artists, which would, in turn, get those bands a massive influx of fans and sometimes even major label record deals. His taste became a roadmap for young listeners into a whole other world of music. Pete & Pete did that as well, albeit on a smaller scale. For a long time, I thought I might have been the only one who cared about the music from this show. I even had the AOL Instant Messenger handle “lastpolarisfan.” But when Polaris came to life in 2014 for Pete and Pete conferences and eventually a tour of their own, I saw a community of people who grew up worshipping these same songs I did. Being at The Crocodile in 2015 singing “Ivy Boy” with a bunch of strangers felt like a fantasy.

 

For the most part, Pete & Pete would use instrumental segments from songs featured on the show. There’s a scene, however, at the end of the dramatic two-part arc “Farewell, My Little Viking” which poignantly skirts this tradition. The dynamics in Pete & Pete often centered on the childlike, innocent, and imaginative antics of Little Pete paralleling the heartsick drama of Big Pete maneuvering his way through high school. Little Pete was not without his own lessons about “growing up,” but nowhere is the topic addressed more head-on than in “Farewell, My Little Viking.”

Storylines almost never lasted more than a single episode in the series, but the departure of Artie from the main cast warranted the exception. Little Pete’s personal superhero finds himself exiled from Wellsville after the International Adult Conspiracy (essentially the Legion of Doom meets the PTA) gets fed up with Artie’s antics and influence of their children, with Little Pete’s dad Don tasked with leading the charge. Already distraught, Little Pete also finds himself alone in facing a new bully called Papercut who tortures kids with Rock-Paper-Scissors matches – naturally, he always throws paper. After a series of quintessentially oddball events, the arc ends with Little Pete confronting Papercut head-on and inspiring his peers to do the same while Artie watches off in the distance. Afterward, Artie and Little Pete reunite only for Artie to tell him he needs to move on and help another kid. Little Pete doesn’t need him anymore. He’s strong enough on his own.

As the credits play out with a still image of Artie’s constellation drawn out in the sky, The Magnetic Fields’ “Why I Cry” begins to play. Like many of the songs in the show, the instrumental has played like a motif for melancholic moments. The desperate pulse of the drum machine against the chunky acoustic guitar chords and a forlorn lead line are enough to elicit feelings of infinite sadness. This time the show’s creators let the song play out with Stephin Merrit’s mournful baritone rumbling in the background. He sings:

All the summer days
Where we used to play
Walking hand in hand
Castles in the sand

So you said goodnight
But you meant goodbye
Now our love has died
This is why I cry

 

The lyrics are more than apt given the solemn feeling at the end of the episode, reflecting on the waning days of youthful innocence and watching someone you love walk away. But also, man, that’s some heavy shit to put in a kids show. I wonder if the showrunners thought about the children watching Pete & Pete and seeking out the music, or if they even thought that something like The Magnetic Fields’ existential longing would translate into our impressionable minds. Probably not, but who knows. I might not have caught the lyrics to “Why I Cry” in the end credits when I first watched the show, but there was something there that caught my ear and resonated within me.

To its great credit, Pete & Pete never strayed from talking about loneliness. In the episode “King of the Road,” Big Pete stares out at the rolling night highway on a messy family road trip. While the harmonica solo from Polaris’ “Everywhere” plays, Big Pete muses:

“I sat in the back, trying to make sense of the great mysteries of the open road. Why is it that you always see one lonely boot on the shoulder of the road? And those green signs, what are they trying to tell us? And finally, the biggest mystery of them all. Why is it that when you miss someone so much that your heart is ready to disintegrate, you always hear the saddest song ever on the radio?

If he’d heard the lyrics, Big Pete might have related to Mulcahy’s sentiments: “I hear a song that you sang/It hits my head like a circus train/I cried out when you were there/You were there because you're everywhere.”

 


Childhood can be lonely. When you’re a kid, you don’t always recognize what that feeling is – a feeling of being apart or isolated from the people around you. When I rediscovered the show in the emotional throes of puberty, it all came hitting me again. I was comforted watching both Petes as I found myself at an age somewhere between each of their adventures. Indie rock was right in front of me before I even knew what it was. Later in life, seeking out music would become an outlet when I couldn’t make sense of anything else. On lonely nights I’ll still find myself scrolling through the depths of Google and Last.fm, seeking out demos and bootlegs from bands I barely know anything about. Every once in a while in these digital digs, I’ll remember those first musical mining expeditions, looking for the full version of a brief melody I heard in the background of Pete & Pete. I’m sure I would’ve still loved plenty of music without this kids show from the 90s, but I don’t know if I would’ve loved it in the same way. The reward of finally finding that song after endless hunting and searching is euphoric. It builds an intimate bond between you and the music.

The Adventures of Pete & Pete didn’t have a grand finale. The last episode, “Saturday,” wasn’t written with the intention of capping off the series. It’s what makes the final moments so profoundly sweet and magical. The episode details an ordinary weekend day in Wellsville. Big Pete struggles to make small talk with his barber (played by J.K. Simmons!) while Little Pete interrogates the barber’s buddy, Big Pete’s girl-friend (not a girlfriend) Ellen tries to deliver a pizza in time while wearing a bunny suit, and the manic bus driver Stu grasps for his sanity while he sits at a traffic light that won’t turn green. Long story short, nothing goes to plan. The gang takes comfort in each other, resolving to eat pizza on a snowy afternoon before they see Stu outside trying to push his dead school bus up the road. The surging guitar line of Drop Nineteens’ “Delaware” swirls in the background. Ever the sage, Big Pete narrates, “If you look at it one way, you might think it’s a day we’d want to forget. Look at it another way and you’ll realize why it’s a day we’ll always remember.”

I can think of countless Saturdays spent listening to music like Drop Nineteens, doing nothing particularly notable. The spirit of Wellsville was the profundity of everyday life. The ice cream man can be a mythical figure, Slushee brain freezes can have their own lore, and a superhero can be your best friend. With the right music in my ears, my imagination runs wild. I feel like an ordinary person living in an extraordinary world.

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