too-much-joy-cereal-killers1This is how I remember it: a March day, snowy and cold, because it is Wisconsin and it’s still winter in March (and April, and sometimes May). I’m in college, but I’ve missed classes for the day because I’m brutally ill, probably with the flu or even an especially nasty cold, but I’m of an age where these things aren’t diagnosed properly, so the only thing I know is that I’m sick. I should stay home and stick to whatever feeble regimen of rest and medication I’ve set up for myself, but this is the day that the new album from Too Much Joy is due to come out. I bundle up and set out, only to find that both of the independently-owned record stores in town have sold out of it by the time I arrive in the early afternoon. I finally find a cassette copy in whatever feeble chain music emporium has temporarily bunkered down in my humble college town’s dying mall. It’s far from my preferred format, but I now have it. And the album has greater healing properties than all the chicken soup in the world.

I used to have a theory that every college radio station had an otherwise underappreciated band that they could call their own, but that hypothesis was based on little more than the fact that it was true for the noncommercial broadcast outlet that I called home. Originally formed in distant Scarsdale, New York, Too Much Joy was our band, so integral to the station sound that the individual group members should have been included on our staff list. Much as I might like to report that my touchstone art from those pivotal years was cool and deep and dark—Beat poets or haunted French troubadours—it was actually the music from these suburban refuges who crafted humorously bratty songs about beer, rock ‘n’ roll and the attractive women who looked right past them to swoon over “Long Haired Guys from England.” I certainly wasn’t alone at the station in finding this material more immediately pertinent to my own experience. The band’s sophomore album, 1989’s Son of Sam I Am, was a sizable hit for us, and became even bigger when it was rereleased a year later by Warner Bros.’s new Giant Records label with a couple extra tracks. When Cereal Killers, their proper major label debut, was imminent, it outshone nearly every other new album for us, including R.E.M.’s highly anticipated Out of Time, released at about the same time.

Of course, if Too Much Joy were explicitly trying to win over Wisconsin college kids, they couldn’t have done much better that having a song called “King of Beers” right in the middle of the album, with lyrics that perfectly capture the mix of jubilation and dread that comes with a long night at the bar: “Gonna feel like hell tomorrow/ So I won’t go to sleep tonight/ Na na na na na na sorrow/ Everything’s gonna be all right.” Set to a surging rock ‘n’ roll beat from drummer Tommy Vinton, it was made for raising glasses to the ceiling and yelling along. That it wasn’t wholly celebratory (“A man’s bar is his castle/ And this stool is my throne/ Why am I such an asshole?/ Why am I here alone?”) only made it that much better. Let the other kids think partying themselves to oblivion was nothing but good news. We knew better, and we were happy to also provide amateur harmonies to the lines about the less appealing parts of the experience.

“King of Beers” is nicely representative of the entirety of Cereal Killers: brash, raucous, tuneful, exuberant, boundlessly clever and invested with stealthy emotional truths. The glimmering lead single “Crush Story” contains the giddy rush of fresh romantic infatuation (“You could power a city with this/ I am useless, I am a mess”) and “Pirate” ideally captures the spiritual wanderlust stirred by the tedium of daily life (“I’m just sitting here waiting for a train/ Tomorrow I’ll be waiting here again/ While the pirate in me/ Is lost somewhere at sea”). Lead singer Tim Quirk had a way of belting out the lyrics of disenchantment with rousing fervor, often settling his voice in the place where a snarl turns into a roar. Melded with the accompanying vocals of guitarist Jay Blumenfield and bassist Sandy Smallens, the songs took on the sound of compatriots raging against a world drained of promise. Again, it’s hard to imagine something better for a batch of twentysomething ragamuffins simultaneously excited at the prospect of schooling finally coming to an end and quietly terrified at a lack of readiness for looming adult existence.

Even though the music seems almost genetically engineered to appeal to those of a certain age and place in life, Too Much Joy never really caught on broadly. They stumbled into the newsier parts of music magazines an awful lot, usually for oddball things, such as getting sued by Bozo the Clown over a sample or facing arrest for duplicating the infamous 2 Live Crew show that got Luther Campbell’s terrible rap outfit in trouble. They even managed to earn themselves fans in an unlikely place when some of Newt Gingrich’s staffers adopted Cereal Killers’ closing track, “Theme Song,” as the rallying cry for the “Republican Revolution” takeover of Congress, in 1994. The staffers reportedly liked the refrain “To create you must destroy,” generously seeing it as akin to their own ravaging of government in the name of instilling heinous political purity, and apparently totally missing the line “We stamp out fear and greed,” which hasn’t been a tenet of the Republican party for generations.

As might be expected, I don’t have that cassette any longer, having replaced it with a CD copy long ago. Cereal Killers is one of those albums that I’ve grabbed on multiple formats without even an ounce of doubt about the necessity of repurchasing music I already own. That’s not just because I like it that much, but also because it feels like reclaiming a part of me in a way that is unique to great music, the music that we love the most. At the time it was first released, Cereal Killers was full of songs that expressed what I was feeling in ways that were wiser and funnier than I could muster. When, on “Nothing on My Mind,” they sing, “I’ll give you a coloring book/ You can draw outside the lines,” it somehow tapped into the yearning for freedom that defined that particular time of my life. It was simple, maybe, but that’s part of what made it so resonant. Later this year, Cereal Killers is slated for a re-release, an unlikely beneficiary of the recent vinyl revival. It’s never been available as a record before, so I’ll probably be buying it yet again. To let it go by would be like denying a part of my past, a part for which I have great fondness. They weren’t writing songs about me, but actually they were, whether they knew it or not. I’ll always be grateful, and I’ll always be ready to, in the words of “Theme Song,” “Smash a glass and cry,/ ‘Too Much Joy.’”

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