Brian Vander Ark
A Confession: I Heard "The Freshmen" Before I Wrote It
At the risk of sounding cliche, I confess my song “The Freshmen” came to me like many other songs at the time; while taking a shower.
There’s a reason why people sing in the shower. The acoustics—the natural reverb—is astounding. Even humming sounds good. Rich and full. And on that particular morning, somewhere between the rinse and repeat of washing my hair, it dawned on me that I was humming a song I didn’t recognize. Was it a jingle? It sure sounded like it; it was damned catchy.
I still had the song stuck in my head later that afternoon. I went as far as singing it to my coworkers at the sporting goods store. No one knew it.
“That's God humming,” Mom said a few days later. I was visiting as she prepared for the Vander Ark annual potluck reunion. She was cutting slices of ham into 3-inch squares. “God does that. He hums songs into your ear. All you have to do is listen.”
“It would be nice if God sang me some lyrics,” I said. By now, I had accepted the song as mine but was stuck on the words. God could have been a great help in this department.
“He’s giving you the opportunity to praise him,” she said. “Now, start slathering margarine on those buns. We've got a reunion to get to.”
Mom and I would disagree on this, but it sure seemed like God already had plenty of songs praising him. I was on my own. Challenge accepted!
And what a challenge it was. After three months of working on the song, I was still missing some pieces. Once found, these puzzle pieces would reveal the landscape, complete the picture. All I had to do was find the words that fit.
One of the missing pieces was the title. That’s right, after three months, I didn’t even have the word ‘Freshmen’ yet. I just had a story about a couple of guys who went out with the same girl. One of them gets her pregnant, and she has an abortion. Not being able to handle it, she commits suicide. It was a very pro-life statement for someone who was pro-choice, but so be it. I tend to go where the muse takes me.
I drove myself crazy looking for that last line of the chorus. I had the melody already, the six syllables that would end up being “We were merely Freshmen”— but at the time, I hadn’t even considered these guys were in college. They were just young men serving themselves as young men often do.
I woke up every morning thinking about what the last line of the chorus could be. Even before getting out of bed, I would lay staring at the ceiling, singing six-syllable phrases, like “Get-up make some break-fast” and “Got-ta take a show-er.”
One morning, sitting on the couch, dressed and ready for work, I picked up the guitar. I played the chorus and sang:
For the life of me, I cannot remember
What made us think that we were wise and we’d never compromise
For the life of me, I cannot believe
We'd ever die for these sins….
….Got-ta quit my day job.
Dammit! What’s the line? The pressure was enormous because the last line could potentially serve as the song’s title. I just needed one phrase that ties the whole tune into a neat little package. What do we all have in common?
On the previous night, I had rented a movie; the VHS case lay on the table. I was staring through it, pondering this puzzle of the missing words. That one word or phrase that explained why these young men took advantage of this vulnerable woman. An "Ah, yes, we've all been there" moment.
I stared at the cover of that VHS tape—a movie starring Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick—lost in that world of my song.
Enough for today. Time to go or I'll be late for work.
I got up, sat the guitar down, and headed toward the door. Oops, gotta return the movie to the video store or suffer the late fees.
Back to the coffee table, I reached for the tape, then stopped cold. There, in big, black, bold letters, on the side of the VHS box, was the movie's title: The Freshman.
It was perfect.
Now, many years later, here I am, having written a hit song that has impacted so many lives. I'm thankful, and lucky I paid attention.
No matter what you believe in—Mom’s God, The Sun, The Universe—you should recognize one thing that could improve your life. Something is speaking to you. All you have to do is pay attention.
All you have to do is listen.
Brian Vander Ark is the lead singer of The Verve Pipe. He has played The Freshmen over 10,000 hours, making him an expert at it. You can watch his a capella version here.