June 26th, 2005


Personal/Musical: Regarding the Freeks

Every once in a while, I have to explain why have an email address as odd, unacademic and unprofessional as "NovakFreek." It was that address that caused wish_i_may dreato open this journal for me as "novak_freek" so that I could read her protected entries for a year before I began to feel the need of keeping some kind of theology journal (a dubious success at best), and before I really entered into the journaling culture as a whole.

When I went to Notre Dame to do my M.A. in Theological Studies, I was dismayed at how poor the band scene seemed to be. I came from a great music school in Illinois (Northern Illinois University) with a great jazz and classical program, and cool bands everywhere. But one band grabbed my attention, a year after I'd arrived. I was cutting across campus to meet a friend for dinner at the Oak Room (R.I.P.) when I heard the sounds and words coming out of a group of enthusiastic undergrads playing by "Stonehenge," the alumni War Memorial. "George and the Freeks," as I discovered their name was, kept my attention riveted for three songs before I tore myself away. I was already late when I had stopped, but I couldn't make myself go at first because I was so pleased: "These guys have got something here," I remember thinking. It wasn't that they were perfect. There were plenty of rough spots, but the melodies and the lyrics had depth: they weren't flailing around trying to get it right – they were getting it right. These were songs. Good songs. There was even a distinct spirituality coming through. I was only just beginning to be able to understand what it was. Catholicism, essentially: poetic, oblique, and loaded with the implications of something beyond itself. I was just coming back into Catholicism at the time, and I was much more familiar with the overt, biblical idiom of "Christian rock." When the Freeks weren't just goofing around, their serious side had something that appealed to me by its more indirect and difficult poetic medium. I made it to my dinner, and remembered the name.

Some months later, at the beginning of December, I was at the campus' "Acoustic Café" one evening, talking casually with an undergrad theology acquaintance named Emily, listening to two of the band's members play. I told her, "These guys are part of a very good band I've been hearing around campus." "Oh, the Freeks?" she said. "I'm a Freek, too: I'll introduce you, if you'd like." I was puzzled, since I had never seen her with the band, but she explained to me that "Freek" was also a name used of the circle that the band moved in: it seemed kind of half groupie, half guild member. When the two guys stopped playing, she pulled them aside to introduce them to me. One of them, Doug (weaklingrecords), she had to pull out of an already-begun conversation, so we spoke only a few brief words to one another. So brief, in fact, that I called him "Dennis" for months. The other, Mark, talked with me for a very friendly 20 minutes, and that was that.

What happened next was very disturbing.

Mark and I proceeded to run into each other every day. For two weeks. Walking through tunnels between buildings after midnight: Mark. Pulling down the same book of poetry that I just went to check out: Mark – and I'm not even a frequent or capable reader of poetry! Mark began to have the same hunted look in his eyes that I suspect I did, too: just who was stalking who? Sometimes we'd speak just a few words, sometimes we'd have a conversation of some length. Finally, after running into him and Emily during a moment of some importance for her, it became clear we were going to be – we were – friends. Later, Mark confessed that he thought God was making us be friends, and I was grateful that he admitted the loopy idea before I did. I met the rest of the Freeks, bit by bit, through being friends with Mark. Later in the year, more-or-less through a misunderstanding, I became close friends with Erik G who played lead guitar for the band, and I got to know the rest when I became a member of the Notre Dame Folk Choir that fall, which was the liturgical music group in which the bulk of the band were also members.

Because I couldn't stop making unsolicited suggestions about things that could be improved, the band eventually hired me to do their soundwork, not that I knew the first thing about it. In the midst of giving my attention to their music, I was beginning to learn a lot about the songwriting craft itself. I had more-or-less burned out on writing poetry by the end of my undergraduate, after a positive and productive stretch working with the Zen poet Lucien Stryk, but I found that lyrics began to form with the melodies that frequently came to me, and I began to crank out my own songs. Somewhere in the midst of this, I was given my own "Freek name" by Erik, or "Innate Freek," as being in the Freek circle involved that particular quasi-monastic tradition. When I was trying to come up with an AOL username in 1997, and everything cool I thought of had already been taken, I saw Doug was using for his email just a plain "Dougfreek" and so I tried using my Freek name, "ArjunaFreek," but at the time AOL wouldn't accept such long names. I idly typed in "NovakFreek" and immediately regretted it when it was accepted because it seemed lame and derivative of me. But I was stuck with it as my primary account name. I could have immediately switched to a subordinate account name, but I wasn't that clever. Now I feel I can't get rid of it because I've had it long enough that every once in a while someone from years past is able to track me down through it.

And that's the story of the name.

Why the hell did I write all that? Because I felt that the historical background was important in order to explain what is now going to appear on my journal. In idle moments, where I'm not involved in giving too much historical context for relatively minor affairs, I've been converting my tape collection to digital files. Among that tape collection are several live Freek shows, which I am going to post here for the downloading. Unpolished, unmixed, but nevertheless sometimes great moments in great songs. Even today, the music that my friends and I make are a lot more engaging to me than anything I hear on the radio.

To kick off this programme, I am going to post--for the first time in electronic format--the very rare, almost unknown, second album by George and the Freeks. Their first CD, Join Us On the Ride (still available at www.weaklingrecords.com), was a fine first effort at a studio recording, particularly given their limited means. The Senior Week Sessions were a more intimate project. The guys decided they wanted to preserve their earliest work, and so during Senior Week, after classes were done and before they graduated in May 1996, an impromptu studio was constructed in the living room of Mark, Doug, and J.P.'s apartment.

I knew a lot less about recording and recording equipment than I do now, and while the first track or two have a bit too much signal, and while I would now set up the recording to take advantage of stereo far more, nevertheless these are a fun set of songs. If you would like the experience of a group of friends sitting around your living room making music for the sheer joy of it, please feel free to download these tunes. I'm posting them for the Freeks themselves, but everyone is welcome. Particularly in this set, you might be floored (as I was) by my first hearing of Mark Lang's "Simplicity," which left Erik and I just staring at one another in disbelief, or the incredible crafting of Doug McKenna's lyrics and melody in "Tender Our Joys." Warts and all – whether Erik's inability to remember his own words, J.P.'s confusion over how many strings his bass actually has, my not putting the bass loud enough, or Andy's (abrenner) sore throat – you'll find this a better listen than the pre-fab pop churned out by the industry. Forward it to your friends. Forward it to your enemies and watch them become your friends. Yeah, it's like that.

George and the Freeks: The Senior Week Sessions

01. Thoughts/"Starts on F" -- Doug McKenna
02. Who Am I To Say? -- Erik G
03. Empty Space -- Andy Brenner
04. 80 More Years -- Mark Lang
05. Miniscule -- Doug McKenna
06. Where The Birds Fly -- Erik G
07. I'll Fly Away (#2 & 5) -- Mark Lang
08. The Song -- Erik G
09. Tender Our Joys -- Doug McKenna
10. A Love Song -- Erik G
11. Simplicity -- Mark Lang
12. Baby, Don't Go -- Mark Lang
13. Daydreams and Memories -- By Skipp Gill, lyrics by Doug McKenna
14. Tell Me It's All Fine -- Erik G
(Now updated for download from MegaUpload!)