By Dan Weiss
Single Again is a column on Radio.com where Dan Weiss investigates chart hits of the past and present, their stories and what they meant and how good they really are.
For this edition of Single Again, Radio.com spoke to Brian Vander Ark of the Verve Pipe about the band’s 1997 #1 modern rock hit “The Freshmen” and its controversial backstory. The band’s first proper studio album in 13 years, Overboard, was released this summer.
Radio.com: There’s a lot of conflicting accounts online to what you’ve said the song’s about. If I list them, can you tell me if they’re true or false?
Brian Vander Ark: Sure, whatever you like.
One Verve Pipe fan site says it was inspired by a conversation you heard at a party?
How much of that made into the song? What was that about?
Well, it was a combination of a lot of different things. When I’m writing something, usually the initial burst of creativity could come from anywhere. Whether that be at a party or talking in a conversation with someone could be a particular part of that song…it’s really just a matter of me carrying a notebook around and writing little things here and there—which is what I do, I still do that today. Whether it makes it into a song or not, it all depends if the song comes together melodically and if I feel like it’s valid. I wrote the song back in 1988, whatever I heard that sparked the initial…that particular moment could’ve been the first few lines. It’s hard to tell.
The actual story is that I went out with a girl and my buddy went out with the girl, and we passed her back and forth. And then he got her pregnant and she ended up committing suicide. But she didn’t commit suicide, [that was] poetic license to make it sound more dramatic. I mean, little bits and pieces come from everywhere. “She was touching her face” was me watching…I had the television on while I was writing the song and the Divinyls song “I Touch Myself” comes on. She was touching her face, I’ll put that in there, that sounds interesting. It’s not like I sit down and write a story all in one sitting. The lyrics for that were written in my car driving from job to job, gig to gig, while stringing tennis racquets in a sporting goods store.
Around when did you tell the press that it was about an actual ex-girlfriend’s suicide? Or did that not happen?
Yeah, I don’t know. The person it was written about did not commit suicide, so that was fabricated. So whether I said that or not, I don’t know.
It’s also commonly thought that the song is about an abortion.
Yeah, like I just said, she ended up having an abortion.
I guess what I want to ask is, what made you decide to become protective of the song’s actual subject. Or what made you not want to be forthcoming about it?
It was about the height of it when I had many people…very disappointed in what the song was really about. When somebody hears a song and they get the idea it’s about them in some way, and they make a connection to the song, they believe that’s what that is. And I went out and said what the song’s about and it ruined it for those people. And at that point I said, “F–k it, why am I saying what the song’s about? Let them figure it out on their own.” So whether or not that was the reason I shifted gears on it or not? F–k if I know. You’ve got so many people in the publicity machine who are like, “I’m not sure it’s a good idea to do this or to do this or…” What do I know? If you want to know the true story, I just told you.