It was the summer of 1999. I was headed to summer camp at Barstow Woods. The camp was two miles away from my elementary school, but felt like an entirely different world.
Barstow Woods introduced kids from all across Midland. You had Parkdale. Plymouth. The Catholic kids from Blessed Sacrament. There was an elementary school named “Chestnut Hill” which was the perfect name for grade school humor. Boys would say, “Chest,” and mimic having boobs, “nut” and point to their nuts, “hill” and grab their buttcheeks. The joke always killed.
There were two rules at Barstow Woods. First rule: you had to learn the lyrics to the swimming pool song.
Swimming, swimming, in the swimming pool.
When days are hot, when days are cold, in the swimming pool.
Breaststroke, sidestroke, fancy diving too.
Now don’t you wish, you never had, anything else to do, but swim!
How I remember those lyrics from 20 years ago is beyond me. When you were nine-years-old, you could memorize things with ease. Phone numbers. Song lyrics. Baseball stats. It came naturally.
Second rule of Barstow Woods: If you acted out of line, each offense cost you five minutes of swimming pool time. There was one kid who would regularly rack up 45 minutes in the penalty box. He would pace around the pool like a chained German Shepherd, just chomping at the bit to dive in. “Ok, you can go in now.” He’d wreak havoc for those final 15 minutes.
Besides the swimming pool song, I remember hearing these little bits and pieces of another song that I had never heard before at Adams School. Two girls at a table would sing, “In the shape of an L on her forehead.” There was a kid who walked around with a stick and just over and over, “Hey now, you’re an All-Star, get your game on, go play.” Another kid who would quickly rifle through lyrics that felt like they were from the same song.
“Well, the years start coming and they don’t stop coming.
Fed to the rules and I hit the ground running.
Didn’t make sense not to live for fun
Your brain gets smart but your head gets dumb.”
I had to play it cool. I wanted to know the name of this song, but I didn’t want to be the kid who didn’t know the name of this song. I had to figure out a way to casually ask. “So, like, if someone didn’t know what song this was, what should we tell them? You know, as people who know the name of the song. What’s it called again?”
There was no Shazam in 1999. No way to Google the lyrics. Our Gateway computer at home had Solitaire and that was about it. So each day I would leave Barstow Woods with only a few clues. I think it’s called All-Star. Shape of an L. Rockstar, get the show on, get paid. I had a song stuck in my head that I’d never actually heard before.
My parents listened to “Oldies 96.1.” There was no such thing as new music in the Toyota Previa, the classic minivan that mastered the shape of an egg and a big toe at the same time. I heard The Beatles. Steppenwolf. Billy Joel. I didn’t know that a few turns of the dial was 102.5 WIOG, a station who played All-Star at least twice an hour.
I don’t remember the exact moment when I found out the band was called Smash Mouth. It was the same band who created, “You might as well be walking on the sun,” which I swear I heard on Oldies 96. I think people just assumed that song was 30-years-old.
I went with my parents to Turntable on Saginaw Road. Back in 1999, this CD/record store was already starting to struggle. Four years later they’d shut their doors for good. Death by the CD burner. But in the summer of ’99, a kid could walk in there on a mission, looking for the S section. Soundgarden. Springsteen. Sugar Ray. Smashing Pumpkins. Smash Mouth. There it is.
The front cover had this futuristic-looking skyscraper with the word “Astro Lounge” written on the side. Was that the name of one of their new songs? Nope. But it was Smash Mouth. You just let them do their own thing.
Brought the CD home, made it through all of the intense plastic packaging that took somewhere between two hours and four days to unwrap. Flipped over the case.
- Who’s There
- Diggin’ Your Scene
- I Just Wanna See
Alright. Skip. Skip-Skip-Skip. There it is. Track number five. “All-Star.” Hit play on the boombox.
Somebody once told me the world was gonna roll me,
I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed
She was looking kind of dumb with her finger and her thumb
In the shape of an “L” on her forehead
One time through was all you needed to magically know all of the lyrics. I don’t know if you even need one time through. All-Star’s a weird song because you somehow know the lyrics before you hear it.
All-Star was the song of the summer. I listened to it all the time on my Walkman. The only songs that have even sniffed the same level of popularity since then are Pharell’s “Happy” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
By 2001, All-Star was starting to lose steam. But then came the opening credits of Shrek which gave it another few years of juice because, on average, Shrek DVDs were played 256 times.
I still love that song. I love the weirdness of it. The strangely deep philosophy. How it sounded like Yogi Berra was writing a pop song.
Somebody once asked could I spare some change for gas?
I need to get myself away from this place
I said yep, what a concept
I could use a little fuel myself
And we could all use a little change
So many unanswered questions. “And all that glitters is gold. Only shooting stars break the mold.” What does that mean?
“The ice we skate is getting pretty thin. The water’s getting warm so you might as well swim.” Did Smash Mouth discover global warming before Al Gore?
And why was there just one dance move? “L” on the forehead. That was it. Nothing else. It’d be like everyone being in sync for one-maca-two-maca-three-macarena* and then nothing else the rest of the song.
I love Smash Mouth’s All-Star because it transports me back to 1999. Back to the world of being a kid. I understand why my parents used to listen to Oldies 96. A song takes 20 years to mean something, to build those layers of nostalgia. Each year adds more seasoning to the cast-iron skillet. And, once it reaches that 20-year, 30-year, 40-year mark, when it becomes a borderline classic, why listen to anything new?
Or, maybe better put:
So much to do, so much to see
So what’s wrong with taking the back streets?
*Macarena lyrics – I am still convinced those are the lyrics to Macarena. Some songs you never actually learn.
Thank you for stopping by the blog. I think this will turn into a series called “Songs of the 90s” but I’m not sure if it will be here on Medium Rare or over on Long Overdue Books.
Quick plug – My new book “Here or There” is now available. The fastest way to order is through Amazon, but you can also order a signed copy through Long Overdue Books (just email firstname.lastname@example.org)
To subscribe to Medium Rare via email, just enter your email address in the box below. See you next week for a post about “The Computer Room,” another throwback to the 90s when there was no wifi, no smartphones, no wireless anything. Just one desktop computer on a desk.