As Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Lester Bangs) says in the film Almost Famous:
“Music: true music– not just rock and roll:
it chooses you.”
I’d like to talk about my experience with the band Harvey Danger, who are best known for their ubiquitous 1998 hit, Flagpole Sitta.
The first time I saw Harvey Danger was a commercial for the first NOW: That’s What I Call Music compilation. I couldn’t really make out the song.
But when I saw a chubby, tall, nerdy guy with thick glasses and a crazy mop of curly hair, I felt an immediate kinship with him.
He felt like someone who could live in my sub-division; a friend’s cool older brother who lived down the street.
The guy’s name was “Harvey Danger.” I assumed they were a singer and his backing band. Although I’ve never heard him talk about it, I wonder if lead singer Sean Nelson ever had a “Hootie Problem” with kids calling him “Harvey?”
The song was titled Flagpole Sitta.
I wouldn’t know what that meant until 20 years later. At the time, I assumed “sitta” was a term for a catchy pop song, like, “ditty”.
Though they’ve since expressed regret over not naming the song something more obvious, I’d say that referencing a “flagpole sitter” is a perfect title, in more ways than one.
The song balanced everything: the sincerity and insincerity, commercial success and indie obscurity, youthful vigor and jaded cynicism almost impossibly well. It still holds up today, with threads and articles and retrospectives still written about it nearly every year.
It wasn’t until my senior year in the fall of 2003 that I randomly heard Flagpole Sitta. on the radio and realized how much I really loved everything about it.
So I went and found their first album at Best Buy, called Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? And I bought it. I was struck by how little the rest of the album sounded like Flagpole Sitta.
I also learned there was no one in the band named Harvey Danger.
I began researching them and my other favorite bands on the Internet, reading whatever few articles and interviews I could dig up on Yahoo or Lycos.
There wasn’t much to go on.
Though, I discovered Harvey Danger had not only a website but a second album that had been released several years earlier. There was a brief song clip that played on the intro page at their site.
It had a lot of falsetto.
I could not find the album anywhere in stores. But I did discover a music video for the first single, called Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I remember the video took forever to buffer and I first heard the entire song in five second increments. I finally ordered the album, called King James Version, off a random website that summer.
It was the first time I’d ever bought anything off the Internet.
A year after that, the band’s website was updated with a new band picture and a brief blurb stating that “stuff is actually happening.”
I scoured message boards for news, discovered they were recording a new album. I learned of some new song titles, and read users’ speculations about what the new album would be called. It finally came out that fall (2005), and it was titled Little By Little.
In a then-revolutionary move, Harvey Danger put it up on their website for free (two years before Radiohead made this practice globally famous with In Rainbows.) But I wanted a CD, and so I ordered one from a record store. This record was piano-centric instead of electric guitar-based, and at the time it reminded me of Keane. (Remember Keane?)
It dawned on me that I truly loved this band.
They were popular enough to be known by everyone but obscure enough to be considered my own.
And I loved that I had to put in effort and search, in order to get their music and their story.
Their sound was typical 90s garage-y alternative rock but with other elements; almost old-timey and show-tuney. Lots of organ and keyboards and ‘woooo-ooohs’ and ‘ba-ba-da-ba-da’s.’ The lyrics were literary and Sondheim-level sophisticated, an interesting juxtaposition given the basic structure and rhythms of the music itself.
The bass had lots of high end, and lots of distortion. It was usually out front while the guitars were fuzzy, warm, fully-strummed chords filling in the background. The music had that same ultra-intelligent Pacific Northwest hipster vibe as Bright Eyes or The Decemberists. But there was a poppy, everyman quality and accessibility to it, with none of the unspoken pretentious, “I’m so smart and you could never do this” vibe that I got from a lot of artists in the same genre.
The parasocial relationship was fully formed. This was a band I’d follow for the rest of my life.
Their bio became clearer as the Internet and social media grew. They’d come together slowly over the course of the grunge years.
University of Washington students Jeff J. Lin (guitar) and Aaron Huffman (bass) thought it would be fun to start a band in 1992.
Jeff was trained in classical piano and violin but wanted to learn guitar after hearing Nirvana.
They took their name from a piece of graffiti on the wall of the student newspaper where they worked. I wonder what happened to the real Harvey Danger? I’ve never seen anything on him or the graffiti artist who used that name.
Lin and Huffman played as a duo until 1993, when a fellow student named Evan Sult was invited to be the drummer.
He brought his friend Sean Nelson to sing.
They were allegedly so broke that household items like hubcaps and a pickle jar served as drums for their first practice.
They wrote original songs and played shows at house parties, bars and clubs, the first of which was in April 1994 only a few weeks after the death of Kurt Cobain. That year, they recorded a six song demo with local producer John Goodmanson. These demos got them a full length record deal with The Arena Rock Recording Company, and they released their first album in 1997.
Sean gave a copy of that first album to a radio station in Seattle in late 1997, and Flagpole Sitta. became a hit. They signed to a major record label. Slash, a subsidiary of London Recordings.
And thus began their ride on the mainstream.
They toured extensively, and were in heavy rotation on terrestrial radio and MTV. Flagpole Sitta was licensed to several movies and TV shows.
A well-received second album dropped in 1999. But corporate reshuffling and a record label merger left them without adequate promotion or representation, and the album tanked when it was finally released in 2000.
The ride was over. Harvey Danger broke up in April 2001.
A few years later, they had an unexpected reunion, minus Evan Sult who’d moved to Chicago. He was replaced with Seattle drummer Michael Welke. After releasing Little by Little, they toured again during the late 2000s before parting ways amicably in 2009.
They did a final eight show tour in the summer of 2009, ending at The Crocodile Cafe in Seattle.
They released a final single called The Show Must Not Go On, from a compilation of b-sides and rarities called Dead Sea Scrolls.
And that was it.
Sean Nelson continued to write for The Stranger and other publications, and put out a solo album in 2013 called Make Good Choices.
He moved to Tennessee in the late 2010s.
Jeff J Lin now works in tech and is the CEO of Momento360 which deals in the production and distribution of 360 degree imaging.
Evan Sult is now based in New York where he works as an art director and plays in the band Sleepy Kitty.
Sadly, Aaron Huffman passed away in March of 2016 from respiratory failure caused by cystic fibrosis.
Aaron sang lead on a Harvey Danger song called We Drew the Maps.
You can listen to here. It ends with some of my favorite HD lyrics:
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