The JOAT 50 Song Countdown is a blog series where every weekday for 10 weeks I am posting a brand new long form essay where I have ranked and written about my 50 favorite songs of all-time. From Adele to Zac Brown Band, Patsy Cline to Plasma Canvas, Ludacris to Rise Against, this series offers a personal essay about the 50 songs that hit me the absolute hardest.
Of the 10 musical acts remaining on this lengthy countdown, I’m certain I have spent more time listening to Less Than Jake than any of them. Probably more than the other 40 as well, if we’re being honest. I intentionally limited myself to one song per act on this list, and this band is one of the primary reasons why. If I’m being totally forthright about my taste, Less Than Jake would probably have 5 songs on this countdown, which made picking one song a real bitch.
On Facebook in July of 2020, my best homeboy Jason and I even chose a Less Than Jake song a day to write about for a month using a variety of prompts Jason found somewhere online, and I didn’t find that challenge particularly difficult because there are way more than 31 Less Than Jake songs I adore. It’s the only band from which I’ve interviewed two members – singer/guitarist Chris DeMakes, and former drummer/chief lyricist Vinnie Fiorello. I love this band so much.
The animating tension inside Less Than Jake’s songs comes from the hard, introspective edge of Vinnie’s lyrics pitted against the inherent, lovable dorkiness of the rest of the band. I follow these guys on social media and Roger collects Garbage Pail Kids. Chris earnestly reads musicians’ lyrics back to them with inescapable Dad energy each week on his podcast. The other two guys play brass instruments professionally. It’s ska music, yes. But it always felt heavier and harder than the limits of that label imply.
In 2020 Vinnie published a book of 30 short stories called 6/19 that felt like a companion piece to the Less Than Jake lyrics I’d been listening to all my life. Here’s how he describes the book:
It was in June that I wrote a short story a day. One for each of the 30 days, stories about southern skies, long drives, talking to ghosts, and humidity that causes a madness that only a Floridian would know. Before we were sentenced to social distancing and Covid 19. These were the stories of a being lost and being found.
That’s what Less Than Jake is all about to me. Being lost and not necessarily being found, but rather finding yourself. That tension presents itself on “Sugar in Your Gas Tank.” The entire song is about wishing you had more agency to affect change, and instead of realizing that you’ve had this agency inside you all along, saying fuck it, taking a look and then deciding to look the other way.
If I had it in me
To stop my random thoughts and my dumb dreams
I could deal with this non-stop spinning world
Yeah, this non-stop spinning world
Yeah, this non-stop spinning world
But I’d rather sit back
Just smoke cigarettes
Be the one with the loudest mouth
Be the most closed-minded
Sigmund Freud postulated that when we dream, we actually play every character ourselves. That to me is the ultimate expression of listening to Less Than Jake in general, and of “Sugar in Your Gas Tank” specifically. We as the audience get to be the commenter and the commented upon. We criticize others for failing to change, yet often fail to do so ourselves. Hell, I wanna be the one sitting back, smoking cigarettes with the loudest mouth and the most closed mind. That sounds fun. And easy! But we’re better than that. Or at least we aspire to be.
One of the most spiral-eyed, batshit insane claims I’ll make about myself is that you could pick any point in any song off Losing Streak (“Sugar in Your Gas Tank” is Track 4) or Hello Rockview (the album after this one), hit play, and within 2 seconds, I’ll pick up the lyrics and sing them with 100% accuracy from that point forward. I didn’t practice memorizing these lyrics, it just happened through sheer repetition and bottomless adoration. I got Losing Streak for Christmas when I was 15 years old. This, it turned out, was exactly what I wanted to hear at that point in my life and I wanted to hear it a whole lot.
The reason I bring this up is because I’ve internalized the sensibility of these songs to such a degree, sometimes I feel like I’m writing them myself. I wrote about that phenomenon in a brief, jokey post from more than a decade ago, but bands that touch your soul that you listen to over and over again have a way of confusing your brain and blurring the line between creator and listener. You’ve intertwined yourself with your favorite art in a way that the link now feels inextricable, and the origins of do I feel this way because I heard Less Than Jake sing about it? are now indecipherable from do I love Less Than Jake because they miraculously captured exactly how I feel? After listening to this band for more than 25 years, I can firmly tell you that I no longer care. I’m just happy I found this stuff and that it still means more to me than I can adequately express.
I could have chosen “The Science of Selling Yourself Short,” or “Last Hour of the Last Day of Work,” or “The Brightest Bulb Has Burned Out/Screws Fall Out,” or “Scott Farcas Takes It On the Chin” or really any of a dozen other songs and this essay would have turned out largely the same, I think. But I didn’t. I chose “Sugar in Your Gas Tank.”
I think I chose this one because when this song kicks in it already feels like we’re on the highway cruising at 100 mph. Sunglasses on. Sunshine and open road ahead of us. Where are we going? Who fucking cares. Turn up the volume. Less Than Jake is playing. It’s a good day. We’ll deal with this nonstop spinning world later.
Up next: We mustn’t dwell. Not today. We can’t! Not on Rex Manning Day…