Songs of Olde Reed

The first thing you’ll notice about Paul Anderson’s album Loligo Vulgaris is that many of the songs he wrote about Reed College between 1988 and 1992 could have been composed in the quad today. His sharp caricatures and parodies of life on campus, such as “Rich White Kid”, “Sensitive Guy”, and “On the Night Bus” haven’t aged a day. 

The chorus of “Rich White Kid”, for instance, lays out the universal code of trust fund Reedies: “I’m not really a rich white kid / I’m living like my third world brothers always did / I would not be born into an easy life, not me / That wouldn’t be PC.” The song’s meaning is best expressed by one of the later verses: “In case you haven’t guessed / Why I’m so scruffily dressed / Why I mimic the oppressed / With such passion and authority / I have my dream that if I wear enough trash / Or smoke enough hash / or spend enough cash / I too can be a minority!” It’s sung with a saccharine brio that characterizes the left-leaning life at Reed, sung to self-described “funky blues chords”, climaxes with an awful attempt at scatting punctuated by the spoken aside: “Hey, did you think that was easy? I had to dig down to the roots of my ancestry to do that.” 

“‘Rich White Kid’ began when I passed a classmate wailing the funky blues chord (G#7, that exact fingering) outside Eliot Hall while his friends talked,” says Anderson. “The song took about a year to grow from a chord to a complete anthem.” 

The album as a whole was also a slow-sprouting project. Anderson explains that he “arrived at Reed in ’88 and realized [his] acoustic guitar and bevy of campfire songs were the same as everyone else’s”, and switched to parody in order to stand out at the popular Midnight Theater comedy nights. He further expanded his repertoire by hosting the SU open mic for two years, sometimes trying to motivate other people to come up and sing by playing deliberately awful songs such as, “Cliché Love” and “Wish You Were Hare.” However, one of the best songs on the album, “Dogs of Reed”, wasn’t finished until after Anderson graduated: “I lived near Reed and still had plenty of friends attending, but it felt awkward to set foot on campus. The song is an overt fantasy about a more dignified option to come back as a dog. Also the job market in ’92 was horrible.” 

“Reed’s a small town,” he adds. “The songs are full of references where everyone knew who I was singing about, or could guess well enough.” The song “Sensitive Guy,” which chronicles the loud renunciation of patriarchal gender norms by male Reedies in order to appear more compassionate — and desirable, “mostly consists of actual lines Reed women quoted to me from their boyfriends or suitors. ‘Coolie’ was a term coined in ’91 for a crowd of unapproachable Student Union dwellers who, again, were sort of ridiculous. Somehow we all missed that the word was a racial epithet and I hope that can be understood from the lyrics; I couldn’t sing it today without some heavy explaining.” 

The songs were finally released on cassette in 1994 as a souvenir for Anderson’s senior class. He recorded the album nearly singlehandedly. “Today you can make a parody like ‘Squid’ or ‘MS Word’ by downloading the karaoke version. Nothing like that existed back then, so I listened to the originals over, and over, and over to figure out each of the instrument lines, and recorded them all from scratch . . . The great saving technology was the vintage Mac SE I wrote my thesis on, and that you hear booting up on MS Word. It had composition software that could play back through MIDI. So I wrote the keyboard tracks and played them through a friend’s synthesizer as piano / organ / violins which also became the timing track. Two more friends played most of the drums and bass, my housemates sang choruses, I filled in the rest. The timpani was an empty water cooler bottle borrowed from Prexy, suspended by ropes and struck with a soup ladle.” 

Loligo Vulgaris was played on air by Dr. Demento ’63 in the early 1990s, and “Microsoft Word” was the most-requested song on the show for some time, bringing Anderson his 15 minutes of fame as he received fan letters from across the country. However, the tapes are no longer in stock, his sophomore album, Paul Anderson Unplugged, has largely vanished, and he no longer releases recorded music. “My satisfaction is playing live where people enjoy it,” Anderson claims. 

Nevertheless, his first album lives on. Loligo Vulgaris has been undergoing a small renaissance in popularity in recent weeks, as one student after another realizes that — in the words of the campus’ other favorite album — life at Reed is the same as it ever was. Even the spirit of the songs themselves reflects an ever-present self-critical irony. As Anderson himself puts it, “Reedies are disposed to be ridiculous, especially in their passionate student years, but also to laugh at themselves.”

Listen to the album here.