From the inner recesses of the utility closet where I had been hiding for the past half hour, I heard the wedding party enter the reception hall. The jocund din of family, friends, and guests rattled the closet door. I forgot to tune my guitar before I climbed into this coffin. But Red stayed in tune all night last night at the country club cover gig. She would probably be in tune when I popped out of the closet, plugged her into the DJ’s sound system, and slid onto the upper corner of the dance floor for the couple’s first dance. The bride’s name was Holly. The bride’s name is always Holly.
Fifteen years before hiding in reception hall closets, I played in a band called Collapsis. We were from Chapel Hill, NC. In the late-90s, record labels were signing bands from the southeastern United States with great abandon. Hootie and the Blowfish and the Dave Matthews Band hailed from South Carolina and Virginia, respectively, and were selling millions of records. I had been playing the North Carolina club scene as a solo acoustic opener for years. When I finally signed with a management company, they recommended that I trade my acoustic guitar for an electric guitar and get some friends to join me on stage.
Collapsis solidified its line-up about a year after it formed. The early 90s left a few Chapel Hill bands in tatters. Dillon Fence and Queen Sarah Saturday were two promising bands that disbanded by the time I started looking for bandmates. Eventually, the Collapsis line-up consisted of the former drummer of Dillon Fence and the bass player and lead guitarist from Queen Sarah Saturday. The name Collapsis came from the Dillon Fence song of the same name.
Cherry Entertainment, a subsidiary of Universal Records, signed Collapsis just a few weeks after we had the line up in stone. We hit the studio the next fall after six months of constant touring, writing, and rehearsing. We recorded with producer David Bianco (rest in peace, Dave) at Dwight Yokam’s studio in Burbank, CA. It was the same studio where Megadeth recorded its platinum album Peace Sells . . . but Who’s Buying?, so I knew we were doing something right. Our record, Dirty Wake, came out well, but, as anyone signed to a label will tell you, the label wanted us to come up with a few more potential singles.
The search for another “hit” brought me to Los Angeles for an intensive, two-week songwriting immersion. Here, I’d co-write song with another artist in the morning and then return the next day in the evening to record a demo with a rental band. This schedule produced some decent songs, but initially nothing that was better than what Collapsis had already recorded. That I was working with session musicians rather than my own band would prove to be a source of consternation for Collapsis—likely one of many issues that pushed us to disband just a year after our record came out.
Ten days into the writing immersion, I hit a breaking point. I was tired. I wanted to go home. I had trouble coming up with lyrics on the spot for a co-write with producer John Shanks. Shanks played guitar for Melissa Ethridge and would eventually produce A Different Version of the Truth, Van Halen’s reunion album with David Lee Roth. I played an acoustic guitar part to a click track and told Shanks I’d have the lyrics ready when we demoed the song the next day.
Back at the hotel, I worked on the lyrics. I thought about this time back home when it started snowing. Holly, my girlfriend, made snow angels and we talked about our future. I wrote it all down on hotel paper. The next day, I went to the demo session and Shanks noticed that I had a big grin on my face. He had cobbled together a dreamy track with his empire of guitars and amps. “You must really like what you came up with,” he said. He rolled the tape and pressed record. I sang “Wonderland” in one take. The version that ended up on our album is that one, first take with very little editing. Incidentally, this was before Auto-Tune was a thing. A one-take vocal back then was like a hole-in-one on a par 5 or a nothing-but-net buzzer beater from back court—quite rare if not mysteriously transcendent.
The problem with “Wonderland” was that it was so different from everything else on Dirty Wake. All of our other songs had a hard rock or modern rock slant. "Wonderland" was an acoustic ballad played to a pensive drum loop. The label loved the song but was reluctant to include it on the record. The irony of it all was that “Wonderland” resembled my pre-Collapsis acoustic songs more than anything we had worked so hard to create as a unit. But, in the end, “Wonderland” appeared as track six on the album.
When Dirty Wake came out, it did fairly well. The album’s single, “Automatic” went to #28 on the Billboard Modern Rock Charts. At its height, it passed “Maybe Someday” by the Cure, which I still have a hard time processing because I grew up listening to the Cure. Concurrent with radio promotion, Universal Music had a publishing presence that could place various songs on television shows. While “Automatic” had a well placed appearance on The West Wing (see the bar scene in “Mr. Willis of Ohio”), “Wonderland” enjoyed much more interest from show runners and music directors. “Wonderland” ended up in “Beer Bad,” which has the distinction of being the worst Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode of all time, and in an episode of Felicity. Whether Collapsis fans found “Wonderland” from “Automatic” being played incessantly on the radio or through diligent inquiry as to what they heard on their favorite tv show, “Wonderland” became a Collapsis staple.
The opening line of Wonderland is “Holly made an angel in the snow,” so naturally it was a winner among women named Holly. In particular, women named Holly who met their betrothed at a Collapsis show really, really, really loved the song. Starting five years or so after Collapsis broke up, I began receiving wedding singer inquiries. At first I didn’t know what to expect. Being a wedding singer wasn’t how I planned to spend my 30s, but sometimes you take what you can get.
And so, if you were willing to pay $500 for my appearance fee, I obliged. But sometimes the bride wasn’t named Holly and the fiancé asked me to change Holly’s name to the bride’s name. I refused to do that. So, Tammy, Katie, Kelly, Martha, Sara, Cindy, Shannon, and Mary were shit out of luck. But if your name was Holly, Holli, or Hollie and you loved “Wonderland,” your wedding day just got better. Most of the time, the fiancé just asked me to participate in either the wedding ceremony or in the reception. But, on this one very memorable occasion, the fiancé asked me to surprise his bride by hiding before the first dance and then, instead of the album version of “Wonderland” being the track for the first dance, I would pop out of the DJ booth and play the song live.
The wedding venue was an old timey garden house that had been nicely renovated. It was long and had low ceilings. The renovations had included adding a kitchen, several power receptacles, and wainscoting. When I arrived at the venue, the wedding planner fluttered around and was taking care of 10 things at once. She found me and said, “Oh, you, you’ll wait in here until it’s time,” pointing to the utility closet just next to the DJ booth. “You’ll need to get in there a half hour before they arrive in case someone from the wedding party gets here early,” she continued. “Ok,” I said.
$500 was a fair price for this kind of thing. Wedding vendors get away with charging a little more for their services likely because they often have to bend over backwards to make things happen a “certain” way on wedding day. With lots of moving parts that can break down, the inflated cost is a “willingness” fee, if anything. For me on this occasion, the $200 extra I charged for weddings included the willingness to wait in a tiny closet for a half hour to guarantee the surprise.
“Presenting Mr. and Mrs. So & So,” the DJ announced. That was my cue. I opened the closet door, swept down to the floor to grab the quarter inch instrument cable, plugged in, and slid over the microphone stand in the top corner of the parquet dance floor. Holly and her new husband embraced each other for the first dance and I started playing the acoustic guitar. Holly saw me and lost her shit—tears fell as her jaw dropped to the floor. Then, she open mouth kissed her new husband with a gratitude and sensuousness seldom seen. As they danced and turned, the husband eventually made eye contact with me. He gave me that “Dude, you’re the man!” point and wink that guys do from time to time nowadays.
I like to think that maybe they held each other a little tighter during that first dance than they would have if I hadn’t been there. Maybe when shit went south ten years or so from then, as it almost always does, this moment would be what kept them together.
After the dance and entrance festivities subsided, everyone settled in for a nice meal. I sat at a table on the periphery and was welcomed to stay as long as I liked. My policy was to hang out for a half-hour or so and then hit the road so I could get home at a reasonable hour. Sometimes these gigs were 300 miles away. As I finished my meal and gathered Red, the wedding planner pulled me aside and said, “You have an amazing voice! Have you ever thought about trying out for American Idol?” “Thank you. I’m glad I could be of service,” I said shaking her hand while walking to the exit. I wasn’t up for explaining to her that, while I didn’t look it, I was already five years too old for American Idol. And, believe it or not, making Holly's jaw drop on her wedding day meant more to me than winning a talent show ever could.