Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Hilary Hughes takes us to Boston where two musicians take an annual midnight ride on the eve of the Boston Marathon.
“I don’t know who you are! I don’t know where you think you’re going! But YOU ARE ALL A BUNCH OF ASSHOLES!”
We’ve been in the car for less than 10 minutes, and Doug Orey and Nick Murphy have spent the beginning of our drive ribbing each other through the haze of their hangovers. Doug’s doing an impression of the grizzly old lady who hurled insults and shook her fist out the passenger window of a Jeep somewhere inside city limits at the beginning of the Midnight Ride. The lady was incensed at the group of bikers they belonged to, despite the fact that they were very much sticking to the rules of the road, and all they could do—and would continue to do a week later—was laugh. Doug’s geriatric finger-wagging has Nick in stitches. These guys are good at cracking each other up, especially if faking a Boston accent is involved.
“That was pretty fun!” Doug says. We just passed the spot on Beacon Street where Jeep Grandma had spoken her mind. “We were all confined to one line, but Beacon is two lanes at that point, and they just kept on laying on the horn. It’s like, move into the left lane and go around us! We’re allowed to be in the road the way we are right now! No need to be a dick.”
On this particular Saturday afternoon, the two friends have borrowed Nick’s girlfriend’s car to retrace their steps, or, more accurately, their tire treads, and this is why Jeep Grandma comes up. The week before, Doug and Nick had strapped on their helmets, hopped on their bikes, ridden from Somerville to downtown Boston, and met up with a group of cyclists that rode from Boston Common to Hopkinton on the eve of the Boston Marathon. The route—65 miles that snaked through city streets and over the pothole-ridden hills of Bostonian suburbs—was a variation on the one that runners and cycling aficionados set out to complete year in and year out, a trip they weren’t even sure would be possible given the circumstances and heightened security surrounding the Marathon this year.
Before the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon, the Midnight Ride began near the Marathon’s starting line in Hopkinton; the Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority provided a special Commuter Rail train to the bikers, stacking several cars with bikes and their riders before setting off in the direction of Mile One. Things are different now, and the MBTA didn’t think it was a great idea to facilitate the ride by offering up the biker train. The Midnight Ride was all but squashed for the first time since 2009, and Doug and Nick—along with several other bikers—decided to take on an alternative challenge and double the trek by riding to Hopkinton and back. They weren’t alone.
“For something like 33 bucks, you could put your bike on a moving truck, and then you would just buy your Commuter Rail ticket and take it to Southborough,” says Doug. “There were a couple of different groups that just rented school or charter buses. There are some college clubs and stuff that’ll do the ride together… but we all met up at the Common and essentially rode the entire route backwards to the starting line. We missed a turn, and we actually ended up at the starting line on accident. We weren’t supposed to ride from there.”
Doug and Nick spend about as much time with their bikes as they do their guitars. They met when their bands, Velah and The Field Effect, wound up playing on the same bill at Radio, a small rock club down the street from both their houses in Somerville. Instead of taking the T to their day jobs or to band practice, both Doug and Nick prefer to ride, and New England’s mercurial, merciless weather rarely keeps them at bay. When it’s nice out, they’re both partial to the Mass Ave. Bridge, the broad stretch over the Charles that cuts the Boston skyline in half and offers a killer view of the Citgo Sign. Like the rest of Middlesex County’s landscape, Somerville sits nestled between a number of hills, and the bridges they have to cross to get to work downtown provide daily obstacle courses in the form of maniacal drivers and gale-force winds courtesy of the city’s Atlantic-hugging shoreline. Still, Doug and Nick like to ride, and their bikes bring them to the office, to shows, to Red Sox games, and to the Fort Point brewery they both frequent in snow, sleet, rain or shine. It’s cheap. It’s a solid workout. And it’s certainly better than the goddamn T.
They don’t listen to music when they’re on their bikes, partially for safety’s sake—Doug had his earbuds in when he was hit by a car in Cambridge last year—and partially because their trips provide some much-needed headspace for their music in between destinations.
“I work through my parts in my head when I’m on the bike,” says Nick. “If a part of a song is bugging me, going on a bike ride will clear my head so that I can suss some stuff out.” In Velah, Nick croons, screams until his voice grows hoarse and cuts through his dense, dizzying ruminations on guitar, so it’s no surprise that his moments are filled with measures and downbeats, even when his ears are open. As we cross into Newton, Nick opens the glove compartment and starts shuffling around through the CDs inside. Ryan Adams it is. They both crack a smile when “Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.” comes on. “STAB ME IN THE EYE WITH THE FUCKING EMPIRE STATE BUILDING OH MY GOOOOOOD!” Nick’s take on Adams is pretty good; Doug chuckles. “You got the live version of this that I sent you, right?” “The one where he freaks out? Yeah.”
“Sometimes, when we were doing our first record, I would listen to new mixes while we were riding,” says Doug. The Field Effect—which got its beginnings at the Berklee College of Music, where all of the members met and found musical kismet—is big on blowing your eardrums out one power chord/tortured lyric/sustained scream at a time. “When I do ride without headphones, or if my phone dies, or whatever, if I’ve been working on a particular song and I have a melody but I don’t necessarily have words, I’ll just be running through random shit in my head and something will pop up.”
When Nick rode home from work on the day of the Marathon last year, he wasn’t thinking about anything but the fact that he needed to get out of Boston before they closed the bridges, because nothing was certain in the calamity that unfurled after 2pm. Nick was worried that he’d be stuck in the city, blocked from the Longfellow, the ancient, brick bridge that looks like a bunch of salt and pepper shakers all lined up in a row and connects Beacon Hill and Cambridge. The Longfellow shoulders up against Massachusetts General Hospital, the closest trauma center to the blasts and the destination for those gravely injured on Boylston Street. It’s also where those runners who finished wound up when they wanted to give blood in the hours that followed. The bridge didn’t close, and Nick rode over the aftermath on the way home.
Doug, thankfully, wasn’t at work on Marathon Monday in 2013, but he was never at work on Marathon Monday, anyway: Doug worked at Berklee, whose offices look out onto the final stretch of the Marathon route on Boylston before the Marathon. The office was always closed on Marathon Monday, and last year, Doug had slept in until 2 after taking the train out to Southborough and completing his first Midnight Ride.
We’ve reached Hopkinton at this point, where Doug and Nick accidentally stumbled upon the starting line of the Marathon. We take a minute on the side of the road, take a couple of goofy pictures, and stare at the bright blue and gold painted banner. It feels right to pause for a second before we get back in the car and start driving the route for real.
It’s impossible to talk about the Marathon without referring to the tragedy that changed the course of its history, or that of any conversation about it from that point forward; it’s also impossible to forget the very human traits that make the Marathon the revered event it is in the first place, to discount the enthusiasm brought forth by the people who cheer the runners (and even the Midnight Riders) on. Doug’s a Bostonian transplant, a guy from Maryland who came to Boston to go to music school and try his shot at living the dream, and he’s got his own personal connections to those bricks on Boylston Street and the neighborhood that became his stomping ground. Nick grew up watching the Marathon from the sidelines by Boston College alongside his dad, a marathoner himself, and his grandfather, who looked forward to cheering the runners at Heartbreak Hill, the grueling uphill slog around mile 20 of the route.
They each wanted to ride this year for their own reasons—the first and foremost being that they love cycling and the challenge the Midnight Ride provides—but it was a poignant pursuit, and especially for Nick, who carried his grandfather’s prayer card in his breast pocket from Hopkinton to home.
“He had a lot of nicknames—he was known as Big D, but another one of his nicknames was Harry The Friend—just because he’d do anything for anyone,” says Nick. We’re hitting the first of the Newton Hills at this point on the way back, the ones that crush resolve and inflict shin splints and batter the runners with waves of steady inclines. “He would go to the marathon every year by himself and just cheer people on. He liked being at Heartbreak Hill. He died in June, and my Dad texted us this Opening Day, the Red Sox’s first game of the season: ‘This is the first day without Big D for Opening Day and the Marathon, and it’s going to be very weird.’ One of the reasons why I wanted to bike this year was because I had his prayer card with me. I wanted to give him one last Marathon because he loved it.”
Heartbreak Hill wasn’t easy on the bikers, either. “As much as I bike, my legs never feel heavy,” Nick says. We roll past the part of the route where a friend of Nick’s dad proposed to his girlfriend a few Marathons ago. (“Could you imagine if you run the Marathon, propose to your girlfriend on Heartbreak Hill—and then you’ve gotta run six more miles?!”) “My legs never felt tired. I remember distinctly going up this last hill and saying to Doug, ‘My legs are heavy. I can’t lift them.'” Doug laughs. “And you were the eternal pessimist. We couldn’t figure out if we’d biked Heartbreak yet. Nick kept being like, ‘I don’t think this is it! This isn’t it! We haven’t done it yet!'”
After Heartbreak Hill, it’s smooth sailing, and the landmarks become more familiar: the tracks for the T start up again in front of Boston College, the traffic gets denser when we cross back into Brookline, the Citgo Sign emerges, and Kenmore Square is soon an afterthought. We pass a fancy hotel around the corner from Newbury Street, Boston’s fashionable thoroughfare, and a guy driving a car none of us can afford takes his sweet time turning onto Mass. Ave. He’s got New York plates. We groan.
“I like making up songs when I’m on my bike about people being assholes,” says Nick. “‘Can’t even wait for the crosswalk sign!’ Once this guy stepped out in front of me, when I was on my bike, and he goes, ‘Easy there, cowboy!’ and I didn’t have a good retort until like 10 minutes later. ‘Yippe ki-yay, motherfucker!’ You know that episode of Seinfeid, where George is like, ‘The jerk store called! They’re all outta YOU!'”
The giggles subside by the time we get to the homestretch, the final bend before Boylston Street. During the Marathon, the runners make their way down Commonwealth Avenue before turning onto Hereford Street. As the starting line had been off limits to the Midnight Riders in Hopkinton, Doug and Nick had assumed that they wouldn’t be able to get close to the finish line when they eventually got there after 2am on the morning of the Marathon. When they saw some bikers ahead of them make the final turn—a turn they’d assumed would be blocked off—they followed, and they made their way to Boylston Street.
“So, the saying is ‘Right on Hereford, left on Boylston: that’s when you know you’re home,'” says Nick. “I’m probably never going to run a Marathon. I don’t like running. We didn’t think either of us would be able to do it. We were bummed that we weren’t going to be able to go onto Boylston. We just thought it was going to be blocked off. We were able to go and take a right on Hereford and a left on Boylston, and I started tearing up—not because of, you know, ‘Boston Strong!’ or anything, but there’s a lot of weight that comes with taking that left. So many people have done that before. It was a nice heavy for me, to be able to do that. It was a nice surprise, because I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it that night.”
Security was tight, as they were setting up the barricades and bleachers for the race that would draw runners by the thousands in just a few hours. Apparently, the cops were cool with Doug and Nick riding as close to the finish line as we could. When we drove over that painted stretch over the wounded piece of Boylston Street, we cheered, but it was merely a faint echo compared with the elation the guys felt when they lifted their bikes above their heads at the end of the ride. It would’ve been ideal to cross that iconic marker after traversing 65 miles of pavement driving the route twice over. It was cool, though. They were happy that they got to make the trip at all, let alone twice.
“The feeling I get when I take my bike apart, and put it back together, and go for a ride knowing that I built this bike with my own hands?” says Doug. “I get a similar feeling of accomplishment after I finish a song: I created this, and it exists now, and it didn’t before, because I made it. I take that kind of pride in my bike. I ordered all the parts and read blogs and researched it and talked to friends and went to shops, and through a lot of trial and error, I ended up with this bike that I have now. And I feel really strange if I go a day without riding a couple of miles, at least. It’s the same thing with music. I kind of lose my mind if I go a day without picking up my guitar.”
“Finishing the ride, that was such a high,” says Nick. We’re back in Brookline where we started; we switched the CD to Paramore a long time ago, and Ryan Adams is no longer screaming about the Empire State Building over the car stereo. “It’s kind of like the same sort of high you get after playing a really awesome show. Those two are the same thing. It’s just a feeling of accomplishment. It’s a different accomplishment—one’s physical, one’s not—but it’s the same amazing feeling.”