How I Wrote May 16, By Lagwagon's Joey Cape

Lagwagon frontman Joey Cape dives into the inspiration behind their most popular song, 1998's May 16

How I Wrote May 16, By Lagwagon's Joey Cape
Mischa Pearlman

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Lagwagon’s May 16 – from the band’s 1998 fifth album, Let’s Talk About Feelings – is about events that happened on that very day. Because it is – for reasons Joey himself doesn’t understand – far and away Lagwagon’s most popular song, he’s talked about it a lot over the years, explaining that it was inspired after one of his best friends got married and didn’t invite him to the wedding.

But it turns out that it’s actually a bit more complicated than that, as Joey explains below, especially seeing as the pair did later patch things up. Joey has no idea if his friend has ever heard May 16, but, given how many people have heard it, he can’t imagine that he hasn’t. Which makes it all that much more awkward…

“When you write a song about something, it’s often about something very specific in your personal, and if people respond to it, there’s the possibility that you’re going to have to discuss it over and over. But when you originally write a song, it’s like a letter that’s mysterious that you’ve written specifically for someone who wronged you or hurt you – in some cases. And it’s just enough. It’s just the right amount.

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“But then every time you discuss it afterwards – in the case of May 16, because it’s a song I’ve spoken about the lyrics to so many times – I feel like if that person has read or seen or heard all of these words that I have spent on this subject, he’d think that the next stop was a gun and me in a car on my way to kill him. So that’s something interesting about the song – that it may not warrant every discussion.

“That said, I’ll tell you what the song’s about. I had a very close friend who I would consider what we might call a best mate for many, many years. We grew up together. And it’s a pretty complicated situation, but at the time I was seeing someone who was unfaithful with multiple other people, and it was a really bad time for me. And this friend of mine was someone who was very much in love and things were going great for him but not so great for me."

“When I found out this person was unfaithful, I kind of lost it. We were living together at the time and I came into the place where we were living and [my friend’s] partner was there, and I think I had a bat in my hand and I was drunk and I was planning to just go to the houses of these supposed friends of mine who were doing this horribly unforgivable thing to me. I was just out of my mind and I needed to be talked down by a close friend. And instead what I got was ‘I can’t believe you didn’t know this’ and blah blah blah.

“So I left, and another friend of mine sort of helped me out. And this friend that I wrote the song about, he returned home from work or something and the best understanding I have is that she said to him ‘Joey came by and screamed at me and said all this stuff to me.’ None of which happened. I was a mess, and she turned into a thing that destroyed our relationship, on top of everything else that was happening.

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“Fast-forward to a year or so later, and I had this one night stand with this person, and I end up in her apartment in this other city nearby. I wake up, as you do in these situations, just like ‘Woah! What have I done?!’ Anyway, she lives adjacent to a park and the window is open, and I hear all this racket in the park and there’s a song playing. It’s a great song, but a typical wedding song where you take a classic song and add strings or whatever, and I think ‘Oh, that’s pretty’ and I get out of bed and look out the window and there is my friend getting married. And the day was May 16. And it was just crushing. But there was a guitar in the corner, so I picked up the guitar and started writing the song and it just started coming out of me."

“I didn’t write the whole thing there, but that was the catalyst, for lack of a better word. But it’s difficult to continue discussing it, because many years later, we became friends again and patched things up without discussion. We actually made a record together and became pretty close again.

“But I get asked about this song a lot, and we’ve sort of drifted apart again. And I’ve spoken about it enough now that there’s no mystery here – if he’s ever read any interview where I’ve talked about the song, he knows that I wrote the song about him and it’s our biggest, most popular song. It’s a very transparent song, especially to that person, so I’m guessing he would know and if so, I don’t know if I want to have that conversation. He might point out some of the fallacies in my song. I’ve been singing it a long time – it’s a big part of who I am, so it’s probably best left undiscussed.”

Lagwagon's new record, Railer, is out now on Fat Wreck Chords

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