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I Was on a Compilation CD With Don McGahn in College

A DC punk veteran discovers he shares a musical past with the former White House counsel.

Don McGahn. Photograph by Gage Skidmore.

There’s really nothing more ’90s than being on an obscure compilation CD. And perhaps there’s nothing more 2019 than being from the DC area and having a bizarre, tangential relationship the Trump administration.

Yesterday, while commenting on a post on Facebook from Jon Wurster (of Superchunk and Best Show fame), an old college radio chum alerted me to the fact that Don McGahn, President Trump’s OG White House Counsel and purveyor of fine ’80s cover tunes in Scott’s New Band, has a solo song on the Jericho Sessions CD. Yes, the Don McGahn who Trump tried to pressure into firing Robert Mueller.

The Jericho Sessions, compiled by campus radio station manager Kevin Flaherty, AKA “Stooge,” and Christopher D. Walter collected the finest original tunes from University of Notre Dame campus bands from the innocent (grunge-hadn’t-quite-broken-yet) year of 1991. McGahn was graduating with his History/Computer Applications BA at Notre Dame. The disc, a project for the student-run station WVFI, wasn’t widely released.

The thing is…I, too, am on the Jericho Sessions CD. Twice, in fact. My band Chisel has a song on it–a strange “radio-friendly” mix from our first studio session, done cheaply overnight at Arlington’s Inner Ear Studios that we failed to audition before submitting. Having just heard it for the first time in years, I think it’s actually all right if you like energetic music that’s not sure if it wants to be early Buffalo Tom or early Dag Nasty. I also lent some session drumming to the political goth punk band Doghaus’s “Censorship Is a Lie,” a song which is at least saying something. It’s saying “I am an artist and I must be free.” Much of the Jericho Sessions is a bit of a slog, but it’s an entertaining and goofy slog—except when it’s college-joker-offensive, as it is on a song called “Autistic for the Night.”

Don McGahn’s contribution, “Hide Away,” is a synth-heavy, pop-metal power ballad that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bon Jovi album or the soundtrack for Iron Eagle. The rhythm track is a bit clunky, but otherwise it does sound like something that could be on the radio. In 1990. The lyrics are bland and generic heartfelt material, but he sings in key. It’s a well-constructed conventional rock song. And McGahn shreds on the solo, cramming numerous tasty late-’80s-style licks into just a few seconds. It’s all craft and technique—without offering much passion.

I spoke with Flaherty, who works in the music businesses in Los Angeles today, fishing for any memories of interaction with McGahn. “I think he played solo. I do have a vague memory that he was very quiet. And when you listen to it, it’s eerily reminiscent of Winger’s “Miles Away.” I think [the Winger song] was a charting hit. And it came out the year before.”

We listened to the Jericho Sessions a lot, often while drinking. It was college.

The compilation is a time capsule of the early ’90s at a respectable and often demanding Catholic university, where everyone you met was salutatorian and lettered in three sports in high school, and people rarely said anything mean-spirited or ever seemed to get in too much trouble. Couples talked about getting married. Even the campus Wiccans followed football here. Raghib “Rocket” Ismail threw the frisbee on the quad and my Stussy-clad bandmate Ted Leo acted as hype man for pancake-eating contests at the North Dining Hall. That probably doesn’t sound too much like the decadent Bennington College of Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt (no football team, losers!), but one of my poly-sci classmates did show an interest in dating our Nietszche professor and another ended up as the poet laureate of Mississippi. Another one wrote the script for the movie version of Land of the Lost. So literary greats and sex, check, check.

At Notre Dame in 1991, one could study just war theory during the day, attend an SYR (screw your roommate) dance with a stranger at night and drink too much with your new best pals in your dorm room. If the weather was nasty, and it often was, you could cultivate romance while cramming for finals within the foggy-windowed library with the blessing of Touchdown Jesus. And on that first day of spring, the quad at Notre Dame was miraculous. There was political activity, but it wasn’t a highly politicized campus. A guy in our dorm managed state house races for the GOP. Yes, he did this during college from his dorm room. Our band played a “Dump Bush” rally on the quad the next year, which featured me delivering an impassioned foreign policy screed between songs–that’s not on Bandcamp.

But in true Fighting Irish fashion, rather than consider what separates Don McGahn and I (a lot I would guess), it’s more worthwhile to consider what we had in common in the Jericho Sessions days. We both found that to survive and thrive at “Catholic Disneyland” in (not much of a college town) South Bend it was essential to rock and roll, to make music and document it–however inconvenient it was. We came from the East and we brought our semi-pro gear, semi-pro attitude with us. We didn’t quite fit the sporty-preppy mold.

Look at the insert to the Jericho Sessions—there’s Don in the center proudly sporting his ax, and just to his left, I’m banging the kit in a dorm basement. Both of us need a haircut.

John Dugan is a writer who lives in Chicago. His Northern Virginia punk band from the late ’80s, Indian Summer, will play a reunion show at VFW Post 9274 (7118 Shreve Rd) in Falls Church on August 3. Doors at 7 PM.

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