FAKE PLASTIC TREES by David Lawton Part of our Superunknown: Stories About Songs series



I was biding my time, having fallen into one of those office affairs unexpectedly, after more than fifty years without one. We were simply drawn to each other. We talked about music and kissed. Played each other what moved us and fell into bed. Tried to get tickets to Radiohead’s first world tour in years, but they were sold out the morning they went on sale. Fucking scalpers. We had a secret life where we were happy. Then things got stressful at work, clashing with our secret. She said we had to stop. Which made us both unhappy. So we decided to run away to another city on Radiohead’s tour. We took the bus down separately and met there. But it turned out she had also invited her brother to fly in from their hometown. He stared at me like I wasn’t for real. And I suddenly didn’t know whether I was either. A fifty something year old man reaching his arms out at the crowd of Gen-Xers just coming into their midlife paunch, swaying back and forth. Together.



Thom Yorke wrote it on one of those solitary drunken nights when songs are born. A mini-breakdown. I don’t know the specific story. I don’t know the guy. I just know he feels. He was already in the relationship that would become his wife. We all know what it does to us. When he wrote the words, he said they made him laugh. But the record company wanted a radio hit to follow up the unexpected success of their single Creep, and thought this was it. They envisioned an overblown arena approach the band resisted. When their producer asked for a take of the tune, Thom had a bit of a meltdown. He claimed it was the long day in the studio, but maybe that mini-breakdown that birthed the song was fighting back. They sent the rest of the band home, and Thom recorded a guide track with just guitar. Three takes in total. Then he crumbled to the floor.



I find myself drawn back to the song. We are both still in the same office, but we don’t talk about it. I see the video on the YouTube, and I have to play it. A fan wrote in the comments that when they were in the ninth grade, their English teacher had given them an assignment to present a song in front of the class. She said that there was a girl named Ellen with long black hair that she wore hanging in her face. She got up before the class and put on the song and broke straight down and cried. The class sitting there awkwardly as the song played out. And now, whenever this fan hears the song, she can only think of Ellen, blubbering so hard, she can’t get out a word. And some dude complained in the chat that now he will only be able to think of Ellen. That’s how I feel too, but I only complain about it sometimes. We all know what it does to us. It’s right there in the chorus.                             All the time.