The Toll

John Jeremiah Sullivan

My one claim to fame is I went to the same Ohio high school as the guys in the band The Toll.
The Toll was (were? are?) considered the biggest thing ever to have come out of that school.
I went there ten years after they did, which meant I was going there right when they blew up,
Or rather when the series of events that was meant to have been their blowing up took place.
We’re talking about the period from 1988 to ’92, years of the Gulf War and birth of the Web.
During those years the band lived in a warehouse right down the street from our high school.
But of course they were touring a lot and treated the warehouse as their headquarters mainly.
A guy I was friends with knew them. He took me there once. The band was somewhere else.
There was so much gear, every piece stenciled in white with the name of the band, The Toll.
A reporter in Pittsburgh asked the lead singer, Brad Circone, why they had chosen that name.
“We want to pay the toll for what society has forgotten to do: humanize one another,” he said.
Another reporter asked Circone about his lyrics-writing process, and Circone replied this way:
“One night after fasting for a couple of days and reading as much literature as I could absorb,
I began narrating.” The Toll manifested a quality best described as ecstatic pretentiousness.
They are remembered today, if at all, for having made one of the longest videos ever on MTV.
The video is for “Jonathan Toledo,” a song about the mistreatment of Native American tribes.
The opening lyrics of the song are delivered in spoken-word style by Circone, who mumbles,
“Slavery under the government in America.” This he leaves hanging there, as a named thing.
“All funds for this proceed will go nowhere,” he says, then, “Maybe into your consciousness.”
Jonathan Toledo is a real person. He ran a plumbing company in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Circone dated Toledo’s daughter. So the song is named for the lead singer’s girlfriend’s dad.
The Toledo family belonged to the Jemez Indian tribe. That’s all anybody knows about them.
The chorus of the song is triumphant, anthemic, glorious, catchy, rousing, all of those words.
Nobody has ever had the vaguest idea what the words mean, not even the hardest-core fans.
“Jonathan Toledo made his home in New Mexico,” it begins, straightforwardly and obscurely.
That repeats once. After it there’s another line, “Nineteenth Sunday, this is the rose, let it go.”
The Albuquerque Journal predicted the song “should hit a nerve with many New Mexicans.”
I remember the way we used to chant those lines at Toll concerts at the Newport Music Hall,
Which were the first real rock shows that I ever attended. We would pump our fists in the air.
“Nineteenth Sunday, this is the rose! Let it go! Nineteenth Sunday, this is the rose! Let it go!”
The way we chanted along, it was as if we were ready to go to war for whatever that meant.
Circone often grew intense onstage. The label signed them on the strength of their live shows.
He had been a wrestler in high school and even played some college football, very physical.
His moves as a performer were often compared to those of Jim Morrison, a thing he resented.
“The Toll could be one of the great American bands,” said an A&R man, Michael Rosenblatt.
I don’t know if Rosenblatt was heavy into cocaine, but it would help to account for his words.
A critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer described the first record as “so unremittingly annoying,
“So ostentatiously pretentious, so utterly lacking in anything approaching a sense of humor,
“That this album exerts a certain fascination,” and implored his readers, “Don’t pay this Toll.”
In mid-October of 1988 an unfortunate accident happened at a Pittsburgh club called Graffiti.
Circone climbed onto a balcony and fell and broke his foot. The fall tour had to be postponed.
The delay lasted months, too many for marketing’s sake. The album sank and didn’t resurface.
When we graduated high school we were still waiting for them to become the next something.
Here’s a bit of Toll trivia: Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs produced the band’s demo.
If I were a journalist I might find a way to get in touch with him and ask how that happened.
As it is I only scratched around online a little, out of idle “Where are they now?” curiosity.
Circone appears to be still living in Ohio. He has re-branded himself as a brand consultant.
He was always good at branding, it turned out. Consider how he built The Toll into a brand.
They had the one song, he and his cousin the guitarist, with words no one really understands.
Because of the boldness and distinctiveness of the manner in which the song was delivered,
How many thousands of people remember them, both words and band? Several thousands.
A thousand people lined up outside in the winter wind of central Ohio in the earliest nineties,
Singing about this Jemez man named Jonathan Toledo who made his home in New Mexico.
Nineteenth Sunday, this is the rose! Let it go! Nineteenth Sunday, this is the rose! Let it go!
Nineteenth Sunday, this is the rose! Let it go! Nineteenth Sunday, this is the rose! Let it go!

John Jeremiah Sullivan is a writer for The New York Times Magazine. His work appears there and in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and other publications. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he co-founded the non-profit research initiative Third Person Project.
Originally published:
December 6, 2022

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