Jason Mendelson’s favorite art teacher once told him he could find art in anything.
So it would be interesting to see what that instructor might think 20 years later of Mendelson’s latest undertaking.
The 32-year-old musician, who works by day as a tax analyst at AOL, is writing a song to capture the essence of every station in Washington’s Metrorail system. Eighty-six tunes in all.
“It’s the last thing anyone would think about being inspired by,” Mendelson said one recent night before a non-Metro-related gig at Clarendon Grill. But that, he said, is part of the challenge.
“My main vision is to build more awareness and appreciation for transit,” he said.
But between broken escalators, service delays and budget cuts, even he says Metro isn’t making his mission easy.
“He’s new to the area and thus new to Metro,” a commenter wrote on the Unsuck DC Metro blog, which did a piece about Mendelson this month. “I’m looking forward to hearing how dark his lyrics become once he starts composing Red Line songs. By the time he starts Green, I fully expect him to be strung out on heroin.”
But Mendelson, who began the project in November, said he will not be deterred. Tall and thin with close-cropped brown hair and stylish rectangular glasses, he admits his affection for the transit system might be partly attributable to the fact that he and his wife recently moved to Alexandria from Tampa. The only convenient way to get around there is by car. In his first few weeks in the Washington area, Mendelson said, he loved being able to travel by rail.
Although others may scoff at the idea of Metro inspiring anything but cursing, it turns out that Mendelson is one of a number of area residents who are finding inspiration in the transit system.
A group of theater students at American University recently staged “See Something, Say Something” — a Metro-inspired docudrama. And who can forget Arlington County-based rapper GoRemy, whose inspired “Metro Song” rap — 468,693 views on YouTube and counting — continues to draw guffaws. Washington Post pop music critic Chris Richards found music in Metro’s aging escalators.
Metro officials say they can see how people might be inspired by the system.
“If you look at Metro, Metro is the fabric of the region,” said agency spokesman Steven Taubenkibel. “Metro evokes passion and inspires creativity in people who use it on a daily basis.”
Mendelson always loved music. He got his start playing trombone in the fifth grade but switched to guitar and piano in high school when he realized girls weren’t really into trombone players. He majored in mathematics and music at the University of Tampa and in his spare time played in a local band, It Rhymes With Orange.
Although Mendelson has written several original songs, the Metro collection will be his first focusing on public transportation.
“It’s a great idea,” said Kevin Sambat, Mendelson’s bandmate in Down Wilson, the Arlington-based band for which Mendelson now plays keyboards. “Jason’s really creative, and I think he can really put the feel of every Metro stop into his songs.”
Mendelson’s goal is to give each station a unique musical sound. He has written 12 tracks — all available on his Web site, Metrosongs.org. There’s “L’Enfant Plaza” (“kind of folk, jazzy”), “Pentagon” (“impressionist”) and “Braddock Road” (“old style country.”)
He was initially going to tackle the project line by line, starting with songs about the Blue Line, but he abandoned that concept because he found it too limiting. If lyrics popped into his head during a trip on the Green Line, he wanted to be able to capture the moment. Fellow musicians occasionally help out with lyrics, vocals and instruments.
The collection is eclectic. Some tunes are about the stations, and others focus on places Mendelson visited near the stations. Sometimes he’ll riff on the commuters — as he does in “McPherson Square,” taking a couple of jabs at the K Street crowd. “Eastern Market” has references to Market Lunch’s “blue buck” pancakes and the 2007 fire that gutted the main building of the popular Capitol Hill attraction.
Although “transit rock” isn’t exactly in demand on the local music scene, Mendelson has been able to show off some of his Metro-inspired work.
This month, when Eastern Market was looking for entertainers during the cherry blossom festival, Mendelson seized on the opportunity. The gig wasn’t lucrative — Mendelson made less than $100 for playing two three-hour sets — the tax analyst was surprised at how people embraced the concept. He even received requests for station-specific songs. One passerby urged him to write a song that would capture the essence of Addison Road. He’s working on it.
Next up on his agenda? A tune about the U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo Station. Talk about a mouthful.