Jason Mendelson has a wife, two cats and a charming little bungalow in Alexandria. He prefers tea over coffee, keeps his collection of Rickenbacker guitars in pristine condition and spends his days as a senior manager at AOL, ensuring that the company complies with tax laws in roughly 10,000 state and local jurisdictions in the United States.
In other words, he leads a pretty typical suburban Washington life.
Typical, except that Mendelson, 38, devoted 6 1/2 years of his life to writing songs about each and every station in the 118-mile Metro system. That’s eight albums and 91 tracks.
He finished the quixotic quest in April.
“I’ve always known this was probably the only thing I’ve ever done that would get significant recognition, and not finishing would be a complete embarrassment,” Mendelson said.
The Unsuck DC Metro blog chronicled the undertaking with this Onionesque headline: “Area Man Aims to Write a Song about Every Metro Station.”
“I’m looking forward to hearing how dark his lyrics become once he starts composing Red Line songs,” one commenter wrote on the post. “By the time he starts Green, I fully expect him to be strung out on heroin.”
Metro Songs did not land Mendelson in rehab, and at $5 for a CD, it certainly did not make him rich. But it did teach him, and the folks he pulled into his orbit over the course of nearly seven years, that inspiration can be found in the oddest of places.
“You just don’t think of the Metro as a creative spark,” said Faith Hayden, a singer and one of Mendelson’s frequent collaborators, who for years braved the vagaries of the Red Line when she traveled from Shady Grove to Farragut North for her job in downtown D.C. “Sometimes it takes an outsider to see more.”
Musician Matthew James Scott heard about the project long before he met Mendelson. “I thought, ‘That’s crazy, what’s that about?’ ” he recalled. But Scott said that when he and Mendelson finally met, it helped them bond, as two guys who could appreciate Metro because they came from places where public transportation was almost nonexistent.
Scott would later contribute to the Metro Songs project, playing trumpet in the band that Mendelson formed to showcase his work. Mendelson also tapped the Mississippi native, who has a background in mental health, to help him write and record the song “Congress Heights,” which chronicles the history of St. Elizabeths Hospital, the nation’s first federally operated psychiatric facility.
“He really does his homework on each of the Metro stops and tries to tell a story unique to that neighborhood,” Scott said.
Mendelson isn’t a transit geek. He couldn’t care less about rail fasteners or third-rail cover boards. Ask him about arcing insulators, and you’ll get a blank stare.
Still, as a newcomer to the area, the Tampa transplant figured Metro offered him a way to get to know the region. And much to his surprise, he quickly discovered that although people might not be interested in listening to a guy from Florida sing the blues, they were curious enough to stick around to hear him sing a song inspired by the Benning Road station. Clubs that were reluctant to book yet another cover band were willing to take a chance on the “Metro guy.”
“I picked the right gimmick,” he said with a shrug. “Why else would people in the D.C. metro area care about some musician from Florida?”
Mendelson embraced it, even creating a giant “Wheel of Metro” to take to gigs. The wheel features station names, and audience members can spin it to determine what tracks the band plays.
Although the songs are named for Metro stations, they aren’t necessarily about them. Instead, the stations serve as springboards for Mendelson to sing about almost anything — lobbyists (“McPherson Square”), espionage (“Vienna”), young dreams (“Prince George’s Plaza”) and McMansions (“Tenleytown”). Other tracks touch on the Black Lives Matter movement (“Anacostia”) and race relations (“Greensboro”).
The logistics of getting to all 91 stations proved challenging, so Mendelson found other ways to do his research. He scoured the Web, read old newspaper stories and consulted online maps to find interesting sights within walking distance of stations. Sometimes he ventured a bit farther if there was something particularly notable, such as the Kryptos sculpture on the grounds of the CIA campus in Langley, Va. He estimates that he made it to 50 stations, not counting the ones he rode though.
He wrote on weekends and in the evenings after work, scribbling his ideas on the backs of discarded sheets of paper, using a musical shorthand only he could decipher. Since most of his desk space was taken up by drum machines and other musical toys, he used a clipboard and almost always a pen, since pencils often snapped under the intensity of his writing. And he usually had an instrument on his lap.
The 91-song collection (he added five to his list after the first phase of the Silver Line opened in 2014) includes heavy metal, jazz, techno and bossa nova. “Christmas in Fairfax County,” which references the Dunn Loring station, sounds like a classic holiday tune, and the tooting horns on “The Springfield Interchange” echo the “rush-rush” tempo of a 1950s newsreel about innovation.
The collection features collaborations with more than two dozen other musicians and groups, including the Blue Angelinas, a strings-and-clarinet quartet; and the Redskins Marching Band, on “Landover.”
In person, Mendelson, tall with a mop of stylishly highlighted curly hair, is low-key and thoughtful, economic with his words, and clearly passionate about music. It’s on stage where the showman really comes out.
On a recent Saturday, dressed casually in jeans and a gray-and-black striped button-down shirt, Mendelson was quiet and focused as he and Hayden prepared to take the stage at the Gaithersburg Book Festival. It wasn’t a big crowd — the audience included Mendelson’s wife, her friend and Hayden’s husband. But the pair weren’t fazed and performed as if every seat was filled.
“Hey, what’s up everybody?” Mendelson said with a quick wave. “I’m Jason.”
“And I’m Faith.”
“And we’re going to do some songs from a little project called ‘Metro Songs,’ ” he said.
And then they were off.
“Prince George’s Plaza,” “Shady Grove,” “Strathmore.”
Then: “We’re going to get back to the Red Line, with Tenleytown and a plea to stop building the McMansions,” Mendelson said.
Don’t you tear that old house down, here in Tenleytown.
It’s defenseless and you’re so senseless
To tear that old house down.
Joe’s toy shop is down the street so we can get there on our feet,
Our house on Albemarle is not too far.
Everything we need is here, groceries and lots of beer,
We don’t even need to use our car.
“Now we’re going to take a little trip on the Yellow Line,” he continued, breaking into “Columbia Heights.”
Toward the end of the performance, Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman joined the small crowd. He was at the festival to announce the winners of the Youth Short Story contest but paused for a few moments to listen to the music.
“Very cool,” he said, as Mendelson and Hayden wrapped things up and took their bows. “One for every stop, huh?”
Mendelson nodded and smiled.
He hopes to continue to perform his Metro Songs when he can, but after nearly seven years, it’s hard for Mendelson to believe it’s all done. (He did say, however, that he’ll write more songs when the second phase of the Silver Line opens in a few years.)
As for what comes next, he isn’t sure — except it won’t be another epic, once-in-a-lifetime project like the one he just finished.
Without Metro Songs as a framework, he said, “The challenge now is really the blank page.”
The collection is available at metrosongs.bandcamp.com.