—by Shawn Levy
You hear it before you see it – before you see the stadium, even.
The drums; the horns; the voices.
My God: the voices....
Thousands of them, singing, in unison – and not just ditties, but complex melodies with call-and-response parts and choruses and veritable cascades of words.
With all our friends now!
Up to the city!
We're gonna shake the gates of Hell!
And we do: We shake those gates.
The Timbers Army is renowned for its colorful, ingenious tifo displays, for its immense, cheerful traveling cohorts, for its truckloads of handsome, iconic merch, for its staggering efforts in charity and community engagement, and for its sheer, overwhelming size.
But the first way folks get to know the Timbers Army is through the ears: the 90-plus minutes of non-stop chanting that comes out of the North End or whatever corner of a faraway ground has been turned into the North End for an away day.
The Timbers Army does lots of things. But mainly: It sings.
OUR SINGING/DRUMMING/TOOTING HEROES
The TA has always been the noisiest bit of the stadium, whatever stadium it's in, whether that meant 2003's few dozen singers and a couple of pickle barrels, or today's massive bank of thousands of standing chanters, 8 large drums, and a handful of trumpets.
Well, let's take a moment to celebrate that glorious sound, to commend the capos, drummers, and trumpeters who help us make it, to talk about how we developed this remarkable musical culture, and to help us move it forward, with new chants, new energies, and new enthusiasm.
We justly celebrate our tifo, our merch, our good works, and our size.
But when it comes to the doings of our capos, drummers and trumpeters, we've been relatively silent.
Perhaps this is because we all
participate (or should
) in making the sound of the TA. Perhaps because it's because we understand (or think we do) what a capo or drummer does more clearly than we understand the workings of the tifo or merch operations (for the record: no one
understands a trumpeter). Perhaps it's because we were once harassed by a capo for not singing. Perhaps it's because Pong.
But, seriously: Let's give it up for the band.
- The Timbers Army is the largest body of dedicated 90-minute singers in the U.S. and Canada, easily...and without making any claims, I would be curious to see how it would rank in Mexico.
- We have a massive repertoire of songs, and even though we've developed a set list, we have a very diverse sound throughout a match. (A catalog compiled in 2010 identified 161 chants that had been sung in the North End, and most would've been easy to launch again at any moment.)
- We are LOUD.
And we couldn't be any of those things without the work of the capos and the drums and trumpets, or DnT as they self-dub.
Every single thing we sing was once devised by a capo and/or drummer – or by someone who was effectively serving as one back in the day. A number of our capos, drummers, and trumpeters have worked HUNDREDS of matches, some of them going back almost a decade – a contribution of, in some cases, 1000-plus hours. And, for the record, even though they're helping create the atmosphere and missing much of the match, they all pay for their own tickets and travel (full disclosure, they do get bottles of water from the front office at home matches, management stooges that they are....).
And they work
those matches, yo. 90-plus minutes of drumming, singing, exhorting, jumping, keeping the energy up by example, responding to the action on the pitch or to the vibe in the stands by tweaking the playlist: It's a job, let me tell you. I have nothing but respect for the folks who put in those brutal hours, at the expense of watching the pitch, at the cost of knees and shoulders and vocal cords, without a sou of compensation or, usually, a word of thanks.
So: to my brothers and sisters in the capo stands and the DnT pit: Our heartfelt gratitude. You fucking rock. Hard
. And I, for one, am proud to be a (retired) member of your tribe.
A (NOT SO) BRIEF HISTORY OF CHANTS AND CAPOS (feel free to skip if the history of Our Thing isn't your thing)
And while we're taking the long view: How did we get to have capos in the first place?
Back in the earliest days, when the Timbers Army could only sort-of fill the bottom of Section 107, there were no capos. Or, rather, everyone was his or her own capo: Moved to song, you would simply wait for a moment of quiet and belt out one of the standards, or something you'd worked up at home or in the pub, or something you concocted on the spot, and it would be picked up by those around you, or not, and it ended when it ended.
There were a few melodies in the repertoire that persist today: “Portland Boys,” “We! Are! Timbers Army!,” “Build a Bonfire,” “Go Home You Bums,” and “Rose City Till I Die” among them. But there weren't rituals such as “Heeeeeeey Portland Timbers!” at kickoff or “You Are My Sunshine” in the 80th minute, and there were no capo stands. There was only one drummer – the aptly named Drumman – who was always there, albeit with a mere snare drum. There was General Timber Howie (for whom Bless Field would one day be named) with a small gong. There was a trumpeter, Lazorrobots, who could play through anything. There were a couple of cowbell jockeys. There were (ahem) claves.
DnT in Tukwila, circa 2005
In that atmosphere, and at that size, it was easy to shift from singing a longish chant to singing some sort of response to the match – say, celebrating a specific player's contribution, raining disdain upon an opponent, or wondering aloud about the sensory acuity of the referee. (Thus did the celebrated chants for, among others, Scot Thompson, Josh Wicks, and Tommy Poltl gain traction and immortality.)
The nearest thing to a capo back then was Timber Jim, who had a large tom drum and led the TA in “T-I-M-B-E-RRRRRRRR-S” chant, which was always extremely
loud. (Check this
out: 2007, and ONE GUY with ONE DRUM leading it: absolute chills as I type....)
The song that became our first canonical scheduled chant was, fittingly, introduced by Jim: “You Are My Sunshine,” sung to the TA by Jim in late 2004 in gratitude for the outpouring of love and support after his daughter Hannah's death and cemented into ritual in the very moment of its birth by a ridiculous backheeled goal
scored by Fadi Afash WHILE the TA were sobbingly singing. (My boy Totalnerd has told this story quite beautifully here
At the time, there were several folks who took up the mantle of singing first and loudest – sort-of capos – including myself, Finnegan, and Pong, sometimes standing on a chair or at the bottom of a staircase to better coordinate things, which was becoming more difficult as the section of chanters grew and melodies took a while to launch.
But we didn't have a proper capo-capo until September 2005, when a guy named Liam Murtaugh came from Chicago and showed us how they did things there.
Liam didn't know many of us, and he barely knew our chants. But he had come to teach us something useful. Once the match got underway, he stood up on a seat near the front of 107 with his back to the match and spent the better part of a half leading us in song. He capoed us.
We watched, as Vladimir Mayakovsky put it, “as an Eskimo gapes at a train.” There were those who preferred the older model of spontaneity, but the regular, geometric expansion of the Timbers Army suggested that we needed a way of coordinating ourselves. We had seen a future, and capos, we decided, were it.
More history, more growth, more capos, and more songs
– including new ones that you can help write
Shawn Levy capoed the North End on and off from 2006-2012 and has led the TA in LA, New England, Denver, Seattle, Vancouver, Columbus, and (heh) Guyana. Among the melodies he contributed to the TA songbook are “Bella Ciao,” “If You're Not Jumping,” and “Does Your Mom Go?” These days he sings next to the drums in 106 and serves on the board of Operation Pitch Invasion.