Category Archives: THE BACK PAGE

The Back Page: Rejektor

Welcome to the club, Arcade Fire. You’ll get to like it here.

The Canadian band has always annoyed the living shit out of me. They were overpraised from the very beginning and handed Grammy awards for the kind of record that normally hopes for nothing more than a decent review in MAGNET or Pitchfork. But Arcade Fire was different, hailed as geniuses based on no evidence that I could see and granted enormous audiences based on even less.

Our worlds intersected whenever I heard them on the radio, usually on Philadelphia’s WXPN. The DJ would be gushing about this brilliant new Arcade Fire track and then would play the latest limp and boring slice of the band’s latest limp and boring CD. I would sit there trying to figure out how I could be so wrong about a band that was obviously so brilliant, so precocious, so very special. It had to be me, right?

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t hostile toward the band. When they won that Grammy for album of the year, I was incredibly happy for the people at Merge Records. They shared in that triumph, and they deserved it for their long and meritorious service in the name of punk and indie rock over many previous years. Would I have rather seen literally any other Merge band win before Arcade Fire? Well, yes, I would. But you can’t pick lottery winners. It just doesn’t work that way.

Arcade Fire won the lottery. It was luck, some combination of releasing a good record the same year the Grammy voters realized how ridiculous they looked giving their top award to Beyoncé every year. And it was a good record, about on par with maybe two dozen other albums made by rock bands that year. It just sounded fresh to a bunch of critics who need to spend about 1,000 hours re-learning the classics before writing a single new review. Those critics gave the Arcade Fire album momentum, and the Grammy folks were quick to spot that momentum and jump on the train.

Since then, the band has continued to release records and reap the benefits of that old momentum. The critics automatically cream in their jeans and hail them as geniuses. The fans automatically buy the albums and go to the concerts.

And then came Everything Now, the band’s new release. Suddenly, the critics were sharks and Arcade Fire was oozing blood into the water. Not only was the album getting killed by critics for sounding exactly like an Arcade Fire release, the band was doing all kinds of un-brilliant, un-precocious, un-special things to promote it. They famously announced an assholish dress code for their record-release party (no shorts!). Then they appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert as part of a fake promotional campaign for a fake company called Everything Now. It appeared to be a sly joke that wasn’t even remotely worth getting.

Speaking of which, Arcade Fire’s website offered the new album on a USB-compatible fidget spinner for $109. There’s a chance there was no such fidget spinner—it “sold out” almost immediately. But that was actually perfect marketing, since a fidget spinner is precisely the kind of useless piece of overpriced crap that stands as a perfect metaphor for Arcade Fire. The critics didn’t like that, either.

Here was Arcade Fire, the too-cool-for-school kids tripping all over their own dicks like idiots. Like the Replacements or something.
And suddenly, I started to like Arcade Fire.

OK, not their music so much. They still come through the speakers like tepid piss. Only now, no one is talking about how incredible I’m supposed to think they sound. The DJ plays it and moves on to something better and fresher sounding. Without all the hype, Arcade Fire is just another band trying very hard to sound interesting and coming up short.

But at least I can like them on those terms. I don’t want to rush out and buy Everything Now or support the fake company that promoted the band on Colbert or order a brand-new fidget spinner. In fact, I never want to use the term “fidget spinner” with a straight face again. I don’t have to listen to Arcade Fire and wonder what makes them sound better to everyone else than Spoon or Wilco or the National or the Mountain Goats or Okkervil River—bands that I have liked exponentially more than I’ve liked Arcade Fire during the last decade.

I think again of the Replacements, who were kind of the exact obverse of the Arcade Fire dynamic. All they did was make perfect punk/pop songs that were greeted with near universal neglect and disdain. Nobody was giving them the equivalent of a 9.0 on Pitchfork or introducing them as geniuses on the radio or handing them Grammy awards 10 minutes after they showed up.

No, the Replacements spent their career looking for one break like Arcade Fire got every single step of its way. That break never came, so a band that was 100 times as special and brilliant as Arcade Fire got to spend a decade or so in abject frustration trying to get the attention of a world that just wouldn’t care.

And the Replacements were followed by dozens of other bands who were similarly gifted and similarly ignored. I loved many of them and listened to them intently while the world heaped praise on music that wasn’t a tenth as worthy.

Then along came Arcade Fire, flipping that classic paradigm on its head, a band that got Everything Now and acted as if it knew it deserved every accolade. And it wasn’t as if justice was finally being done. It was just another miscarriage, just another injustice, just another fidget spinner.

Now the wheel has turned. Welcome to rock ’n’ roll, Arcade Fire. Don’t get too comfortable.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Rock ‘N’ Roll Idles

In a summer spent reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, there’s one aspect of the Beatles’ masterpiece that I think gets a little bit overlooked. It’s right and appropriate to celebrate Sgt. Pepper as a milestone, a cultural touchstone, an emblem of its time and all that kerflooey. But it’s just as important—and even more impressive, in a way—to celebrate Sgt. Pepper for being something else.

Sgt. Pepper was the Beatles’ fourth album recorded and released in a 26-month period between late 1965 and mid-1967. It was also the first of six LPs released in a three-year period ending in mid-1970. That’s 10 albums recorded in about a five-year period, spanning the creative progression from Rubber Soul’s “Drive My Car” to Let It Be’s “The Long And Winding Road.”

All of that in five years, which is about how long it has taken current bands such as the National (four-plus years between Trouble Will Find Me and this year’s Sleep Well Beast), Fleet Foxes (six years between Helplessness Blues and the current Crack-Up) and Queens Of The Stone Age (this year’s Villains follows 2013’s …Like Clockwork) to produce a single record.

Look, I don’t give a shit how long it takes your band to write and record an album’s worth of material. I really don’t. I’m a big Mountain Goats fan, and it had been several years since their last record before the release of Goths this year. But John Darnielle, the band’s songwriter, has written two excellent novels during that same period of time. Would I prefer to have a steady output of fresh Mountain Goats material? Sure. But I certainly have to respect Mr. Darnielle’s motivation (and ability) to branch out and work in an entirely different medium.

I have no idea what the members of all these other bands are doing with the time they would otherwise be spending on making music. I’m sure it’s very important and satisfying to them. I really don’t care if it is. All I’m saying is that it feels like perhaps they’re not really putting very much effort or energy into the activity that made their extended time off possible.

They’re fucking lazy, in other words. Put another way: They may be spending years between albums, but there aren’t a whole lot of people producing anything a fraction as good as Sgt. Pepper or Abbey Road. And it wasn’t just the Beatles, either. During that same era, the Who (Sell Out, A Quick One, Tommy, Who’s Next), the Rolling Stones (Aftermath, Satanic Majesties, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed), the Kinks (Face To Face, Something Else, Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur, Lola Vs. Powerman) and the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds, SMiLE, Wild Honey, etc.) were creating entire careers’ worth of classic music. A decade later, the Clash squeezed the core of its career into a shorter period than the National just spent on one album.

None of this happens in a vacuum, of course. In the 1960s and 1970s, everything depended on releasing new music. It’s where the money was. Hell, the Beatles stopped playing live entirely during the period they were making those classic records. Today, of course, the world is completely upside down. All of the money is in playing live, and new music disappears into a nebulous haze where very little revenue is produced.

That has to be frustrating. I get that. What I don’t get is how little interest so many of these bands seem to have in the act of creating music. Why did they get involved in the first place if they were looking for the first available exit?

The Beatles and their peers were living up to the demands of the record industry at the time. I don’t know. Maybe Sgt. Pepper would have been better if the Beatles had taken another six months to work on it. I doubt it. I think the opposite is actually true. Each of these bands, feeling pressure to produce new music as well as to keep up with the high level of their peers, went into the studio and delivered incredible records in response to that pressure.

Contrast that with modern bands that have very little motivation—either financially, from nonexistent record labels, or musically, from equally unmotivated fellow artists—to push themselves. What you get is uninspired, unambitious records that take four or five years to reach the marketplace.

Frankly, I think it would be exciting to see what the National or the Mountain Goats or Spoon would have come up with if they’d had a figurative gun to their heads. I can’t help thinking here of Wilco, which really has been consistently productive over a long period of time. That’s a band that seems driven purely by its own love of playing and creating music. And then there are the outliers (Robert Pollard and his five albums a year) that seem compelled to produce more music than anyone could possibly listen to.

It would be impossible to keep up with a marketplace populated by dozens of Pollards. No one is asking anyone to crank out three albums every summer. But I think it’s OK to expect our favorite bands to put a little effort into actually being our favorite bands. Even the Beatles took the time to do that.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Shelf Life

Years ago, we had a carpenter come in and cover a whole wall of our living room with built-in wooden shelves. Most of the shelves are covered with books. One area is devoted to my vinyl records, all but a few of which I’ve owned since the 1970s. And then there is the row of smaller shelves that take up the space to the left of the door.

When we had the shelves built, it seemed perfectly reasonable to include 11 smaller shelves that would house my ever-growing collection of compact discs. The home for the CDs made as much sense as the space dedicated to the vinyl. Even more, since I was still buying most of my music on CD at the time.

I look at the CD shelves now and laugh. I can’t think of the last time I added a newly purchased CD to the collection. Worse, there isn’t a CD player nearby if I wanted to listen to any of the hundreds of discs on the shelves. There’s a computer in the room. Most of the CDs have been imported to iTunes, so I have access to the music that way.

All of this is the end result of a process of technological progress and obsolescence that began almost 40 years ago and has irritated and annoyed me pretty much constantly ever since. That process has now reached a point of absurdity that’s no longer tolerable and for which the only apparent escape is to simply stop buying music.

Seriously. After being played for a fool for four decades, I’m done. The last gasp was a story I came across recently via social media. The gist of it was that the companies that owned the technology to create mp3s were no longer enforcing their licensing rights. Essentially, the story said, the mp3 was dead.

I’m not about to shed tears over this. I have no sentimental attachment to the mp3 or the compact disc. All they were, ultimately, were more convenient ways to store and convey music. If they are now turning out to be disposable, well, that’s the way things go.

The problem is that there’s no longer any illusion that progress is being made. There was, back when the CD replaced vinyl as the primary medium for storing music. There was a lot of excited talk about how the sound was better—“cleaner” was the word most often used—and of course the portability was a definite plus.

When the iPod came along, portability was the main selling point, and it was not insignificant. When I first started traveling for work in the 1980s, I had a Discman and a case that held maybe 24 CDs. That was the music I would have access to on a plane or in a hotel room somewhere. By the early 2000s, I had an iPod with thousands of songs on it available to me at all times.

That felt like progress. You might be sacrificing something, too, but there was a general feeling that you were moving forward. Now? No one is even pretending there’s a point.

The exciting new way to buy music is on vinyl. For $35 or so, you can buy an album and listen to it on a turntable. I’m sorry if that doesn’t excite me. I used to spend $12 and listen to an album on a turntable. This is not an experience I’m interested in overpaying for at this point in my life.

Meanwhile, Spotify and other streaming services will allow you the ability to listen to pretty much any song at any time, giving you the convenience of that old iPod without the bother of having to own and store the music. Except that, at the risk of outing myself as a dinosaur, I want to own and store the music that I love. I believe in paying artists for their work and, for a price, I want to have access to that work whenever I want, even if the Wi-Fi isn’t good.

For the last decade or so, we’ve been shedding artifacts. We take pictures and store music on our smartphones, and that’s great. It’s much easier and faster than developing a roll of film or buying a CD. But how many photos from the past five years do you have access to right now? Maybe you stored some on a cloud or you uploaded them to a computer or whatever, but how many have just vanished? If Facebook or Instagram went dark overnight, how much of your personal history would disappear with it?

This all seems very dangerous to me. Maybe that’s just proof that I’m living in the past and I haven’t embraced reality. Or maybe we’re all rushing headlong into the future without much regard for, or protection of, the past. That’s certainly how it feels.

Then I look at my shelves. Books I’ve owned for 30 years are still sitting there, as easy to take down and re-read as they ever were. Vinyl albums I got for Christmas when I was in high school are lined up in alphabetical order, as available to listen to today as they were in 1978.

Thousands of songs and photographs are over there on the computer, praying that hard drive doesn’t crash. The books I’ve bought on my Kindle are here, assuming I can find the charger and get the device going again. The still-working DVD player is the only thing keeping my collection of movies from becoming shiny, useless junk.

I get it. Everything is digital and portable and will be available on our smartphones forever. That’s the promise, right? It’s just that it’s the same promise I’ve been hearing since I started buying CDs. Right now, I have some very pretty shelves covered with proof that this promise is total bullshit. And frankly, I’m getting too old to throw money away on bullshit.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Curb Your Enthusiasm

So, as always, you come back here to read the musings of the great Phil Sheridan. Well, sorry, this issue you have me, Eric T. Miller, MAGNET editor-in-chief. To quote Bob Pollard, “I apologize in advance.” You came for the filet mignon, but you’re getting the vegan burger. You can still have a side of fries, though. And maybe a beer if you play nice.

As anyone who reads this column every month knows, Phil has leukemia. As I write this, he’s in the hospital following his sec- ond round of chemo and a bone-marrow transplant. I just saw him last weekend. We laughed and cried, but as always, he and I had a great time, just like every time we’ve hung out over the past 23 years. He gave me a bracelet his boss at ESPN sent him. It says: “Team Sheridan. Stay Strong.” So that’s what we’re gonna do: Stay strong.

Phil is one of my best friends. My brother in harm. Has been since when we first met at a Dinosaur Jr show in Trenton, N.J., way back in the day. I knew Phil as a sportswriter from my local newspaper, reading his stuff religiously (as atheists like me do) while in

high school. His columns spoke to me. I felt like I was sitting next to him at a bar (not that I had been to a bar at that point), listening to his take on Philly sports. I told my parents back then, “I want to be able to write like Phil Sheridan.” That never happened. Those who can’t write end up editing music magazines. Prior to meeting Phil during college, not long after I started MAGNET, I was visit- ing my folks, and my dad said, “I saved the newspaper for you.” So the first thing I did, of course, was read Phil. And his sports column mentioned Pavement.

So, old school, I sent Phil a bunch of MAG- NETs in the mail and a note saying I was a fan and thought he might dig the magazine. The next week, I got a call from Phil saying he’d already seen MAGNET. (“Picked up the new issue at the airport in Colorado.”)   If you watch any ’80s teen movie where the guy doesn’t ask the girl out and regrets it forever, I decided to do the opposite and be bold. I said to Phil, “Do you want to write for MAGNET?” I was certain he would say no. But he said, “Yeah, I’d love to.”

I said, “We have this thing called The Back Page, but I’m not sure what it is exactly. I think you could do something good with it.” And, obviously, he’s done it.

Phil has been trying to quit doing The Back Page since 1994. The breakup never took. I wouldn’t allow it—until Phil dropped dead a few years ago from sudden cardiac arrest while jogging but was revived by some re- ally good Samaritans and ended up living. Roob—you’d know him if you saw him (inside-baseball Back Page joke that’s been going on  forever)  and  a  friend  to  Phil  and a fellow sportswriter since I was in short pants—took over, kicking and screaming, while Phil recovered. And Roob killed it, al- though he hated doing it, but like I told him, “There is no other person who Phil and I would be comfortable doing this other than you.” Thanks again, Roob. (Though Universal Truths And Cycles is not one of the top three Guided By Voices records of all time, sorry to say, dude.)

I’m not taking this page over. Phil owns this page and always will. It’s his as soon as he’s ready. I’m hoping this is a one-off for me. If not, Roob, I pray (in an atheist way) you’re in fighting shape.

The Back Page is the first thing I read every time we get a new issue of MAGNET. Why? Because I want to re-read Phil bitch- ing and moaning about every little thing that bothers him. Because they’re the every little thing that bothers me. It’s like Curb Your En- thusiasm, but Phil isn’t bald like Larry David. (Wait … post chemo, Phil is way balder than Larry David, but still a handsome devil.)

Phil and I text all the time about stuff like who we think the best drummer in rock is right now (Me: “Ringo’s son.” Phil: “That guy from the National is pretty great.”) It’s like we’re sitting next to each other at a bar. Side note: We got kicked out of a bar once. A dive bar no less. The bartender said, “One and done.” As we were leaving, we ran into   a hooker on the street, who had some white fluid around her mouth. She said, “Does it look like I have Krispy Kreme on my face?” Phil turned to me and said, “That was the funniest thing ever.” I agreed.

If Phil wrote this column, he would sum up everything that came before with some pithy line that tied the room together, but I’m not Phil. So this is the best I’ve got: Leukemia isn’t gonna kill Phil. Phil is gonna fucking kill leukemia.

—(not by) Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Darkness On The Edge Of Town

“Rock ’n’ roll is here to stay, it will never die.”
—Danny And The Juniors, 1958

“Long live rock, be it dead or alive.”
—The Who, 1970

“Hey, hey, my, my … rock ’n’ roll will never die.”
—Neil Young, 1978

It seems quaint from this perspective, the obsession people seemed to have about rock ’n’ roll music’s supremacy back in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and into the ’90s. It doesn’t help that those three specifically relevant tunes actually prove themselves wrong before the needle reaches the end of the groove. (Note to millennials: That was how recorded music was played when those songs were released.)

In the Danny And The Juniors hit, the second verse says that rock ’n’ roll will “go down in history,” which is something you don’t do if you haven’t died. Pete Townshend actually wishes for rock to live on, “be it dead or alive,” turning the Juniors’ boast into a posthumous wish. As for Neil Young’s song, it was famously referenced in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note in 1994. But that doesn’t change the fact that its contemporary references are to a freshly dead Elvis Presley and to Johnny Rotten, who gleefully danced on the grave he personally dug for the rock ’n’ roll he never much liked to begin with.

This could’ve been a piece about how rock actually is dead, but we’re not really interested in stating the obvious. And while it may be interesting to discuss the actual time of death—Cobain pulling the trigger, for example, or the day the members of American Authors met for the first time—there’s little to be gained by that kind of forensic work. What I’m most interested in is what happens now, when there’s no loud, primitive, punk howl being unleashed against a government that, more than any other, requires that kind of rebellious voice.

I’ll reduce this to the personal. In my lifetime, when the government has been run by truly abhorrent people, there was rock ’n’ roll to help get you through it. It wasn’t just an app on your smartphone, it was a life-giving force. If that sounds melodramatic, then you’re welcome to go fuck yourself. If music never meant that much to you, then you’re part of the problem that needs to be addressed. Of course, such a person isn’t likely to be reading MAGNET anyway.

Rock ’n’ roll emerged in the 1950s, when the shorthand version of history says America was an idyllic place enjoying post-World War II peace and prosperity. This is, of course, the very sort of bullshit that leads people to vote for a clown promising to “Make America Great Again,” as it was during this imagined golden age. The ’50s were the last decade before the Civil Rights movement and the feminist movement began making progress. It was also a decade lived under the constant, corrosive fear that nuclear war could happen at any time.

Those old black-and-white images of school kids scrambling to get under their desks during a nuclear war drill may seem quaint. Try to imagine the terror those exercises instilled in the hearts and minds of every one of those kids. That terror, handed down from the highest reaches of government, was the catalyst for the earliest rock ’n’ roll. That music represented a shout of freedom from the young people coming of age in those twisted, repressive times.

Way too much has been said and written about the role music played through the turbulent 1960s, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Bob Dylan didn’t win the Nobel Prize for literature for “Christmas In The Heart,” believe you me. With the government drafting kids and shipping them to Vietnam and spraying fire hoses at Civil Rights marchers, music was there to express anger or provide relief.

The ’70s gave us Nixon, Watergate, gas lines and “a national malaise.” The response was punk rock and disco, the angry yin and escapist yang of the times. The ’80s gave us Reagan. The response was U2, R.E.M., “Born In The USA,” Public Enemy, Prince and the beginning of alternative rock.

By 2001, George Bush became president and terrorists attacked the United States. Artists like Bruce Springsteen and Wilco were still there to make music that resonated, but there wasn’t all that much of a response to what was going on. The Iraq War was conducted without a draft, insulating most Americans from the personal involvement that might’ve triggered a Vietnam-like protest movement.

Maybe that’s why there was little music made that might’ve motivated such a movement. You can debate cause and effect here, but the simple truth is that rock ’n’ roll largely hasn’t been a factor for the past decade or more. That wasn’t much of a loss during the Obama era, when rational humans understood that their government was in relatively good hands.

(I’m well aware of the right-wing fantasy bubble, in which Obama was the devil and everything he did was an affront to the American way. I’m also aware that the people living in that bubble would not have been attending rock concerts anyway. It’s all they can do to ignore the occasional leftish comment from Springsteen, an artist they’ve hilariously misunderstood throughout their entire pathetic lives.)

The bottom line: We let that muscle—the one that raises that punk-rock fist—atrophy, and now we’re knee-deep in an era that desperately needs it. The next four years are going to be bad enough without a decent soundtrack.

Hey, hey. My, my.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Wake And Be Fine

I happen to be writing this on the eve of Okkervil River’s show at Lincoln Center in New York. For most of the last decade, I very likely would’ve made the train ride north to attend a show like that. I say this without hesitation: Okkervil River is one of my two or three favorite bands of the last decade or so, and I think Will Sheff is as good a songwriter as there is right now.

But I don’t have tickets for the show at Lincoln Center. I never even considered trying to buy them, and there’s a pretty good reason for that.

Okkervil River has been trying to kill me.

Let me amend that. I don’t think Sheff and his band actively or even consciously tried to kill me. The thing is, they’ve come very close to succeeding—twice!—in very dramatic fashion. And I just don’t know if I can take the chance of being anywhere near them again.

So let’s say Okkervil River is apparently hazardous to my health. That should keep the lawyers satisfied.

I’ll start in the middle and work toward the present day, then I’ll throw in a few interesting bits about the past.

A few years ago, Okkervil River released an album called The Silver Gymnasium. I loved it. Their previous record, I Am Very Far, was good, but it was also very dark and very angry. It seemed out of step with the band I’d come to know on ambitious, thoughtful records like Black Sheep Boy, The Stage Names and The Stand Ins.

The Silver Gymnasium was more than a return to form. It was fucking great. Last summer, when I joined the rest of you in obsessing over Stranger Things, I couldn’t help thinking of The Silver Gymnasium. It, too, was set in the 1980s and used ’80s sounds to capture some very poignant and pointed memories of childhood. Plus, the songs were freaking excellent.

The album was so good that MAGNET picked it as its best album of 2013. It was my job to interview Sheff for the cover story. He was every bit the smart, considerate guy I expected from listening to his songs. He didn’t seem remotely like a guy who would use his musical powers to strike my ass dead.

The story ran. When Okkervil River scheduled a show at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer, I bought tickets. One day, a few weeks before the show, I dropped dead while I was out for a run.

I’ve written about that here before, so I’ll just remind you that it was a sudden cardiac arrest, the same thing that likely killed Joe Strummer, one of my true musical heroes. Your heart just stops because of a glitch in its electric impulses. I was fortunate enough to be revived by a handful of real heroes.

During the time I was unconscious in the hospital, my daughter took a screenshot of my iPhone. It proved that, at the moment I collapsed, I was listening to “Down Down The Deep River” from Okkervil River’s The Silver Gymnasium.

Coincidence, right? Of course it is. How could there be any connection between the band, the song and the sudden mysterious stopping of my otherwise healthy heart? The idea is preposterous.

Anyway, Okkervil River didn’t release another album until Away came out this past September. For almost three and a half years, I was fine. Fully recovered from the cardiac arrest, I was back to pretty much my normal life. I don’t run anymore—my lone concession to the inherent risks of arrhythmia—but otherwise, I was basically doing fine.

When Away was released, Sheff appeared at World Cafe Live in Philly for one of WXPN’s Free At Noon broadcasts. The show was great and I picked up a vinyl copy of Away at the merch table. I also bought the album on iTunes. It’s really good—probably less likely to attract record-of-the-year enthusiasm, but typically well-written and performed by Sheff and a new lineup of his band.

A month later, my wife and I saw the band at Union Transfer. They played “Down Down The Deep River” and my heart did not stop. Good sign.

A month after that, to the day, I was in the hospital getting chemo. I’d been diagnosed with leukemia.

I was in the hospital for a month, which gives you way too much time to think. More than one person—including doctors who looked at my chart and then looked at me with real pity in their eyes—pointed out that my two big health crises represented some abominable fucking luck. I’d thought of that myself, thanks, although I tried really hard not to start feeling sorry for myself.

Somewhere in there, the Okkervil River connection occurred to me. I looked at their whole discography. I Am Very Far came out in 2011, a couple of weeks before my mother died. Their previous album, The Stand Ins, came out in 2008, the year my first marriage broke up.

These may well all be harmless coincidences. And hey, in 2008, I saw Okkervil River live for the first time. It was an early date with the woman who became my second wife. We listened to a lot of Okkervil songs and saw Sheff perform solo a couple of times during those years with no apparent consequences.

Do I really believe Okkervil River’s records have some weird connection to my life and its more difficult moments? I do not. That said, it would probably be smart to delete the band from my iTunes and avoid going to see them ever again.
Will I be smart? I would say this to Mr. Sheff and his band: “So come back, I am waiting.” If this stuff doesn’t kill me, I’ll be there.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Don’t Stop Now

I didn’t buy the Guided By Voices tickets thinking they could be for my last show. That was in October, when the December 30 show at Philadelphia’s Underground Arts went on sale.

I bought tickets because that’s pretty much what I do when GBV is involved. I first saw the band at the Khyber Pass in 1993—I know that with some certainty because I found video of that show on YouTube—and have seen Bob Pollard and his various lineups somewhere between 25 and 30 times in the years since. So buying tickets for a GBV show wasn’t exactly a big moment for me.

It became bigger later, after I was diagnosed with leukemia in mid-November. Regular readers of this column (all six of you! Hey there!) may well know that I nearly died in 2014 from a sudden cardiac arrest. I didn’t die that time (or I did, and this is all part of some weird afterlife where I don’t know I’m dead and I just keep typing). In fact, I recovered pretty much completely and was back to living pretty much as I always had for my first half-century on the planet.

But then: leukemia. I assure you, it’s not a word you’re really expecting to hear your doctor say. In this case, my doctor also said some pretty encouraging things, such as, “The goal here is a cure.” She also recommended that I begin treatment as soon as possible, so I went into the hospital that day and started chemo the very next day. The following month wasn’t a lot of fun, but exactly four weeks after I went in, I was released from the hospital. I was officially in remission and still chasing that “cure” my doctor talked about.

The big thing about getting out of the hospital when I did was that it was in time for Christmas and New Year’s. That had been a pretty big motivation for me, especially since I was in the hospital for Thanksgiving. The folks at the hospital, including a charitable foundation (thanks, HEADstrong Foundation!), do their best to make Thanksgiving pleasant for patients and their families. And it was pleasant. But there’s nothing like being home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I was thrilled to be out of the hospital for those family moments.

In the middle of the holiday season was the GBV show. When I walked out of the hospital, I had no idea if I would be able to make it. I didn’t know how I’d feel or what else might be going on. It didn’t help that, the very day I got out of the hospital, TV sports reporter Craig Sager died. I had known that Sager was sick, but I had never really heard anything about exactly what he had.

According to the news story that day, Sager died from acute myeloid leukemia. I had just spent four weeks being treated for acute myeloid leukemia. So while the goal was still a cure, clearly nothing was guaranteed here. As the GBV show approached, I felt better and stronger each day. I thought I could make it to the show. I also knew that I would be going back into the hospital in January for more chemo and, later, a bone marrow transplant.

Put that all together, and without being melodramatic, it seemed reasonably possible that this GBV show would be the last concert I would ever go to. And that seemed pretty fitting. I have had a lot of favorite bands over the years, and it would be fantastic to see the Who or the Clash or the Kinks or the Replacements or Uncle Tupelo one last time. But some of those would require reincarnation and some would probably just be depressing. GBV is the band I’ve seen more than any other, so it would be the perfect band to end on.

Then came the show. It’s a little weird to go to a venue and hand over your ticket thinking it might be the last time you ever do something like this. That makes it tough to approach a show with an open mind, when you’re thinking, “Man, GBV needs to deliver a show worthy of the occasion here.” You want to go out like Ted Williams, hitting a home run in your last at-bat, not standing in front of a stage watching some band go through the motions in the middle of a tour.

But that’s one of the reasons I thought GBV was the right band. Even going through the motions (and I’ve seen them on those nights), they’re damn good. When they’re fully engaged and at their best, they can be transcendent. On the next-to-last night of 2016, they were pretty damn transcendent. Pollard sounded as good as ever (and miles better than he did in that 23-year-old clip on YouTube). Doug Gillard was back on guitar and sounding as much like some blend of Keef and Townshend as ever. The setlist was 55 songs long and represented a remarkable career survey.

It sounds like the perfect show to end on, but it wasn’t. Not because of the band or the audience or the venue, but because of me. I enjoyed the show, believe me, but not nearly as much as I normally would have. I just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t sick or anything. I don’t mean there was anything dramatic going on. My head just wasn’t in the right place. I got the fastball I was looking for, but unlike Ted Williams, I swung right through it.

Ultimately, I don’t have full control on whether that turns out to be my last show. Leukemia and fate and some very good medical professionals will decide whether I have more time for going to see bands, or for anything else.

I do have control over what I choose to do with the time I have left, whether it’s six months or 25 years. And I don’t think that was Ted Williams’ last at-bat. A few days after the GBV show, a friend texted me about a show scheduled for mid-January. Without even thinking it over, I told him to get me a ticket.

I didn’t know if I would be able to go—I might be in the hospital—but I did know this: GBV may still be the perfect band for my final show, but I’m thinking we’ll get to that a few years from now.
What do you think, Bob? Maybe 2025?

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Looking Back At 2017

I don’t think I’ve ever been as ready to rip down a calendar as I have been this year. It wasn’t a great 2016 for me for personal reasons, to be honest with you, but it was much, much worse as a reasonably engaged citizen of the United States.

I just deleted four paragraphs of what was turning into a rant about the 2016 election. You’re welcome. There’s nothing to be gained by expending any more energy on that. It was awful. It’s over. Bring on 2017.

So we shall stick to our mission here: offering an uncannily accurate picture of what’s coming in the year ahead. We offer it confidently and cheerfully, even though we have to admit we totally blew last year’s predictions. I mean, I had Trump replacing Mick Jagger in the Rolling Stones, not becoming president of the United States. How naïve I was then!

I’ve learned a thing or two. There are distractions to avoid. So this year, I have my eyes on some very clear signs of the things to come.

At 7:16 a.m. on January 1, my friend Roob (you’d know him if you saw him) tweets out his “10 Best Shows Of 2017,” which includes Car Seat Headrest (number eight), Hurry (number four) and bands you’ve never heard of and may not even exist (numbers two, six and 10).

On January 21, his first full day off in eight years, Barack Obama flies to Chicago to begin recording his first album with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy as producer and musical arranger. The songs are described as “cool jazz meets trip hop” by an unnamed source. (Pat Sansone, probably.)

Tundra Trip—the first Icelandic outdoor music festival, featuring Björk, Mugison and John Mayer—is canceled when organizers realize how freaking cold it is in Iceland in February.

Trend spotting: In the new tradition of indie songwriters writing novels (John Darnielle, Joe Pernice, Wes Stace), GBV’s Bob Pollard announces his first book will be published in May. Frozen Yogurt For The Moth Queen contains 327 chapters in 14 pages.

Bob Dylan wins the Oscar for best actress in a supporting role, even though he wasn’t in any movies and wasn’t nominated.

The Magnetic Fields play two shows in Boston as part of their 50 Song Memoir tour. The band plays 25 songs the first night and the other 25 the second night. Midway through the second show, a restless fan yells out a request for “Punk Love” from 69 Love Songs. Stephin Merritt pulls a pistol from his sportcoat and shoots the son of a bitch in the heart.

Dweezil Zappa receives a restraining order from Tony Zapata, the great-great-grandson of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. The court order prohibits Dweezil from using the Zapata name to promote his concerts or sell merchandise.

Jeff Tweedy and Will Sheff trade bands. Tweedy makes a new album with Okkervil River playing behind him. Sheff does the same with the rest of Wilco. When plans to tour together break down, neither album is ever released.

Are we still making Ryan Adams jokes in 2017? Apparently not.

Cleveland celebrates the 2017 Stanley Cup championship. No team from Cleveland wins it, because there is no team from Cleveland, but what the hell? A parade is a parade.

Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! announces that she regrets the mistake she made with her body. No, not that. She deeply regrets that tattoo sleeve down her right arm. “There’s no way all that ink is good for anybody,” says Grace.

In the wee hours, rival Philly rockers break into Kurt Vile’s house and cut off his hair. A horrified Vile discovers that without his locks, he no longer has the ability to play guitar. On the plus side, he finds his lost car keys and $14.70 in change amid the clippings on his bedroom floor.

Bob Dylan is named the grand prize winner on America’s Got Talent, although he never actually appeared on the show.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction concert is hampered by the absence of inductees Bad Brains, Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk. On a positive note, Tupac does show up.

The 1990s revival hits full swing with the premiere of Too Punk For You, a sitcom starring Steve Albini and Stephen Malkmus as two guys in a van who drive from city to city canceling gigs because the venues aren’t punk enough. Danny DeVito costars as their driver and roadie.

In Stockholm, the Nobel Prize committee announces the 2017 winners, including Bill Nye The Science Guy for physics, Suze Orman for economics and Hugh Laurie for medicine.

Inspired by the success of the first Desert Trip music festival (a.k.a. Oldchella), organizers decide to push their luck by signing Chuck Berry to headline this year’s shows. Joining the nonagenarian Berry on the bill are Little Richard, Chubby Checker, Frankie Valli, Willie Nelson and John Mayer.

This November is much more pleasant and enjoyable than November 2016. Not sure why. The weather, maybe?

Another court order for Dweezil Zappa. This time, it’s from lawyers representing the Sinatra family. The order prohibits Zappa from using the name “Frank” to promote his concerts or to describe a particularly candid or direct work of art.

We made it through the first year of President Trump! It’s looking unlikely that Congress will ever approve funding for that stupid wall on the southern border. And who would have thought that Bernie Sanders, at his age, could personally filibuster for nearly 1,000 hours in just eight months. It was a shame when hurricane season resulted in 23,000 deaths in Florida this year, but hey, those fuckers handed the White House to a guy who doesn’t believe in climate change. Who knows? Maybe 2018 will produce a Democratic House and Senate and Bernie can take a few days off. Here’s hoping.

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The Back Page: Real Police


So a middle-aged white dude—a freaking sports writer, no less—went to a Bruce Springsteen show the other night. In 2016 America, as filtered through Twitter and Facebook, that qualifies me as arguably the most predictable of stereotypes. I’m fine with that, except for a couple of minor details.

For one, it was the first time I’d attended a Springsteen show. That seems impossible, especially for someone who grew up in the Springsteenian epicenter of Philadelphia and has lived most of his life within a short drive of Asbury Park, N.J. I’m also someone who has seen about 1.3 million bands over my decades as a serious musical obsessive.

It’s not like I didn’t like Springsteen. I did, and I do. For a variety of reasons, I just never went to see him. I guess there was a part of me that had trouble with the maniacal devotion of many of his fans. I got the sense years ago that the people who saw Springsteen every chance they got didn’t really have interest in any other bands. It felt more like religious fervor or sports fanaticism than it did love of music.

So I had the records and I liked Springsteen as an artist, but I just never went to see him until this summer. I bought the tickets because my wife happens to be one of those True Believer Springsteen fans. For the September show at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Jenny wore a T-shirt she bought at a 1984 concert at the Rosemont Horizon near Chicago. She was following Bruce and the band around for a while and saw about a half-dozen shows in a week or so. She has photos of her posing with him and everything. (I’m only a little jealous about this.)

She wanted to go, and I figured, hell, why not? It’s not like I was making some kind of statement here. I just hadn’t produced enough enthusiasm to overcome inertia and propel myself to a show. As time went on, in fact, it felt as if I’d missed my chance. Springsteen got older, E Streeters died, and I felt more and more like I should have gone to one of those shows in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

But there I was, standing out in right field in a major-league ballpark on a warm September evening. There was Bruce and the current E Street Band, and they were really great. For a little more than four hours, with almost no interruption, they toured Springsteen’s entire back catalog. It was a really memorable show, and at least now I won’t die without having seen one of the seminal artists of my lifetime.
But that’s not what this is really about.

Midway through the show, Springsteen sang “American Skin (41 Shots),” the song he wrote and recorded in 2000 as a response to the shooting of an unarmed man by New York City police officers.

I was aware of the song and the story of Amadou Diallo’s killing, and the reaction to both, back in 2000. But all of that had faded in memory, even with the events of the last couple years.

It was astonishing to hear an honest, clear reaction to a terrible tragedy, devoid of the noise that surrounds any discussion about these issues in 2016. Before any of us ever heard of Ferguson, Mo., before Black Lives Matter existed as an entity, Springsteen said exactly what needed to be said on the subject.

“It ain’t no secret, no secret, my friend/You can get killed just for living in your American skin.”

Springsteen didn’t make any speeches. He didn’t introduce the song by talking about current events. He didn’t risk turning off fans conditioned to shout their talking points the moment a trigger subject is raised.

He just performed the song in a hushed ballpark, his image projected on three giant video screens as he sang about the “41 shots” that four cops sprayed at an unarmed 23-year-old man. When contrasted with the celebratory, inclusive spirit of classics like “Born To Run” and “Rosalita,” the whole thing was that much more powerful and affecting.

Springsteen’s 34-song set didn’t include “Born In The USA” or “Glory Days.” He could have played either of those hits and kept everyone in the audience feeling happy and contented. Playing “American Skin” was a choice—a brave one, given the present climate.

But what hit me was how uncontroversial the song really is when you listen to it. Strip away the Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter back-and-forth, and it really is as simple as Springsteen makes it sound: You can die in this country just for the color of your skin. That should be unacceptable to every last one of us, beginning with the vast majority of professional, selfless police officers who put themselves in harm’s way every time they leave for work.

This should be about simple decency, about our shared humanity. It shouldn’t be about Left or Right, Republican or Democrat. When an unarmed man is killed by police, we should be saddened and determined to figure out what happened and how future incidents can be prevented. It shouldn’t be an opportunity for professional shouters to go on TV and attack the character of the victim or smear all police officers because of the actions of one or two.

That’s the beauty of the song. Springsteen didn’t take sides, didn’t use words that will alienate or provoke anyone. We’re all wearing our “American skin,” no matter what shade it might be.

I’m glad I finally wised up enough to go see Springsteen play. It was a great show. But it was still sad to realize that we’ve spent the last four presidential terms going backward when it comes to living in our American skin.

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The Back Page: Where Have All The Good Times Gone?


The big Desert Trip Music Festival seemed like an obvious target for a Back Page column. Something smartass about a bunch of geezers—Dylan, McCartney, the Stones, the Who, Neil Young, Roger Waters—out in the California desert, kind of a Burned-Out Man Festival.

As it turned out, though, the whole thing actually led me to think about something else entirely. Or, rather, it shed a flickering light on something else that I had already been thinking about.

Which is: The Kinks have a great song called “20th Century Man.” It was on their Muswell Hillbillies album, which was recorded and released back in 1971. At that moment in time, Kinks songwriter Ray Davies was only 27 years old. And at that moment, the 20th century still had 29 years left in it. So I don’t think Ray was thinking about how dated “20th Century Man” might sound to the average rock ’n’ roll fan in 2016. Shit, I doubt Ray or anyone else thought there would be any such thing as rock ’n’ roll by 1980, let alone 2016. (And frankly, they would have been right. That’s probably another whole topic, but really, who the hell makes “rock ’n’ roll music” at this late date?)

I was only eight years old when Muswell Hillbillies came out. Even by the time I actually bought the record, about eight or nine years later, I can say with certainty that the 21st century was not on anybody’s radar. Shit, we read Orwell’s 1984 in high school not five years before the date in question. It did not feel like we were living in Winston Smith’s dystopian society.

That didn’t happen until the Bush administration.

The thing is, I still feel like I’m a 20th century man. I was only aware for the last one-third of it, but we all spent a lot of our educations on making sense of the first two-thirds: World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the ‘50s, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing. We spent a lot more time thinking about our own century than the one that was waiting just a few years ahead of us.

Now we’re 16 years into it, and it feels like we’re still waiting for something to define the century. Terrorism, from September 11 to ISIS, is probably the closest thing we have. Social media is right there, too. But my guess is that by 2070, there will have been some massive events that will define the 21st century: Trump’s nuclear attack on China or the arrival of spacemen who look exactly like fucking E.T., something like that.

The 21st century is just taking shape, in other words. As it does, it will become common to think of cultural events as 20th-century events. Until now, we’ve kind of broken shit up by decades: ‘50s music is very different from ’60s or ’70s music, for example. The ’80s amounted to five good albums and an enormous pile of shit.

But as we march into the future (OK, we’re going to be on all fours for much of it, but marching sounds so much more positive), we’re eventually going to reduce the whole 20th century to one category. And that show in the California desert is pretty close to how we’re going to remember it.

Look, there will be a class at the average university called A Survey of 20th Century American Culture. It will cover Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Bogart and Nicholson, the invention of television and advent of cable. And then it will devote a week or two to 20th century music: jazz, country, blues, musical theater and then rock ’n’ roll, disco and hip hop.

Rock ’n’ roll will mean Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and maybe a short section on punk and alternative stuff. There might be mentions of the Who and Pink Floyd. But details tend to get filtered out when you’re trying to define or describe an era.

Take my earlier mention of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Those two pretty much cover American literature for the first half of the 20th century. But if you were living in the 1930s, you might be a bigger fan of John Dos Passos or Upton Sinclair or John Steinbeck or William Faulkner.

That’s where the Kinks and Cream and Led Zeppelin will end up, in the Dos Passos/Steinbeck bin.

The point of all this, if there is one, is in the difference between studying an era and living through that era. As a kid who came to cultural awareness in the 1970s, the music and movies and books of the 1960s seemed unbelievably important and special. I felt compelled to understand it all—how it happened, who did what and when, the way one thing led to the next. It all seemed so urgent when I was 15 or 20 or 25. But now, with a little perspective from my perch in the 21st century, I can see that it all doesn’t amount to much.

Play some teenager in 2038 “Satisfaction” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “My Generation” and you’ll get your point across. Understanding how Brian Wilson influenced the Beatles probably won’t mean a goddamn thing.

I guess the thing is, I’m realizing that much of what I devoted an awful lot of my attention to isn’t going to mean a goddamn thing. Maybe it doesn’t already. There’s a whole generation that thinks Wilco is Dad Rock. That means they don’t think about the Beatles or Stones or Kinks or Who at all.

“I’m a 20th century man, but I don’t want to die here.”

So sang Ray Davies in 1971. And you know what, Ray? You didn’t die there. Me neither. We made it to the 21st century. It’s just that we left an awful lot behind us.

—Phil Sheridan

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