Category Archives: THE BACK PAGE

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

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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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The Back Page: Read It In Books

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At this point, I believe I qualify for dual citizenship as an honorary Norwegian. No, I haven’t spent the last 20 years living in Oslo or working at the Edvard Munch Museum. I don’t speak Norwegian. I can’t even play “Norwegian Wood” properly on my acoustic guitar.

What I have done is read the first five volumes of My Struggle, the six-volume monstrosity—part novel, part memoir—by Karl Ove Knausgaard. The sixth volume hasn’t yet been published in English, so I’m as caught up as I can be without learning Norwegian.

There’s been a lot of hype about Knausgaard’s magnum opus. The Guardian has called it “perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our time.” More than a half-million books have been sold in Norway, a country with a population of about 5.2 million human beings. An American author would have to sell more than 30 million copies to have that kind of market penetration.

But there are other things. Knausgaard has been criticized for writing so openly and honestly about his life, which by necessity means writing just as openly about other people. He names names and reveals family secrets that are bound to be painful for other members of his family and inner circle.

And then there’s the title: “My struggle” in Norwegian is “min kamp.” In German, of course, that translates to “mein kampf,” which causes shudders because it was the title of Adolf Hitler’s autobiography and manifesto.

That’s not an accident. The sixth and final volume of Knausgaard’s work reportedly includes a several-hundred-page discussion of Hitler’s book and its relevance. While I can’t say I’m looking forward to reading that, I also think it’s fascinating to ponder how Knausgaard handles the subject.

In a way, the use of “mein kampf/min kamp/my struggle” is the kind of provocation that was pretty common during the punk era. Early English punks sometimes used swastikas to shock and offend people—remember, they were trying to disturb their parents, a generation that grew up amid World War II bomb sites. To an English punk in the 1970s, Nazi imagery was akin to an American band calling itself the Dead Kennedys—meant more to shock than to signify any particular ideology.

(To clarify: There certainly are neo-Nazi punks, as well, but a lot of that imagery was not being used because of ideology. The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” and Elvis Costello’s “Two Little Hitlers”—or the reference to the “final solution” in “Chemistry Class”—don’t signify some kind of serious fascist beliefs. At least, I hope not.)

Punk rock is an apt comparison because of another key element in Knausgaard’s books. Music plays a large and recurring role in the story of Knausgaard’s life. For me, an American of a similar age, Knausgaard’s fascination with music provides familiar landmarks. I know where I was in my life when Echo & The Bunnymen were on the stereo. And there’s a connection when Knausgaard refers to less-hyped bands, such as the Waterboys or Prefab Sprout.

But here’s the main thing. It isn’t so much particular bands that make this reader feel a connection to that particular writer. It’s Knausgaard’s perception of the world with music as an important element. He bonds with fellow students over the love of a particular band, and he feels alienated from people with dramatically different taste in music. When he meets a stranger in a new town who likes heavy metal or mainstream radio fodder, he knows that person won’t likely become a friend.

At one point, Knausgaard makes extra money by selling used CDs outside of a shop. At another, he plays in a series of bands, usually with his older brother Yngve. Karl Ove writes lyrics that his guitarist/brother puts to music. Playing live, Karl Ove is the drummer.

That, too, is universal, the compulsion to take up an instrument and reproduce some of the music that you love (and impress the opposite sex, but that’s another chapter). It’s the same compulsion that drove many of the bands on the CDs that Knausgaard buys and sells. The really great thing here is the way that compulsion, that need for self-expression, leads a group of young English or Americans to create songs that wind up on a mixtape made by a lovestruck Norwegian kid who they’ll never know exists.

Well, except that we now know that Karl Ove Knausgaard exists. We know that he wrote record reviews for a while, that he lost his virginity in a tent at an outdoor music festival, and that he somehow wound up in Björk’s house, drunk, during a trip to Iceland.

Look, you read five or six books by anyone and you’re going to start feeling like you know them. When the books are as personal and revealing as My Struggle, then you’re bound to feel that much more connected to the writer. It’s inevitable.

The importance and prevalence of music in Knausgaard’s life definitely increased the level of intimacy for this reader, or for anyone who has gotten through difficult times by cranking up the stereo, or has found kindred spirits through a shared love of some obscure band.

There has to be something universal in a book (or books) like this if millions of people are going to connect with it. That’s obvious. But sometimes it’s not the universal but the very specific that hits hardest. And there’s nothing more specific than the music that was playing during key moments of a life. For me, the music is the bridge that connects my American sensibility to Knausgaard’s Norwegian one. We lived in thoroughly different parts of the world, but we had similarly human experiences accompanied by a very similar soundtrack.

Music made my own struggle feel like My Struggle. Plus it probably saved me a trip to Norway. Walking around Bergen isn’t going to make me feel any more connected to that time and place than listening to some Bunnymen.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Being There

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One of the things we’re going to miss when all the rock bands are gone is the way you developed a kind of relationship with the ones you cared about. I was reminded of this phenomenon over the past couple months, when I happened to encounter some of the bands I have deep and long-lasting relationships with.

It started when the Who played a show in Philadelphia a couple months back. I first saw the Who in 1979, when I was 16 years old. I’ve seen them a bunch of times over the years. This show at the Wells Fargo Center was very likely to be my last time, which is one of the reasons I decided to go.

When I saw the Who in ’79, the show was across the parking lot from the arena at the old Spectrum. My friend and I sat on the second level, on the left side of the stage (or, as it might have been called in those days, the Entwistle side). For this show, we were sitting in a similar spot in the newer arena. So there was a weird sense of overlap between the two shows some 37 years apart.

That overlapping quality really drove home the fact that I have had a roughly 40-year relationship with the Who. Pete Townshend is about as close as I get to a hero. He turned 71 a few weeks after the show. He’s an old man now, but there he was playing the same songs with the same urgency that he brought to them in his 20s and 30s. And there was Roger Daltrey, twirling his microphone and letting rip with the occasional vintage scream. He can’t blast away the way he used to, but he still cuts loose a couple times a show. And there was Zak Starkey, who has now drummed with the Who longer than Keith Moon or Kenney Jones ever did. There were a few other musicians, including Townshend’s brother, Simon.

I wasn’t expecting a really great show, but it was. And if I could, in my mind’s eye, see the 1979 Who walking offstage at the end, this time I definitely felt like they were waving goodbye for keeps.

That doesn’t mean my relationship with the band will end. I don’t spend a lot of time listening to old Who albums these days. I don’t have to. Townshend’s music and lyrics are part of my DNA. My personality took shape during years when I listened to the Who and Stones and Kinks and the Clash pretty much continuously. They were surrogate fathers or big brothers or uncles to the young, impressionable me, and that’s the relationship I’ve always had with them.

Just a few weeks ago, I saw Wilco at the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia. I first saw Jeff Tweedy with Uncle Tupelo in 1994. I saw Wilco play two of its first ever shows, in New York and Hoboken, later that year. I’ve seen them any number of times over the past two decades.

There’s a relationship there, but it’s different. If Townshend’s my cool uncle, the godfather who met the punk, then Tweedy feels more like a younger brother or a cousin. We grew up in different places, but we were raised on an awful lot of the same music. I’ve seen him when he was unsure of himself after the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, and I’ve seen him in full command of his band and his audience at a big outdoor shed.

As it happened, this was the absolute best I’ve ever seen. The band played a terrific selection of songs from its entire career. The performances were great, the sound was really good, and it was a perfect June Saturday evening. The second encore was an acoustic set that would’ve been worth the price of admission all by itself.

If I have a 40-year relationship with the Who and a 20-year relationship with Wilco, my relationship with Frightened Rabbit is practically brand new. But there’s a similar arc to it. We first saw the band in the basement of a Philadelphia church. We saw them at Johnny Brenda’s, an intimate rock club. We saw them open for Death Cab For Cutie at the Mann. This time, they played the Electric Factory, one of the city’s larger venues.

And it was different. The band’s new album, Portrait Of A Panic Attack, isn’t bad, but it hasn’t really grabbed me the way their earlier stuff did. Scott Hutchison, the band’s songwriter and singer, used to come off as a miserable Scottish chap who had a distinctly depressive worldview. During this show, he was talking about how he’d moved to L.A. He seemed happier. And I’m glad for him, I really am.

If Townshend is my godfather and Tweedy is a distant cousin, then Hutchison is literally young enough to be my son. I watched him grow up, at least as an artist. Like the Who show, I got the distinct feeling that I was seeing Frightened Rabbit for the last time. It’s not that they weren’t good or that I don’t still like their songs. It’s more like I’ve gotten whatever it is I’m going to get from them. I could keep going to shows, but I don’t think I’m ever going to enjoy them the way I did in the past.

There’s still a relationship there, though. If Hutchison feels like a nephew or friend’s son that I watched grow up, then it’s just time to let go. I wish the band well, but we don’t need each other anymore.

There’s no letting go with the Who or Wilco. There may come a time when they stop coming around. That time is obviously near for the Who. But there’s no stopping the impact they’ve had on my life. I feel bad for young people who may never experience that kind of connection to a band, who may not have any bands worth feeling connected to. But that may be easier than having those kinds of connections and then losing them to time and age.

I don’t know which is better. I just know that we’re going to see Paul Simon next week. I bought “Kodachrome” as a 45 when I was 11 years old. I may get to hear him play it 42 years later. So I have that.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: OK Computer?

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I was starting to think that I really hated technology when it came to its effect on music. Then I thought, no, hate isn’t the right word. It’s too strong. It’s more like I resent what technology has done to music.

I’m not talking about digital recording or EDM or anything technology-related as far as the production or the sound of music. Well, except Auto-Tune. The sonofabitch who invented that should be gutted and left somewhere to die. But I’m talking about the developments that have taken all of the mystery out of music.

Example: I tell this on myself because I trust you and I know you would never use it to mock me at some later date, especially if we had a few drinks in us. Anyway, when I was younger (but not all that young; this lasted into my late 20s or early 30s), I didn’t know that the song “I Want To Tell You” was by the Beatles.

That doesn’t seem like a really big deal, probably. But you have to understand that I really, really liked the Beatles. I read everything I could get my hands on about the Beatles. This was only the late ’70s or early ’80s that we’re talking about. There’s a shit-ton more Beatles material to read now than there was then. But still, I knew a lot about the Beatles, but for some reason, I didn’t know that they did “I Want To Tell You.”

One excuse for this would be that I didn’t know the song at all, but I did. I not only was familiar with “I Want To Tell You,” I liked it a lot. It’s a great song. I knew that much. I just didn’t know that it was by the Beatles.

I had a lot of Beatles stuff on record, but for some reason, I had never gotten Revolver. Not until much later. There was a point in my life where I kind of lumped the “early stuff” together and viewed everything from Sgt. Pepper on as more deserving of serious scrutiny. At least I thought the later albums were more distinctive as albums, whereas the pre-Sgt. Pepper stuff was most easily handled by listening to greatest-hits records.

That isn’t a terrible idea, frankly. It’s just that I should have been smart enough to realize that the “serious” albums should have included Rubber Soul and Revolver. But I didn’t. And in that little gap between my good intentions and my dumbass execution, I somehow overlooked “I Want To Tell You.” And remember, George sings “I Want To Tell You.” It’s not like I didn’t know any of George’s songs. I just didn’t know that was one of them.

If this happened to me in 2016, I would Google a line or two from “I Want To Tell You” and—voila—there would be a zillion entries explaining to me that it was a Beatles song. Actually, Google returned 2.43 million results in exactly 1.45 seconds. The mystery of the poppy English song would have been solved faster than I could sing a line from it.
And that’s really great, but it’s also kind of sad. The wonder I felt when I finally realized it was the Beatles was palpable. Not only wonder that it was a Beatles song, but wonder that I had somehow managed not to know that. It seemed incredible. And while I like the song just as much now, it was actually kind of cool when I would hear it and wonder just who exactly it was. The Hollies? The Zombies? The Pretty Things?

No, nitwit, it’s the fucking Beatles.

A similar mystery: I never knew what the Faces’ “Itchycoo Park” sounded like. I would see a reference to it in an article and be mystified. How could I not know a song that was that well-known?

Of course, I could sing along word for word (mostly) to a song that went, “It’s all too beautiful, it’s all too beautiful.” I just never noticed the mention of Itchycoo Park in the lyrics.

Again, if that happened now, it would take five seconds on Google to resolve the issue. But that will never compare with the strange elation that overcame me the day these two separate strands finally tied themselves together. Ohmygodthat’sfreakingItchycooPark?!?!?!?

Mystery is good when it comes to music or, really, any art. It’s OK to have little epiphanies and moments of discovery and wonder.

There was an album I spent about two years looking for back in the early 1990s. It was called Town + Country by the Rave-Ups. It was out of print at that point and only avail- able as a German import. Whenever I traveled for work, which was pretty often, I would check whatever cool local record store was nearby and ip through all the “Misc R” discs.

Then one day, at Third Street Jazz And Rock in my hometown, there it was. One copy. I can still remember the chill that ran down my spine. And I have to say, I’ve never felt that chill from searching for an artist or album on iTunes, or from Googling an album and finding it available by direct download from a record label.

But then, the other day, for reasons best left unexplained, I was Googling Vincent van Gogh. In doing that, I thought of Don McLean’s song “Vincent,” which I always really liked. So I Googled McLean and Vincent and wound up reading about ve Wikipedia pages about McLean and “Vincent” and “American Pie,” McLean’s most famous song.

So there was the technology that I resented providing me with some surprising and compelling information (Roberta Flack’s hit “Killing Me Softly” was written about McLean; he was the guy “strumming my pain with his fingers”—I did not know that).

I was scrolling through my Twitter timeline this week and came across this little item: A label is going to re-release the Rave-Ups’ Town + Country this year. The new release will include 11 previously unreleased tracks.
The me who stumbled around America trying to find a CD copy of that album wouldn’t have known what Twitter was, let alone how it could deliver news like that almost instantly. But that me would’ve just been pretty damn glad to get the album. The technology has changed, but the music is still the point. At least I think it is.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Happily Divided

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Sebadoh is helping me understand this Donald Trump thing. If that doesn’t make sense to you, then you’re probably a normal, even high-functioning specimen of human. I’m not claiming to be either of those, but I still think there’s something worth sharing in my Sebadoh analogy.

So here goes: We’ll start in the present day. For the last few months, I will admit, I’ve been spending way too much time watching CNN and other networks as they try to make sense of Trump’s emergence as the likely Republican nominee for president. It’s been quite the experience.

I should fill in the background. I’m from Philadelphia, a short drive from Trump’s two most concentrated business centers: New York and Atlantic City. So anything Trump was doing in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s was well known to people in the Philadelphia area.

As a sportswriter, I covered a couple of the big boxing events that were staged in Atlantic City. You couldn’t go to a press conference, before or after the fight, without seeing Trump or Don King. There’s probably something useful in that juxtaposition, but I’ll leave that for you to work out on your own.

I was in the same room with Trump almost 30 years before he became a presidential candidate. I was obviously well aware of his later exploits, especially his second career as a reality-TV star. I spent three decades being aware of Trump, and it never once occurred to me to take him seriously.

That changed as Trump began earning millions of votes on his way to being one more election away from the U.S. presidency. I didn’t think much of George W. Bush for all the years he occupied center stage in our national life. But I took him seriously when he was handed the White House, and he used that power to lead the country into the Iraq war, arguably the worst presidential decision of the last 40 years. That decision has led to a lot of unforeseen consequences, including the rash of terrorist attacks launched by ISIS and its idiotic supporters.

There’s a difference between taking someone seriously and respecting that person. I would take cancer seriously if it showed up anywhere in my body. That doesn’t mean I would like or respect the sonofabitch.

So that’s the background. Back to the present moment. On Easter, I was at a lovely social gathering where conversation turned to politics. One of the guests was talking about the Trump phenomenon as if it were a UFO sighting. She was truly perplexed by the whole thing.

“I don’t know anyone who is voting for him,” she said. And that reminded me of the famous story about Pauline Kael, the legendary New York Times movie critic who said something similar about Richard Nixon in 1972. No one she knew voted for Nixon, she said, not realizing that said more about her range of acquaintances than it said about Nixon.

And this is where all of this comes back to music, which is the primary area of interest for readers of MAGNET. This is where Sebadoh comes in. This is also where I have to concede that the way my brain works probably isn’t all that instructive to anyone who has a brain of his or her own.

When I was young, I was passionate about the music that moved me. I still am to a certain degree, but now, it’s enough that I like it. I really don’t care if you or your friend Mike or two million Spotifyers like it. I hope you do, but that’s your lookout.

At some point, and this is where Sebadoh falls into the mix, I became increasingly frustrated by the gap between the music I loved and the music that was commercially successful. Sebadoh’s Bakesale was my perfect example. My belief at the time was that most people, if they heard Sebadoh (or Pavement or Guided By Voices) on their favorite radio station, would like that music instead of the shit they were being spoon-fed. The problem was in the way popular culture was being presented to people. The problem was not in the people themselves.

Let’s repeat: The problem was not in the people themselves. I believed most people—given access to what I considered smart, superior, worthwhile music—would come to enjoy that rather than the mindless shit they were hearing on the radio.

I was wrong. I’m not sure when I figured that out, but I did. It became abundantly clear to me at some point that people were wired differently. My belief that people were fundamentally the same was based on a well-meaning but erroneous view of the world. They’re not the same. In fact, they’re very, very different from each other.

Music taught me that lesson. Once I accepted that the young person listening to whatever crap was on the radio enjoyed that music as it was, and would never listen to or care about the music I thought was so great, I stopped worrying about it. I could make the perfect playlist of perfect songs by Uncle Tupelo, the Stones, the Wrens, Elliott Smith, Liz Phair and the Mendoza Line. I could turn that playlist over to another person. That person would simply never hear that music the way I heard it. They would never respond the way I responded. They might like it, but they would go right back to listening to whatever it was they really liked.

That lesson has helped me through the Trump-mania that’s dominated the news. The younger me would be infuriated, believing Trump supporters would change their minds if they were only exposed to more information. Now I realize that has nothing to do with it. People are simply different. Their brains work differently. Some don’t work all that well.

So I guess I’m hoping that there are enough people who think at least somewhat similarly to the way I think, that there will be a surge of voters who reject Trump’s candidacy. But I know better than to think that has anything to do with logic or common sense or reason.

Sebadoh never sold as many records as Kenny Chesney or Beyoncé. That doesn’t mean they weren’t better, by my reckoning. And that doesn’t mean I have to listen to Kenny Chesney or Beyoncé. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean I have to vote for Donald Trump.

It just means I hope to hell I don’t have to be governed by him.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Sexual Healing

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A couple weeks back, I was flipping through a certain music magazine when something struck me. There was a band with four women on the cover. There were features and photos on bands with women throughout the issue. I looked at the cover again. I looked at the contents page. There wasn’t anything declaring it the “Women In Rock!” issue.

OK, the magazine was MAGNET, the very product you’re holding in your hands. But that’s not the point. The point is that this was a music magazine filled with stories about women who rock without feeling the need to proclaim itself as an issue devoted to “Women In Rock!”

That was a real thing not that long ago. And the reason was as simple as it was unfortunate: There weren’t that many women involved in indie rock. If you were editing a magazine and you wanted to focus on something for an issue, you could do something on “Shoegaze Bands!” or “Bands From Seattle!” or, yes, “Women In Rock!”

We’re talking about the ’90s here. There were women around, of course. There were Bikini Kill and Hole. There was Scrawl, one of my favorite bands (if memory serves, and it seldom does, they did a live cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” once that was brilliant). There were Liz Phair and Mary Timony. There were Tsunami and Pee Shy. There were women who were in otherwise male bands, from Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon to Superchunk’s Laura Ballance to Jawbox’s Kim Coletta to Small Factory’s Phoebe Summersquash to Handsome Family’s Rennie Sparks (hi, Rennie!).

Aside from being a great bassist, Ballance was and is a partner in Merge Records. So I kind of think (and hope) that the proliferation of woman-led bands (whether the bands are all female or there are guys playing, too) results at least in part from the pioneers who carried their guitars and amps into clubs and posed for photos for the “Women In Rock!” issues of music magazines.

But I think there’s something else at work, too. One of the primary differences between the current music scene and the indie scene of the ’90s is that we’re essentially living in the post-label era. With the internet and social media and iTunes and so on, artists are able to reach the public without the benefit of the mighty record labels.

I’m inclined to believe that labels served at some level to keep women on the margins. Not entirely by design. Labels tended to dumb down almost everything in their misguided attempt to market music. Labels are fine with women and men who are going to sell 10 million units. It’s the less commercial and often more worthwhile artists that give them trouble.

If Nirvana was breaking out and selling a zillion records, labels went out and signed bands from Seattle or bands that looked or sounded like Nirvana. It never occurred to any of them that Nirvana was a unique phenomenon and it would have been much more fruitful to go find another original and gifted artist.

To take that a step farther, labels have no idea what makes an artist worth signing. When something breaks big, they trample over talented artists in their rush to duplicate the last big breakthrough. And almost all of what they were trying to duplicate for 40 years was rock music made by men. But there’s more to it than that. A group of women in the ’90s had to deal with other shit besides label indifference. The recent imbroglio involving publicist Heathcliff Beru, who resigned from his firm after allegations of sexual harassment, brought to light something that has no doubt been going on for ages. A woman in a band has to deal with sexist behavior from labels, from publicists, from journalists, from producers, from booking agents, from club owners and from fans. That surely goes on now, but it was certainly more prevalent and in the open in the 1990s.

It’s not like we’ve gotten past all that. It’s just that the trend has been toward more gender equity than there used to be. Once upon a time, Chicago’s Lounge Ax was notable because it was owned and operated by two women, Julia Adams (hi, Julia!) and Sue Miller. Now there are women booking shows and managing venues all over the place.

Once upon a time, Merge and Kill Rock Stars were labels that treated female artists respect- fully. Now there are women involved in every aspect of the music business. Once upon a time, Liz Phair recorded songs on a four-track machine in her bedroom. Now everyone with a computer has access to soft- ware more sophisticated than the studios the Beatles used.

So more women have ac- cess to recording technology. More women are able to get their work out via social media and the web. More women are writing about music on blogs and in online and old-fashioned print publications. It turns out that when women are free from the forces that limited their access, they make some pretty damn good music on their own terms.

This sounds a little odd, but bear with me. For decades, only white players were allowed to play in Major League Baseball. That deprived generations of black players from getting the opportunity to play. But here’s the thing. Because of that racist policy, all of us were denied the chance to know and to appreciate those excluded players. Society was the bigger loser. We have Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and other great players in our collective memory. But we were denied access to Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. Terrific baseball was played in the Negro Leagues, but America would be a better place if all those great players, black and white, had been able to compete with each other.

We’ll never know how many talented women never pursued music because it was so stacked against them. We can look around and appreciate that it seems like a lot more women are driving right through those road- blocks, if the roadblocks are even there. We’re going to get the chance to hear a lot more interesting ideas from a lot wider range of artists.

This may mean the death of the “Women In Rock!” issue. I think that’s probably a good thing.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: The Thrill Is Not Gone

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When you do something as long as I’ve written The Back Page, your perspective can get a little skewed. One way is assuming that you’re talking to the same readers who bought MAGNET back in the mid- 1990s. Another, and this is related, is believing those readers have been following along for years—not necessarily remembering every freaking column but having a general sense of what this whole deluded project has been about.

The reality is no doubt very different. There are some longtime read- ers, of course. I hear from them sometimes, and it never fails to kick my ass. If I could hug every single one of you, well, I probably wouldn’t. But you’d probably be backing away awkwardly the whole time.

I say all this by way of explaining something that I realized lately. If you’ve been reading MAGNET for even a couple years, you may have seen The Back Page where I talked about my brush with death. It was two years ago when I had what is called a “sudden cardiac arrest.” My heart stopped, and without the help of some extremely wonderful human beings, I would be writing this via Ouija board.

Anyway, for the last couple years, I haven’t been particularly impressed by much new music. OK, the truth: For the last 30 years, I have not been particularly impressed by much new music. It’s not that I was a grumpy old bastard who hated everything new. It’s more like I was a grumpy young bastard who hated pretty much everything through- out my lifetime. I’d gotten older, but I was born this way.

What I didn’t hate, I loved. For me, music was as important a part of living as oxygen, food and sex. For large portions of my life, I had much better luck finding music than some of those other elements.

So while the nature of the column led me to write a lot of words about things that I didn’t like, or that angered me, most of my actual life re- volved around listening to the music I did care about. You may know what I’m talking about. If I wasn’t listening to music, it was playing in my head. My wife was the one who informed me that I was humming much of the time: when I was working, when I was cooking, when I was walking down the stairs.

Music was just something that was always on my mind. And then it wasn’t. The humming stopped when my heart did. When I woke up in the hospital, I wasn’t thinking about music very much. When I got home, I didn’t work for a couple months. I was home a lot, often by myself. I almost never listened to music. I didn’t play my guitar. (I played it very badly before, so it was not a major loss to the world.) I didn’t hum or sing to myself. I was dealing with so many other things that I didn’t really think about the change in my attitude toward music. As time went on, I started making an effort to hear new stuff. That’s always been my habit anyway, but now it was a conscious effort because I felt like I needed to catch up. And if I was going to keep writing The Back Page every month, it would help if I heard some music made after 2010.

Almost everything I listened to over the last 18 months has really left me cold. I wasn’t listening to older, more familiar music as much, either. I wasn’t as interested in going to see live music, and when we did, I wasn’t as into it. I started thinking that I just had reached that point that most of my friends and family reached years before: the point where music was in the background somewhere, where it wasn’t a passion anymore.

A few months ago, I was having some other problems with focus and concentration. There were two possibilities, I thought. Either the stopping of my heart had led to a lack of oxygen that had affected my brain, or the sev- eral medications I was taking were causing the trouble. I was hoping it was the medications. Side effects were far easier to deal with than brain damage.

After talking to my doctor for a while, we decided to try different medications. The risk was that new meds wouldn’t be as effective in regulating my heart rate. That could lead the defibrillator im- planted in my chest to shock me. Having experienced this several times, I wasn’t inter- ested in feeling that again.

But being in a fog wasn’t working, either. So I switched to the new meds. So far, no problems with the defibril- lator. Within days, I felt a lot more like myself. The fogginess and lack of focus apparently weren’t the result of a lack of oxygen to my brain. They were just side effects from my meds.

All of a sudden, I was cranking music while I was working during the day. I was singing in the shower. I caught myself humming the other day. I looked over at my wife, and she was smiling at me. It felt like I had awakened from a dream.

The next move was to listen to some of the new music that hadn’t done much for me. Maybe I was missing something great. Maybe not, but at least I felt like I had a chance to tell the difference. I bought tickets to see Wilco and Frightened Rabbit over the next couple months. The new meds didn’t make me like what I heard during the Grammy Awards, but that didn’t mean much. I seldom liked much in the previous 40 Grammy broadcasts.

Now I must apologize, at least to the people who are exposed to me every day. This afternoon, for the first time in months, I tuned my guitar. I don’t think I’ve gotten any better at playing it.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Backstreet Boys And Girls

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We’ve been had. OK, I’ve been had. I shouldn’t speak for you on this important point.

I bought Ryan Adams’ 1989 album in good faith. I’ve liked Adams since Whiskeytown. If he wanted to record and release a full album of Taylor Swift songs, then hell, I was willing to go along for the ride. Adams has been so good for so long, I felt like returning a favor to the guy.

After buying the album and listening to it a few times, I spent a little time online reading some of the reaction that was out there. One of the themes was a sort of feminist resentment to the whole project. The idea was that Swift didn’t need Adams to legitimize her as a songwriter, and that it was offensive for anyone to think he did.

Because I bought the Adams record on iTunes, I never really looked that hard at the credits. I should have. More to the point, those writing righteous feminist takedowns of Adams and his chauvinistic fans should have paid a little more attention to the credits. Because they have been had, too, and a lot more painfully than I was.

This whole thing is really indicative of what has happened to what we used to call music. So, maybe it’s fitting that Taylor Swift is selling millions of copies of her album. Fitting in the sense that if everything that sells is plastic, contrived shit, then the biggest-selling records should be the most plastic and the most contrived shit of all.

Maybe I should have known all about Taylor Swift and her “writing” process, but honestly, I didn’t. It’s funny, too, because I first wrote about this phenomenon years and years ago. I deplored it then and I deplore it now. I just wasn’t paying that much attention to Swift or the way she was being mass-marketed.

The key name here is Max Martin. It is the nom de merde of a Swedish producer whose real name is Karl Martin Sandberg. I first became aware of him when the teenagers in my family were listening to such pop dreck as Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. It was back then, around 2000, that I first wrote about Martin and his methods.

He writes and produces pop hits. That’s what he did then and that’s what he does now. He has written, co-written and/or produced hits for *NSYNC, Kelly Clarkson, Bon Jovi, Pink, Katy Perry and Maroon 5. There are more, but you get the idea. If you’re reading MAGNET because you’re interested in Real Music Alternatives, then Max Martin is the guy producing much of the music that we need alternatives to.

Well, it turns out that the great feminist heroine Taylor Swift “co-wrote” seven of the songs on 1989 with Max Martin. She co-wrote a couple with Ryan Tedder, who is the OneRepublic guy and another of these commercial producers. She co-wrote one with Imogen Heap.

There is exactly one song on the album for which Taylor Swift has a solo writing credit. I cannot say with any certainty that she actually sat down and wrote the song by herself, but she has the credit.

I really don’t care much about that, frankly. If it takes this Swedish hack to churn out the kind of crap that commercial radio will play, then fine. Go for it. It’s going to sound like the 90 percent of contemporary music that will cause me to change the station or turn the radio off immediately.

Except …

Here’s where I feel like I’ve been had. It’s safe to say that Ryan Adams knows full fucking well that those songs were cranked out by Max Martin at his Swedish sausage factory. And yet Adams recorded all the songs on 1989 and released them as a kind of tribute to Swift. And then he has done all kinds of interviews about his connections to the songs and his respect for Swift as a songwriter and, well, bullshit.

Let’s put it as straight as possible: Adams has perpetrated a gross betrayal of every one of his fans who fell for this scam. I know because I’m one of them. Never mind that he’s bringing in songwriting royalties for the guy who churned out “Since U Been Gone” and “I Kissed A Girl.”

But what’s worse is the way Swift has scammed her fans and constituents. These hung-up little brats who scoffed at Adams and his fellow chauvinists because they failed to acknowledge Swift’s talent until it was appropriated by a man? Sorry, but Max Martin and Shellback and Ryan Tedder are all similarly burdened by penises, even if their music doesn’t sound like it.

Taylor Swift as an overhyped pop artist? Fine. Taylor Swift as some feminist icon? Sorry.

We’re really through the looking glass here. Back in 1969 (the year, not the name of some album), Tammy Wynette was criticized by feminists because of her song “Stand By Your Man.” The thing is, Wynette actually wrote “Stand By Your Man” along with Billy Sherrill. She didn’t hire a couple of men to serve as her ventriloquists.

So, Wynette was vilified by feminists while Swift is being championed by feminists. That must make sense to someone.

Maybe Ryan Adams.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Looking Back At 2016

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OK, so I’ve been doing these for quite a while now. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the first year I forecast in MAGNET was 1946. Lots of jokes about Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sisters that year. There is a sort of art to this. OK, that’s a reach. There’s a technique, though. Something along the lines of “Measure twice, cut once.” What you want is to come up with stuff that is a bit far-fetched, but grounded in reality. That’s where the (attempted) humor is, anyway. Yes, one year I had Beck and Jesus in an apocalyptic showdown that featured lasers shooting out of Beck’s eyes. Far-fetched? Sure. But be honest: Did that seem much more far-fetched than predicting that Beck would win the Grammy for Album Of The Year at any time in the future? Seriously, that actually happened. And when it did, it seemed like less than a big deal. But if you had put a gun to my head in 2002 and asked me which was more likely, I probably would have gone with the lasers.

Anyway, I’m confessing all this to you, my close personal friend, for a reason. The time-tested formula is in some jeopardy here in 2015. It has become almost impossible to establish a place where things are “a bit far-fetched” from any accepted “reality.” I was thinking it would be a good joke to have Miley Cyrus do a concert in the nude. And then I saw a thing online about how Miley and the Flaming Lips were planning to do exactly that. Nothing is too far-fetched. Worse, there is no baseline reality that everyone is familiar with. We each perceive the world as we scroll through it on our phone screens. The world looks very different through hundreds of millions of tiny peepholes. How do you find universal themes and assumptions in this environment?

But fuck it. That’s not my problem. Making the jokes is my job. Getting them is up to you. So on with it.

JANUARY
Björk announces a reunion tour, but then forgets to show up for it.

After a Titus Andronicus show in Chicago, someone explains to Patrick Stickles that playing punk rock in 2016 is a lot like playing big-band music in 1976. Now Stickles is really bummed out.

FEBRUARY
Donald Trump, bored with pretending to run for president, buys the Rolling Stones for $20 million and announces he will now pretend to be Mick Jagger instead. He schedules a “really classy, really first-rate” North American tour for late summer.

Will the Who be able to get through its final world tour without anyone onstage peeing his pants? Depends.

MARCH
Paul Dano and John Cusack win Best Actor at the Academy Awards for playing Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy. Dano gets the base of the trophy and immobile legs while Cusack gets the expressionless face and paralyzed upper body.

APRIL
Sleater-Kinney has its first top-40 hit with a remake of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” which makes for a neat echo of the Andrews Sisters reference from the intro.

MAY
In a new edition of her memoir, Chrissie Hynde says she blames herself not just for being raped, but for the death of Pete Farnsworth, the breakup of the Clash, the rift between Ray and Dave Davies, Thatcherism and that whole cock-up in the Falkland Islands.

Lars von Trier acquires the screen rights to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle series. When von Trier realizes it will take him four years to adapt the books into screenplays and another five years to make the films, he shitcans the project and signs on to direct Transformers 13: Megatron Poops His Pants.

JUNE
Wilco announces a reunion tour, but then abruptly cancels it when someone explains to Jeff Tweedy that a band has to break up before it can reunite. The only date that gets played is in Detroit, because nobody in Detroit gives a fuck.

JULY
Neil Young, R.E.M. and Tom Petty show up at the Republican National Convention. Not to play—they’re just there to kick somebody’s ass.

The Pitchfork Festival gives itself a 1.3.

AUGUST
The Rolling Stones go on tour in North America. For the first time in more than 50 years, Mick Jagger is not with them. New lead singer Donald Trump pulls daughter Ivanka onstage in Hartford, Conn., for a duet on “Honky Tonk Woman.”

At the Summer Olympics in Brazil, Michael Phelps disappears into murky water during the 10,000-meter final. And that’s pool water we’re talking about.

SEPTEMBER
The Rolling Stones tour ends abruptly when Keith Richards chokes to death onstage after throwing up in his own mouth during “Miss You.”

Ryan Adams’ “cover version” of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album wins a Grammy Award for Most Elaborate Ruse To Get Into The Pants Of A Much Younger Woman.

OCTOBER
Kurt Vile, Ariana Grande and Mac DeMarco. The lineup at a festival in Austin? No, it’s True Detective, Season 3.

Bookstores welcome new music-related memoirs by Billy Idol, Adam Ant, the bass player from Tears For Fears, the cartoonist who made the “Take On Me” video, Cyndi Lauper’s dog groomer and Vanilli from Milli Vanilli.

NOVEMBER
Ben Carson is elected the first black Republican president of the United States. He is not the first Republican shit-for-brains to be elected, however.

Distraught over the outcome of the election and, well, most of the last 30 years of American history, Bernie Sanders hangs himself in effigy from the top of the Capitol Dome. Well, he hangs an effigy of himself. The real Bernie is over at IHOP for the senior special dinner.

DECEMBER
Santa Claus, sick of wish lists full of iPhones and tablets instead of sleds and toys and puppies, blows his fucking brains out. Everyone is too busy staring into their smartphones to notice there are no Christmas gifts this year.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Paint A Vulgar Picture

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This is why it’s worth hanging around. You just never know what the hell might happen.

We were standing in a fire hall just outside Pittsburgh. The door opened, and the Vulgar Boatmen began filing in. Not all of the Boatmen, of course. Even in their early ’90s prime, it was rare to see more than half of this remarkable band in any one place. I was privileged to witness one of the exceptions to this basic truth, and more on that in a moment. This version of the band had driven from Indiana to Pennsylvania in order to play a wedding reception. It made no sense except that, in the context of the band and its history and its fans, it made absolutely perfect sense.

I’ll try to explain. Back in those early ’90s, when the Vulgar Boatmen were releasing the incredible Please Panic album, a bunch of people from around the country were discussing music and related subjects (life, death, art, passion, literature, boogers, manners) on messageboards that existed only within the parameters of the Prodigy online service. This was before you simply clicked on your browser and surfed the World Wide Web directly. You needed some kind of service provider, and Prodigy (along with America Online) was one of the larger, more easily navigated ones.

In discussing the Waterboys and World Party, John Wesley Harding and Poi Dog Pondering, we started noticing that a few of the same people were turning up on different messageboards. So, a few of us started our own messageboard as a way to stay in touch with each other. In time, this board became known as the Donnette Letters, for reasons I choose to preserve as private. I don’t know exactly how many people participated on the board. I’d say somewhere between 10 and 20.

One of the inner circle popped up one day asking for help identifying this band she’d just heard on the radio. She described the song, and I immediately knew who it was. The song was “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” and the band was the Vulgar Boatmen. I messaged back and Jen was able to buy Please Panic, and, well, that was one of the best things about this whole setup when it was working right.

That was in 1992. That March, on a work trip to cover spring training in Clearwater, Fla., I had my own Vulgar Boatmen experience. I was looking through a copy of Creative Loafing, the alternative weekly that covered the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. Thanks to a piece written by a guy named Tom Roe, I saw that the Vulgar Boatmen were playing at a student activity center on the University of South Florida campus. I went to the show and, recognizing Tom from his column sig, introduced myself to him. I just wanted to thank him for the preview, because if he hadn’t written, I literally never would have realized I was staying about five miles from a Vulgar Boatmen show.

Two nights later, I went to Gainesville, Fla., to see the entire Vulgar Boatmen contingent play together. It was worth the ridiculous four-hour round trip, and then some.

We talked for a little bit at the Tampa show—Tom, me, my friend Andy and Tom’s girlfriend Jenny. I mention that because, 23 years later, I went to see the Boatmen at a fire hall near Pittsburgh. I was accompanied by my wife, Jenny, whom I had met some 23 earlier when she was Tom’s girlfriend.

A year earlier, I had written an email to Dale Lawrence, one of the two primary singers and songwriters in the Vulgar Boatmen. Jenny’s birthday was coming up, and I was trying to figure out a proper way to celebrate it. I wanted to see if there was some way for us to see the Vulgar Boatmen, maybe in Indiana or Chicago. Dale responded, with regrets, that due to illness, the band was not likely to be playing any time soon.

Many months later, I received word that one of my old friends from the Donnette Letters days was getting married. Nora lived near Pittsburgh. She and her fiancé, Dan, had reached out to Dale Lawrence as well. This time, the Boatmen were able to book a show. They were going to be playing at this wedding reception just outside Pittsburgh, and Jenny and I were invited. Twenty-three years after we met at a Vulgar Boatmen show in Tampa, we were standing in a fire hall in Pittsburgh to see the same band.

And it was remarkably close to the same band. Dale Lawrence, guitarist Matt Speake and drummer Andy Richards played both shows. Jake Smith, who looked younger than I would have thought possible, was along to play bass for this 2015 show. Jon Isley and Janas Hoyt, who were in the band in 1992, were not there.

The Donnette group included Nora, the bride, along with Jen (whom I had identified the Boatmen for way back when), Ed (a cheery music fanatic from Cleveland) and Steven (who had convinced his wife to drive down from upstate New York). For a bunch of music-messageboard nerds from the early ’90s, we were all pretty damn normal and presentable.

Part of me thought how unlikely it was to be seeing such a memorable show in such an odd place as a fire hall near Pittsburgh. Really, something like this should have drawn a packed house at some venue in Lower Manhattan. But the truth is, the setting was really kind of perfect. The Vulgar Boatmen had drawn the attention of influential critics like Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau, but they had existed in a reality that was totally independent of what was cool or in vogue or anything else.

Lawrence and Robert Ray, his long-distance writing partner, had created an alternate alternative rock, totally separate from the Nirvana/Pavement/GBV world that was blossoming elsewhere. It would be deeply satisfying, as a fan, to see them get their just recognition. But instead, there I was, as a fan, standing in a fire hall in western Pennsylvania, listening to a band that might as well have been beamed down from another time or another planet.

It was worth hanging around for, I can say that much.

—Phil Sheridan

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