Category Archives: THE BACK PAGE

The Back Page: Paint A Vulgar Picture


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.

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The Back Page: Don’t Look Back In Anger

The occasion of MAGNET’s anniversary has a lot of us reflecting on just what the hell we think we’ve been up to the last 15 years. It turns out that what I’ve been up to is the slow, inexorable, sometimes painful realization that I’m as full of shit as everybody else. No way, gasp you, the loyal reader of this space. Surely you (that is, me) are joking, setting me (that is, you the loyal reader) up for some delightful and well-crafted punchline. But no, not this time. There is no joke. At least I don’t think there is. I really have come to the conclusion that I’m precisely as full of shit as everyone else.

Here’s why this is relevant for discussion purposes: When you’re given the privilege of a space like this to communicate with some number of random strangers, it’s assumed by all parties that you somehow deserve that privilege. That you’ve earned it. If I don’t feel like I have something worth saying, then there’s no way I sit down at my laptop and tweeze every painful one of the 1,100 to 1,300 required words from the shriveled lobes of my poor sodden brain. And if you don’t feel like I have something worth saying, even if you think that only because it’s sitting there on the final page of an otherwise really good and fun and smart music magazine, then you don’t make it this far. That doesn’t mean you automatically agree with what I’m saying, incidentally-only that you start reading this thing on faith that it belongs here.

So it has become kind of troubling for your humble narrator to continue to fill this space while growing ever more aware and certain that he (that is, I) is (am) just as full of shit as everyone else.

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The Back Page: Sympathy For The Devil

It’s so very punk to want to slam dance all over the grave of the American Record Industry (b. 1929 – d. 2008). Good riddance to The Man. Let us gob on the memory of all those tone-deaf A&R men, greedy suits, house producers, misguided promotions foofs and slick payola palm-greasers. Let the mp3 rule, give the artist the power, long live musical freedom!

At this year’s induction ceremony for the Rock and/or Roll Hall of Fame, no less a rebellious iconoclast than Billy Joel (80 million records sold) introduced musical freedom fighter John Mellencamp (28 million units moved) with a note of triumph: “Congratulations, John! You outlived the record industry!”

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The Back Page: Family Values

backpage76_280Raising children is the ultimate opportunity to indulge your music snobbery. For anyone who writes about music or just plain spends way too much time listening to it, thinking about it and standing in bars for three hours waiting to see someone play it, kids are your golden chance to replicate your own magnificent taste in the personality of another living human being. (Or two or three of them.) Except for the minor problem that it doesn’t work.

Before we go any further, let’s get rid of the Clockwork Orange-y image you might’ve been forming of Little Alex with his eyelids forced open, watching violent images and listening to Old Ludwig Van as part of his social reconditioning. We’re not talking about force-feeding our favorite tunes to helpless young children here, although God help the toddler who fucks with the stereo on my watch.

Kidding, kidding. Seriously, though, it’s a heady thing to realize when they’re young that you have virtually complete control of what your kids hear. As a parent, you are able—and perhaps obligated—to create a top-40-radio-free environment for your offspring. You wouldn’t store leaky barrels of benzene in the nursery, so why would you allow strangers to fill your children’s impressionable brains with shitty music?

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The Back Page: Looking Back At 2008

In the nightmare from which there is no waking—or, as you may know it, life—there will be a giant music festival. Only there won’t be any bands or singers there. It will be a music festival devoted entirely to dweebs who excel at Guitar Hero or Rock Band: video games that allow you to realize, virtually speaking, your fantasy of being a rock star. This is not a guess.

Toward the end of 2007, an ad appeared for a concert featuring Gibby Haynes and a bunch of teenagers from the Paul Green School of Rock “playing the music of the Butthole Surfers.” This would be like Michael Jordan—no, wait, that’s wrong; it’s Gibby Haynes here, so we’re talking more like Sedale Threatt—getting paid to come out and play guard for the local high-school basketball team. There are already what amount to rock ’n’ roll fantasy camps. Saggy old middle-age nerds get to put on ripped jeans and play power chords next to washed-up frontmen and drummers. It would be funny if it weren’t so freaking depressing.

Just as Madden NFL and Tiger Woods PGA Tour allow sloppy-fat dopes to “compete” from the comfort of their sofas like actual athletes, these video games let soulless, tone-deaf lardasses pose like Eddie Van Halen and Ritchie Blackmore in the middle of some wankerrific solo. Rock Band even allows for the mystifying phenomenon of people who want to pretend to play bass. WTF?! Even real bass players don’t want to play bass.

Here’s a quick look back at 2008, the year that’s spreading all over you like a stain.

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The Back Page: Almost Heinous

backpage77I spent a lot of time thinking about fame this summer. It started with the story I wrote elsewhere in this issue about a band called the Mendoza Line, which was as successful at ducking fame as it was at making great records. I followed the thread to a live performance by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the stars of the movie Once, who were astonished by the film’s impact on their music careers. Before its release, they had played to a tiny crowd at the Tin Angel, an intimate folk club in Philadelphia. Now they were playing at a sold-out theater-style venue in Philly that’s hosted everyone from Radiohead to Ray Davies.

Hansard is also the lead singer and songwriter for the Frames, an Irish band that’s been plugging away since the early ‘90s. He was all too keenly aware that this little independent film was making a bigger splash than his entire career with the Frames.

“It’s like I’ve spent the last 17 years knocking on the world’s door,” Hansard said from the stage. “And now the world suddenly has turned around and said, ‘What do you want?’”

All those years seeking fame, and now he was freaked out to get a taste of it.

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The Back Page: Chaos Theory

backpage75One of the obvious reasons to write about pop (or any other kind of) culture is the belief that you can somehow change it. Maybe you can nudge it in a certain direction or, by sheer force of your impeccable taste and powerful prose, convince every living human being to drop what they’re doing and listen (I mean really listen this time) to a certain artist or album.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Nobody will ever hear the Stones’ “Torn And Frayed” or Uncle Tupelo’s “High Water” or the Vulgar Boatmen’s “You Don’t Love Me Yet” precisely the way I hear them. I can type from now until the Cows reunite and it won’t matter. You’ll hear and like what you want, I’ll hear and like what I want, and as long as we can occasionally nod our heads knowingly in time with the same song, things are cool. And music and art and books and movies will evolve as they will, no matter how many words are wasted yearning for the good old days.

What, the alert reader asks, happened to this doofus? Aren’t those so-called, probably nonexistent good old days—when every band had a cool name, two guitars, bass and drums and excellent T-shirts for sale at a reasonable price—the entire raison d’etre for this so-called, probably nonexistent place we call The Back Page? What changed?

Simple answer: science.

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The Back Page: Looking Back At 2007


The year 2007 marks exactly three decades since the Year of Punk, 1977, and it’s stunning for someone who cared then and cares now to attempt keeping score on how things all turned out. For me, the fundamental choice between the Sex Pistols and the Clash was a no-future no-brainer. It was Clash all the way. Joe Strummer and the lads were angry and righteous and filled with passion and, in their brave way, even hope. Johnny Rotten and his bunch were cynical little shits who yelped about anarchy as if they had any idea what that might actually be like.

Well, here we are, 30 years later. The Pistols were right, while Strummer’s grand message of hope is down in the ground with him and the worms. There is new music I like and new music I don’t much care for. There is no music that I believe in, and there won’t be again. So fuck it. Download some shit your friend likes and wonder why your attention span isn’t long enough to reach the end of this sentence. Turns out everything is pretty vacant after all. Here’s what the next 12 months will look like. Let’s hope we make it all the way to the end.

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The Back Page: Gimme Fiction


Get a good grip on your memory. If it doesn’t go back to the 1970s, you may want to read a book or two. See, Hollywood is coming for our icons next, and there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it.

The madness started a couple years ago, when Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for doing the same damn Ray Charles imitation—side-to-side with the head, face taking in the air—that everybody does. Ray set the template: early family traumas, love of music, a love story, some success, battles with drink and drugs, temptation that fucks up the earlier love story, pressure from The Man, redemption, decent soundtrack. Last year it was Johnny Cash and June Carter, essayed in Walk The Line by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. She got the Oscar this time.

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The Back Page: Thinking Outside The Box Store

back-page71510So you’re leafing through the ads in the Sunday paper and what to your wondering eyes should appear but the new Cat Power CD for $7.99. At Best Buy. This, you figure, is a great thing. Cheaper than iTunes, way cheaper than the $12.99 they’ll probably be charging at the local record store. And look: You can pick up Broken Social Scene, the Arcade Fire and a couple other titles at the same ridiculous price. It’s almost free, and therein, gentle indie rockers, lies the problem.

A quick confession: I have been guilty of buying music and DVDs, as well as appliances and such like, at Best Buy. Oh, I resisted at first. When they built the monstrous new store up the highway from my house, I avoided it entirely for a few years. Better to spend money with local businesspeople, I figured. Better to support the stores and shops run by entrepreneurs with an investment in our community. I wore down.

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