Category Archives: THE BACK PAGE

The Back Page: The Thrill Is Not Gone


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


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


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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


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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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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