The Back Page: Still Feel Gone

I don’t own a cellphone and can’t imagine why I would want to. I don’t spend hours staring at the internet, because the internet isn’t really there yet. Even though it’s 1993, I’m able to learn about cool new bands and keep track of when they’re coming to town. I go to shows and just watch them without feeling compelled to take a device out of my pocket and take photos or video.

It was during these forgotten, primitive conditions that I first encountered MAGNET. It was in a bookstore, and the issue I came upon had a short story about Uncle Tupelo, which was about my favorite band at the time. A few months later, I got an envelope in the mail at work.

It was from Eric T. Miller, the editor of MAGNET. It turns out the magazine was published in Philadelphia, my hometown. I was the sports columnist for a chain of suburban Philadelphia newspapers. Every now and then, I would mention a band in my column—Pavement, Uncle Tupelo—and Eric had recognized a fellow music obsessive. So he sent me issues of MAGNET, which was a little less well-produced than it is nowadays. It looked a little more like a really nicely laid-out zine, frankly.

I wrote back to Eric to thank him, and one thing led to another. Pretty soon, we were meeting at a show at Trenton’s City Garden. We hit it off, and next thing I knew, I was writing a column for the magazine. It was a fun time. MAGNET was writing features about the best bands of the era. Eric and I almost simultaneously discovered an Ohio band called Guided By Voices. We went together to a show at the Khyber Pass, then the best rock club in Philadelphia. We saw a skinny, middle-aged Robert Pollard acting out his arena-rock fantasies on the Khyber’s tiny stage. Those fantasies weren’t far off from my own teenage fantasies. Pollard and his band and his songs seemed like some kind of realization of those fantasies.

I loved GBV right away, but I could never have foreseen the way the band became identified with MAGNET or the number of encounters that link would create. I spent the rest of the ’90s and early 2000s going to GBV shows and rubbing elbows with Pollard and the rotating cast of band members. It was pretty great.

I’m thinking about all this because it all started a quarter of a century ago. MAGNET started 25 years ago. This is the 150th issue of the magazine. I’m still writing The Back Page column. The magazine is a lot slicker than it used to be, and the writing throughout is always really good. As much as the magazine has changed, though, it can’t compare to everything about the world the magazine covers.

This may sound like a complaint, and maybe it is, but I almost feel like we at MAGNET have become kind of like the staff at Downbeat or some other jazz magazine. We’re writing not about a current and vibrant art form, but more often we’re looking back on the happier past, when our music was fresh and new and exciting. When new artists are the subject, it feels almost like we’re fetishizing bands that make music that sounds like the stuff we loved so much from the ’90s.

Meanwhile, it feels like many of the current artists are trust-fund brats who have the money, time and freedom to dabble in cultural forms from a quarter-century ago. Picture some millennial opening a new bar that re-creates the feel and atmosphere of an old speakeasy, only with craft beer and a menu that includes locally sustainable meats and, of course, avocado toast. I might go in there and have a really good meal and a couple of drinks, but I wouldn’t be able to ignore the fact that it was a fundamentally artificial experience.

That’s how current indie-rock bands sound to me. Some of them sound pretty good, but they’re approximating a sound from another time. I saw dozens of bands in the 1990s—god, think of all the times I saw two opening bands just to get to a headlining band that I like—and one thing they almost all had in common was an authentic commitment to the music they were making. Maybe I was just a sucker and a lot of those bands were faking it, but I don’t think so.

Take a step back. There were bands in the ’90s that were doing their very best to recreate the sounds of bands from the ’60s or ’70s. I liked some of them, but there was that same sense of pantomime as we see so much today.

It’s tough. I mean, I would hate to be a young artist strumming a guitar in 2018. It feels like every chord progression and melody and lyrical idea has been covered and copied several times over. I’m not sure it’s possible for a band to sound as fresh and as original as GBV or Uncle Tupelo did to my ears in 1993.

And remember: I wasn’t a kid at that point. I was 30. I grew up going to see Bowie, the Stones, the Who and the Kinks. I had been a serious music fan for more than half my life, and I still got goosebumps the first time I saw GBV.

I don’t expect to have an experience like that again. Not now. MAGNET continues to write about worthwhile artists and to champion the few real standouts.

Hey, the staff over at Downbeat is always on the lookout for the next great horn player.

—Phil Sheridan

The Back Page: Looking Back At 2018

It has been even weirder than I thought it would be, living in a country where Donald Trump is the president. We’ve now had almost an entire year of it, and I frankly can’t imagine how we’re supposed to get through three more. Seven is beyond comprehension.

In the past, when the government has been in unfortunate hands, we at least had the comfort of a robust artistic reaction. The Vietnam era gave us some of the greatest music of all time. During the Reagan years, punk and indie music provided relief. Even if it wasn’t overtly political, you could feel the resistance expressing itself in all kinds of music.

Now? Meh. There’s no music “scene” to begin with, so how can that scene reflect the times? The answer is it can’t. It doesn’t. Taylor Swift isn’t going to risk alienating her fans by commenting on the state of things. But that was always true of the really popular artists, the chart-toppers. The problem now is the absence of anyone else who might hit on this stuff.

Are Spoon or the War On Drugs going to make a punk record? A protest album? I don’t think so, and I don’t think I want to hear it if they do.

Bruce Springsteen could maybe make a listenable protest record, but would he at this stage? And who would buy it and in what format? Besides, Bruce is playing Broadway for a thousand dollars a ticket these days. Not exactly sticking it to the Man.

So it’s up to us at The Back Page, not so much to stick it to the Man as to just stick to it. We’re going to do what we’ve been doing and be glad that 2020 is a little closer every day. For more than two decades, we’ve taken a look back at the new year, and we’re not going to let a little thing like good sense stop us now. Here’s a look back at what 2018 will bring:

January
On the first anniversary of his inauguration, President Trump throws a Second Annual Inaugural Ball on the National Mall in Washington. The Baha Men and Donny Osmond are the featured performers.

February
In a series of heavily sourced reports, The New York Times blows the lid off Hollywood’s sex-abuse scandal. According to the Times, every single man who produced, directed or starred in a motion picture before 2017 wantonly and repeatedly abused every woman within his influence. Harvey Weinstein cannot be reached for comment.

March
Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr meet to discuss a Beatles reunion. Paul says he has some songs lying around from 1972. Ringo says they could call themselves Liverpool Rhythm Section. At some point, they remember that they have a jillion dollars and this will be a huge pain in the ass. “So hello, goodbye, then,” Paul says. “Say what?” replies Ringo.

The National plays the final show of its long tour in Berlin. The band leaves the city on five different flights to five different cities. “See you in 2022,” says Matt Berninger, as his sunglasses fog up.

April
On the eve of the big trial, President Trump pardons Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and Henry Rollins. “No collusion!” he tweets. “And I really liked those first couple Black Flag albums.”

May
In an interview with Pitchfork, Bob Mould says he is willing to consider a Hüsker Dü reunion. “I’m not sure why,” says Mould. “It just feels like a better idea now than it used to.”

June
Wilco releases a surprise new album, Will Comply. The record is released only on the dark web, where all your personal information is already available. If you can find the dark web, you can find the album.

July
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young hold a press conference to announce that they are all still alive. “Who’d-a thunk it?” says Graham Nash. “We’re not doing a reunion or anything, but my God, we’re all still breathing. Even fucking Crosby.”

August
Jared Kushner jumps onstage with Queens Of The Stone Age. “This is about the worst thing I can imagine happening at one of my shows,” says Josh Homme. “I mean, the nerve of that guy.”

September
After selling “Here Comes Your Man” to the not-so-punk-rock Citibank for a commercial, the Pixies sell “Monkey Gone To Heaven” to Marlboro for a series of web ads.

October
On the first anniversary of Tom Petty’s death, Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Jeff Lynne and the Heartbreakers gather to “get to the point” and “roll another joint.” But they still don’t know how it feels to be him.

November
In what analysts see as a reaction to a second year of President Trump, Democrats win 350 seats in the House of Representatives and regain a majority in the Senate. On Twitter, Trump blames “weak candidates” and reminds everyone that he won 300 electoral votes in 2016. “My historic landslide makes me unimpeachable!!!” Trump tweets.

December
Father John Misty releases a Christmas album, although none of the 11 tracks is remotely about Christmas. His fans see the anarchic genius of this. The rest of the world continues spinning in blissful oblivion of Misty and his fans.

On his Facebook page, Santa Claus announces that he won’t be delivering gifts in the continental United States this year. “You people have lost your freaking minds,” Claus, a citizen of the North Pole, writes. “See you when you find them again.”

The Back Page: Room At The Top

This was going to be about music and time, about how we’re twice as far from 1977 as from 1997 but how the music from each era—from the punk of ’77 to the indie rock of ’97—sounds every bit as relevant and fresh to me. So much more relevant and fresh, that is, than the music of 2017. Or 2016. Or 2015.

This was not going to be about Tom Petty, but then he died, and, well, plans changed. It didn’t hurt that Petty first gained attention during the ’70s punk era and remained relevant and listenable through the indie-rock era and beyond. He was even on the cover of MAGNET once, which I thought was pretty cool. Here was a rock star who still qualified as a “Real Music Alternative,” even 25-plus years after he first popped up on our radios.

There was nothing punk about Petty’s music, really. Sure, there was a sneering derision in some of his lyrics and in the way he sang. But the music was rock ’n’ roll, pure and simple. Petty was ballsy enough to make straight-up rock music during an era when everyone else was tearing their jeans and spiking their hair in an effort to fit in with the perceived scene.

Compare Petty and his Heartbreakers to the Police. Also not a punk band, Sting and the boys dyed their hair blond and spiked it up in an effort to pass the punk test and market themselves. Elvis Costello was really a rock ’n’ roll writer—he’d tried to make it before punk broke and simply altered his look to fit in. It worked, and Costello’s first couple of albums were energized by the attitude of the times, but when the “mature” Elvis appeared a few albums later, that was the real Elvis, the pre-punk Elvis.

And all that was fine. I liked the Police then and now, and I liked Costello then and now. But Petty didn’t bother with the posing. He was just himself, whether it fit the mood of the times. And that is infinitely more punk, spirit-wise, than the pictures Sting and Costello posed for in order to pass as punk.

Think of the cover of Damn The Torpedoes, the first Petty album I bought. It was just Tom, standing there with his long blond hair and his guitar. He wasn’t trying to pass as anything but himself, which is exactly the kind of realistic individuality that punk was supposed to be about. Around the same time, Mick Jones of the Clash had longish black hair. I always considered that the most punk look in the Clash, because it was Jones flipping off all the stereotypical trappings of ’70s British punk. And when he turned up with short hair on the cover of London Calling, that was fine, too. As long as Mick was doing things on his terms, he was a punk hero to this suburban Philadelphia kid trying to make sense of it all.

It was a fascinating time. The original stars of ’60s rock were flailing about, trying to stay relevant. Even such unquestioned giants as the Who and the Rolling Stones were cutting tracks with disco beats in order to sound current. I was a huge fan of those bands—throw in the Kinks and that was the foundation of my music fandom (the Beatles had pretty much dispersed by the late 1970s). Now punk had come along and shaken everything up again.

I loved the Clash more than anything at that point. They really were, if not the “only band that mattered,” the most powerful band of their era. With the Clash, I felt what it must be like to listen to those other bands, the Who and Beatles and Stones, when they were churning out classic albums every year or so. With London Calling and then Sandinista!—two careers’ worth of great music for anyone else—the Clash delivered two masterpieces with minimal fuss and bother.

But Damn The Torpedoes, a record released just before London Calling? That was a pretty perfect album, too. And while the Clash couldn’t survive beyond 1982’s Combat Rock, Petty just kept making great records full of memorable, beautifully crafted songs. And he died a few days after completing a long 40th anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers.

In the four decades in between, he was always relevant and always worth listening to. He was as good as anybody ever, combining quality and durability the way very few—Dylan? Neil Young? Springsteen?—are able to do.

I know a few people who ranked Petty as their favorite artist, but only a few. I could never say he was at the very top of my list. But almost everyone I know liked Petty and could (and would!) sing along with any one of his hit songs if the occasion called for it.

Nobody didn’t like Tom Petty. When you get down to it, that’s a hell of a legacy.

—Phil Sheridan

The Back Page: That ’70s Show

If I was, as Jeff Tweedy sang, “raised by rock ’n’ roll,” then I have to face a pretty grim reality right about now.

The people who raised me are dying off. And I don’t mean that a random few of them have passed away. I mean that we’re in the era when any one of them could go at any time and it isn’t really surprising anymore. I mean, it was surprising when Bowie died, but it wasn’t really all that surprising when you did the math. It wasn’t Prince-level shock or, God knows, Cobain-level earthshaking.

It happened. It happens.

This is a reality that people in my age bracket (old to pretty damn old) have to face in our everyday lives. Our parents are in their 70s or early 80s and they simply aren’t going to be around that much longer. When they die, we’re going to be at the top of the hierarchical ladder, the next in line to step off into the dustbin.

This all seemed very relevant when Walter Becker died in early September. Becker seemed about as random a member of the rock generation that raised me as anyone. As half of the duo that formed and maintained Steely Dan, Becker was one of the more mysterious figures in ’70s rock music. He didn’t sing—that was his partner Donald Fagen—and he never did interviews or appeared to give a shit what anyone thought of him or the band. He just co-wrote and played on some of the more intelligent and cynical music of a pretty cynical decade.

A couple of years ago, I caught a few passing references to Steely Dan that seemed to lump the group into what was called “yacht rock” by the too-cool-for-school set that had been too young to know anything about the 1970s or its music. I guess that’s understandable enough. I mean, the face of yacht rock is probably Michael McDonald, the smooth-piped crooner on a lot of ’70s hits, most notably the Doobie Brothers’ classics. McDonald sang on the first couple of Steely Dan records, so Steely Dan literally employed the King Of Yacht Rock.

Still, to define Steely Dan by its association with McDonald (and by extension, the fucking Doobie Brothers) is to miss the point by a wide margin. It showed a fundamental ignorance of ’70s music that I couldn’t begin to correct when I heard it. Let’s put it this way: There was punk and there was the music that punk was meant as a middle finger thrown up against. The Doobie Brothers and, I don’t know, Toto and Journey were bands that were getting the middle finger from the punks.

Steely Dan? I don’t think so. Look, Steely Dan was as musically competent as any band of the era. They could play. But their attitude was another story. It was more in line with the Replacements than with anyone else I can think of. They were cynical and identified with losers in a profound way.

“They got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues”

No, punk rock wasn’t throwing a middle finger up at Steely Dan. And if you think Steely Dan was “yacht rock,” you just don’t know what you’re talking about.

And just to bring our pal Tweedy back into the conversation, at around the same time I heard people lumping Steely Dan with the Doobies and other “smooth” ’70s hitmakers, I first encountered the term “dad rock” to describe bands like Wilco. That more or less brings us back to the top of this column. Tweedy is also at the age where his parents—his real ones and the surrogates provided by rock ’n’ roll—are getting close to the end. That means that yes, he literally is a dad. But that doesn’t mean he is suddenly in the near-obsolescence bin with his forefathers. He still has his 50s to do with as he pleases.

I know I went ahead and got old, but that doesn’t mean that younger people get to misunderstand and misinterpret everything that happened in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. There is still a historical record—even historical records!—that we can all point to and acknowledge as definitive.

The problem is the way we lose the details on people and things as time goes by. So Michael McDonald sang on Steely Dan albums as well as some other smooth-as-shit ’70s hits. That doesn’t erase the vast gap between the Dan and those other ’70s hit-makers. It just doesn’t, even if that gap isn’t as easy to see from this end of the binoculars. It doesn’t mean Steely Dan was cut from the same bland cloth as those other bands.

Steely Dan was unique, and Walter Becker was half the driving force behind that uniqueness. The other half was Fagen, who wrote an appreciation for his partner in which he promised to keep playing their music as long as he could. Bravo for that. I would respect Fagen if he felt differently, but I like the idea of him playing those twisted songs and snarling those bitter lyrics for as long as he can.

It’s his right, and it keeps people my age just that little bit further from the edge of the abyss. That’s fine with me, and with Jeff Tweedy, too.

—Phil Sheridan

The Back Page: Rejektor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Phil Sheridan

The Back Page: Rock ‘N’ Roll Idles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Phil Sheridan

The Back Page: Shelf Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Phil Sheridan

The Back Page: Curb Your Enthusiasm

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

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

Phil is one of my best friends. My brother in harm. Has been since when we first met at a Dinosaur Jr show in Trenton, N.J., way back in the day. I knew Phil as a sportswriter from my local newspaper, reading his stuff religiously (as atheists like me do) while in high school. His columns spoke to me. I felt like I was sitting next to him at a bar (not that I had been to a bar at that point), listening to his take on Philly sports. I told my parents back then, “I want to be able to write like Phil Sheridan.” That never happened. Those who can’t write end up editing music magazines. Prior to meeting Phil during college, not long after I started MAGNET, I was visiting my folks, and my dad said, “I saved the newspaper for you.” So the first thing I did, of course, was read Phil. And his sports column mentioned Pavement.

So, old school, I sent Phil a bunch of MAGNETs in the mail and a note saying I was a fan and thought he might dig the magazine. The next week, I got a call from Phil saying he’d already seen MAGNET. (“Picked up the new issue at the airport in Colorado.”) If you watch any ’80s teen movie where the guy doesn’t ask the girl out and regrets it forever, I decided to do the opposite and be bold. I said to Phil, “Do you want to write for MAGNET?” I was certain he would say no. But he said, “Yeah, I’d love to.” I said, “We have this thing called The Back Page, but I’m not sure what it is exactly. I think you could do something good with it.” And, obviously, he’s done it.

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

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

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

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

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

—(not by) Phil Sheridan

The Back Page: Darkness On The Edge Of Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, hey. My, my.

—Phil Sheridan

The Back Page: Wake And Be Fine

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

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

Okkervil River has been trying to kill me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Phil Sheridan