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