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