The Back Page: Don’t Stop Now

I didn’t buy the Guided By Voices tickets thinking they could be for my last show. That was in October, when the December 30 show at Philadelphia’s Underground Arts went on sale.

I bought tickets because that’s pretty much what I do when GBV is involved. I first saw the band at the Khyber Pass in 1993—I know that with some certainty because I found video of that show on YouTube—and have seen Bob Pollard and his various lineups somewhere between 25 and 30 times in the years since. So buying tickets for a GBV show wasn’t exactly a big moment for me.

It became bigger later, after I was diagnosed with leukemia in mid-November. Regular readers of this column (all six of you! Hey there!) may well know that I nearly died in 2014 from a sudden cardiac arrest. I didn’t die that time (or I did, and this is all part of some weird afterlife where I don’t know I’m dead and I just keep typing). In fact, I recovered pretty much completely and was back to living pretty much as I always had for my first half-century on the planet.

But then: leukemia. I assure you, it’s not a word you’re really expecting to hear your doctor say. In this case, my doctor also said some pretty encouraging things, such as, “The goal here is a cure.” She also recommended that I begin treatment as soon as possible, so I went into the hospital that day and started chemo the very next day. The following month wasn’t a lot of fun, but exactly four weeks after I went in, I was released from the hospital. I was officially in remission and still chasing that “cure” my doctor talked about.

The big thing about getting out of the hospital when I did was that it was in time for Christmas and New Year’s. That had been a pretty big motivation for me, especially since I was in the hospital for Thanksgiving. The folks at the hospital, including a charitable foundation (thanks, HEADstrong Foundation!), do their best to make Thanksgiving pleasant for patients and their families. And it was pleasant. But there’s nothing like being home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I was thrilled to be out of the hospital for those family moments.

In the middle of the holiday season was the GBV show. When I walked out of the hospital, I had no idea if I would be able to make it. I didn’t know how I’d feel or what else might be going on. It didn’t help that, the very day I got out of the hospital, TV sports reporter Craig Sager died. I had known that Sager was sick, but I had never really heard anything about exactly what he had.

According to the news story that day, Sager died from acute myeloid leukemia. I had just spent four weeks being treated for acute myeloid leukemia. So while the goal was still a cure, clearly nothing was guaranteed here. As the GBV show approached, I felt better and stronger each day. I thought I could make it to the show. I also knew that I would be going back into the hospital in January for more chemo and, later, a bone marrow transplant.

Put that all together, and without being melodramatic, it seemed reasonably possible that this GBV show would be the last concert I would ever go to. And that seemed pretty fitting. I have had a lot of favorite bands over the years, and it would be fantastic to see the Who or the Clash or the Kinks or the Replacements or Uncle Tupelo one last time. But some of those would require reincarnation and some would probably just be depressing. GBV is the band I’ve seen more than any other, so it would be the perfect band to end on.

Then came the show. It’s a little weird to go to a venue and hand over your ticket thinking it might be the last time you ever do something like this. That makes it tough to approach a show with an open mind, when you’re thinking, “Man, GBV needs to deliver a show worthy of the occasion here.” You want to go out like Ted Williams, hitting a home run in your last at-bat, not standing in front of a stage watching some band go through the motions in the middle of a tour.

But that’s one of the reasons I thought GBV was the right band. Even going through the motions (and I’ve seen them on those nights), they’re damn good. When they’re fully engaged and at their best, they can be transcendent. On the next-to-last night of 2016, they were pretty damn transcendent. Pollard sounded as good as ever (and miles better than he did in that 23-year-old clip on YouTube). Doug Gillard was back on guitar and sounding as much like some blend of Keef and Townshend as ever. The setlist was 55 songs long and represented a remarkable career survey.

It sounds like the perfect show to end on, but it wasn’t. Not because of the band or the audience or the venue, but because of me. I enjoyed the show, believe me, but not nearly as much as I normally would have. I just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t sick or anything. I don’t mean there was anything dramatic going on. My head just wasn’t in the right place. I got the fastball I was looking for, but unlike Ted Williams, I swung right through it.

Ultimately, I don’t have full control on whether that turns out to be my last show. Leukemia and fate and some very good medical professionals will decide whether I have more time for going to see bands, or for anything else.

I do have control over what I choose to do with the time I have left, whether it’s six months or 25 years. And I don’t think that was Ted Williams’ last at-bat. A few days after the GBV show, a friend texted me about a show scheduled for mid-January. Without even thinking it over, I told him to get me a ticket.

I didn’t know if I would be able to go—I might be in the hospital—but I did know this: GBV may still be the perfect band for my final show, but I’m thinking we’ll get to that a few years from now.
What do you think, Bob? Maybe 2025?

—Phil Sheridan