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