The Back Page: The Whole Love

It was not a smart idea. It was a really stupid idea.

It was not a good idea, but it was kind of a great idea.

Actually, stop to think, it wasn’t really an idea at all. It was a reaction, purely instinctive, back in May when the tickets went on sale. On May 12, the email trail says, I learned of the two concerts:

Guided By Voices, August 19, at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland.

Wilco, August 21, at Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y., site of the Baseball Hall Of Fame.

How weird is that? Really. Think about it. My two favorite bands of the past 30 years—members of my personal Hall Of Fame—playing two nights apart at two major Halls Of Fame. That can’t be an accident. That is a gift from the Gods Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, and only a fool looks that particular gift horse in the mouth.

I may be a fool, but I’m not that kind of fool. I ordered tickets for both shows that same day. Figured I would work on the details later. And I did. See, those two Halls are nowhere near each other, and neither one is anywhere near our home in Langhorne, Pa., just outside Philadelphia. It would take seven hours to drive from home to Cleveland, then another seven hours to drive from Cleveland to Cooperstown. After that, all that was left was the five-hour drive back to Langhorne.

Stupid idea. But great idea at the same time. Let me explain.

In 1992, 30 years ago, I discovered this band named Uncle Tupelo. Credit for that goes to Mr. Tom Moon, who was a music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Tom raved about the first two UT albums. I was so intrigued that I immediately bought an album by Uncle Green, a totally unrelated band I ran across under “Misc. U” in a record store. Uncle Green was actually pretty good, but they didn’t sound like the band Moon was championing. It was 1992, so I couldn’t just Google this information, and I couldn’t access a copy of Moon’s review, which had gone out with the recycling—if we were even recycling back in 1992. George H.W. Bush was still president at the time.

It wasn’t until later in the year that I got my mitts on No Depression and Still Feel Gone, the first two Uncle Tupelo records. And Tom Moon had nailed it. These records blew me away. I was no wide-eyed youngster. I was 29, and I had been a huge music obsessive for nearly two decades by then. I was hooked by the British Invasion bands, especially the Who and the Kinks, then thoroughly committed to the Clash and then Elvis Costello and Squeeze and the Replacements and so on. Uncle Tupelo felt like the best parts of my favorite bands steeped in the rich waters of Cosmic American Music.

Also in 1992, I met a cool young woman named Jenny Juristo. I was in Florida to cover the Philadelphia Phillies’ spring training in Clearwater, Fla. My friend and colleague Andy Vineberg came with me on a trip to see a band called the Vulgar Boatmen play in Tampa. I knew about the show only because a music critic named Tom Roe (Tom Moon, Tom Roe; you tell me if these are coincidences) featured the show in his Creative Loafing column. Since it was a column, Mr. Roe’s photo was published. As Andy and I watched The Simpsons on a TV at the University of South Florida student center, Tom Roe walked in accompanied by local radio DJ Jenny Juristo.

My goal was to thank Tom for the news of this show. The Vulgar Boatmen were one of my absolute favorite bands (30 years on, that is still true). The chance to actually see them play live was unbelievably rare. They seldom toured. So I walked over and introduced myself to Tom, who then introduced me to Jenny. They told me about a showcase of local Tampa bands scheduled for later that same week. I went to that show and hung out with Tom and Jenny and thought about moving to Tampa. I already had two friends in the burgeoning music scene in a good-weather town, while Philadelphia was colder, meaner and, at that time, not nearly as interesting musically.

But I digress. Andy and I drove up to Gainesville and saw the Boatmen again, and I finished my spring-training assignment and went back home to look for Uncle Somebody CDs. I finally heard Uncle Tupelo and pretty soon it was March of 1993 and I was back in Clearwater for spring training. I saw in Creative Loafing that Tom Roe had opened a record store in Ybor City called Blue Chair Music, and that DJ Jenny Juristo was hosting a poetry slam at Three Birds bookstore right across Eighth Avenue that very night (you tell me if these are coincidences). Naturally, I went over the causeway into Tampa.

Jenny and I hung out a little that week. We were both excited about the release of a new Uncle Tupelo record, Anodyne, which turned out to be their last. We also talked about mutual favorite Pavement. And then Jenny asked me if I’d heard of this obscure lo-fi band from Ohio called Guided By Voices. I had not. Jenny had heard them through WMNF, her radio station, and was so enthralled that she started singing one of their songs to me. It was a song called “Non-Absorbing” from their album Vampire On Titus.

So I’m sitting at the dining room table and I see that Wilco (the band created from the remnants of Uncle Tupelo) and GBV (the band sung to me by a DJ in Tampa) were playing two nights apart near two different Halls Of Fame. It’s 30 years later. The flash forward would show Jenny forming a band called Pee Shy with fellow poet Cindy Wheeler, one of the owners of Three Birds Bookstore; me seeing GBV at the Khyber Pass in Philly for the first of three dozen times; Pee Shy getting a record deal and moving to New York; me getting a job at the Philadelphia Inquirer; Jenny marrying Eric Morrison (whose band Home moved to New York after getting a record deal in Tampa); me covering the Philadelphia Eagles and becoming a sports columnist; Jenny and Eric having two amazing sons; my two amazing daughters growing up and graduating from high school.

And then: big changes. My marriage fell apart after 24 years. Suddenly single, I sent a birthday greeting to Jenny Juristo Morrison via MySpace, which would surely emerge as the dominant social-media site. From her profile, I could see that she had a happy life in New York with Eric and their two sons. This was 2008. I hadn’t seen Jenny or communicated with her since Pee Shy played a show (including a GBV cover!) at J.C. Dobbs in Philadelphia in 1995. But we met in Manhattan to catch up. We caught up. A year later, Jenny and her boys moved into the house in Langhorne, Pa. Turned out two marriages were falling apart simultaneously (you tell me if that’s a coincidence) and social-media profiles don’t tell the whole story (a shock at the time).

A couple days after the move, Jenny and I drove down to Wilmington, Del., to see Jeff Tweedy and Wilco play at a minor-league baseball park called Frawley Field. A few months earlier, when she was still living in New York, we had gone to Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia to see Robert Pollard and his side project Boston Spaceships.

Music was how and why we met. Music was how and why we had so much to talk about. We have this thing about being in the same Tribe. And that Tribe only ever assembles in front of stages lined with massive speaker cabinets. We got married in 2012 in Clearwater, so 2022 was the year of our 10th anniversary. And a month before that anniversary, I saw that GBV was playing in Cleveland two nights before Wilco was playing in Cooperstown. You tell me if that is a coincidence.

It was a stupid idea. It was certainly an impractical idea.

So naturally, we did it. We left Langhorne early Friday morning, traversed the Pennsylvania Turnpike through godforsaken Trump country, hung a right at the Ohio line and arrived in Cleveland at 5 p.m. We checked into the Marriott and walked over to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in time to hear GBV soundchecking on a stage set up just to the left of the main entrance. We had tickets to go into the Hall, so we did. We had almost three hours to tour the place, and it was really great fun. We had dinner outside from a food truck. At 8 p.m., Bob Pollard, Doug Gillard, Kevin March, Mark Shue and Bobby Bare Jr. walked out and started making a magnificent racket.

We were together, with our Tribe, in front of a stage lined with massive speaker cabinets. GBV played nearly 50 songs that night. The last song of the main set was “Non-Absorbing,” the catchy Vampire On Titus tune I first heard from a DJ in Tampa 30 years earlier.

Spoiler alert: There are no coincidences.

The GBV show in Cleveland was absolutely worth the trip. Pollard is ridiculous. I mean, he always has been ridiculously talented, ridiculously focused, ridiculously prolific, ridiculously inspiring and all that. But the man I first saw with a couple dozen early adapting fans (including MAGNET impresario Eric T. Miller) at the Khyber Pass in Philly almost three decades ago is still a commanding frontman in 2022. He has assembled the tightest GBV lineup of all time, and he rides that tiger like a Zen master. I mean, damn. There are maybe a dozen bands as good as GBV in the building across the plaza that night. I mean that seriously. The Beatles were certainly a great band, but they held it together for eight years. GBV has been churning out brilliant rock ‘n’ roll for 40 years. Five times as long as the Beatles. Pollard couldn’t have made Sgt. Pepper, but John, Paul, George and Ringo would not have been able to make Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes or, hell, Tremblers And Goggles By Rank.

Sound like hyperbole? Nope. Let’s put it this way, the Beatles had a head start, and Bee Thousand remained unrecorded. The Rolling Stones and the Who and the Kinks and every other band of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s had the chance, but no. It took Mr. Pollard, the fourth-grade teacher from Dayton, Ohio, to produce all that music. And GBV’s performance at the Rock Hall might not be the best of the 35 or so shows I’ve seen over almost 30 years, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a better one.

The setting was part of that: outdoors on a perfect summer evening. And the setting was a big part of Wilco’s outdoor show in Cooperstown two nights later. Jenny and I made the drive from Cleveland to Cooperstown on Saturday, regrouped and got to Brewery Ommegang about a half hour before the gates opened Sunday. We walked in and literally walked right to the fence that separated us Wilco hooligans from the stage. We stayed put a couple hours, including a set by surprisingly fun opening band Kamikaze Palm Tree. Right at 8 p.m., Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Nels Cline, Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen walked out and started spinning magic.

The last time I was this close to the band was in 1994, when I saw them twice in three days, first at the Mercury Lounge in Manhattan and then at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J. Tweedy and Stirratt were likely the only other people who were present at both of those shows and were present in Cooperstown. (Hey, there were enough people in Cooperstown with gray hair who might have been at those shows. My friend Roob—you’d know him if you saw him—was at Wilco in New York in 1994 and GBV in Cleveland in 2022, but not at Maxwell’s and not at Brewery Ommegang.) The simple proximity—front row, bitches!!—made this a special show. The show itself—the perfectly balanced set list, the (almost) perfect weather, the amazing performances by six amazing musicians—was beyond special. It was unforgettable.

It hit me a little later. Within 50 hours, Jenny and I saw the two best rock ‘n’ roll bands of the past 30 years. We have a lot of favorite groups, from Okkervil River to the National to the Mountain Goats. We had front-row seats for Pavement, and together we’ve seen Jonathan Richman and X and Sebadoh and Marah and Yo La Tengo and Amy Rigby and Dr. Dog and Matt Keating and (John) Wesley (Harding) Stace and Joe Pernice and this Bruce Springsteen guy. We have been around quite a bit. But our 30-year story, including that 15-year gap in the middle, began with GBV and Wilco, and it felt like a gift from the Rock Gods to celebrate our anniversary with those very same bands.

They’re great bands. They’ve been with us for all these years. They’re part of our Tribe, and so are all the thousands of people who were at those shows with us.

I cried just once at each of these shows: When Jeff Tweedy delivered “Hummingbird” (a song I decided I wanted played at my funeral at a time when my funeral seemed imminent). It spoke to me, and it might have been the best song to speak for me. Two nights earlier, Bob Pollard delivered “Echos Myron,” a song he once expected to get a big roar in Philadelphia because it mentions the Liberty Bell. Eventually, “Echos Myron” got that roar at Philly GBV shows; once again, Bob Pollard willed his rock fantasy into reality. But on this night, it was different line that got me: “And we’re finally here/And shit yeah, it’s cool.”

Pollard gestured toward the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame and my eyes filled up. GBV is as good as anyone in that museum. So is Wilco. And we had the stupid idea to drive more than 1,000 miles to see them both in one weekend, and we finally were there.

And shit yeah, it was cool.