Category Archives: THE BACK PAGE

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

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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

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The Back Page: Looking Back At 2017

I don’t think I’ve ever been as ready to rip down a calendar as I have been this year. It wasn’t a great 2016 for me for personal reasons, to be honest with you, but it was much, much worse as a reasonably engaged citizen of the United States.

I just deleted four paragraphs of what was turning into a rant about the 2016 election. You’re welcome. There’s nothing to be gained by expending any more energy on that. It was awful. It’s over. Bring on 2017.

So we shall stick to our mission here: offering an uncannily accurate picture of what’s coming in the year ahead. We offer it confidently and cheerfully, even though we have to admit we totally blew last year’s predictions. I mean, I had Trump replacing Mick Jagger in the Rolling Stones, not becoming president of the United States. How naïve I was then!

I’ve learned a thing or two. There are distractions to avoid. So this year, I have my eyes on some very clear signs of the things to come.

January
At 7:16 a.m. on January 1, my friend Roob (you’d know him if you saw him) tweets out his “10 Best Shows Of 2017,” which includes Car Seat Headrest (number eight), Hurry (number four) and bands you’ve never heard of and may not even exist (numbers two, six and 10).

On January 21, his first full day off in eight years, Barack Obama flies to Chicago to begin recording his first album with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy as producer and musical arranger. The songs are described as “cool jazz meets trip hop” by an unnamed source. (Pat Sansone, probably.)

February
Tundra Trip—the first Icelandic outdoor music festival, featuring Björk, Mugison and John Mayer—is canceled when organizers realize how freaking cold it is in Iceland in February.

Trend spotting: In the new tradition of indie songwriters writing novels (John Darnielle, Joe Pernice, Wes Stace), GBV’s Bob Pollard announces his first book will be published in May. Frozen Yogurt For The Moth Queen contains 327 chapters in 14 pages.

March
Bob Dylan wins the Oscar for best actress in a supporting role, even though he wasn’t in any movies and wasn’t nominated.

The Magnetic Fields play two shows in Boston as part of their 50 Song Memoir tour. The band plays 25 songs the first night and the other 25 the second night. Midway through the second show, a restless fan yells out a request for “Punk Love” from 69 Love Songs. Stephin Merritt pulls a pistol from his sportcoat and shoots the son of a bitch in the heart.

April
Dweezil Zappa receives a restraining order from Tony Zapata, the great-great-grandson of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. The court order prohibits Dweezil from using the Zapata name to promote his concerts or sell merchandise.

May
Jeff Tweedy and Will Sheff trade bands. Tweedy makes a new album with Okkervil River playing behind him. Sheff does the same with the rest of Wilco. When plans to tour together break down, neither album is ever released.

Are we still making Ryan Adams jokes in 2017? Apparently not.

June
Cleveland celebrates the 2017 Stanley Cup championship. No team from Cleveland wins it, because there is no team from Cleveland, but what the hell? A parade is a parade.

Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! announces that she regrets the mistake she made with her body. No, not that. She deeply regrets that tattoo sleeve down her right arm. “There’s no way all that ink is good for anybody,” says Grace.

July
In the wee hours, rival Philly rockers break into Kurt Vile’s house and cut off his hair. A horrified Vile discovers that without his locks, he no longer has the ability to play guitar. On the plus side, he finds his lost car keys and $14.70 in change amid the clippings on his bedroom floor.

August
Bob Dylan is named the grand prize winner on America’s Got Talent, although he never actually appeared on the show.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction concert is hampered by the absence of inductees Bad Brains, Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk. On a positive note, Tupac does show up.

September
The 1990s revival hits full swing with the premiere of Too Punk For You, a sitcom starring Steve Albini and Stephen Malkmus as two guys in a van who drive from city to city canceling gigs because the venues aren’t punk enough. Danny DeVito costars as their driver and roadie.

October
In Stockholm, the Nobel Prize committee announces the 2017 winners, including Bill Nye The Science Guy for physics, Suze Orman for economics and Hugh Laurie for medicine.

Inspired by the success of the first Desert Trip music festival (a.k.a. Oldchella), organizers decide to push their luck by signing Chuck Berry to headline this year’s shows. Joining the nonagenarian Berry on the bill are Little Richard, Chubby Checker, Frankie Valli, Willie Nelson and John Mayer.

November
This November is much more pleasant and enjoyable than November 2016. Not sure why. The weather, maybe?

Another court order for Dweezil Zappa. This time, it’s from lawyers representing the Sinatra family. The order prohibits Zappa from using the name “Frank” to promote his concerts or to describe a particularly candid or direct work of art.

December
We made it through the first year of President Trump! It’s looking unlikely that Congress will ever approve funding for that stupid wall on the southern border. And who would have thought that Bernie Sanders, at his age, could personally filibuster for nearly 1,000 hours in just eight months. It was a shame when hurricane season resulted in 23,000 deaths in Florida this year, but hey, those fuckers handed the White House to a guy who doesn’t believe in climate change. Who knows? Maybe 2018 will produce a Democratic House and Senate and Bernie can take a few days off. Here’s hoping.

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The Back Page: Real Police

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So a middle-aged white dude—a freaking sports writer, no less—went to a Bruce Springsteen show the other night. In 2016 America, as filtered through Twitter and Facebook, that qualifies me as arguably the most predictable of stereotypes. I’m fine with that, except for a couple of minor details.

For one, it was the first time I’d attended a Springsteen show. That seems impossible, especially for someone who grew up in the Springsteenian epicenter of Philadelphia and has lived most of his life within a short drive of Asbury Park, N.J. I’m also someone who has seen about 1.3 million bands over my decades as a serious musical obsessive.

It’s not like I didn’t like Springsteen. I did, and I do. For a variety of reasons, I just never went to see him. I guess there was a part of me that had trouble with the maniacal devotion of many of his fans. I got the sense years ago that the people who saw Springsteen every chance they got didn’t really have interest in any other bands. It felt more like religious fervor or sports fanaticism than it did love of music.

So I had the records and I liked Springsteen as an artist, but I just never went to see him until this summer. I bought the tickets because my wife happens to be one of those True Believer Springsteen fans. For the September show at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Jenny wore a T-shirt she bought at a 1984 concert at the Rosemont Horizon near Chicago. She was following Bruce and the band around for a while and saw about a half-dozen shows in a week or so. She has photos of her posing with him and everything. (I’m only a little jealous about this.)

She wanted to go, and I figured, hell, why not? It’s not like I was making some kind of statement here. I just hadn’t produced enough enthusiasm to overcome inertia and propel myself to a show. As time went on, in fact, it felt as if I’d missed my chance. Springsteen got older, E Streeters died, and I felt more and more like I should have gone to one of those shows in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

But there I was, standing out in right field in a major-league ballpark on a warm September evening. There was Bruce and the current E Street Band, and they were really great. For a little more than four hours, with almost no interruption, they toured Springsteen’s entire back catalog. It was a really memorable show, and at least now I won’t die without having seen one of the seminal artists of my lifetime.
But that’s not what this is really about.

Midway through the show, Springsteen sang “American Skin (41 Shots),” the song he wrote and recorded in 2000 as a response to the shooting of an unarmed man by New York City police officers.

I was aware of the song and the story of Amadou Diallo’s killing, and the reaction to both, back in 2000. But all of that had faded in memory, even with the events of the last couple years.

It was astonishing to hear an honest, clear reaction to a terrible tragedy, devoid of the noise that surrounds any discussion about these issues in 2016. Before any of us ever heard of Ferguson, Mo., before Black Lives Matter existed as an entity, Springsteen said exactly what needed to be said on the subject.

“It ain’t no secret, no secret, my friend/You can get killed just for living in your American skin.”

Springsteen didn’t make any speeches. He didn’t introduce the song by talking about current events. He didn’t risk turning off fans conditioned to shout their talking points the moment a trigger subject is raised.

He just performed the song in a hushed ballpark, his image projected on three giant video screens as he sang about the “41 shots” that four cops sprayed at an unarmed 23-year-old man. When contrasted with the celebratory, inclusive spirit of classics like “Born To Run” and “Rosalita,” the whole thing was that much more powerful and affecting.

Springsteen’s 34-song set didn’t include “Born In The USA” or “Glory Days.” He could have played either of those hits and kept everyone in the audience feeling happy and contented. Playing “American Skin” was a choice—a brave one, given the present climate.

But what hit me was how uncontroversial the song really is when you listen to it. Strip away the Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter back-and-forth, and it really is as simple as Springsteen makes it sound: You can die in this country just for the color of your skin. That should be unacceptable to every last one of us, beginning with the vast majority of professional, selfless police officers who put themselves in harm’s way every time they leave for work.

This should be about simple decency, about our shared humanity. It shouldn’t be about Left or Right, Republican or Democrat. When an unarmed man is killed by police, we should be saddened and determined to figure out what happened and how future incidents can be prevented. It shouldn’t be an opportunity for professional shouters to go on TV and attack the character of the victim or smear all police officers because of the actions of one or two.

That’s the beauty of the song. Springsteen didn’t take sides, didn’t use words that will alienate or provoke anyone. We’re all wearing our “American skin,” no matter what shade it might be.

I’m glad I finally wised up enough to go see Springsteen play. It was a great show. But it was still sad to realize that we’ve spent the last four presidential terms going backward when it comes to living in our American skin.

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The Back Page: Where Have All The Good Times Gone?

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The big Desert Trip Music Festival seemed like an obvious target for a Back Page column. Something smartass about a bunch of geezers—Dylan, McCartney, the Stones, the Who, Neil Young, Roger Waters—out in the California desert, kind of a Burned-Out Man Festival.

As it turned out, though, the whole thing actually led me to think about something else entirely. Or, rather, it shed a flickering light on something else that I had already been thinking about.

Which is: The Kinks have a great song called “20th Century Man.” It was on their Muswell Hillbillies album, which was recorded and released back in 1971. At that moment in time, Kinks songwriter Ray Davies was only 27 years old. And at that moment, the 20th century still had 29 years left in it. So I don’t think Ray was thinking about how dated “20th Century Man” might sound to the average rock ’n’ roll fan in 2016. Shit, I doubt Ray or anyone else thought there would be any such thing as rock ’n’ roll by 1980, let alone 2016. (And frankly, they would have been right. That’s probably another whole topic, but really, who the hell makes “rock ’n’ roll music” at this late date?)

I was only eight years old when Muswell Hillbillies came out. Even by the time I actually bought the record, about eight or nine years later, I can say with certainty that the 21st century was not on anybody’s radar. Shit, we read Orwell’s 1984 in high school not five years before the date in question. It did not feel like we were living in Winston Smith’s dystopian society.

That didn’t happen until the Bush administration.

The thing is, I still feel like I’m a 20th century man. I was only aware for the last one-third of it, but we all spent a lot of our educations on making sense of the first two-thirds: World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the ‘50s, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing. We spent a lot more time thinking about our own century than the one that was waiting just a few years ahead of us.

Now we’re 16 years into it, and it feels like we’re still waiting for something to define the century. Terrorism, from September 11 to ISIS, is probably the closest thing we have. Social media is right there, too. But my guess is that by 2070, there will have been some massive events that will define the 21st century: Trump’s nuclear attack on China or the arrival of spacemen who look exactly like fucking E.T., something like that.

The 21st century is just taking shape, in other words. As it does, it will become common to think of cultural events as 20th-century events. Until now, we’ve kind of broken shit up by decades: ‘50s music is very different from ’60s or ’70s music, for example. The ’80s amounted to five good albums and an enormous pile of shit.

But as we march into the future (OK, we’re going to be on all fours for much of it, but marching sounds so much more positive), we’re eventually going to reduce the whole 20th century to one category. And that show in the California desert is pretty close to how we’re going to remember it.

Look, there will be a class at the average university called A Survey of 20th Century American Culture. It will cover Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Bogart and Nicholson, the invention of television and advent of cable. And then it will devote a week or two to 20th century music: jazz, country, blues, musical theater and then rock ’n’ roll, disco and hip hop.

Rock ’n’ roll will mean Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and maybe a short section on punk and alternative stuff. There might be mentions of the Who and Pink Floyd. But details tend to get filtered out when you’re trying to define or describe an era.

Take my earlier mention of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Those two pretty much cover American literature for the first half of the 20th century. But if you were living in the 1930s, you might be a bigger fan of John Dos Passos or Upton Sinclair or John Steinbeck or William Faulkner.

That’s where the Kinks and Cream and Led Zeppelin will end up, in the Dos Passos/Steinbeck bin.

The point of all this, if there is one, is in the difference between studying an era and living through that era. As a kid who came to cultural awareness in the 1970s, the music and movies and books of the 1960s seemed unbelievably important and special. I felt compelled to understand it all—how it happened, who did what and when, the way one thing led to the next. It all seemed so urgent when I was 15 or 20 or 25. But now, with a little perspective from my perch in the 21st century, I can see that it all doesn’t amount to much.

Play some teenager in 2038 “Satisfaction” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “My Generation” and you’ll get your point across. Understanding how Brian Wilson influenced the Beatles probably won’t mean a goddamn thing.

I guess the thing is, I’m realizing that much of what I devoted an awful lot of my attention to isn’t going to mean a goddamn thing. Maybe it doesn’t already. There’s a whole generation that thinks Wilco is Dad Rock. That means they don’t think about the Beatles or Stones or Kinks or Who at all.

“I’m a 20th century man, but I don’t want to die here.”

So sang Ray Davies in 1971. And you know what, Ray? You didn’t die there. Me neither. We made it to the 21st century. It’s just that we left an awful lot behind us.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Read It In Books

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At this point, I believe I qualify for dual citizenship as an honorary Norwegian. No, I haven’t spent the last 20 years living in Oslo or working at the Edvard Munch Museum. I don’t speak Norwegian. I can’t even play “Norwegian Wood” properly on my acoustic guitar.

What I have done is read the first five volumes of My Struggle, the six-volume monstrosity—part novel, part memoir—by Karl Ove Knausgaard. The sixth volume hasn’t yet been published in English, so I’m as caught up as I can be without learning Norwegian.

There’s been a lot of hype about Knausgaard’s magnum opus. The Guardian has called it “perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our time.” More than a half-million books have been sold in Norway, a country with a population of about 5.2 million human beings. An American author would have to sell more than 30 million copies to have that kind of market penetration.

But there are other things. Knausgaard has been criticized for writing so openly and honestly about his life, which by necessity means writing just as openly about other people. He names names and reveals family secrets that are bound to be painful for other members of his family and inner circle.

And then there’s the title: “My struggle” in Norwegian is “min kamp.” In German, of course, that translates to “mein kampf,” which causes shudders because it was the title of Adolf Hitler’s autobiography and manifesto.

That’s not an accident. The sixth and final volume of Knausgaard’s work reportedly includes a several-hundred-page discussion of Hitler’s book and its relevance. While I can’t say I’m looking forward to reading that, I also think it’s fascinating to ponder how Knausgaard handles the subject.

In a way, the use of “mein kampf/min kamp/my struggle” is the kind of provocation that was pretty common during the punk era. Early English punks sometimes used swastikas to shock and offend people—remember, they were trying to disturb their parents, a generation that grew up amid World War II bomb sites. To an English punk in the 1970s, Nazi imagery was akin to an American band calling itself the Dead Kennedys—meant more to shock than to signify any particular ideology.

(To clarify: There certainly are neo-Nazi punks, as well, but a lot of that imagery was not being used because of ideology. The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” and Elvis Costello’s “Two Little Hitlers”—or the reference to the “final solution” in “Chemistry Class”—don’t signify some kind of serious fascist beliefs. At least, I hope not.)

Punk rock is an apt comparison because of another key element in Knausgaard’s books. Music plays a large and recurring role in the story of Knausgaard’s life. For me, an American of a similar age, Knausgaard’s fascination with music provides familiar landmarks. I know where I was in my life when Echo & The Bunnymen were on the stereo. And there’s a connection when Knausgaard refers to less-hyped bands, such as the Waterboys or Prefab Sprout.

But here’s the main thing. It isn’t so much particular bands that make this reader feel a connection to that particular writer. It’s Knausgaard’s perception of the world with music as an important element. He bonds with fellow students over the love of a particular band, and he feels alienated from people with dramatically different taste in music. When he meets a stranger in a new town who likes heavy metal or mainstream radio fodder, he knows that person won’t likely become a friend.

At one point, Knausgaard makes extra money by selling used CDs outside of a shop. At another, he plays in a series of bands, usually with his older brother Yngve. Karl Ove writes lyrics that his guitarist/brother puts to music. Playing live, Karl Ove is the drummer.

That, too, is universal, the compulsion to take up an instrument and reproduce some of the music that you love (and impress the opposite sex, but that’s another chapter). It’s the same compulsion that drove many of the bands on the CDs that Knausgaard buys and sells. The really great thing here is the way that compulsion, that need for self-expression, leads a group of young English or Americans to create songs that wind up on a mixtape made by a lovestruck Norwegian kid who they’ll never know exists.

Well, except that we now know that Karl Ove Knausgaard exists. We know that he wrote record reviews for a while, that he lost his virginity in a tent at an outdoor music festival, and that he somehow wound up in Björk’s house, drunk, during a trip to Iceland.

Look, you read five or six books by anyone and you’re going to start feeling like you know them. When the books are as personal and revealing as My Struggle, then you’re bound to feel that much more connected to the writer. It’s inevitable.

The importance and prevalence of music in Knausgaard’s life definitely increased the level of intimacy for this reader, or for anyone who has gotten through difficult times by cranking up the stereo, or has found kindred spirits through a shared love of some obscure band.

There has to be something universal in a book (or books) like this if millions of people are going to connect with it. That’s obvious. But sometimes it’s not the universal but the very specific that hits hardest. And there’s nothing more specific than the music that was playing during key moments of a life. For me, the music is the bridge that connects my American sensibility to Knausgaard’s Norwegian one. We lived in thoroughly different parts of the world, but we had similarly human experiences accompanied by a very similar soundtrack.

Music made my own struggle feel like My Struggle. Plus it probably saved me a trip to Norway. Walking around Bergen isn’t going to make me feel any more connected to that time and place than listening to some Bunnymen.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Being There

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One of the things we’re going to miss when all the rock bands are gone is the way you developed a kind of relationship with the ones you cared about. I was reminded of this phenomenon over the past couple months, when I happened to encounter some of the bands I have deep and long-lasting relationships with.

It started when the Who played a show in Philadelphia a couple months back. I first saw the Who in 1979, when I was 16 years old. I’ve seen them a bunch of times over the years. This show at the Wells Fargo Center was very likely to be my last time, which is one of the reasons I decided to go.

When I saw the Who in ’79, the show was across the parking lot from the arena at the old Spectrum. My friend and I sat on the second level, on the left side of the stage (or, as it might have been called in those days, the Entwistle side). For this show, we were sitting in a similar spot in the newer arena. So there was a weird sense of overlap between the two shows some 37 years apart.

That overlapping quality really drove home the fact that I have had a roughly 40-year relationship with the Who. Pete Townshend is about as close as I get to a hero. He turned 71 a few weeks after the show. He’s an old man now, but there he was playing the same songs with the same urgency that he brought to them in his 20s and 30s. And there was Roger Daltrey, twirling his microphone and letting rip with the occasional vintage scream. He can’t blast away the way he used to, but he still cuts loose a couple times a show. And there was Zak Starkey, who has now drummed with the Who longer than Keith Moon or Kenney Jones ever did. There were a few other musicians, including Townshend’s brother, Simon.

I wasn’t expecting a really great show, but it was. And if I could, in my mind’s eye, see the 1979 Who walking offstage at the end, this time I definitely felt like they were waving goodbye for keeps.

That doesn’t mean my relationship with the band will end. I don’t spend a lot of time listening to old Who albums these days. I don’t have to. Townshend’s music and lyrics are part of my DNA. My personality took shape during years when I listened to the Who and Stones and Kinks and the Clash pretty much continuously. They were surrogate fathers or big brothers or uncles to the young, impressionable me, and that’s the relationship I’ve always had with them.

Just a few weeks ago, I saw Wilco at the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia. I first saw Jeff Tweedy with Uncle Tupelo in 1994. I saw Wilco play two of its first ever shows, in New York and Hoboken, later that year. I’ve seen them any number of times over the past two decades.

There’s a relationship there, but it’s different. If Townshend’s my cool uncle, the godfather who met the punk, then Tweedy feels more like a younger brother or a cousin. We grew up in different places, but we were raised on an awful lot of the same music. I’ve seen him when he was unsure of himself after the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, and I’ve seen him in full command of his band and his audience at a big outdoor shed.

As it happened, this was the absolute best I’ve ever seen. The band played a terrific selection of songs from its entire career. The performances were great, the sound was really good, and it was a perfect June Saturday evening. The second encore was an acoustic set that would’ve been worth the price of admission all by itself.

If I have a 40-year relationship with the Who and a 20-year relationship with Wilco, my relationship with Frightened Rabbit is practically brand new. But there’s a similar arc to it. We first saw the band in the basement of a Philadelphia church. We saw them at Johnny Brenda’s, an intimate rock club. We saw them open for Death Cab For Cutie at the Mann. This time, they played the Electric Factory, one of the city’s larger venues.

And it was different. The band’s new album, Portrait Of A Panic Attack, isn’t bad, but it hasn’t really grabbed me the way their earlier stuff did. Scott Hutchison, the band’s songwriter and singer, used to come off as a miserable Scottish chap who had a distinctly depressive worldview. During this show, he was talking about how he’d moved to L.A. He seemed happier. And I’m glad for him, I really am.

If Townshend is my godfather and Tweedy is a distant cousin, then Hutchison is literally young enough to be my son. I watched him grow up, at least as an artist. Like the Who show, I got the distinct feeling that I was seeing Frightened Rabbit for the last time. It’s not that they weren’t good or that I don’t still like their songs. It’s more like I’ve gotten whatever it is I’m going to get from them. I could keep going to shows, but I don’t think I’m ever going to enjoy them the way I did in the past.

There’s still a relationship there, though. If Hutchison feels like a nephew or friend’s son that I watched grow up, then it’s just time to let go. I wish the band well, but we don’t need each other anymore.

There’s no letting go with the Who or Wilco. There may come a time when they stop coming around. That time is obviously near for the Who. But there’s no stopping the impact they’ve had on my life. I feel bad for young people who may never experience that kind of connection to a band, who may not have any bands worth feeling connected to. But that may be easier than having those kinds of connections and then losing them to time and age.

I don’t know which is better. I just know that we’re going to see Paul Simon next week. I bought “Kodachrome” as a 45 when I was 11 years old. I may get to hear him play it 42 years later. So I have that.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: OK Computer?

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I was starting to think that I really hated technology when it came to its effect on music. Then I thought, no, hate isn’t the right word. It’s too strong. It’s more like I resent what technology has done to music.

I’m not talking about digital recording or EDM or anything technology-related as far as the production or the sound of music. Well, except Auto-Tune. The sonofabitch who invented that should be gutted and left somewhere to die. But I’m talking about the developments that have taken all of the mystery out of music.

Example: I tell this on myself because I trust you and I know you would never use it to mock me at some later date, especially if we had a few drinks in us. Anyway, when I was younger (but not all that young; this lasted into my late 20s or early 30s), I didn’t know that the song “I Want To Tell You” was by the Beatles.

That doesn’t seem like a really big deal, probably. But you have to understand that I really, really liked the Beatles. I read everything I could get my hands on about the Beatles. This was only the late ’70s or early ’80s that we’re talking about. There’s a shit-ton more Beatles material to read now than there was then. But still, I knew a lot about the Beatles, but for some reason, I didn’t know that they did “I Want To Tell You.”

One excuse for this would be that I didn’t know the song at all, but I did. I not only was familiar with “I Want To Tell You,” I liked it a lot. It’s a great song. I knew that much. I just didn’t know that it was by the Beatles.

I had a lot of Beatles stuff on record, but for some reason, I had never gotten Revolver. Not until much later. There was a point in my life where I kind of lumped the “early stuff” together and viewed everything from Sgt. Pepper on as more deserving of serious scrutiny. At least I thought the later albums were more distinctive as albums, whereas the pre-Sgt. Pepper stuff was most easily handled by listening to greatest-hits records.

That isn’t a terrible idea, frankly. It’s just that I should have been smart enough to realize that the “serious” albums should have included Rubber Soul and Revolver. But I didn’t. And in that little gap between my good intentions and my dumbass execution, I somehow overlooked “I Want To Tell You.” And remember, George sings “I Want To Tell You.” It’s not like I didn’t know any of George’s songs. I just didn’t know that was one of them.

If this happened to me in 2016, I would Google a line or two from “I Want To Tell You” and—voila—there would be a zillion entries explaining to me that it was a Beatles song. Actually, Google returned 2.43 million results in exactly 1.45 seconds. The mystery of the poppy English song would have been solved faster than I could sing a line from it.
And that’s really great, but it’s also kind of sad. The wonder I felt when I finally realized it was the Beatles was palpable. Not only wonder that it was a Beatles song, but wonder that I had somehow managed not to know that. It seemed incredible. And while I like the song just as much now, it was actually kind of cool when I would hear it and wonder just who exactly it was. The Hollies? The Zombies? The Pretty Things?

No, nitwit, it’s the fucking Beatles.

A similar mystery: I never knew what the Faces’ “Itchycoo Park” sounded like. I would see a reference to it in an article and be mystified. How could I not know a song that was that well-known?

Of course, I could sing along word for word (mostly) to a song that went, “It’s all too beautiful, it’s all too beautiful.” I just never noticed the mention of Itchycoo Park in the lyrics.

Again, if that happened now, it would take five seconds on Google to resolve the issue. But that will never compare with the strange elation that overcame me the day these two separate strands finally tied themselves together. Ohmygodthat’sfreakingItchycooPark?!?!?!?

Mystery is good when it comes to music or, really, any art. It’s OK to have little epiphanies and moments of discovery and wonder.

There was an album I spent about two years looking for back in the early 1990s. It was called Town + Country by the Rave-Ups. It was out of print at that point and only avail- able as a German import. Whenever I traveled for work, which was pretty often, I would check whatever cool local record store was nearby and ip through all the “Misc R” discs.

Then one day, at Third Street Jazz And Rock in my hometown, there it was. One copy. I can still remember the chill that ran down my spine. And I have to say, I’ve never felt that chill from searching for an artist or album on iTunes, or from Googling an album and finding it available by direct download from a record label.

But then, the other day, for reasons best left unexplained, I was Googling Vincent van Gogh. In doing that, I thought of Don McLean’s song “Vincent,” which I always really liked. So I Googled McLean and Vincent and wound up reading about ve Wikipedia pages about McLean and “Vincent” and “American Pie,” McLean’s most famous song.

So there was the technology that I resented providing me with some surprising and compelling information (Roberta Flack’s hit “Killing Me Softly” was written about McLean; he was the guy “strumming my pain with his fingers”—I did not know that).

I was scrolling through my Twitter timeline this week and came across this little item: A label is going to re-release the Rave-Ups’ Town + Country this year. The new release will include 11 previously unreleased tracks.
The me who stumbled around America trying to find a CD copy of that album wouldn’t have known what Twitter was, let alone how it could deliver news like that almost instantly. But that me would’ve just been pretty damn glad to get the album. The technology has changed, but the music is still the point. At least I think it is.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Happily Divided

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Sebadoh is helping me understand this Donald Trump thing. If that doesn’t make sense to you, then you’re probably a normal, even high-functioning specimen of human. I’m not claiming to be either of those, but I still think there’s something worth sharing in my Sebadoh analogy.

So here goes: We’ll start in the present day. For the last few months, I will admit, I’ve been spending way too much time watching CNN and other networks as they try to make sense of Trump’s emergence as the likely Republican nominee for president. It’s been quite the experience.

I should fill in the background. I’m from Philadelphia, a short drive from Trump’s two most concentrated business centers: New York and Atlantic City. So anything Trump was doing in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s was well known to people in the Philadelphia area.

As a sportswriter, I covered a couple of the big boxing events that were staged in Atlantic City. You couldn’t go to a press conference, before or after the fight, without seeing Trump or Don King. There’s probably something useful in that juxtaposition, but I’ll leave that for you to work out on your own.

I was in the same room with Trump almost 30 years before he became a presidential candidate. I was obviously well aware of his later exploits, especially his second career as a reality-TV star. I spent three decades being aware of Trump, and it never once occurred to me to take him seriously.

That changed as Trump began earning millions of votes on his way to being one more election away from the U.S. presidency. I didn’t think much of George W. Bush for all the years he occupied center stage in our national life. But I took him seriously when he was handed the White House, and he used that power to lead the country into the Iraq war, arguably the worst presidential decision of the last 40 years. That decision has led to a lot of unforeseen consequences, including the rash of terrorist attacks launched by ISIS and its idiotic supporters.

There’s a difference between taking someone seriously and respecting that person. I would take cancer seriously if it showed up anywhere in my body. That doesn’t mean I would like or respect the sonofabitch.

So that’s the background. Back to the present moment. On Easter, I was at a lovely social gathering where conversation turned to politics. One of the guests was talking about the Trump phenomenon as if it were a UFO sighting. She was truly perplexed by the whole thing.

“I don’t know anyone who is voting for him,” she said. And that reminded me of the famous story about Pauline Kael, the legendary New York Times movie critic who said something similar about Richard Nixon in 1972. No one she knew voted for Nixon, she said, not realizing that said more about her range of acquaintances than it said about Nixon.

And this is where all of this comes back to music, which is the primary area of interest for readers of MAGNET. This is where Sebadoh comes in. This is also where I have to concede that the way my brain works probably isn’t all that instructive to anyone who has a brain of his or her own.

When I was young, I was passionate about the music that moved me. I still am to a certain degree, but now, it’s enough that I like it. I really don’t care if you or your friend Mike or two million Spotifyers like it. I hope you do, but that’s your lookout.

At some point, and this is where Sebadoh falls into the mix, I became increasingly frustrated by the gap between the music I loved and the music that was commercially successful. Sebadoh’s Bakesale was my perfect example. My belief at the time was that most people, if they heard Sebadoh (or Pavement or Guided By Voices) on their favorite radio station, would like that music instead of the shit they were being spoon-fed. The problem was in the way popular culture was being presented to people. The problem was not in the people themselves.

Let’s repeat: The problem was not in the people themselves. I believed most people—given access to what I considered smart, superior, worthwhile music—would come to enjoy that rather than the mindless shit they were hearing on the radio.

I was wrong. I’m not sure when I figured that out, but I did. It became abundantly clear to me at some point that people were wired differently. My belief that people were fundamentally the same was based on a well-meaning but erroneous view of the world. They’re not the same. In fact, they’re very, very different from each other.

Music taught me that lesson. Once I accepted that the young person listening to whatever crap was on the radio enjoyed that music as it was, and would never listen to or care about the music I thought was so great, I stopped worrying about it. I could make the perfect playlist of perfect songs by Uncle Tupelo, the Stones, the Wrens, Elliott Smith, Liz Phair and the Mendoza Line. I could turn that playlist over to another person. That person would simply never hear that music the way I heard it. They would never respond the way I responded. They might like it, but they would go right back to listening to whatever it was they really liked.

That lesson has helped me through the Trump-mania that’s dominated the news. The younger me would be infuriated, believing Trump supporters would change their minds if they were only exposed to more information. Now I realize that has nothing to do with it. People are simply different. Their brains work differently. Some don’t work all that well.

So I guess I’m hoping that there are enough people who think at least somewhat similarly to the way I think, that there will be a surge of voters who reject Trump’s candidacy. But I know better than to think that has anything to do with logic or common sense or reason.

Sebadoh never sold as many records as Kenny Chesney or Beyoncé. That doesn’t mean they weren’t better, by my reckoning. And that doesn’t mean I have to listen to Kenny Chesney or Beyoncé. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean I have to vote for Donald Trump.

It just means I hope to hell I don’t have to be governed by him.

—Phil Sheridan

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The Back Page: Sexual Healing

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A couple weeks back, I was flipping through a certain music magazine when something struck me. There was a band with four women on the cover. There were features and photos on bands with women throughout the issue. I looked at the cover again. I looked at the contents page. There wasn’t anything declaring it the “Women In Rock!” issue.

OK, the magazine was MAGNET, the very product you’re holding in your hands. But that’s not the point. The point is that this was a music magazine filled with stories about women who rock without feeling the need to proclaim itself as an issue devoted to “Women In Rock!”

That was a real thing not that long ago. And the reason was as simple as it was unfortunate: There weren’t that many women involved in indie rock. If you were editing a magazine and you wanted to focus on something for an issue, you could do something on “Shoegaze Bands!” or “Bands From Seattle!” or, yes, “Women In Rock!”

We’re talking about the ’90s here. There were women around, of course. There were Bikini Kill and Hole. There was Scrawl, one of my favorite bands (if memory serves, and it seldom does, they did a live cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” once that was brilliant). There were Liz Phair and Mary Timony. There were Tsunami and Pee Shy. There were women who were in otherwise male bands, from Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon to Superchunk’s Laura Ballance to Jawbox’s Kim Coletta to Small Factory’s Phoebe Summersquash to Handsome Family’s Rennie Sparks (hi, Rennie!).

Aside from being a great bassist, Ballance was and is a partner in Merge Records. So I kind of think (and hope) that the proliferation of woman-led bands (whether the bands are all female or there are guys playing, too) results at least in part from the pioneers who carried their guitars and amps into clubs and posed for photos for the “Women In Rock!” issues of music magazines.

But I think there’s something else at work, too. One of the primary differences between the current music scene and the indie scene of the ’90s is that we’re essentially living in the post-label era. With the internet and social media and iTunes and so on, artists are able to reach the public without the benefit of the mighty record labels.

I’m inclined to believe that labels served at some level to keep women on the margins. Not entirely by design. Labels tended to dumb down almost everything in their misguided attempt to market music. Labels are fine with women and men who are going to sell 10 million units. It’s the less commercial and often more worthwhile artists that give them trouble.

If Nirvana was breaking out and selling a zillion records, labels went out and signed bands from Seattle or bands that looked or sounded like Nirvana. It never occurred to any of them that Nirvana was a unique phenomenon and it would have been much more fruitful to go find another original and gifted artist.

To take that a step farther, labels have no idea what makes an artist worth signing. When something breaks big, they trample over talented artists in their rush to duplicate the last big breakthrough. And almost all of what they were trying to duplicate for 40 years was rock music made by men. But there’s more to it than that. A group of women in the ’90s had to deal with other shit besides label indifference. The recent imbroglio involving publicist Heathcliff Beru, who resigned from his firm after allegations of sexual harassment, brought to light something that has no doubt been going on for ages. A woman in a band has to deal with sexist behavior from labels, from publicists, from journalists, from producers, from booking agents, from club owners and from fans. That surely goes on now, but it was certainly more prevalent and in the open in the 1990s.

It’s not like we’ve gotten past all that. It’s just that the trend has been toward more gender equity than there used to be. Once upon a time, Chicago’s Lounge Ax was notable because it was owned and operated by two women, Julia Adams (hi, Julia!) and Sue Miller. Now there are women booking shows and managing venues all over the place.

Once upon a time, Merge and Kill Rock Stars were labels that treated female artists respect- fully. Now there are women involved in every aspect of the music business. Once upon a time, Liz Phair recorded songs on a four-track machine in her bedroom. Now everyone with a computer has access to soft- ware more sophisticated than the studios the Beatles used.

So more women have ac- cess to recording technology. More women are able to get their work out via social media and the web. More women are writing about music on blogs and in online and old-fashioned print publications. It turns out that when women are free from the forces that limited their access, they make some pretty damn good music on their own terms.

This sounds a little odd, but bear with me. For decades, only white players were allowed to play in Major League Baseball. That deprived generations of black players from getting the opportunity to play. But here’s the thing. Because of that racist policy, all of us were denied the chance to know and to appreciate those excluded players. Society was the bigger loser. We have Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and other great players in our collective memory. But we were denied access to Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. Terrific baseball was played in the Negro Leagues, but America would be a better place if all those great players, black and white, had been able to compete with each other.

We’ll never know how many talented women never pursued music because it was so stacked against them. We can look around and appreciate that it seems like a lot more women are driving right through those road- blocks, if the roadblocks are even there. We’re going to get the chance to hear a lot more interesting ideas from a lot wider range of artists.

This may mean the death of the “Women In Rock!” issue. I think that’s probably a good thing.

—Phil Sheridan

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