Mr. Moderator

Mr. Moderator

When not blogging Mr. Moderator enjoys baseball, cooking, and falconry.

Sep 122021
Jonathan (left) holding court with me and Sara.

There are people in life who I could not fairly say are my friends, but to whom I feel connected and loyal. Philadelphia music journalist and musician Jonathan Valania was one such person. I use the past tense because I learned on Facebook that he died without his loved ones seeing anything coming. So sad.

I don’t remember when I first met Jonathan – probably in the mid- or late-’80s – but I think he knew me a little bit before I ever put his name and face together. Back then, when I met people at clubs, I was usually in some colored haze. I would have been caught between immense pride and blinding insecurity. If we met prior to 1987, I would have been stoned.

I can’t blame it all on drugs and alcohol, however, as the last time I saw Jonathan in person, just a few years ago, off to my right after one of our band’s shows, I was stone sober. “Great set, Jim,” this tall, easygoing presence said to me. I didn’t have a clue who was complimenting us, which he could tell. “It’s Jonathan,” he said graciously.

Right! I knew that voice, then it started to fall together. We chatted for 15 minutes.

If he’d written me an email from off to the right of the stage, I would have known who it was immediately. We wrote each other notes a few times a year, trading drafts we had in the works, trading behind-the-scenes stories of artists we’d crossed paths with. I think he was first my editor at a free weekly paper, then he enlisted (and cajoled) me into writing for Phawker, his great blog on music and other local cultural topics.

Jonathan was a great editor for me. I don’t take guidance or criticism well, but I always trusted that he valued my voice and whatever I was trying to get at. He was direct. He would gently call bullshit on me. My guess is, he had that rare gift of knowing how to meet people on their terms. To this day, I still rail at how bad people are at “taming” me. Maybe I should learn how to meet people on their terms. With humor and care, he helped me be a better version of my writer self. I will cherish those interactions.

I could rattle off what scant bibliographical details of Jonathan’s life I may or may not have right, but I’ll leave that to his real-life friends and professionals biographers. In terms of our community here at Rock Town Hall, he was a Townsperson. He was a panelist and performer at our first and only live RTH event. He was an early cheerleader, both through his own blog and through those emails we shared. He helped us land an interview or two. He based his own blog’s logo on the Townsman-with-guitar logo that my close personal friend and partner in crime Sammymaudlin developed for us. He was a rock-solid guy off in our corner.

As I said, despite Jonathan being a friendly presence, I’d be lying if I said we were buddies. I did get invited to a Phawker holiday party one year at his loft apartment. I knew a few of his other contributors and actual friends, so I wasn’t too worried about being in a strange place. That didn’t stop me from attaching myself to another Philly music scene writer, Sara Sherr. I don’t think I’m that shy, but this was my first time going into a social event as a “music writer,” one who had been writing under a pseudonym. The night was really fun. Jonathan introduced me to the 10 people I didn’t know as regular, old me.

I’m going to miss getting his advice and support every few years. I’m going to miss being confused by the tall, easygoing presence emerging from the shadows of a rock club to say Hello.

Aug 252021
Who are you calling difficult?

Have any of you trio ever played in a trio? I have not, other than one Nixon’s Head show at the end of a tour in 1987. Having lost our second guitarist shortly before embarking on that tour, we set out as a quartet. On our last show, in Toronto, however, our singer Andy had to fly home early for the wedding of one of his sisters, if memory serves. Seth, Mike, and I played as our emergency trio formation Three-Headed Pig. At least Seth, who was violently ill before the show, tossing cookies in one of the dirtiest rock club bathrooms we’d ever had the displeasure of visiting, was able to get himself together and play drums. Otherwise, Mike and I would have been forced to play as Double-Breasted Wombat. We were actually running through how that set might have been constructed.

My guess is that a lot of trios are formed around an alpha musician, like Jimi Hendrix or Sting or Steve Ray Vaughn. That’s reasonable. If you’re Jimi Hendrix, you don’t need a rhythm guitarist clogging up space.

Being a bit jealous of alpha musicians, I take it a step further and imagine that trios must be composed of difficult, slightly anti-social people. (One exception being a beloved cousin band trio from my youth, Bob’s Revenge, let by our very own Hrrundivbakshi and Machinery.) One of the things I like best about being in a band of 5 or 6 people is the ability to move around and socialize with a wide expanse of personalities. While the singer and drummer are working out a particular fill, I can goof around off to the side with other band members. I don’t think I would have as much fun off in a corner by myself while Andy quotes one of a half dozen fills by either Pete Thomas or Ringo, as he tries to show Seth what he’s got in mind.

I started thinking about how lonely it must get in a trio when Andyr told me about seeing Sleater-Kinney over the weekend. The once-proud, bass-less power trio is now a 6-piece, with a bassist, keyboardist, and second guitarist/mascot. I wonder, after the band’s previous breakup (or was it a planned hiatus) and then Janet Weiss leaving during the making of that slick album produced by St Vincent, if Corin and Carrie needed some extra pals to break up the tension.

What is the average lifespan of a trio relative to a quartet or quintet? Beside ZZ Top and Rush, how many trios have lasted 15 years? (Trios composed of siblings and vocal trios don’t count.)

Andyr and I started talking about this yesterday. He asked, “Did Emerson, Lake, and Palmer last 10 years?”

However long they lasted was way too long.

Aug 242021

I’ve made my share of Charlie Watts jokes around here, including one running theme that I honestly think I may be right about, but learning just now that Charlie Watts has died at 80 is sad. He gets credit for my core sense of a rock ‘n roll beat: the 4-on-the-floor beat driving “Satisfaction,” the song I feel best lives up to the objectives of rock ‘n roll.

Charlie gets credit for contributing to possibly the smoothest, snakiest groove in rock ‘n roll, on “Under My Thumb.” As with so many legendary Stones grooves, it’s a team effort. There’s no showy performance in his repertoire that dominates a particular Stones song. In fact, I’m not even sure there’s a legendary fill to cite, since Jimmy Miller plays those excellent fills at the end of the choruses on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

The beat that I think most typifies the greatness of Charlie Watts – and a beat that even I wouldn’t suspect was played by some other drummer in my most trolling moments – is “Beast of Burden.” It is the beat that appears when you look up “in the pocket” in the dictionary. It’s another team effort, as everyone is locked in. Charlie must have had a lot to do with keeping that lot locked in.

Aug 122021

I just learned that trumpeter Jon Hassell died in late June. I had no idea. I guess the news of the passing of the likes of Hassell, an avant-garde trumpeter who’s playing did make it to Talking Heads’ Remain in Light album, gets pushed down on the list of concerns in a world more concerned with…whatever.

I stumbled on Hassell’s 2 albums on EG in the early 1980s, at the Temple University bookstore. I met our old friend General Slocum at Temple, and the two of us used to visit that bookstore every few days to rifle through the bins of cutout albums. For some reason, they had cutouts of the EG catalog, so we bought up everything we could find: Eno, Fripp, Penguin Cafe Orchestra…and Hassell. These albums were typically imports that only hipster rich kids could afford. We were getting them for $1.98 a pop!

Dream Theory in Malaya particularly caught my ear. There was something about that album that went so well with my mix of being emotionally distraught, ridiculously ambitious, and high 24/7. I don’t know what he’s actually up to musically, but it’s as if time is pulling against itself. The first track on this album, “Chor Moire,” really knew how to kick my buzz into hyperspace.

All these years, I never learned a thing about Hassell the man. I’m pretty sure he was British. I knew he was already old by the time I got into him – and by “old” I mean about 20 years younger than I am now. I kept up with many of his post-EG albums, but those 2 I bought at the Temple bookstore, with the Eno/EG stamp of approval, continue to be my favorites.

If you don’t think you’ve ever heard a lick of Hassell’s music, perhaps you have, on Talking Heads’ “Houses in Motion.” I love his sound!



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Aug 092021
Billy Harner (of “Sally’s Saying Something” fame)

Have you been to and/or performed at an indoors live show since the mid-March 2020 lockdown? I have not yet. My band is scheduled to play a show on September 23 that was already postponed twice. I’m looking forward to it, but I’m wondering if it’s going to get postponed again, what it will be like to play and hang at a live show again, and what we’ll all do if shows start getting postponed again.

If that last thing happens, I will aim to get creative. I’m always on the fence about playing live and seeing bands live as it is, but I miss the engagement with people. I miss seeing those bands that are meant to play live.

Wondering what’s on your mind…

Jul 162021

As the surge of hormones ran through my teenage loins, Pat Benetar appeared on the scene in a a French sailor-style striped shirt and leather pants. I knew that god put her on the scene to turn me on, but I found her to be a complete turnoff. Her music sure didn’t help.

One of her hits from her unavoidable debut album was a song called “You Better Run.” The main guitar hook was easy enough that even I could play it, as I fumbled with my newly acquired electric guitar. It was as if god put that song on the FM airwaves to turn me on, but I found her singing and the twists and turns the song would take as it hit the chorus to be a complete turnoff. Her objectively cute, petite body in that outfit didn’t help.

No biggie. There was plenty of FM rock music I couldn’t stand in the late ’70s. I learned to ignore the music of Pat Benetar and not stress out over the fact that I didn’t find her appealing, even though I knew she was constructed to appeal to my burgeoning tastes in women.

Two years later, when I finally started to figure out how to be remotely cool, I bought a used copy of the classic Rascals’ greatest hits album and realized that “You Better Run” was actually one of their songs. I had no idea. The Rascals were cool, man. Their version must have been the definitive one that Benetar and her guitar-wielding mate Neil Giraldo butchered.


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