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 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!

Mar 082021

Ok, I may be in a minority here, never having heard, or heard of, the late, great John Russell before today. I just read his obituary in The Guardian, and thought he sounded like a bit of a character.

Like, who couldn’t love a guy who built his own record deck out of wood and an old radio so he could listen to The Rock Machine Turns You On and We’re Only in it for the Money?

The comments on the article also piqued my interest.

I don’t know what it’s like over there, but here, apart from axe murderers and TV personalities who disappeared after being caught doing something dreadful, everyone speaks well of the deceased and raises either a real or rhetorical glass to speed them on their way. I’ve even done it myself, on occasion. It helps pass the time during lockdown.

I was interested, therefore, to find them ranging from “what the…” to “what the actual…” and “interesting, but not for me”

Then I spotted the link to the video.

I watched the first two and a half minutes, which, at the length of a Freddie and the Dreamers or Buzzcocks single always feels like the right length of time to formulate an opinion. Nine minutes, in my opinion, is a little on the long side, but I’m probably out of practice.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the Hall, I would love to hear what you think of this, and possibly learn what I’m missing.


Live Joy

 Posted by
May 132020

I’ve been revisiting this 1966 performance by Little Richard the last 2 days. It’s got some great crowd shots, especially starting at 45 seconds in, while the camera focuses steadily and uncomfortably on a young man who looks like he’s tearing up in stunned joy at the proceedings. One minute in, he unleashes with a reaction before the camera cuts back to the stage and what has elicited this response. This is the joy that no digital performance of the future will elicit.

May 042020

I just learned that a longtime Philadelphia music scene legend, Tom Sheehy, who actually was known around town as “The Colonel” (as in Elvis Presley’s Colonel), has passed. I didn’t know The Colonel well, but he was a fixture at almost any national or local show of note from the start of my club-going days, in the early 1980s, through whenever it was in the last 5 or 10 years, when I first noticed I didn’t see his gaunt face and gray, thinning shag-pompadour in the crowd. His standing as a local scene legend far preceded the time I first got to know him. I’m sure Townsman geo, who goes back further and played in one of Kenn Kweder‘s lineups, which The Colonel managed and/or did publicity for, can fill us in on details.

I was never sure exactly what The Colonel did, how he paid his bills, how he was tied to all local music-related media (ie, clubs, radio stations, record stores), etc, but as I mentioned him being at “almost any…show of note,” he seemed to help define what constituted “of note.” When we’d see him in the crowd at one of my band’s shows, for instance, my bandmates and I would note his presence and get a little jolt of pride at the “scene blessing” we’d been given. Who knew why this felt good? Tom seemed like a nice enough guy, in the few, brief words we exchanged, but why the hell did we care that he was in the crowd?

Mar 122016

One of the all-time great prog rockers and keyboard players has just passed into the infinite. Keith Emerson died the other day at the age of 71 at his Santa Monica home. Police are investigating as to whether his death was a suicide. Emerson was an absolute master of the keyboard, encompassing rock, classical, and jazz in his playing. Not only that, he was a pioneer of the use of synthesizers in rock. He was also the prime mover behind the Nice as well as Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, which was one of the very biggest prog groups of the 1970s. Frankly, I’m not a huge fan of ELP – I find them to be often bombastic and sometimes overbearing – but there is no denying that Emerson’s keyboard skills were almost untouchable.



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