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.