When did you start at PW ?
March of 1997, I believe. As listings editor.
When did you start writing in the first person?
I think it was from the very outset? It seemed like a very natural thing for me, like, oh, this is the paper, people are out there reading this, I’m talking about music and books and other really subjective things, I might as well cut the shit and ... speak plainly. Part of the motivation, I’m sure, was this sort of cocky overconfidence, but more of it was the fact that at that point, I was so enamored of Lester Bangs that I just had this attitude which was like, Fuck this Philly-mag-style-writing-as-a-ladder-to-Esquire shit, I’m just gonna go for it right here. Especially since, at that point, I felt like alt weeklies in general had a more immediacy and relevance than the big magazine, where I was never gonna get an assignment anyway because I just didn’t have the pedigree.
When was the first time you realized there were total strangers in Philly who had strong opinions about you?
I think it was more of a gradual realization, but you have to understand, it was also tied up in the fact that I was a musician, often writing about other musicians, and without prejudice, even when it probably would have behooved me to do so. For some reason—and I don’t think this would even be the case as much today—the idea that here was a guy in bands who was writing about other bands, a lot of people found that really offensive. Never mind that, in the world of books and other creative endeavors, there’s a long history of artist as critic/critic as artist. Back then, sometimes I would try to explain this to people, but eventually, I just gave up on the dialogue and was like, “OK, I get it, you think I’m an asshole.”
But the other thing that was going on with me was that I felt like I was on this crusade to take the training wheels off of the way people wrote about arts and music in the local papers. For as far back as I could remember, you would never, ever see a bad review of a local band in a paper. It just wasn’t done. And in my view, especially having suffered through the indie rock scene in Philly through the 1990s, I thought it was just creating an environment for more sucky music because the bar was so low. I have a very distinct memory of thinking for the first time, “It’s never gonna get any better if we keep acting like these suck-ass local bands all get treated the same as the good ones.” And, you know, I had really strong opinions about what I thought was good, and what I thought was just jerkoff scene hype. So I wound up regarding whatever static I’d get from people as both an occupational hazard and a kind of badge of honor.
What was good about being at an alt weekly in those years?
It would be tough to explain to someone who’s 21 and just moved to the city how dialed-in and well-read both City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly were back then. This is primarily because it was pre-Internet, and Philly was basically a two-horse town in this regard, but that bred a kind of competitiveness that brought out a lot of great work. Plus, I think at that point in time, there were a lot of talented people who were drawn to alt weeklies because, and I know this will sound ridiculous, it was a kind of sexy/cool thing, even though the pay sucked—as well as being a good ladder to other work. All of that is gone now. It’s a dying medium. I can’t imagine anyone being stoked to work for one of these papers today.
What the fuck were we thinking with brainsoap.com, our first web outing?
People saw the Internet in the late ’90s, and they just went fucking nuts. There was so much open space that everyone thought they could be all things to all people. So we’d have these meetings where, like, every idea seemed, like, BRILLIANT! WE’VE NEVER SEEN THAT ON THE INTERNET BEFORE! And no one could really challenge it because you were almost always at least half right. Plus, you had publisher Jim McDonald, which is a whole other story that they’ll probably cut from this anyway.
The paper you now hold in your hands, PW, has been around for 40 years—more or less. Like most media stories, it’s a bit more complicated than that. No matter the changes, though, there is a through line in the paper’s history: a renegade spirit and a determination to give voices to the voiceless.