Things could have been better for George Manney as the spring of 1992 approached. Just shy of 41, he had already spent more than half his life eking out a living as a drummer for dozens of bands in the Philadelphia rock scene. But the number of gigs was dwindling; so was his dream of ever achieving stardom beyond city limits.
Still, it wasn’t all bad. For nearly six years, Manney had been ringleader of the Last Minute Jam, a popular Tuesday night session at J.C. Dobbs on South Street that often attracted big-name surprise guests: Johnny Thunders, Spencer Davis, Ace Frehley and members of Bon Jovi and the Psychedelic Furs among them. And Manney had managed to snag a job as head buyer at Tower Records in the Northeast, not far from where he’d grown up, to help make ends meet. Things could have been worse.
And then one March evening—Friday the 13th—things got worse.
Manney was walking across Roosevelt Boulevard to make a bank deposit for Tower when a car hurtled into him. The entire left side of his body was shattered. His leg was wrenched from the socket, his ribs were crushed and a brain hemorrhage swelled his head to twice its size. Manney spent a month in the hospital in critical condition, and another seven months confined to a hospital bed set up in the dining room of his two-story row house in Tacony. A nurse told him that he might have permanent memory problems.
“I was totally freaked out,” Manney says. “I couldn’t walk, my brain was fucked up, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to play drums again. I didn’t know what was gonna happen to me.”
Aside from the care of friends and family, what saved him, says Manney, was his music collection. Not just a batch of albums that lifted his spirits. An entire house overflowing with photos, posters, concert videos and audio tapes, handbills, instruments, buttons, fliers, newspapers, LPs, magazines, books, amplifiers, autographs, ticket stubs and tons more, lovingly and obsessively hoarded over decades. Boxes, bins and shelves filled with Manney’s own musical past and Philadelphia’s, too, helped him keep his memories and identity intact. “It kept me sane,” says Manney.
The next six years were a blur of rehab and recovery. Manney eventually made it back to his job at Tower—part-time, anyway, and with the help of a cane. He even started playing drums again once in a while, physically painful though it was. Things were slowly improving.
And then, in June of 1998, another cruel blow: Manney’s 72-year old mother Madeline was struck by a hit-and-run driver outside her house in the Northeast. Manney rushed to the hospital to see her, then immediately went out and bought a cheap video camera “because I wanted to get her on film in some sort of way. I was asking her how she was doing, about memories.” His mother died five days later.
“I was pretty messed up,” says Manney. “Sitting around, you think bad things about yourself. About your limitations. About your mother dying—you got hit and you’re still alive and she’s not and why did that happen? There was a lot of guilt. I needed something to do to keep myself from going crazy.”
Once again, Manney turned to his passion for music, and his deep love for Philadelphia and its rich, multifaceted music scene. He hatched a plan: To go around with his video camera and talk to as many Philly music figures as he could find. Musicians, producers, engineers and songwriters, from the legendary to the forgotten. Radio DJs, bouncers, bartenders, others involved in the scene, past and present. Anyone who’d tell him their stories before they, too, were gone. And then he’d combine that footage with his vast collection to create an epic film—the ultimate documentary about Philadelphia’s music history. It became his new obsession. “I had to talk to all the people that made Philadelphia a great music town and find out the truth directly from the ones that were there, instead of what’s in the books and the articles,” Manney says.
Thirteen years later, his 60th birthday looming, Manney is still working on his documentary. Now, he only wants two things in life: To finish the film, and to find a permanent home for his collection—a place where he can help maintain it until he’s gone—so it doesn’t all end up in a landfill. Problems stand in his way, and at the moment, both dreams seem nearly impossible. But Manney’s intent on seeing them through, because his mission to preserve Philadelphia’s musical legacy is also a deeply personal quest to find peace in a world of hurt.
“George has the world-class collection of Philadelphia music, every aspect of it, and he’s got so much passion for it,” says Michael Tearson, the longtime Philadelphia radio DJ who’s known Manney since the late ’60s. “Nobody else has what George has. Outside of what he’s got, a lot of it may not even exist anymore.”
“The stuff George has is ridiculous,” agrees Peter Humphreys, the one-time Sigma house engineer who assisted on David Bowie’s 1974 Young Americans sessions. He’s been a friend of Manney’s since childhood. “It’s as extensive a collection as you’re gonna see.”
Manney’s standing in his low-ceilinged basement—“The Bunker,” as Su, his wife of eight years, calls it. His reddish-blonde hair is thinning on top, but it’s defiantly styled in a ’60s Mod ’do. A small diamond earring in his left lobe sparkles. So do his pale blue eyes.
The basement is part studio and part storeroom, divided into three sections and lit primarily by a collection of lava lamps. A Yorkshire terrier scurries into the tiny antechamber, where there’s a mixing board, a computer workstation and an old reel-to-reel machine. “It’s OK, Ringo, it’s OK,” Manney says to the dog as he begins to bark.
Ringo scampers ahead. Manney moves a bit more slowly, one of the lingering effects of his accident. In the next room, posters and autographed photos of rock and R&B stars line one wall. Under dangling guitar-shaped string lights, old VHS and Betamax tapes sit on a shelf: Kenn Kweder at Ripley’s, 1982. Peter Gabriel at the Spectrum, 1987. Some have red stickers on them: “Master—Do Not Erase.” There’s audiocassettes and reels, too: The Who at the Spectrum, 1973. Elvis Costello at the Hot Club, 1977.
In the middle of the room there’s a waist-high mound of boxes and crates crammed with more tapes, plus amps, a couple guitars and pieces of damp cardboard. Manney apologizes for the mess as he points to a large gash in the plaster on the wall, near the tiny third room that houses his old drum kit. A pipe in the kitchen ruptured recently, flooding the basement. “A bunch of things got ruined, photos and negatives and things like that,” he laments. “But there’s a lot more upstairs.”
On the dining room table sits a bulky Putney VCS-3 analog synthesizer rescued from Philly’s legendary Sigma Sound Studios just before the new owners gutted the place. Manney heard it may have originally belonged to Pink Floyd. And there’s boxes and plastic bins everywhere.
He reaches into a box, pulls out a scrapbook and starts flipping through pages of photos he’s snapped over the years. A smiling John Lennon outside WFIL on City Avenue in 1975. The Who on the low stage of the old Electric Factory in 1969—the gig looks like a high school talent show. A bewildered Pete Townshend backstage at JFK Stadium a year earlier. “Townshend and Roger Daltrey were fistfighting and me and my friend were standing there flipping out,” Manney recalls. “Next thing you know, Keith Moon walks in with a girl and throws her to the ground and starts trying to get her clothes off, and then this big, burly, baldheaded guy with a thick British accent is throwing us out. But I got a picture.”