In 2005, PW hired its first music editor. He was a young Scotsman named Neil Ferguson, who was drunk most days, and he could write his ass off. He spewed vitriol about the bands he thought were hyped beyond merit and penned gorgeous love letters to musicians he loved, most notably Keith Richards and Ed Hammell. Ferguson left PW to take a job at Harp magazine (RIP), and the powers that be punched Brian McManus’ number as Ferguson’s replacement. McManus, who is drunk most days, has been music editor ever since, much to the chagrin of Disco Biscuit fans. Here, the two attempt to have their first sober conversation since they met six years ago, as they reflect on ups and downs of their coveted position.
Brian McManus: Hi, Neil! What do you miss most about being music editor at PW?
Neil Ferguson: I think it’s more a case of missing working at PW, period. It was a joy (most of the time) to be able to walk into a building filled with (for the most part), creative, talented, interesting and amusing people.
I was given free rein to write streams of nonsensical bollocks (albeit amusing, passionate, well-written nonsensical bollocks) about the music that moved me, and what’s not to love about that? I was even given a bi-weekly column in which I could spew forth my increasingly Anglo-centric prejudices upon all and sundry.
And what’s more, the powers that be saw fit to give me the Lush Life columns on alternate weeks, in which they gave me cash money to drink in various shady dives across the city (some of which, I hasten to add, I introduced you to, Mr. Philadelphia’s Best Dive Bars author) Cash money! To write about getting pissed in dive bars! What in God’s name possessed them to indulge in such lunacy is, frankly, beyond me, but I remain eternally grateful.
BMc: Speaking of being eternally grateful: You took me on as a freelancer as soon as I hit Philly in ’05. I’ve known you a long while, and you’re not exactly known for making great decisions. How were you able to make this exception?
NF: Our colleague in Houston, Craig Lindsey, recommended you to me. I checked your work out, liked what I read and, as I recall, arranged a meet at Oscar’s Tavern. Did you ever stop to think just what a vital role Oscar’s would come to play in your personal and professional life?
BMc: I didn’t then, but I certainly reflect on it quite a bit now, usually around 23-ounce Lager and shot of Jim Beam No. 4. It gets me a tad misty. But back to you: What do you miss the least about PW? And don’t name names, because no one you’d list is here anymore anyway.
NF: Honestly? Nothing. There were occasional bouts of histrionics and prima donna antics from the odd writer or two, petty office politics occasionally loomed (although no more so than in any regular office environment), but otherwise I loved it. I was surprised, I must admit, by just how thin-skinned certain segments of the readership could be, particularly, in no particular order, jam-band fans, young Republicans, people who knit in bars and stupid fucking hipsters. All of whom I seemed to offend on a regular basis, and all of whom could be depended upon to compose froth-mouthed, apoplectic, barely literate email attacks, which provided an endless source of amusement. Any particularly creative/inventive/amusing insults and/or threats to your person you care to share with us?
BMc: I once got an email from a guy who wrote he wished I’d been in the Twin Towers on 9/11 because he disagreed with my take on how awful the Grateful Dead are. That one sticks out. But let’s stay positive. Someone once told me that, in their mind, being music editor of PW is the best job in the city. Were they incredibly delusional or on to something?
NF: The best job in Philadelphia? Obviously the person who told you that was some eager-beaver intern desperate to impress you, and/or incredibly high, but yeah, all things considered, it’s certainly one of the more enjoyable ways I can think of to make a living.
BMc: Finally, let’s end this talking about a guy you and I both loved and admired, and could only hope to emulate—the late, great Steven Wells. You very famously are responsible for hiring the man. How did that come about?
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.