I knew it was a possibility; he had told me about the idea. But when I got word from Philthy Phill that he was leaving town I was still shocked.
Phill Lentz, better known to the New York punk rock world as Philthy Phill, is the singer for World War IX. He’s much more than that though. Over the 13 years he’s been in New York he’s excelled at stand-up comedy, writing, podcasting, concert organizing, and being a creative jack-of-all-trades that would be the envy of most Big Apple newcomers. He’s conquered New York City without losing the Midwestern disarming charm and good humor that drew some of this town’s finest musicians, artists, and comedians into his orbit.
I first got to know Phill when he was the lead singer in a band called Sexual Suicide. His singing style captured the necessary aggression of the genre while also displaying a keen sense of humor; a you-are-being-subjected-to-our-noise-but-we’re-in-on-this-together vibe. Bands with no sense of humor are miserable to watch. If you had any doubts about Phill’s take on things, the highlight of any Sexual Suicide show was when Phill would put on a Spider Man mask and sing a song about performing cunnilingus on Mary Jane Watson.
He came to New York City from the suburbs North of Chicago in 2003, following a girlfriend who had moved here. Three years later they broke up and he considered moving out of town at that point but decided to stay and drown his sorrows in punk rock.
Phill not only sings but also plays guitar and drums. Over the years he has served as the drummer for Joey Steel and the Attitude Adjusters, the Misanthropes, and toured Canada and Europe with the Scream’n Rebel Angels. I was fortunate to play with him in New Damage.
Phill wrote a book, a long-form short story, written from the point of view of a down-on-his-luck New Yorker who made a living as a Spider Man character for kid’s parties. It was a great read because it celebrated, among other things, the joy of the creative act. Read Self Poor Trait if you are down and feel jaded as a creative person, you won’t be sorry.
Earlier on in my time in New York, I discovered the comics of Justin Melkmann through the New York Waste. I was so impressed that someone was doing a comic strip about the life of GG Allin, that I made it a point to go see the artist’s band, which was subtly advertised in each strip with a discreetly inked URL. Catching my first World War IX show at CB’s Lounge and meeting Justin was a turning point in my punk rock life. Blackout Shoppers have played numerous shows with World War IX and there’s nothing we like better.
A few years after I got to play my first show with World War IX, they were looking for a singer, and I and I’m sure a whole bunch of others called and told them to get Philthy Phill.
Having Philthy Phill join World War IX was like Beethoven coming back from the dead to conduct the London Philharmonic – it’s the supreme punk rock combination that had to happen. And it did.
World War IX entered a new period of productivity and creativity and produced some of my favorite songs over the past several years. I had the honor of playing a villain in a few of their videos, including the video for my favorite World War IX song, Cutlass Supreme. Phill’s acting chops earned him roles in other punk rock videos as well.
“Without a doubt, I will miss my World War IX and the friends I made playing with that band,” Phill told me. “We’ve toured many times, put out an envious number of high-quality music videos and some outstanding music to boot. Anyone who has partied with us at a show can tell how well we all get along because it comes across in what we did. Unrelated fun fact: everyone in the band has wanted to fight me at some point.”
Phill also met his wife among the punk rock fans that came to his shows. He and Erin married in 2012 and last year they had twin boys. While they excelled at making a family of their own, they have no other family in the area, at all. That, coupled with the high cost of living and the need for more space, was the deciding factor in making the move to Indianapolis.
Sometimes, the people who best embody the humor, creativity, and egalitarian grit of New York City find it is best to leave New York City.
There’s also a trap that New Yorkers fall in to easily, thinking that the world revolves around what happens in the five boroughs and believing that residing in the New York City area counts as an artistic achievement in and of itself. While surviving in New York is an accomplishment, we’d be kidding ourselves to think that any work of art is somehow automatically superior if it originates from an NYC zip code.
This Saturday, Philthy Phill will sing with World War IX for one last time at Otto’s Shrunken Head. My band, Blackout Shoppers, will be joining them, along with Controlled Substance. It will be a packed house and there will be lots of music, loudness and alcohol.
Phill hasn’t stopped being creative, and he’s already working on his next project, which he’s keeping under wraps for now.
While people will forever come from all over the world to pursue their creative dreams in New York City, the point is to keep being creative and live a good life while doing so. Great art, music, and literature can be found wherever there are people great enough to do great work, wherever the creative spirit ignites a spark that leads to more ideas, wherever there are people like Philthy Phill.
It was the mid-1980s and my brother and I were visiting my mother in Yonkers and going to the Westchester County Fair. She lived within walking distance to Yonkers Raceway where the fair was held every year. But this particular Saturday night my mother and I left the fair early so I could watch the movie Beverly Hills Cop on cable television.
We ran through the crowds at the fair and down the quieter streets off of Central Avenue to get to the house where my mother’s apartment was. We made it just in time.
There’s a point in the film where Eddie Murphy’s character makes fun of the way someone says “banana in the tailpipe” that I found uproariously funny. I perhaps laughed harder than I had every laughed before.
From that time forward, if I was taking life too seriously or my mother wanted me to smile in a photograph she would whisper “banana in the tailpipe” and despite my efforts at serious, curmudgeonly dignity I would eventually smile. She had long ago decided that life, even at its most solemn moments, should be met with a certain levity. When I danced with her at my wedding and she looked as if she might be overcome with emotion, I got to tell her “banana in the tailpipe,” to keep the occasion’s needed levity.
My mother was a theater person and that’s how she and my father met. My brother and I are proud to be descended from theater folk on both sides of our family. My mother’s life was an extension of her love for life upon the stage. For her life was a grand performance where she relished every part she played and interpreted each role in her own unique way. She lived life with the expectation of celebration and a disdain for conventions that would get in the way.
When I learned my mother had ovarian cancer, I was hopeful. They were doing surgery, and that’s a sign of hope for ovarian cancer, which is often detected very late. I started planning the victory party early. We would do the T.E.A.L. 5k Run and Walk and have cool t-shirts made up about my mother making cancer her bitch. We’d enjoy a jack-o-lantern show every year from then on out to make up for the one she missed when she first became ill. Things would go back to normal, I was sure of it.
I made the mistake that is so common; I thought I had more time. I thought that my mother would be able to see her grandchildren at least once more, that I could say goodbye to her in some organized way that would leave me with no lingering regrets. I didn’t know that the last time I saw her or spoke with her would be the last time. I don’t really remember the conversation that well. She told me she didn’t have long to live and I believed her, but I left that conversation thinking we had a few more weeks or even months. Two days later I got a call from my stepfather informing me that my mother had passed away the night before.
If there is one moment in time with my mother that I could somehow freeze or replay forever, it would be the moment I went to the waiting room at the hospital after our first two girls were born, and seeing my Mom as a grandmother for the first time. I don’t know if I ever saw her happier than at that moment. I had made her dream of becoming a grandmother come true and she had years of happiness ahead of her as a Grandma.
While I mourn my mother’s loss and regret all that we have lost with her, I’m comforted by the fact that our older girls were gifted with very early memories of her and saw her almost every week of their lives until she was diagnosed.
A few weeks ago, we held a memorial service for my mother at Bear Mountain. Bear Mountain was a popular place for us to meet up and it was the last place I saw my mother. Friends and family from all over came to remember how my Mom had held a special place in their lives. I had a few prepared remarks that I kept brief, and signed off with this:
“My mother did not believe in funerals or being memorialized with an engraved stone. She left it up to us, her family and wider family of friends, with the lives we live and the love we share, to create her monument. We thank you for joining us in this.”
It wasn’t too hot when I had a few minutes to catch up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a year. We brought our kids to Francis Lewis Park, where there is a playground with a sprinkler and a view of Flushing Bay and the Whitestone Bridge.
“I don’t know how you own three of these things,” he said as my two older girls played with his son. Our youngest is only a year old and he and his wife have a three-year-old son.
“I don’t either.”
Having children is something that everyone is terrified of but no one regrets. Spending time with your kids is a great thing and you’ll regret not getting in every minute with them. But when they are as young as ours are, it leaves you too tired to do anything else. Many a night began with great plans and ended with me falling asleep on the couch at 10:15 p.m.
At the park our children go different ways in the playground. I don’t mind staying back and sitting down and watching the kids from a distance. You can’t be hovering over them all the time. But the world being the way it is, you don’t want to let your kids out of your sight for too long. A few times I lose sight of one of the girls and I start to get worried looking for her and just before I break out into a fearful disaster sweat she’ll come into view. This happens a few times and it wears you down a bit further.
My friend and I talk music, mutual friends, and the itch to be creative and make music. His son wants to go down to the water, to where there’s a great view of the Whitestone Bridge and a miniscule beach at the end of a small boat launch. I and my two older girls accompany them. We are disappointed by the amount of garbage on the beach and in the water but the view of the bay and the bridge, makes up for this.
One of my girls isn’t wearing any shoes since she was running through the sprinkler in the playground and I don’t think anything of it until we get to the boat launch and see some broken glass there. I curse myself for letting her come down here with no shoes on. On further inspection this turns out to be sea glass—glass that’s been in the water long enough that it’s been made smooth. Sea glass makes for a nice collectible and I tell the girls I will take this home for them to enjoy later. New York City will disappoint you and impress you in quick succession.
A lot of my friends also have kids but I also have many friends who are smart, creative people, the kind of people who should be doing more reproducing, but aren’t. I highly recommend having kids, though I realize it’s not for everyone.
My friend and I talk a bit more, discuss doing music again, what our schedules will look like later this year, and how we have the itch.
The itch, the need to produce art in some form, it never goes away and is a call that has to be answered. Children, jobs, the multitude of tasks one has to perform just to keep a roof over one’s head and the bills paid on time, these will slow you down, but they can’t kill whatever fire drives you to create.
Sid Yiddish is a Chicago performance artist who is running for president as a write-in candidate. He describes himself as a “Lincoln Republican” though his politics are more in line with the Democrats, but you are welcome to write him in on whatever ballot you choose; he’s not picky. He is the only candidate promising to invade Denmark.
Why Denmark? “Because it’s there and because I can,” he said. He has performed in Denmark but did his first show with Danish musicians over Skype for the Chicago Calling Festival in 2009. He travels the U.S. frequently. This Friday, Jan. 22 (2016) will find him in Kansas City, Missouri at the Poetry & Absinthe Open Mic at the Uptown Arts Bar.
Sid Yiddish usually dresses like a kind of mischievous cantor, as if The Rocky Horror Picture show took place in a Catskills summer camp or if Fiddler on the Roof was an avant-garde punk rock opera instead of a Broadway musical. With a prayer shawl and Kittel – a traditional garment worn by orthodox Jewish men and a face mask, he both pays homage to and satirizes Jewish heritage with his appearance. When he appeared on America’s Got Talent, Howie Mandel called him a “Hasidic Lone Ranger.”
A Sid Yiddish performance is always an eclectic ensemble of songs, poems, comedy and compelling noise. Each performance will usually involve some form of Tuvan throat singing, which sounds like it is painful to do and can rattle the uninitiated. He often performs with a band, the Candy Store Henchmen. With connections in various cities, his auxiliary of Candy Store Henchman can be summoned to perform on short notice and very little rehearsal.
[Full disclosure: I have known Sid Yiddish for several years and have performed in the New York City version of his Candy Store Henchmen. I met him through Mykel Board, who had the wisdom to write about Sid much sooner.]
His presidential campaign is his latest effort in reaching out to the world. His platform includes heavy support of the arts. “I believe schools should cut sports from schools and give all their money to the arts.” He would also buy everyone a new pair of shoes and hand out bubble gum with good comics in them, not the shabby comics that have become the standard today.
He has extended his reach through some small acting roles. He appears briefly in a Ludacris video and recently had a bit part in the Showtime show Shameless, which stars William H. Macy. There’s an online petition to make Sid a recurring character on the series.
While he revels in his outsider status, he makes an effort to make each show as interesting and participatory as possible, inviting audience members to join his band and play instruments if they choose, even if that instrumentation consists of banging on a table top or tapping a beer glass.
He’s devised a series of hand signals that instructs the band on what to play. One gesture means to stop, another gesture means a free-for-all, other gestures mean other things. If you play the wrong thing, he doesn’t ask you to change, he just may be a bit more emphatic with his gestures. No two Sid Yiddish shows will ever be the same and he likes it that way.
Sid Yiddish describes himself as a late bloomer and suffers from depression. His past is littered with sad memories of where clinical depression can lead. He hopes his work can reach people and help encourage those who also suffer from the disorder. To him, being a performance artist is a redeeming experience that puts him on a good path and colors his worldview. “It feels like I take LSD without taking LSD,” he notes.
His music and acting takes up a lot of his time and he is interested in going to another audition for America’s Got Talent. “I’m a renaissance man, a Jack and Jill of all trades. No one can put me in a category; you can’t pin me down. But sometimes I’ve felt that I’m spreading myself too thin.”
The world has given up a good bit of the civility and thoughtfulness that was more commonplace when Sid Yiddish was growing up, and he offers himself as a one-man protest against that. Instead of waving his fist at the world, his hand gestures conducts a motley crew making avant-garde punk rock symphony. He can take your rejection; he’s faced it all before and just keeps coming back, serving as a reminder that the act of creation and expression is sometimes all that matters and all you have left.
I recently went to a friend’s art opening at Q.E.D., a small art space in Astoria. Going to a friend’s art opening made me feel like I entered a proper adult sphere of being a creative person. Luckily Q.E.D. is as unpretentious as an art space can get without being a punk rock venue or a squat of some kind.
My artist friend, Michael Harper, is a former drummer for my band Blackout Shoppers and has played with Furious George and other punk groups. He is a far cry from the obnoxious snob you would expect to find having their work displayed on the walls of an art space in New York City.
But that is one of the good things that is happening in the city right now. While the high price of real estate had driven many good art and music venues out of Manhattan and the established art world is horrendously pretentious and completely out of touch with aesthetics and real value, the outer boroughs have responded by adapting and setting up their own respective art, literature and music scenes. Astoria’s Q.E.D. has comedy shows, open mic for poetry, music and storytelling. It hosts performances as well as classes—it is even hosting a Burns Night lecture—all days of the week.
More and more space like this are starting to open up in all of the outer boroughs. The kind of art spaces that used to proliferate our central borough can no longer generate the money they need to stay afloat. There are a few notable exceptions, such as the Lower East Side’s ABC No Rio, that have been around for a long time and manage to stay afloat with government grants, smart fundraising and a thrifty, DIY spirit. But these venues are very rare now. Those kinds of places are now in the other four boroughs.
One caveat to this is that Brooklyn has become so popular and overpriced that it is an outer borough in geography only – it long ago took on the same level of pretension and established demand that has long plagued Manhattan. This wasn’t always the case, of course. Before Williamsburg was the shit show of hipsterdom it is notorious for being today, it was a bad neighborhood where artists and writers fled to after being priced out of Manhattan. Parts of Brooklyn remain a haven for artists today, though time is running out for them even in the farthest reaches of the borough.
And New York’s outer boroughs have always been epicenters for the arts. Jack Kerouac wrote his first novel in Ozone Park, Queens. Louis Armstrong lived in Corona. Stanley Kubrick and Ace Frehley are from The Bronx. Matthew Brady, The Wu-Tang Clan and Blackie Lawless of W.A.S.P. hail from Staten Island. New York both attracts millions of creative people and produces great creativity among its natives that there is no neighborhood in the city that has not seen a glimmer of artistic greatness in some decade.
We can do nothing to roll back the clock and stop development and real estate price inflation, but like the good people of Astoria and elsewhere, a great art space is wherever you can make one. The outer boroughs are carving out space for the future of the arts in New York City.
This past week found me with my family in Cape Ann, Massachusetts. We were invited to attend a wedding of two outstanding friends of ours, and decided to make a vacation out of the event and stay in the area for a week. It was the first vacation for the four of us as a family as our daughters are only 18 months old.
We drove up to the area on a sunny Friday and I was dressed for a day of sweaty luggage lifting and toddler wrangling. I decided I would wear a suit to our friends’ wedding but otherwise I was going to dress in “No Fucks Given” style the rest of my vacation and simply grabbed a stack of t-shirts I knew I didn’t mind getting dirty. I expected they would all be stained with sweat, sunblock, sand, lobster guts, butter, coffee and whatever my twin girls were playing with at any given moment.
So, not really thinking about it or giving a damn, I drove to the heart of Boston Red Sox country wearing a New York Yankees t-shirt. It is a lovely Yankee blue with the Yankees’ NY logo emblazoned on the left breast. It’s a classic t-shirt owned by millions of people.
The people of Cape Ann, Massachusetts are some of the friendliest you’ll ever meet. They are the complete opposite of the stereotype of the cold New Englander. Everywhere we went people were very welcoming and helpful. They approached each situation with a knowing sense of humor and shared camaraderie, even if the people they were talking with were harried tourists from New York who didn’t know what they were doing.
When we first arrived in Gloucester, where we were staying, we went for a walk before we checked in to our summer rental apartment and a woman struck up a conversation with us on the street. Walking around with two adorable twin girls tends to invite conversation, and this woman was very nice and offered us advice on where to go and things to do. She noticed I was wearing my Yankee t-shirt. “You’re very brave to wear that up here,” she said to me, not completely joking. I smiled and shrugged. We were not making a secret we were from New York.
We went to lunch at a pub not far from where we were staying and the grizzled men at the bar noticed my shirt and started talking amongst themselves. “Oh, they’re not from around here… “He’s even wearing that t-shirt….” The back of my t-shirt was emblazoned with the name and number of Yankee great Jorge Posada. “Well, at least he’s a good player…” The lunch was still pleasant at this dive.
As we were moving in to our rental with our girls, someone yelled “Yankees Suck!!” at me from an open truck window. My wife and I laughed it off.
New England differs from New York in this regard. In New York City, I see people wearing Boston Red Sox hats and t-shirts all of the time. New York receives lots of tourists from Boston and is home to many Boston transplants and others that just aren’t right in the head. When New Yorker Manny Ramirez was a top Boston slugger, Dominicans in New York with no affiliation to Beantown proudly wore Boston Red Sox baseball hats. Serious and fair-weather Boston fans are everywhere in the five boroughs; we don’t think twice about them or care. New York has people who are fans of all kinds of weird and terrible stuff. There are people here who pay women to put cigarettes out on them. You have to try hard to offend people here, and unless your baseball hat is made of human skin from the Holocaust, it just isn’t going to turn heads.
But New England sports fans have an inferiority complex. Red Sox fans chant “Yankees Suck!” at Fenway Park even when they are not playing the Yankees. Every store imaginable had plentiful stock of Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots regalia, even posters extolling the innocence of cheating pretty-boy Tom Brady. Boston is a fine city, but it does not have the size or impact of New York. And while the Boston Red Sox are usually a good team and the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is a storied one, the Sox will never match up to the Yankees’ rich history of championships. The Yankees have made it easy for others to hate them; the Bronx Bombers even treat their own city like crap.
We didn’t let any of this affect our vacation. We stayed away from sports talk, which is easy for us, and enjoyed the beautiful beaches, delicious lobster and plentiful ice cream.
Supernova Black Hole Butthole is now published. I am still new at the Amazon publishing game. I would like it if there were an option for people who buy things from Amazon’s kindle store to get them in printed book form as well, even if that means a smaller payout to the author.
But that doesn’t matter, because I have more fiction for sale on Amazon, out there and ready for the world to see, for a small fee.
This story was the first one I read at the Cash Prize Literary Open Mic at The Cobra Club in Brooklyn earlier this year. I didn’t win the prize at that open mic but the story was very well received and someone asked me after the reading if this was available online for purchase anywhere. Now it is.
So enjoy and thank the very talented Justin Melkmann for his awesome illustration.