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.
Penn & Teller are back in New York City you should go see them if you can. Penn & Teller on Broadway runs through August 16 at the Marquis Theatre.
I don’t know when exactly I became a die-hard Penn & Teller fan but it was at some point in the 1980s when they appeared on television often and were always funny a way that was smarter and with more of an edge than any other act around. Maybe when they appeared on the first Comic Relief show and they did a juggling act that involved them smoking at a time when the anti-smoking movement was getting stronger. “We don’t endorse smoking unless you want to look cool,” Penn said.
What’s more, they were a magic act that allegedly earned the hatred of most magic acts. They showed you how they did their tricks, until doing it in a way that forced you rethink everything. They don’t claim to have magic powers and they don’t use melodramatic music or ridiculous flourishes. They say they are going to fool you and then that’s what they do. While a lot of magic acts try to play up attachments to the supernatural, Penn & Teller are brutally honest with their audience. They also have a great sense of humor and even when you get fooled in a big way, it’s a thrill to see how they work and manipulate an audience. They are marvelously irreverent in ways that will make you happy to be a curmudgeon.
Before they moved to Las Vegas where they have their long-term residency, the duo was in New York. Penn Jillette would meet at the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square with anyone who wanted to have dinner and a movie with him.
I first saw them live in New York during a rare series of shows in the early summer of 2000. It was at the Beacon Theater and I sat in front of Al Goldstein and felt like a high roller for it. Andy Richter was in the audience too. New York City’s absurd and unfairly restrictive gun laws meant that they couldn’t do their famous bullet-catching trick, so they did a freedom-themed trick where they made it look like they were burning an American flag, only to have it appear unscathed on a flag pole on stage.
I saw them in New York again in 2009 at the Gramercy Theater in a special event called “35 Years of Magic and Bullshit.” It was the only time I’ve ever seen Teller speak on stage as himself as part of the show. The two performed a few tricks, including testing out a few new ones, but mostly were interviewed by a fellow magician and took questions from the audience.
At one point the host asked, “If you didn’t succeed with Penn & Teller, where would you be today?”
“I would still be a Latin teacher,” said Teller.
“I would be in prison,” said Penn.
I got to see them in Las Vegas when I went in 2011—I made sure to get my tickets to their show as soon as I had the flight booked. Vegas without seeing Penn & Teller would have been a big waste. The show rocked.
Penn & Teller meet after the show with anyone who wants a photo or autograph. Teller does talk when you meet him in person. It is rare to see them perform in New York City. Don’t miss out.