A penny plus shipping and handling: A (former) outsider’s celebration of old Philly bands
MySpace accidentally became the repository for all the bands that lined the streets of your hometown in the mid-2000s. Everybody’s MP3s made it there, for better or for worse. It was the first time you could do it effectively for free. Vestiges of virtually all pop music released between 2004 and 2009 are frozen in time there like an advertisement-laden Pompeii.
Most of those bands were gone before Amazon.com debuted MP3 downloads. At best, you can order a used CD on Marketplace and wait for it to arrive. A penny plus $2.50 shipping and handling if you’re lucky.
Some of those old songs must have been humming somewhere in my head one night, because I typed, almost unconsciously, “North Star Infinite” and “Myspace” into Google. There are only three songs on their profile and the site’s layout looks alien from when I’d last used it. But the band’s website is gone and I can’t even find their CD to buy used. If there’s still a copy in my house, it’s certainly buried and probably scratched or broken.
Those three songs on repeat is like flipping through an old photo album — or, more appropriately, browsing an old Pictures folder. We’ve all come a long way: myself, the city’s music scene, and even the technology we all use to get our work out there.
Nine years ago, my neighbor Rob and I all but camped out for a week at the Khyber in Philadelphia, the club where I first saw North Star Infinite. I’d played drums there a bunch with The Yarrows, an artsy little indie rock group whose members were all a decade older than me.
Rob would come out to see us sometimes, and we’d catch other bands playing the same night. Now, a few groups we knew were coming to the club within a few days of each other, and when we saw all their posters lining the walls there one time we resolved to see them all.
The clincher was a poster for LAIR OF THE MINOTAUR, who’d be playing on a day in between ones with bands we already knew. Rob and I wanted to hear them, and wanted to be surprised. We promised ourselves we wouldn’t cheat and check them out on MySpace before the show.
When I was a kid, I’d stare at my parents’ old records. With no turntable available I’d read the liner notes and study the grooves, trying to divine what they sounded like. This time, all I had was an amazing poster. There was a fucking MINOTAUR involved and it looked like it meant business.
Rob and I seemingly had no business down at the Khyber. We were two guys from Northeast Philly, a bus and a train and a universe away from the trendsetting parts of the city. We had wives and 9–5 jobs that required Dockers. He had three kids and I had two; both our families had expanded to include boys born in the same week just a few months prior.
My excuse to head down there so often was usually connected to a show I was playing or an article I was writing for Wonka Vision, a Philly-based music magazine. His wife usually just wanted him out of the house.
Once, we went to see the band Metroplex for an article I was writing about the old late-nineties punk scene in Philadelphia. The task was more daunting for me than perhaps other writers: not only was I nowhere near those bands back then, but in 2005 I was 24 and my appreciation of punk still stopped and started with about four bands.
Earlier that year a co-worker, knowing I was a musician, casually dropped the magazine’s latest issue on my desk. I worked briefly with the publisher when we were cashiers in high school. He’d shown me a bundle of photocopied cut-and-paste pages: Issue One of Wonka Vision Magazine.
Apparently he’d nurtured it into a full-color glossy with national distribution. On a whim I reached out with some old journalism assignments from college and after a little back-and-forth secured my first freelance gig. I used the then-current issue to crash-course, checking out every band’s MySpace page. A few jumped out at me right away but most were indistinguishable.
Metroplex was still part of that jumble when I saw them at the Khyber. They were the last of four loud bands that night in a room too small to require microphones on the drums but had them anyway. Rob and I jetted after a few songs. But, the first band that night was North Star Infinite.
Something about them stood out. I could pick apart what was happening, identify riffs and snatches of lyrics.They had a bad-dream reggae feel to them: lots of bass drums charging just ahead of the tempo and striking, off-time snare hits. The guitars swayed and stabbed nervously, sometimes like a raised knife suddenly illuminated by lightning in a slasher film, before washing out the song with blistering turmoil. The singer perpetually sounded like he was on the edge of some existential cliff, unable to stop staring into the void.
I liked it. It didn’t even matter that, while I was sipping my beer contemplating this, the lead guitarist nearly plowed me over carrying his amp offstage: “‘Scuse me. Sorry to interrupt you and your lager.”
Undaunted, I jotted down the name and sent their website to Rob that Saturday night on AOL instant messenger. We were less than 500 feet from each other, but the kids were sleeping and our wives were out — mine at work, his prepping with a study group for a college exam — so we were landlocked. He replied that he dug them, too.
It turned out the co-worker who reintroduced me to Wonka Vision was dating a record store owner. Soon I was handing her cash at work one day and getting CDs the next. North Star Infinite was one of them.
The Old Scene article never made it to press. After a few rounds of overhauls and revisions, the publisher finally decided he was too close to it all personally to have someone who wasn’t there write about it.
One pieces of objective criticism was that, while he loved this quote, it didn’t work to close the article:
The late 90s was a great time to be around, even if the memories get a little hazy. When pressed for anecdotes, McKee stumbles a bit. “I can’t really think of anything specific,” he concedes. “Mostly it was, ‘blah blah happened and we all fought the nazis’ or ‘blah blah was on drugs and we had to get them home’ or ‘the cops caught blah blah masturbating’ or ‘blah blah Xeroxed his ass and mailed it back to blah blah’s booking agent when they asked for a guarantee.’”
In the year after writing that story, Rob and his wife got divorced. While they were separated she had a big 30th birthday party. He was there pretty much just to keep an eye on the kids and take them home.
We were all in a see-through mesh tent, away from the summer bugs. Rob stepped out to smoke a cigarette. I found him peering at the netting, only able to see people’s backs.
“This is what it’s been like for me for years,” he said. “Just looking in.” I remembered writing that closing paragraph and feeling the same way sometimes.
During all this, I wrote a story on North Star for Wonka Vision. And, Rob and I camped out at the Khyber for a week. We saw North Star again one night and I discovered This Radiant Boy the next. They packed the room and I was amazed at the amount of energy the crowd pushed back at them.
They reminded me of The Who, lots of anthemic power-chording and blissfully busy drumming. But they were leaner up front with slightly snarky lyrics and nasal punk sneer. A few days later their album, Proud To Be a Chemist, arrived in my mailbox. A penny plus $2.50 shipping and handling.
And, we saw Lair of the Minotaur. They did not disappoint. The band was a side project of Pelican, a more well-known ambient, instrumental metal band. True to their name — and poster — Minotaur was as far from ambient as one could get. All I remember now is waves of distorted guitar and perpetual double bass drums. At the beginning of a song, Rob put his beer on the edge of the stage. It rattled and crashed to the ground by the end of it.
I got the Pelican CD through my co-worker, but never got around to picking up Lair of the Minotaur. Money was always a little tight. Even though I always wanted to support the bands sometimes I’d have to buy the music later. Used sometimes, for a penny plus $2.50 shipping and handling. I remember once working through lunch to justify paying for overnight shipping to get a disc before going on vacation.
In retrospect, I should have skipped lunch again to pick up The Galilean Satellites by Rosetta, an experimental metal band we also discovered that week. If you play both CDs in their double-disc album together, mesh into a third, coherent piece of music.
Rob and I often threatened to get the album and combine stereos, but never got around to it. We did, however, once put both our car radios at full volume one summer afternoon when Freebird came on.
We were hanging out back drinking Miller High Life in lawn chairs while watching the kids play. Rob smoked a lot, and had on a baseball cap and sunglasses. He looked like Dale from the show King of Hill. I was wearing a white sleeveless undershirt, ratty cutoff jeans and no shoes. These ensembles occurred organically.
My wife yelled at us out from the bedroom window, asking if we could possibly be any more white trash. His wife yelled at us to turn it down because the baby was sleeping. There were reasons we could go to the Khyber so often.
Neither of us are married any more, but that’s just to say the whole era is a bygone one. Rob moved a few miles away, and my family went to the suburbs. By the time I moved back to Northeast Philly we’d mostly lost touch. The Khyber’s still around but stopped hosting bands years ago.
By then I was the sponsorship director for Wonka Vision and going to shows at the Trocadero or First Unitarian Church. I’d choose gigs for the magazine to sponsor (usually a band I liked), get in for free and spend the night behind the merch tables, people-watching and giving out magazines. Then I’d return home with CDs of bands that, once I left the show, only I seemed to know.
When Wonka Vision folded I moved on to a suburban lifestyle magazine. And, after I got divorced a year later I fell in with a new group of friends, musicians who played every an open mic every Sunday at Reale’s, a nearby bar i in the Northeast.
We spent a lot of late nights there and then at my house when the kids were spending the weekend with their mom. A bunch of us shared a practice studio, borrowed each other’s gear and swapped members. We formed cover bands first, then shifted to originals and hosted shows at the bar where we met. A few of us still teach music lessons at a music store in the neighborhood. For the first time as an adult, I’d regularly walk down the street and see a few people I knew — or even run into people who knew of me but not vice versa.
Three years ago I published an essay in the suburban magazine on that bar, and those people, and about Norm, the middle-aged host of the open mic night there that brought us together.
A few weeks later I got an email from a friend of Norm’s who was delighted to see his buddy in print and that “the younger generation” appreciated him. He passed it around to other friends, and a few started coming in to jam with us “kids.”
One of the best parts of writing, I realized, was affecting the outside world somehow. I try to do that as much as I can, especially now that I’ve made writing a full-time job. I’ve had a few stories go viral, at least by standards, and one of them helped raise thousands of dollars for a family with three children on the autism spectrum. It’s easier to get that response now, since we’ve mostly figured out how to mix social media and journalism.
It’s the same for music in a lot of ways, too. A handful of those Northeast musicians and I, along with some new friends from other parts of the city, have been playing in clubs all over town. And while it wasn’t a problem being anonymous at the Khyber years ago, it’s nice to walk into clubs and know the bartenders or owners by name — and vice versa.
We’ve also been recording and releasing our own music for a few years now. And, we’re able to get that music out there faster and more easily than before. Songs are on Soundcloud and Spotify for free; Bandcamp and Amazon digital if anyone would like to pay for it. They’ll never skip and you get them instantly. No shipping, no handling.
The last stand at the Khbyer for Rob and I was at North Star’s last gig, probably a year before I got divorced and met those new musicians. The band was still drawing a large crowd, now under the name Brass. I caught wind of their farewell show, and tracked down Rob.
Like a geek I dug out my old North Star Infinite shirt and we headed out. After the set, the guitarist — the one who interrupted that intimate moment with me and my beer years prior — came up to me and squinted at the shirt.
“You look familiar.”
“I used to come out to shows back in the day. I wrote about you for Wonka Vision.”
His eyes lit up a little. I think he said it was either the first time or one of the first times someone wrote about them, and/or that he really liked it. The memories are blurred by a couple lagers and quite a few years.
Now, I looked around the house: there is still a This Radiant Boy disc around, but it skips awfully. Fortunately they’re on Bandcamp now. The Northstar CDs are gone, as is the t-shirt. And, time is too tight right now to track down the Rosetta double-disc, sync up my stereo and PA system and fiddle with the levels.
But if I could, I would. I’d pay good money for the opportunity. Well, at least a penny plus $2.50 shipping and handling.