Advance the Story: Remembering Jonathan Valania

“Your voice is smoking” — ”Jesus, Etc.,” Wilco

BY JOEY SWEENEY | A life of writing teaches us this: If you do it right, you will have raked over enough coals so that when they come to visit after you’ve died, they will find a beautiful soft carpet of ashes to walk upon, and breathe in, and carry at the very least the whiff of the ancient lessons.

This is a very Jonathan Valania-style lead to a piece, and I do it because I want to invoke him here, and because I also want to name the very first thing I think he ever gave me: Permission, as a reader and a set of eyes, which he was to me often, to roll. The roll, we called it, his roll, my roll, this other writers’ roll, and how it could be elusive and difficult and sometimes deceptively easy — the roll is the voice in action.

And Jonathan had enough of all three to spread across any number of publications, any number of wobbly bar tables, any number of kitchen tables. The roll, the voice in action. “You’re really rollin’ here!,” he’d say to me, I’d say to him, newspaper or laptop in hand.

Jonathan’s roll had courage, and bravado, and synapses and references firing all over the place. He’d hide easter eggs throughout nearly every piece he ever wrote; if you knew you knew and if you didn’t you were fine, too. This motherfucker’s prose was gorgeous. His voice was smoking. (Read just a sampling of it here.)

Jilly put us all together, her brood of music writers at the paper she’d been the A&E editor for, Jilly the low-key prime cultural mover of this paper who had this incredible window and good sense and natural organizing powers. And so she created this micro-golden age, made this particular section of this particular alt-weekly, powered by phone sex ads, the best of its kind anywhere in the country for a way too brief moment in time.

I got to ride along, all of us did, a bunch of us not even ever really knowing anyone else before this who wanted to do what we’d each wanted to do for as long as we’d known anything: We wanted to write about music, what it did to you, where it led you, the other things it made you think of, the way it could truly power a life if only you’d let it. We found each other through this paper, and through the beer and pizza happy hours Jill would arrange from time to time.

When Jill left, it was Jonathan who I recall continued this thread, and seemed to expand it in the way friend groups have a way of Venn-ing into one another. I am less interested in documenting the specifics of this than I am remarking how notable it was to have this community of writers in tune with one another, especially now that I don’t have it. I don’t know too many folks who do, or who ever did, especially amongst people who write about music. When I began to write for other places, it was Jonathan I looked to whilst trying to autodidact a career as a cultural critic, a career for which my schooling taught me absolutely nothing.  Come to find out upon his passing that Jonathan was a low-key mentor to so many; the Phawker ranks are filled with folks who I imagine know some of these same blessings.

We’d link up at shows, at bars after shows, and just at bars full stop, this funny little cabal. How silly it was to not recognize it as precious then, and how obvious that is to me now, that it was. It was precious, in every facet of that word, even the sort of side-eye way, because it was a privilege, it was a luxury to have this group of folks in town. And I just recall that Jonathan drove so much of it, ice in his beer, holding forth on whatever, that smoky, deep, beautiful speaking voice, that voice that could sell shit to a shingle.

It was inevitable that Jonathan and I would have wound up working together on the cityblog I started as the weeklies began to crash and burn. And when we did, before it all blew up between us (more on this in moment), I remember this one thing, that might have been the best and last piece of writing advice he ever gave me, when it all shook out:

Advance the story. Whatever it is you’re taking on, always be adding something to it. A new perspective no one had thought of, backstory that had not at first arrived, or a quote, a perspective of someone else or even a whole group of someone elses altogether. Add to that which came before you.

And if you can’t, maybe don’t engage with whatever it is in the first place.

This is something that has rung out to me since the day it was spoken, and as I move through this life, it has become apparent that it doesn’t just apply to writing. It can apply to any creative work, and that includes human relationships. It includes love.

I wish I’d known that then. We fell out hilariously and spectacularly at one point — as in we both actually made a spectacle of it — over… blogs! We were not kind to each other. We were partying our faces off. We were dicks! And then that passed and then both us, if I may perhaps embellish here a little on both sides, felt hot shame about it for years.

But these things in hindsight are so silly and petty to announce that if he was in the room, and tonight he is, that we’d both bust up laughing, piss-ass laughing, before I even got the words fully out of my mouth. Because anything he and I did, we both did and participated in fully willingly.

And then, eventually, we buried the hatchet, and moved on. I regret deeply that I did not lean into picking up where we’d left off; I think he would have had me? I like to think he would have.

There was something soulful about Jonathan that, I dunno, maybe that was hard to see at times. But maybe that would be your problem, not his. When I think of the tenderness that seemed to pass between us every once in a while, over maybe nothing, maybe nothing at all but pure feeling, I feel an echo of it. I was younger in this time I’m speaking about. I was stupid and I was vain and I knew nothing, but I never wondered if he knew me. Of course he knew me. He’d been me.

All these years, we’ve lived literally on the same street.


Note: Jonathan Valania passed away in 2021. There will be a night of remembrance (and fundraising) in his honor on November 10 at the Pen & Pencil Club in Philadelphia.

Philebrity: Advance the Story: Remembering Jonathan Valania