As humans, we’re social creatures, conditioned by nature to thrive off of connections with others. We like to know that other people share in our emotions, both good and bad. So it’s a weird thing when a public figure dies. In trying to make sense of a public loss, it is not uncommon for people to insert themselves in the tragedy of others, searching for connections where none may really exist. The punk rock community can be a jaded one at times, so we turn a condescending eye toward those who vocally mourn the passing of the Whitney Houstons, the Michael Jacksons and the Dick Clarks of the world. But then we lose one of our own, and somehow it feels different.
The punk community is a finite thing, built on a shared set of experiences and beliefs. It goes without saying that to become more than just a gimmick or a passing voice in the annals of punk rock history, your voice has to be one of honesty and integrity. False celebrity and pretension get snuffed out pretty quickly. Tony Sly’s voice resonated for a lot of reasons. More than anything, Sly’s voice was genuine. Tony Sly wasn’t one of a kind; like most great punk rock poets, he was one of us.
It seems that there’s a common thread for a lot of people who might be of a certain age (let’s say 33 for argument’s sake) while reading this page. For many of us, it was the Green Days and the Offsprings who ushered us in to this punk rock community roughly twenty years ago; it was the No Use For A Names that kept us here. Inspired by the Bad Religions and the Social Distortions who blazed the trail a decade earlier, NUFAN were one of the pillars in the skate punk community that exploded in the early 90s, thanks in no small part to Tony Sly’s unique voice and heartfelt lyrics. To many of us, there are less than a half-dozen voices from that pivotal era of our formative punk rock years whose ability to connect with their listeners via their storytelling abilities continues to resonate and has left a lasting impression: Fat Mike, Joey Cape, Trever Keith, Jim Lindberg, and Tony Sly. That foundation crumbled a little with the all-too-untimely passing of Tony Sly.
While Fat Mike’s voice served to take the piss out of people who took themselves too seriously and Lindberg pointed his middle finger directly at the establishment, Sly (along with his later counterpart Cape) was more introspective, directing a lot of that same vitriol toward the man that reflects in the mirror. Sly expressed fear, doubt and insecurity in ways that were very real and relatable, easily allowing the listener to identify with every word. And yet, I always got the sense that Tony wasn’t looking for that sort of connection; instead that he was writing for himself, using his music as a therapeutic tool, actively trying to process and make sense of what he saw unfolding around him in the world around him.
As he progressed as a songwriter, Sly’s frame of reference seemed to narrow, with lyrics that became more personal release-by-release, dealing less with trying to fit in to the bigger picture (as on the bulk of the material on the 1995 NUFAN classic “Leche Con Carne”) and more on trying to make sense with feelings like disappointment and resignation along with the stagnation and inertia that can creep in to long-term relationships. The two solo albums that closed out Sly’s career were perhaps the two most appropriately-titled albums in recent memory (2010’s “Twelve Song Program” and 2011’s “Sad Bear”). The former album tells the tale of a man trying to keep a brave (or at least upbeat) face while coping with emotional turmoil; the latter, while very similar in almost every way, adopts the tone of someone who remains stuck in a persistent rut, yet without some of the tongue-in-cheek optimism of its predecessor.
Like most lasting punk rock voices of his era, he wasn’t about gimmicks or style. Tony Sly wasn’t a bondage-pants-and-pink-mohawk type, nor was he a leather-jacket-and-eyeliner type. From afar, Tony Sly seemed like one of the good guys, but equally as important, he seemed like one of the regular guys. He seemed like someone who used his musical platform to cathartically express a lot of the things that many of us go through, particularly with middle age and growing responsibilities that come with it. As he reminded us, Tony Sly wasn’t our savior. Rather, he was one of us. That’s what makes his untimely passing all the more troubling. It means not just losing a made-up face on a television screen or a studio-created voice capable of belting out words that were written in a pop music laboratory. Instead, it makes our own mortality just a little more real.
“Please remember…it must go on…”
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