On The Passing of Tony Sly

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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Comments 6

  • This was a great piece, well written.

    My heart goes out to Tony’s family.

  • Nice writing. Earlier I read a great comparison that somebody came up with: Bad Religion or NOFX may have been the friends that brought you to the punk rock party, but NUFAN was the friend who stumbled all the way home, wasted with you at the end of the night. RIP.

  • Excellent piece. I’m still totally bumming about this news about Tony Sly. I was probably 19 or 20 when I started really getting into No Use. I was kind of a product of the “grunge” scene, but around 1994 or 1995, I was getting more and more into bands like Pennywise, Social D., Bad Religion, Lagwagon and No Use. It’s funny, while most of my friends would say I love Pennywise over anyone, it seemed that there was no way that I would miss a No Use show when they came around the Boston area. They opened my interest in several other bands that opened for them back in the day. Soon I was also a fan of Useless I.D., The Ataris and I Am The Avalanche after seeing those bands open for No Use. My favorite show, which I mentioned in the comment section of another No Use article on Dying Scene, was one where they opened for the Dance Hall Crashers at the Paradise in Boston. Me and my buddy Tommy were totally hammered when we went to this show. Minutes before No Use took the stage, we charged through the crowd yelling “security, move please, security coming through”!! We got to the front of the stage and No Use just blistered through an incredible set that left our ears bleeding. We didn’t even stay for the Dance Hall Crashers, instead having more beers at T’s Pub right next door to the Paradise. As we left T’s, who’s standing outside but Tony Sly himself. As if our Boston accent wasn’t bad enough, imagine the incredible slurring of speech to go along with it!!! But Tony was extremely kind, and really getting a laugh out of the way we talked.. “Hey Tony, you shoulda played Post-caahd!!!!” Tony’s like “Post-caaahd? Do we even have a song called Post-caaahd?” We were such huge No Use fans and just for Tony to give us a little of his time and to comment how awesome it was that he saw me and my buddy singing all the words to their songs at the front of the stage meant everything to us. It still does to this day. It feels like we’ve lost an old friend that we grew up with that was always there through good times or bad. All of my thoughts and prayers are with Tony’s family and friends. He’ll be missed dearly 🙁

  • That is very well written and sums up a lot of feelings I’ve been having. Thank you. I think this says it well…” Rather, he was one of us”

  • I am grateful to this author for helping me put my feelings into words as spoken so eloquently in this article. We, as fans, can all sadly relate. I read hundreds, if not, thousands of posts by people expressing their saddness for Tony Sly’s untimely passing. Most of us are unable to truly explain our feelings, as we never knew him per se, but we felt as though we did through his music and having the chance to meet him as he so graciously took the time before and after his shows to chat with his fans. I am so grateful that I was given the chance to talk to him just days before his death, but I am absolutely heart-broken; I can’t imagine how his close friends and family must feel. My thoughts and prayers are with them everyday. RIP Tony Sly, you are truly missed.

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