BY DAVE ALLEN Like time, news waits for no man. Keeping up with the funny papers has always been an all-day job, even in the pre-Internets era. These days, however, it’s a two-man job. That’s right, these days you need someone to do your reading for you, or risk falling hopelessly behind and, as a result, increasing your chances of dying lonely and somewhat bitter. That’s why every week PAPERBOY does your alt-weekly reading for you. We pore over those time-consuming cover stories and give you the takeaway, suss out the cover art, warn you off the ink-wasters and steer you towards the gooey center. Why? Because we love you!
ON THE COVER
CP: CP’s cover story takes place in limbo: between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, between the U.S. and Venezuela, between this country’s native inhabitants and its invading settlers, between the ears of a wacky 19th-century Irish immigrant who crowned himself King. Petty’s Island, and its modern-day historian, New York-based artist and provocateur Duke Riley, are at the nexus of all these elements, and HollyOtterbein does an admirable job of cataloging this crazy quilt of hybrid histories, and stretches waaaaayy back to give us a comprehensive view.
In the 1917 book The Romance of Petty’s Island, author John L. Morrison wrote passionately about Riley’s current maritime muse. He described Petty’s Island as mythical and beautiful, and thought it a crime that Philadelphians ignored it. “Notwithstanding its proximity to the heart of this great community of two millions of people, Petty’s Island is virtually an unknown land to most Philadelphians,” he wrote. “A search through the musty tomes and papers of the past 250 years demonstrates that the big triangular island off the Kensington coast is saturated with the romance of the river, the sea and forest.”
Morrison’s words ring just as true 93 years later. Though Petty’s Island has been the subject of CNN reports, a New York Times article and even a Danny Glover-narrated documentary, most Philadelphians have never even heard of it. In part, cartography’s to blame: Petty’s Island isn’t in Philadelphia — it’s in Pennsauken, N.J. But, really, that’s no excuse: Our ignorance of Petty’s Island is so great that most of us have looked straight at it, and never even realized it. If you’ve ever visited Penn Treaty Park, walked out to the edge of the Delaware River, and looked across to the left, that wasn’t just New Jersey. That’s Petty’s Island.
Riley first came across Petty’s Island while digging up old documents about the waterfront. The waterfront is the area of the city that I’m drawn to in any given situation,” he says. “Typically, the waterfront made up the periphery of urban society. So the sketchy stuff happened there.”
As he researched the island, beginning at the Historical Society and then seeking out more arcane treasures in Northeast graveyards and 19th-century newspapers, he began to sense what so many people before him have — that Petty’s Island is an epic microcosm of America.
And somehow this is all pegged to Philagraphika, a visual art and graphic design festival in the city? My head’s spinning, but somehow, I’m hooked. I could rail against New York’s cultural foothold in Philly that sometimes come across like an exploration-era sphere-of-influence, and though I’d rather have seen a Philly artist take on this strange and subversive yet historically-informed work of art, instead I think I’ll ride the wave, at the nexus of “Way to go!” and “What the hell?”
PW: Jeff Barg takes us a thoughtful nostalgia trip into Philly’s social life of yore, its DJs-and-dances, with a look at the 50-year career of Jerry Blavat, the legendary Geator. I’m an outsider; I’d never heard of him until I saw a billboard in 2008 where he was reminding passersby to wash their hands. Swine flu notices aside, theGeator has a grip on people that goes beyond mere nostalgia to the idea of a “city of neighborhoods” that, in many ways, is still with us.
Blavat and his audience have grown together, in a way: When they go see him for two, three hours a week, they step back in time to a day when they were the coolest cats in the parish, when a wild night out involved necking in the back of Dad’s Chevy at the drive-in movie theater at Broad and Pattison. They step back into this old Philadelphia, where they find the Geator, holding court. Like he never left.
“Everybody wants to go back and relive a moment in their life where you can relate, and I do that,” he says. “I bring you back for two hours with my music to a better time in our world—a time when kids were the product of a neighborhood, kids went to dances—Wagner’s, Chez Vous, Starlight—and they met other kids from different neighborhoods.”
As he loves to remind anyone who will listen, Jerry Blavat too is very much the product of a neighborhood. He grew up half Jewish, half Italian on McKean Street in what was then a very Italian South Philadelphia. But with his father in and out of jail and his mother working as a riveter at the Navy Yard, Blavat was raised mostly by the nuns of St. Monica’s Parish at 17th and Ritner. “I always hung with older people because I always wanted to learn from older people,” he says. “I always dressed older.”
With Barg as his guide, the Geator even goes deep into Philly’s history of racial division, and how a love of rhythm-and-blues, and his dissemination of it, helped bring down some barriers in the city. TheGeator seems at times to have drunk deep from the well of his own greatness, but there’s no denying his place at the heart of both the historical Philly music scene and in the hearts of his aging fans. It’s really fascinating.
INSIDE THE BOOK
CP: A Cormac McCarthy shout-out wins any band instant cred. David Byrne’s life in the bike of ghosts. Everything’s bigger in Texas, but more political in Philly, even food. Health care = fucked. Senate = entrenched and fucked. But, hey, “always look on the bright side of life.”
PW: South Street is dead; long live South Street: Record stores make way for restaurants. I’m OK with this. Tweeter theater: Keep it short, cryptic. Holiday in Cambodia? Oh shit, another indie-rock Cormac McCarthy shout-out?! Pulizer Prize-winning apocalyptica in the HOUSE!
WINNER: CP’s cover is just too crazy and multifarious to be denied. Makes me wanna paddle out to the middle of the Delaware and get back to nature. Nice work.