On August 2, 2012, our trivia team name was “No Use for an Untimely Death.” The day before, Tony Sly, lead singer of punk band No Use for a Name had died in his sleep.
On October 29, 2013, Fat Wreck Cords released The Songs of Tony Sly: A Tribute. The next day I downloaded the album and haven’t stopped listening to it since.
This is my tribute to Tony Sly.
I don’t have a lot of experience in dealing with death, thankfully. I’ve only had one person really close to me die, and outside of losing the pets from my childhood, prior to Tony Sly, the death I probably took hardest was Dimebag Darrell from the band Pantera.
This one punched me in the gut. No Use for a Name was one of the flagship bands for Fat Wreck Cords, the label that helped me fall in love with punk rock. If a band fell under the Fat banner, I was predisposed to like them because the collection of artists Fat Mike had curated seemed to be almost in lockstep with my own burgeoning tastes. I bought every Fat Wreck Cords comp I could find and began to seek out every band on them.
I saw No Use for a Name headline in Denver in late 1999. I was there with my girlfriend at the time, a few friends and, truthfully, we were there to see sub-headliner the Mad Caddies. At the time I didn’t appreciate the show as much as I probably should have. They lacked stage banter and seemed content to just rock their melodic hardcore tunes one after another. Thinking back on the history of my punk show attendance, I wish more bands were content to let their music do the talking.
Approximately three years later, I was at another No Use for a Name headliner show, once again to see another band. This time, as part of my gig at college radio, to interview sub-headliner Yellowcard. I went backstage, which was unfathomably small compared to what I had pictured in my head, found everyone drinking beers and smoking cigarettes. Since it was loud as shit, we adjourned to the headliner’s dressing room, which was just a slightly larger area a few steps up from where we were.
I proceeded with the interview as everyone lit up yet more cigarettes. I was far too nervous at that point to both smoke and conduct an interview with this band I loved, so I refrained. About ¾ of the way through the interview, Tony Sly comes up the stairs and announces, “Hey guys, there’s no smoking in this room.” Dad had showed up. Everyone turned into little kids as they crushed out their cigarettes and fell all over themselves to apologize and vowed never to do it again. I include myself here as I silently felt incredibly proud that I wasn’t smoking and privately hoped Tony liked me best because of it.
Once the interview was done, I got a couple of quick pickups from Yellowcard (Hey, this is Ben from Yellowcard and you’re listening to the Bi-Polar Show…), and prepared to vacate. The members of No Use were chatting with members of The Eyeliners, an awesome girl punk outfit, about getting some food before the show. This is where my memory betrays me, as it was either Tony Sly himself, or No Use’s bassist Matt Riddle who asked anyone within earshot, “Does anyone know what the food is like at Good Times?”
Knowing these guys were from California, and remembering what my boss at my summer job (also from California) had said about Good Times to one of his visitors, I decided to take that description for myself, and replied, “Yeah, it’s burgers – kinda like In ‘N Out.”
His eyes got wide excitedly, he smiled, and said to me, “Reeeaaallly?!”
Uh oh. I think I might have oversold this. Having never been to In ‘N Out myself, I was suddenly providing a comparison I had no practical knowledge of, and, based on his reaction, likely setting him up for disappointment.
I sheepishly replied, “That’s how I’ve heard people describe it. I think it’s pretty good.” Attaboy. Dial it back.
He fired back, “Alright, man. Alright. Thanks! (turning his attention to the other No Use members and The Eyeliners) Yo, we’re going to Good Times!” Great.
I never did find out how he felt about the food at Good Times, but the first time I ate at In ‘N Out, I thought about this exchange and decided I had unintentionally disappointed Tony Sly (or possibly Matt Riddle), and that made me just a little bit sad.
Tony Sly commanded your attention. I hoped he was pleased with me that I didn’t break his no smoking rule I had no idea existed, and I wanted him to be satisfied with my flippant burger recommendation. Why did I seek approval from this man?
I think it’s because you always seek to please those you respect. Tony Sly was, without question, a brilliant songwriter, and I think having that knowledge and reverence in the back of my head gave him an aura of grandiosity in my own mind. By contrast, I liked Yellowcard, and since I was 20 years old at the time, wanted them to think I was cool enough to be their friends. Being friends with Tony Sly never entered my mind, all I wanted was his approval, and the affirmation that I was worthy enough to be around him.
Thinking back on it, these thoughts are strange, and ultimately sort of silly, especially when judged against the backdrop of his songs. Loneliness, resentment, regret and isolation punctuate most of No Use for a Name’s songs. While that sounds like a recipe for the maudlin, when played at the speed No Use for Name plays its songs, angst becomes not a heavy coat under which to labor, but rather a cathartic declaration of intent.
What’s amazing about listening to all of my favorite bands (many of them No Use’s labelmates – Strung Out, Lagwagon, Alkaline Trio, Gaslight Anthem, Mad Caddies, Yellowcard – cover these songs on The Songs of Tony Sly: A Tribute, is that they become stripped of their liberating and purgative bluster, all that’s left is the sentiment, which is almost without fail wrenchingly sad.
Tony Sly looked at the world and his own life, then reflected pain, sadness, seclusion, and sorrow back at it through his music.
The musicians on The Songs of Tony Sly: A Tribute, looked at the music of Tony Sly, thought about the world without him, and used his own music as a reflection of the pain, sadness, seclusion, and sorrow of the world, now that he’s no longer in it. It’s perfect irony, and just painful enough a realization that only Tony Sly could capture it properly.
When you listen to this tribute album, every song Tony Sly wrote about someone or something else, when in the hands of one of his contemporaries, transfers onto Tony Sly himself. He is both the perfect expresser and expression of grief. Both a mirror and a release for whatever pain we feel.
One of my favorite No Use for a Name songs is called “Invincible.” The last lines of the song are below. No one is invincible until, suddenly, they are.
Rest in peace, Tony.
Pretend you’re invincible,
There’s no one to tell you that it’s wrong.
They’re all just as scared as I am.
It’s over someday soon, it won’t be long.