Published June 7, 2020
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If a picture paints a thousand words, then buckle up, because you’re about to get a few pictures worth of words. Words with no pictures. Except the old black and white ones I use to advertise this shindig. And speaking of those pictures, how long can I keep that up? Is it played out yet? Sometimes finding something that’s relevant even in the non-relevant way that I approach things takes forever. But you don’t want to hear about my vain artistic struggles, do you.
Who am I anyway? Well, I am Michael Phillips, and THIS IS NOT A TEST. Or is it? Maybe the whole thing has been a test. The past five-plus years have been an audition for a real podcast. Or maybe I’m angling for a spot on the channel 3 news in Palm Springs. That’s our local channel out here, our one local channel, channel 3. I like to watch their 11 o’clock news sometimes, to see what’s happening down the hill.
And I know I just said that I’m Michael Phillips, but all signs seem to indicate that I’m changing my name for the fourth time in my life. I don’t know if it will be the last time, but for now, I’m going with it. I changed my websites to say, Michael Jerome Phillips, which is a minor change in the scheme of things since it’s just exposing my middle name to the sunlight. It wasn’t like I was hiding it before. Most people don’t go around saying their middle name. I’m not even sure why we have middle names.
But I’ve gone by mjp for more than 25 years, that started when I got onto the internet, and maybe that’s pretentious too. But it was my first email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, and if anyone asked me what it stood for, I told them. And then they’d say, “Jerome?!” Because I guess Jerome is a shocking or unusual name? I don’t know. I don’t know why people always seemed shocked. It’s probably weird and shocking to hear anyone’s middle name after you’ve known them for a while. Or known them only by three initials.
Okay, so I blame being called mjp on the internet, and I made this latest change because of the internet too. Michael Phillips, well, that’s what they call a pretty generic name. There are a lot of us out there. Each of us unique and precious flowers unto ourselves, of course, but bearing the same bland kind of non-threatening name. Having a name like that makes it easy for them to call your name in the breadline, but it makes you sort of un-Googleable in this day and age.
But we’ve been working on updating SEO for Carol’s website, to raise it up in the search results, and it got me thinking that maybe I should make my book site more visible. Doing it for Michael Phillips is difficult, because like I said, it’s too generic. And there are some Michael Phillips’ out there that are much more famous than I am if you can believe that. So ranking high in that search is an uphill battle.
It’s like being that little mouse in the cartoon that’s flipping off the hawk that’s about to swoop down and eat it. But ranking high for a search for Michael Jerome Phillips, I figured that would be a lot easier. And it was.
Maybe I should have gone with M. Jerome Phillips. There are only six results in Google for that. Six! There are only 1,600 results for Michael Jerome Phillips, specifically, so I was able to land my book site in the top two spots in less than a day, and grab another spot further down on the first page for this very podcast.
Those numbers are for specific searches in quotes. Of course, if you type Michael Jerome Phillips without quotes, there are 20 million results. Because Google sends back every combination of those words. Or names. I think I’ve talked about working search engine optimization before, so I won’t bore you with any more of that. But I didn’t go with M. Jerome Phillips because I was afraid people would start calling me Jerry, and that’s my dad’s name.
All of this name stuff started with him anyway, what with him being the father and the parents traditionally naming the new babies. But he wanted to name me Jerome Michael Phillips, which is his name, which would have made me a “junior,” and my mother said, “No dice, buster,” or whatever they said in 1960. On my birth certificate, it says Jerome Michael, then there’s an addendum or it’s crossed out or something, and they wrote Michael Jerome. But that’s your life, right there, isn’t it. It all rises or falls on the decisions your parents make when you’re still wet with womb juice.
I’ve always believed that we should be able to name ourselves anyway. You know, when you’re old enough to want a certain name, you should be able to have it. But then maybe leaving name choice to a five year old might not be such a great idea either. If I had picked out my name when I was five, this podcast would probably be hosted by Batman or Lily Pumpkin or Andrea Dworkin or something. Not Michael. But I was never Michael anyway, since everyone called me “Mike,” up until my first voluntary name change, which was from Mike to Michael.
But wait, there’s more. I wasn’t even Mike Phillips for the first 17 years of my life, I was Mike Neville. Not because Neville sounded fancy, but because my mom and dad split up before I was a year old, and my mom married Earl Neville. They wanted Earl to officially adopt me and make me a Neville, but then it was my dad’s turn to say, “No dice, buster,” so I remained a Phillips. On my birth certificate anyway. But that didn’t stop my mom and stepdad from enrolling me in school as Mike Neville. That was a cheeky move but probably done because of the times.
The sixties in rural Minnesota may have well been the fifties or even the forties. They probably thought the little town would be confused by the oldest kid in the Neville house running around calling himself Phillips. Or there would be talk, you know. “Oh, he ain’t one of them.” Whispers and eye rolls. Or some other kind of polite Midwestern disapproval. I don’t know. But whatever their reasoning was, I was Mike Neville. No one ever asked if I was cool with that. I wasn’t consulted. Probably because I couldn’t talk or, you know, stand up or feed myself.
But as far back as I can remember, I would see my dad on most Saturdays, and he always made sure I knew I was a Phillips. When we were driving around in his truck, he’d ask me how to spell Phillips and give me a quarter when I got it right. Which was every time, because a quarter was a good thing to have in your pocket. And Phillips isn’t that hard to spell once you get the hang of it. It seems like an odd conversation to have in a pickup truck every Saturday, but I don’t know. What do you talk to a five-year-old about? They’re pretty boring people, in the scheme of things.
So I was Mike Neville when I wasn’t with my dad. Then I got a job as a printer when I was 17 years old, so I had to get my social security card, and when it came in the mail, there it was, Michael Jerome Phillips. So at my job, they knew me as Michael Phillips, but at school and at home, everyone knew me as Mike Neville. It wasn’t fun, like having a secret agent alias or something, but I don’t remember it being a big deal. That was just the way my life was rolling, and I didn’t lay awake at night thinking about it. Kind of like getting into a truck or onto the back of a motorcycle every Saturday with a man you don’t live with. It was just the way it was.
But whether they thought I was a Neville or a Phillips, everyone called me “Mike” because that’s what people do when you tell them your name is Michael. I made that change, or tried to make it, when I was about 20 years old. I told everyone to start calling me Michael, and you’d have thought I was asking them to call me Mahavishnu or something. I still have a sister who refuses to call me anything but “Mike.” She’ll say, “Mike…I mean MICHAEL…” as if it was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard, asking to be called a certain name. Your name.
I know exactly when I switched over to using Phillips outside of work though, thanks to the flyers for my first band, The Reactors. The flyers for our first couple of show called me Mike Neville, up through June of 1979. Then for a July 14th show, suddenly I’m Mike Phillips. I’m not sure why we put our names on the flyers, but we did. We were revolutionary like that.
When I started playing with Sonny Vincent a couple years later, I had already made the change to Michael, and that’s what I told everyone my name was, but they still called me Mike. Sonny still calls me “Mike” now, 40 years later.
When Carol and I moved last summer, we introduced ourselves to the new neighbors as Carol and Michael, but our closest neighbors call me “Mike.” I don’t really care what anyone calls me as long as the checks clear. But it seems so presumptuous to me. I would never shorten someone’s name unless they introduced themselves to me that way. And in my mind, being called “Mike” is weird. To myself, I’m not Mike, so when people call me Mike, half the time I look around to see who they’re talking to.
So yeah, names. I was born Jerome Michael Phillips, then the next day I became Michael Jerome Phillips, then Mike Neville, Mike Phillips, Michael Phillips, and now, apparently Michael Jerome Phillips. I guess that’s six name changes, not four like I said at the beginning of this riveting tale. But then those early changes had nothing to do with me; they were involuntary. So I guess technically I’ve only asked people to call me a different name a few times.
And I’m not even counting “mjp,” which is the name a lot of people know me by. It’s a nickname, technically I suppose, but if people only know you by a nickname, well, that’s a name, isn’t it. Anyway, it still seems like a of shuffling. Seems like an unnecessary number of times to rejigger and reconfigure your name.
Because really, changing your name, whether voluntarily or not, has a weird effect. Our names are such a part of us, when we change them, it’s almost like we’re changing ourselves. Something fundamental about who we are. Which is the point, I suppose if you change your name from Mark to Sarah, or from Angela to Pete. But Mike to Michael, you wouldn’t think that matters very much, but it’s still a change. It’s still weird. Because our names are our identification in the world, or to the world.
I remember my mother calling herself Mrs. Earl Neville when I was young. That was a common thing for most of modern history. Imagine that, you get married, which isn’t even a real thing, and after that day, if you’re the female half of the marriage, you don’t have a name anymore. Just “Mrs.” And we all walked around and lived and died thinking that was absolutely reasonable and normal. What does that do to your sense of self? Having your name, even your first name in certain social situations, just erased like that? You’ve been disappeared like a political dissident or an enemy of the cartel.
We have to have names, I guess, so we have some way to get each other’s attention. But the whole naming scheme or ritual is so random and idiotic. I like people who name themselves, or who give weird names to their children. Some people aren’t shy about inventing names, and I like that. And it’s funny; it seems to happen most often at the very top and very bottom of the economic spectrum of haves and have-nots. Not so much in the middle. The middle is always the middle. Not rocking the boat. Or the yacht, or whatever we’re in.
But every time I hear a name I haven’t heard before, I feel like it adds some spice to the world. Or to my world anyway. All of our names were invented at some point. So when Bill is introduced to Robinand III or Elshiqua he might silently chuckle to himself, but he shouldn’t, because Bill is a pretty stupid name if you look at it objectively. Or Jane or Michael or whatever your name is. Unless you have a cool name. Which most of us don’t.
And of course, there are naming trends that come and go like different flavors of Doritos. When I was born, it seems like every fifth male child was named Michael. There are a shitload of us out there from my generation. The world is lousy with old Michaels. Now people like to name their kids after cities, which, you know, is fine for the first person who does it. But everyone who follows and says, “Oh my god, I’m going to name my daughter Boise too!” well, they’re just showing a disturbing lack of imagination. No one wants the be one of three Brooklyns or Duluths or Hot Springs in their grade school class.
And names give off impressions. Whether those impressions are created by society and biases or just by the sounds of the words. But some names can be burdens or become self-fulfilling prophecies. You know how you think of some names and stereotypical personalities seem to go along with them? “That sounds like something Stacy would say.” or, “That’s a typical Todd move,” you know? “Don’t be such a Karen.” I don’t know what the Karen thing is, something the kids say. But you know what I mean. How many bank presidents are named Tiffany? We equate certain characteristics to names, but where’s the logic in that? There’s no reason your heart surgeon couldn’t be named Becky, but she probably isn’t.
It kind of dooms people with certain names. That’s why I said self-fulfilling prophecy. Tiffany had to be 50 times better at her job to become a bank president than Robert did. Well, that might not be a good example since any woman would have to be 50 times better, not just Tiffany. But all I’m saying is your name makes a difference. If my dad’s original name for me had stuck and I had been known as “Junior” for the first part of my life, would I be the same person I am now? Even now, someone who doesn’t know anything about me and hears the name Michael Jerome Phillips is going to make some assumptions right off the bat. They might think I’m full of shit because only people who are full of shit go by three names.
Or, you know, serial killers. And I’m pretty sure the serial killers become known by the three names after the fact. Who knows. I said before that I think it’s cool when people give their kids unusual names, but those can be a burden too. If you named your kid Rainbow Twig, it’s probably reasonable to assume they’re going to come to you when they’re 12 years old and say, “My name is Jim now.” But then again, my friends gave their kids unusual names, and they kept them. If the names are non-specific enough, people can just grow into them. Rainbow Twig is always going to be weird, but Gaia or Echo just become people named Gaia and Echo.
Or maybe not. Maybe I just think that because I’m familiar with certain names, knowing them from the kid’s birth. Maybe if you knew Rainbow Twig for 30 years, you wouldn’t think anything of it. But you’d probably call them “Twig” or “Bow,” because that’s just what we do. Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Michael Jerome Phillips. Esquire. Be sure to add the Esquire when you refer to me. At least until I change it to Lily Pumpkin. But all bets will be off by then anyway, so I’ll be prepared for whatever you call me.
I mentioned Sonny Vincent, and as you might have guessed, that’s not the name his parents gave him. But it was the name of our band, Sonny Vincent and The Extreme. Sonny and I have been collaborating on a record that he wants to release with some of our recordings from 1981 or 82. Mostly live things, but we have, I think, five studio recordings too. I call them studio recordings just because they weren’t live. We never set foot in a traditional recording studio. Three of our “studio” recordings were done in a store that sold recording equipment. At night. When the boss was home asleep. And we weren’t trying to be sneaky. We brought a fucking horn section in with us.
Anyway, I was talking to Sonny the other night, and he said, “I wish we would have had a band name.” Meaning something other than “Sonny Vincent and the…” I just said, “Oh, NOW you want us to have a band name,” just giving him a hard time, you know. Because I know I didn’t like being Sonny Vincent and the Extreme. But I was just a Midwestern goober with a Les Paul and a Marshall amp, and he was Sonny Vincent. So when he said his name was going to be the first part of our band name, who was I to argue? I was excited to be in a band with a guy from the original New York City punk scene. He could have called the band “Just Sonny and No One Else,” and I wouldn’t have complained.
But again, names. They matter. Most band names sound idiotic when you hear them for the first time. But eventually, you get used to them, and they just come to represent the band. Like “Led Zeppelin” is those four guys. “Smashing Pumpkins” is whoever they are. Pearl Jam. There are so many stupid band names. I could sit here for half an hour, rattling off horrible band names. Maybe I will. Maybe that’s what you deserve. Just kidding, calm down.
I was dubbing some live tapes to send to Sonny about a month ago, and on one of them, there was a particular audience who wasn’t as…responsive as we would have liked. At one point, between songs, I said into the microphone, “Maybe we should play Stairway to Heaven, Sonny.” People started to boo, and Sonny asked them if that was what they wanted. They kept booing, and Sonny said, “Well, maybe that’s what you fuckin’ deserve!”
What a perfect moment. I guess a moment like that could only be considered perfect in the context of punk rock, but that was where I lived, in that context. Probably still do. No, I definitely still do. And it’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time, brothers and sisters, when listening to punk rock or looking like you listened to punk rock was seen as something very strange and alien to a lot of people. A lot of people in the Midwest for sure.
I was on the sidewalk making my way to a record store one day, and a bunch of fine Midwestern boys leaned out of their car windows as they were driving by and screamed “FAGGOT!” in my direction. I wasn’t wearing a dress or a Dynasty hairdo – that day, anyway – I was wearing a leather jacket, short hair, and Levi’s tucked into engineer boots. A look that, in retrospect, would have been much cooler with the pants outside the boots, but that’s how I rocked them, so I have to stand by it.
But I never quite understood why “faggot” was the insult of choice for so many of those kids. When I was a teenager and had really long hair, they called me faggot, and then when I cut it all off, they called me faggot. So I’m not sure what they wanted from me. But that look, pants tucked into boots or not, you wouldn’t think anything of it today. People who work at Target probably dress like that now. Only with a Target smock over the top of it.
But there was a time when it was actually subversive. And normal people don’t know how to react to subversive, so they scream “faggot.” Or “Devo,” that was another popular Midwestern slur to fling at anyone who looked different. I’m not saying I was intentionally subversive, I wasn’t. I probably didn’t know what subversive meant at the time. I just wanted to look cool. And everyone’s idea of “cool” is different. That was mine. And mine, historically, has been out of step with pretty much everybody else’s.
But really, come on, everything we wear is a costume. The way we look. Our hair, our makeup, whatever. It’s all just a costume. But it signifies membership to whatever tribe it represents. Khaki pants and a polo shirt, that’s a tribe. A common and popular tribe. It’s easy to belong to those tribes. You have the masses on your side. It’s when you venture out to the less popular tribe costumes that a lot of people start to lose their god damn minds. Which is funny, because who gives a shit?
Of all the ways I’ve ever judged people, and I’m not happy to say it, but I have judged people, like we all have, and probably always will, but of all the things to be critical of a person for, how they choose to dress or look is probably the most pointless. But how we dress often goes hand in hand with how we want the world to perceive us. Or to telegraph the music we listen to, when we’re younger anyway. And music really divides people for some reason. Like, violently. Never really got that either.
But anyway, yeah, recording in a studio equipment showroom. I can’t imagine we were the only band to ever do that, but I don’t know of any others. That pretty much sums up how we did everything, though. We wanted some professionally shot live video, so somehow I found myself playing at 8:30 in the morning in some suburban high school because they had a professional three-camera studio set up to teach the kids about broadcasting, and Sonny had met a guy who knew a guy who knew the broadcasting teacher.
The kids got some practice on the cameras and editing equipment, and we got our tape without paying anyone to do it. Our tape that looked like it was shot and edited by high school kids. It wasn’t that we didn’t believe in paying for the services of professionals. We would have rather worked with professional filmmakers or recording engineers. We just lacked the required greenbacks to pay them for their services.
So we did everything on the cheap, or more often, on the free. I’ve probably talked here before about being on tour and having $10 a day to spend on food. That’s not $10 each, that’s $10 to feed five young guys. Blah, blah, blah, old man road stories. But Carol and I were talking about how funny it would be to do a zine or a pamphlet with tour tips for young bands. Only they would all be super-outdated tips, like how to find your way to a venue address by using similar house numbers on parallel streets. Or how to make free phone calls. Things no kid in a modern band could possibly find useful. To me, things like that are great ideas. Things that make no sense and that no one could possibly be interested in. Which pretty much sums up my music and writing careers.
And podcasting career. If this is a career, which it isn’t because I think you have to get paid for something to be considered a career. And I really have to quit saying, “I’ve probably talked about this before,” because, A, you probably didn’t hear it when I said it before, and B, I shouldn’t give a fuck if I repeat myself from time to time. That’s what kills me at my day job, I have to tell you, that feeling that I should never repeat myself. It makes things a lot more difficult than they need to be.
Like changing your name. It was fine as it was, just leave it be. But no. Let’s stir things up. Let’s rattle the pot. No wait, you stir the pot and rattle the cage, right? Stir the cage? Well, I don’t want to assume any of you are in cages. Unless you like being in a cage. And even though we’re all in cages anyway.
Well, I expected to talk about my name for a few minutes, but now look what’s happened. I’ve frittered away another perfectly good episode. All I can say is tune in next time, or click in, scroll in, tap, gesture, ask Alexa or Siri or Bixby or Sonny and Cher to play THIS IS NOT A TEST, and I’ll tell you about how rats ate my car. Or maybe something else, who knows. A lot can happen between now and then.
Maybe I’ll talk about how a dog tried to bite my dick off when I was eight years old. He missed my dick and my femoral artery, but not by much. He shredded the crotch of my pants, and I sported a dozen nice puncture wounds inside my thigh in the shape of a dog’s mouth for some time. The little scars are probably still there. My mother called the owners of the dog to complain, and they said, “Well, we’ll pay for his pants.” Okay, bye.