Updated: Aug 15, 2020
“When something’s dark…”*
I’ve always believed that bridges are magical. And one bridge that holds special significance for me has always been the Ben Franklin Bridge that connects the city of Camden, NJ to the heart of the historic district of Philadelphia known as Old City. The bridge was dedicated as part of the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. My great-grandfather, a stone mason who emigrated from Italy, worked on this structure, and my grandmother was one of an estimated 250 thousand who, along with President Calvin Coolidge, walked across it on its opening day of July 1, 1926.
Perhaps what I love most about the bridge, though, is the sight of the historic RCA Victor Camden Records, the birthplace of the music recording industry. The world came to record here: Enrico Caruso, the world’s greatest tenor; Louie Armstrong; Tommy Dorsey; Duke Ellington; Billie Holiday… The empire was host to both studio and stage for artists. Meanwhile, both my grandfather and grandmother worked on its assembly lines, producing record players, sound systems, microphones, and other electronic equipment.
The studio and stage are sadly long gone, but as one crosses the Ben Franklin, the iconic image of the RCA/Victor is still a beacon of the building’s rich history. Little Nipper was a Jack Russell terrier mix from Bristol, England, who was fascinated by the sound of his human’s voice coming out of an Edison cylinder-based talking machine. And a replica of a Francis Barraud painting sits in a stained-glass window that towers high above the city where my grandparents were born and raised.
“Let me shed a little light on it”
It’s fitting that I’m crossing this bridge tonight because I’m about to conduct my first interview with a recording artist who also happens to be a long-time friend. Actually, since I’ve known Josh Pannepacker for over 30 years, he is actually more like family to me. Still, since this is about to go “on the record” (if you’ll pardon the pun), I realize that I’m a little nervous. But as I see Little Nipper listening to “His Master’s Voice”, I’m reminded of my grandparents watching over me, and am given a little bit of courage and inspiration.
Josh is an obvious first interview. As I’m now reaching out towards my dreams as a writer, Josh has been fearlessly and joyfully following his dreams as an artist for as long as I can remember. I want to know how one bridges the space between a dream and reality. For myself and for my audience, I have a feeling that Josh has some answers.
“When something’s cold…”
November 7th, 2019
I’m in the legendary Ortlieb’s Tavern–a hip, tight-knit community hot spot nestled in the heart in North Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties community. It might be an understatement to say that Josh Pannepacker, co-owner of the space and guitarist of local rock band Cheerleader, is excited. One can see a fire in his deep blue eyes.
Within literal seconds of greeting me, Josh starts telling me about his two most recent projects: the long-awaited recording of a song that he had written long ago, and an upcoming opportunity for Cheerleader to play something called “The Gap House Sessions”.
His enthusiasm is contagious and my nervousness fades away. I set up my phone to record audio, as I realize that Josh is ready to talk and I’m about to lose some valuable soundbites. “I can’t wait to hear about the new song,” I think, but then I want to ask, “What in the world is The Gap House Sessions?” Before I get to ask any questions, Josh starts talking excitedly again.
“The band as a whole wasn’t sure if we should play the show, but I just thought, ‘Why not?’ Something really good could come out of it.”
I realize, here, that this adventurous spirit inspires Pannepacker to joyfully live life on his own terms and to courageously continue his quest to “fulfill his potential” (as he puts it) as both an artist and a human being.
Or, to use a popular phrase in the current vernacular, to “live his best life”.
“Let me put a little fire on it”
Josh’s age has him almost perfectly straddling the line between Generation X and Millennial, but the divide doesn’t seem to concern him. He is unapologetic for his Gen X’er sense of style and humor. But X’ers tend to be more comfortable in their own “backstage”, and Josh clearly identifies more with the Millennial ideal of bringing people together. The frequency of the word “community” in Josh’s musing illustrate this. Before our interview officially begins, it’s one of the very first words he uses.
For well over a decade, a community is exactly what Josh has been building at Ortlieb’s Tavern in Northern Liberties. The neighborhood has morphed from “punk edgy” to “hipster trendy”, but Josh again doesn’t seem phased by the shift. As a co-owner of the space, he has had a large hand in shaping the musical landscape of Northern Libs, ensuring that the community retains its roots as an artistic one where freedom of expression reigns supreme.
While he once booked the bands that appeared on Ortlieb’s stage, Josh has recently entrusted that job to his two business partners. These days, he seems much more at home behind the soundboard during a show. There, he gets to experience the music firsthand.
That being said, Josh’s true heart is as an artist. The number of bands that he has been in, and is currently a member of, is staggering. It is a testament to his love performing, as he isn’t chasing fame or someone else’s definition of success. He is perhaps most well-known as the guitarist for local trio Cheerleader, a band that has found success far outside the local musical community, with performances ranging from a rooftop session at the legendary KROQ radio to a slot at the massive Firefly Festival to a recent Brooklyn show with A-list musicians in the audience.
This past September, it was at this Brooklyn show that, with a lifelong best friend at his side, he was suddenly struck with the sense that there was something still missing for him. “I came offstage and just thought that there was something more that I need to do. All of a sudden I realized I had too much going on, too many alerts on my phone, and I found myself in a slump that I didn’t even know I was in.”
“When something’s old…”
“And then there was this night, and in the space right where I was right about to fall asleep, that I realized that the void in me was that I wasn’t creating in the way I used to, and that I had to fulfill my potential as an artist. It made me realize that I had to start writing and recording my own material again. “
“I had this song that I wrote about five years ago that I’ve been thinking of recording, but that had just never made it on record. I was with a longtime friend and recording Guru Mattias Nilsson at Audio Engineer Society (Josh also produces music at a local South Jersey studio), and I asked him if he would help me out with the track. We just finished it, and we made something that blew my mind. The track went further than I ever imagined it could. And now I’m so excited that I’m going to be working on more things from this point on. And it never would have happened if I hadn’t have taken a step back.”
“I wanna put a little shine on it”
Josh is now newly refreshed, energized and set to rejoin Cheerleader in support of their new album Almost Forever, out next February. He once again mentions The Gap House Sessions, finally prompting me to ask…
“It’s The Gap. The clothing store? ” I felt a little silly. The Gap brand that had been the Mecca of aspirational style for so many kids, myself included, in the 80s and 90s. “They are going to style us and then we are going to play an acoustic set at their corporate HQ in Manhattan. It’s a new start and direction for them as a brand (an interesting side note: the current CEO of The Gap resigned on the day of this interview); the band was debating whether or not we should do it. But I thought, ‘Why not?’ It’s an opportunity, and I’m all in to do something different and new.”
It certainly sounds like fun to me, and the Gap definitely designs beautiful clothes, but knowing that Josh’s style, like mine, is firmly rooted in the classic “carefree yet fashionable” Generation X aesthetic, I have to ask, “Are you going to be okay with them styling you in Gap clothes?” He enthusiastically replies…
“Definitely! I think it will be fun! I have a hard enough getting time dressed myself!” I think that’s a very millennial answer. I mean that in a respectful way – enthusiastic and ready to have a go. But right when I think I have Josh’s generational label pegged, Generation X humor rears its sarcastic head: “But then again if I look stupid, I’m not wearing it!”
Something tells me that the stylist at The Gap needn’t worry. If there is anyone who can bridge the gaps between styles, between communities, between definitions of success, between the generational ideals and aspirations of Generations X and Millennials, it’s most certainly Josh.
“When something’s lost…”
Returning home, I quickly settled back into my old routines. And I found myself wondering if I could, at my stage in the game, develop that spirit of adventure that Josh clearly possesses.
I remember walking into a room at a party when I was a 19-year-old freshman in college, and seeing Eddie Vedder (crowd-surfing and upside-down) of Pearl Jam singing “Alive” on MTV. It flipped my world on its head. I thought, “Anything is possible if you are willing to find and express that kind of passion within.” But even at 19, I couldn’t seem to find, let alone display, that same fire within myself. I stayed on the safe path of studying to become a teacher. It was a path I truly desired to be on…
But in another universe, I dreamed of writing about music and beauty and style. And that seemed an impossible dream.
Josh, on the other hand, had witnessed the so-called “grunge” revolution at the age of 9. How different an impression that has clearly left on his psyche. I even thought back to my grandparents, who came to this country with almost nothing to create a new life for themselves and their family. Would I ever have the courage to cross that kind of bridge if an opportunity presented itself to me?
It turns out I didn’t have to wait long to find out.
“I’m gonna fight to get it back again”
The night before Thanksgiving, I met my brother’s roommate who immediately asked me, “Did you just interview Josh from Cheerleader? I work for the Gap corporate. You have to come up to New York to cover the show!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The universe had just delivered my first bridge in the form of an opportunity to meet both recording artists and fashion industry insiders at a closed show. But my first answer to crossing it was “No.”
Here was a woman at least ten years younger than me, living out her dreams in the fashion industry. I was sure that everyone at that show would be so much younger than me. I thought, “This bridge is coming too late.” But as the days wore on, and I fleshed out this very article, I was once again struck by the spirit of Eddie Vedder. He is still making music, and almost 30 years after their jaw-dropping debut, Pearl Jam is perhaps more relevant than they ever were. Eddie has never been afraid of trying something new or of being too old or too late. Neither has Josh.
As it turns out, neither am I. I am replaying Josh’s words in my mind as I head, not across the open air of a bridge, but into the depths of the Lincoln Tunnel. “Why not? Something really good could come out of it.” Nothing is guaranteed, but I realize that, in order to follow a dream, you have to be first willing to step into the darkness of an unknown future. Vol. 2 of this story will be here soon, and I will faithfully chronicle – good or bad – what happens when I emerge from the other side.
Thank you so much for sharing this journey with me! I truly hope that this inspires and strengthens you to begin the walk toward your dreams, no matter what place you are starting from. Love and Blessings, and I’ll see you on the Yellow Brick Road!
*“The Fixer” lyrics by Pearl Jam