Jonathan Valania, writer and Philadelphia music and cultural scene fixture, dies at 55
The Phawker founder reviewed acts from Iggy Pop to Celine Dion, always with a strong point of view and language that “sparked off the page,” said Sam Wood, a former Inquirer reporter and friend.
Jonathan Valania had a rocker’s swagger and a critic’s mind. People opened up to him, and then he told their stories to audiences large and small — sometimes reverently, sometimes bitingly, always with insight. For 30 years, he was a presence on the Philadelphia music and cultural scene.
Mr. Valania, 55, a musician, writer, and incisive Philadelphian about town, died Saturday, Sept. 11, at home in Old City. He had been planning to attend a concert Saturday night; he had not been ill and his death was sudden, his longtime partner said. The cause is still unclear.
Born and raised in the Lehigh Valley, Mr. Valania was the front man for the Psyclone Rangers, an Allentown-based garage rock band that signed a major record-label deal, toured extensively, and released several albums.
He settled in Philadelphia in the ‘90s and became a writerly fixture at the Khyber Pass and the Trocadero and venues around the city, writing mostly music journalism for publications from Philadelphia Weekly and The Inquirer to Rolling Stone.
He reviewed acts from Iggy Pop to Celine Dion, always with a strong point of view and language that “sparked off the page,” said Sam Wood, a former Inquirer reporter and friend of Mr. Valania’s for nearly 30 years.
In a 2001 Inquirer review, Mr. Valania wrote: “Iggy Pop singlehandedly invented the notion of the lead singer as human cannonball, rolling shirtless in broken glass, hurtling himself into hostile crowds, and leaving behind the unsettling impression that there was nothing he would not snort, shoot up or attempt to fornicate with. He has also unleashed some of the most primal, brick-in-the-face rock and roll ever committed to tape.”
Editor Eric Miller sent Mr. Valania around the world writing stories for Magnet Magazine, which focuses mostly on the alternative music scene. Mr. Valania got invited to Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson’s house in California and appears in the Wilco documentary I am Trying To Break Your Heart, interviewing the band. (Wilco did not love Mr. Valania’s piece, and a former member of the band later threatened to break Valania’s fingers because of it.)
His work was impeccable, often landing on Magnet’s cover, said Miller. He asked tough questions and had a relentless work ethic.
“We had publicists say, ‘Oh, is Valania doing it? I don’t know if this band could handle it,’” Miller said, adding that Mr. Valania was “larger than life — he was one of those people that if you met him, you’d never forget him. He was smart, he was funny, he was a brilliant writer. He set the standard, as far as we were concerned.”
When Mr. Valania wrote for Philadelphia Weekly, he and colleagues would spend lunches dissecting their work. He had high standards and treated every assignment as if it were a big one. He wasn’t afraid to tell you if your work missed the mark, said Steve Volk, a colleague from those days and longtime friend.
“Jon was the guy around whom we were orbiting,” Volk said.
In the early 2000s, when the blogosphere exploded and digital media began reshaping the media landscape, Mr. Valania was at the vanguard. He eventually founded Phawker, an online news, culture and commentary site, a platform for his distinctive voice and other Philadelphia voices. It was a place where his music sensibilities mixed with progressive politics.
“He wanted to go out and do his own things, create his own brand with Phawker,” said Dan DeLuca, The Inquirer’s pop music critic and a friend. “He became a voice for the voiceless.”
Most recently, Mr. Valania was a producer on In the Valley of Sin, a Fox Nation true-crime docuseries he had researched for years that chronicled a Washington state scandal in which dozens of people were arrested on bogus charges of abusing children.
Amy Z. Quinn met Mr. Valania through her blog and then began working with him at Phawker.
“I can see him walking down Third Street toward Cafe Ole — wearing a hat and sunglasses, the coolest thing on two legs,” Quinn said. And though he had a persona that could sometimes feel a little forbidding, “he had a very strong sort of personal ethic; he was a very, very good guy.”
He was committed to the young writers whom he edited, patient and invested in their successes.
Mr. Valania was deeply devoted to his family and to JoAnn Loviglio, with whom he shared “a love of words and of music, and spending sunny days at the beach, and crying at movies (both laughing-crying and the real deal), long road trips out West, ramen and Peroni, corn from our favorite farm stand, and the most infantile humor,” Loviglio wrote in an online tribute to Mr. Valania.
Mr. Valania was the kind of person who responded to an inquiry from a dear friend as if it were a deadline story.
“He would text me, ‘How soon do you need me?’” Volk said.
Survivors and funeral arrangements were not immediately available.