“I know!” was maybe the most frequent phrase I remember Jim Sheeler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who died last weekend at 53, saying to me during our 30-year friendship. One time, I told him the story about a Pepsi Center full of Jimmy Buffett fans booing me because I refused to return the volley of flying beach balls before one of his concerts. “I hate that,” Jim agreed, and off we went to a concert, where somebody started batting a beach ball around, which annoyed us so much that Jim finally seized it and popped it with his pen.
Everybody who knew Jim Sheeler tells a similar story of validation, empathy, even soothing. Sometimes he could make your problems go away. “He made everybody feel like you were the most important friend,” says Jack Jackson, and American journalist in Denmark who runs a multimedia production company called Jackalope, partly in homage to Jim, who was inexplicably obsessed with these mythical, antlered hares.
It goes without saying these qualities helped Jim connect with the people he interviewed, allowing him to make lifelong friends out of sources he’d never met. His many, many lifelong friends became devoted to returning that connection. For years, he sent Jackson “Jakpaks” full of mixtapes (and, later, ripped CDs), books, articles and googly-eyed toys, and Jackson responded with “Jimpaks.”
In 1982, Pat Riley was new to their high school in Houston. Jim was reading a video game magazine about Donkey Kong. Riley noticed and mentioned he was a gamer, too. “Nobody talked to me that day except for him,” recalls Riley, today a Los Angeles location scout for commercials. “Jimmy’s by far my oldest friend. I used to go on the family trips, so Jimmy would have somebody to hang out with, because he had two sisters.”
Throughout the pandemic, Jim, Riley and Jim’s other best friend, Matt Milsovic, Zoomed every week, despite constantly arguing and roasting each other about their conflicting time zones. They had a long-running text chain that went so far back that when Jim recalled a Case Western Reserve University student had missed a class, citing diarrhea, the trio mentioned the word “diarrhea” so many times they were unable to search for Jim’s original text.
Jim had a way of picking up his friends at their lowest moments. He helped Riley, who talks a lot in the most endearing possible way, write a eulogy for his late mother-in-law by suggesting he break down his topics into manageable, bullet-point items. When a book I wrote received a bad review, Jim instantly sent me a video of Liam Lynch’s “United States of Whatever,” in which the comedian and punk rocker says random stuff, then shouts, “WHATEVER!”
At one point, I mentioned to Jim the funk I was in and how hard it is sometimes to write during such a period. He understood. He called it “You Suck FM.” “What you have to do,” he explained, “is turn down the dial to You Suck FM.” To this day, every time I feel depressed, and certainly when the dreaded Imposter Syndrome pops up before writing, I hear Jim’s voice.
When Milsovic messaged me that terrible day with the news Jim had died, my first reaction was to catalog all the ways Jim’s voice has lodged deeply into my brain. When I’m interviewing a source, and the source tells a good story, I can hear Jim’s delighted “oh, that’s great!” When I listen to a new song I’m sure Jim will like, it’s hard to explain, but I can feel in my body the process of sharing it with Jim, anticipating him listening to it, then seeing it pop up on one of the many mixtapes or SoundCloud playlists he laboriously crafted for friends over the years.
In the days after Jim’s death, I started texting Riley and Milsovic. Riley is loud, brash, talking constantly, then apologizing for talking constantly. Milsovic is circumspect, telling soft-spoken stories about Jim, willing to cry together. After a few days, I suggested to them that maybe I could have the honor of substituting for Jim in their text chains like Vince Gill replaced the late Glenn Frey in the Eagles.
This led to a tangent about how much they, like Jim, loathed the Eagles. The thread then detoured into Riley and Milsovic disagreeing about Steely Dan, which gave way to a recollection that Humpty Hump of Digital Underground died this year, too, and his glasses were not dissimilar to Jim’s, and wasn’t it curious that Jim and Humpty were never seen in the same room together.
Eventually, Milsovic said of me: “He can stay. He may want to leave but he can stay.”
Bad news, gentlemen. I’m not nearly as good at empathy and connection as Jim was. I talk about myself too much and I don’t listen well enough to others. I play You Suck FM way too loudly and frequently in my head, and when that happens, I’m needy.
But thank you. I’ll stay.
I wish Jim had stayed, too. We all need him.
Steve Knopper is a Denver-based editor at large for Billboard magazine and a former Rolling Stone contributing editor.