Tom Petty, 1950-2017

9343459_web1_2017-10-02t193609z_1366893742_rc15e7f0c850_rtrmadp_3_people-tompetty

(Update: Petty died Monday night.)

Tom Petty was the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll fan.

Most rock musicians are fans, of course. That’s why they become rock musicians. John Lennon idolized Elvis Presley; Kurt Cobain was fond of Black Flag. But Petty both wore his love of music on his sleeve — and got to be friends with his heroes.

He and the Heartbreakers got to back up Bob Dylan — and then he was in a band with Dylan (and George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne). Petty and the Heartbreakers later backed up Johnny Cash. And Petty, ever the fan, was genuinely pissed that pop and rock broadcast radio became boring and flat. That wasn’t what he signed up for. (He later created his own show, much like his friend Bob.)

Tom Petty is in grave condition. Earlier today, CBS News reported that he’d died after apparently suffering a massive heart attack Sunday night, less than a week after concluding the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour.

But as of 4:35 p.m. ET TMZ said Petty is still “clinging to life,” though he’s off life support and not expected to live past today. I hope TMZ is both right and wrong. CBS, now citing the LAPD, has pulled back on its obituary, and others that ran with the news are now backtracking, too.

He’s always been a fighter.

I could never say I was a hardcore Petty fan, unlike friends who have all his albums and were working his songs into their setlists 30 years ago. (Fans beget fans, the wonderful way of the world.) But I loved much of his music. “I Need to Know” is still a model of a balls-to-the-wall single (the fact that it couldn’t get into the Top 40 is criminal); “Love Is a Long Road” pours out both desperation and a touch of hope; “Girl on LSD” is the kind of absurd toss-off that’s all too uncommon in our smug and cynical times.

He could be passionate. Years before “The Last DJ,” it was Tom Petty who fought his record company from raising the price of what became the LP “Hard Promises” to $9.98. Petty was going to retitle the record “$8.98,” then the standard list price for albums, if he didn’t get his way.

He got his way.

His hero-friends, half a generation older, seemed to treat him like a welcome, impish younger brother. I’ve long felt, fairly or not, that it was Petty who gave Dylan his sense of humor back after that sometimes dour mixed bag of early-’80s albums. I don’t know that Dylan would have worked in a reference to Joe Piscopo on “Infidels.”

I also think it was Petty who was the secret weapon in the Wilburys, though this was a group with a world-class voice and a ukulele collector.

Then there was Petty the quiet observer. The best example of this Petty is “To Find a Friend,” off 1994’s “Wildflowers.” It’s as muted and finely wrought as a Raymond Carver short story:

In the middle of his life
He left his wife
And ran off to be bad
Boy, it was sad
But he bought a new car
Found a new bar
And went under another name
Created a whole new game

(Tom, I’ll forgive you for using “quiet as a mouse.” You knew what you were doing.)

I remember reading an article about Petty learning the craft of songwriting. I’m probably screwing up the timeline (and the story, for that matter), but what I recall was a Petty at loose ends after Mudcrutch, his earlier band, had broken up. So he’d sit with famed producer Denny Cordell, who’d signed him, and listen to record after record. Cordell would explain structure and musical choices, and Petty lapped it up. (Having colleagues like Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench didn’t hurt his education.) He wore those lessons on his sleeve long after he became a platinum-selling artist and created his own distinctive sound — passionate, a little funny, humane.

After all, he was a fan.

Advertisements

A not-so-Trivial conclusion

manuels.1998
Trivia at Manuel’s Tavern, late 19th century. That’s me on the right.
Time only goes forward, but memory goes backward. So, as the days count down to the arrival of the moving van, I’ve been trying to look forward — packing up books, throwing away paper, making preparations — while attempting to avoid a confrontation with my emotions, which are mulling over the past.

It’s been largely pointless.

I’ve been in Atlanta for 26 years, not to mention my formative college days, and emotions come with the territory. I want to be upbeat as I open the new door — it’s an adventure, right? — but I’m all too aware of the one swinging behind me.

So it’s with some dread that I approach Sunday night’s Team Trivia at Manuel’s Tavern, my final show.

I can’t overstate how much of a rock Trivia has been. I arrived back in Atlanta the weekend of April 20, 1991 — almost exactly 26 years ago — and one of the first things I was told about was this “trivia game at Manuel’s.” So I spent that Sunday evening with (in my memory) my old Emory friends Tim and Alec at the Tavern. We won, too.

A year later I was hosting, and I’ve been hosting ever since.

Continue reading

The story in the attic

I’ve been slowly — very slowly — making my way through the house and alternately getting rid of some stuff and packing other things in advance of my move. It’s been eerie and melancholy.

I filled five bags full of books to take to a trusted local shop, and I felt like I was pulling out fingernails. Last night I went through my CD racks to weed out discs that have been thoroughly burned or seldom listened to, and still I felt like I’d chipped away pieces of my soul.

I would not get along with Marie Kondo.

But what’s been more sobering, in some respects, was finding old documents I’d completely forgotten about. There was a time — a time before journalism became my full-time job — that I thought I’d be a fiction writer. I was never very prolific, but apparently I was more disciplined than I recalled. In memory, until taking a creative writing course during my fellowship year at Michigan, I hadn’t written a short story since college. (Side note: Amber Hunt, your photographs are always welcome sights on the KWF page.) But in reality, apparently I was doing more than that: Among the papers I found in the attic was a short story I’d written around 1993. Attached to it was a rejection letter from The New Yorker.

I have no memory of writing that story, or sending it off to The New Yorker.

Continue reading

Sunday reads: Chuck

o9ehhy

Some stories about the death and life of Chuck Berry, the man who helped start a revolution:

And if you aren’t in the mood to read, well, just listen. Nobody said it better than Charles Anderson Edward Berry.

Another day, another dumb jingle going through my head

The writers of jingles sure know how to create earworms. Here’s today’s:

Until just now, when I started researching this blog entry, I hadn’t realized the music for this jingle was actually from an old minstrel song, “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.” It was a parody of a popular spiritual.

From religious tribute to humorous jab to marketing tool. America is an amazing country.

If you’d had asked me when this commercial originally ran, I probably would have said late ’80s or early ’90s — but I should have known better. Because, as I’ve written before, the 1970s were definitely a golden age for advertising jingles. No pun intended.

Sunday read: The rise and fall of Mitch Ryder

maxresdefault

I really enjoy the articles on Music Aficionado, which features a lot of material on classic acts and occasional obscurities, sometimes from unusual angles.

And also about subjects I hadn’t given much thought about. Like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.

For a couple years in the mid-’60s, Ryder was huge, known for manic, headlong versions of pop music chestnuts. (“Devil with the Blue Dress On” is the best example.) Suddenly the hits ended as suddenly as they began. I’d simply assumed that Ryder, like a lot of blazing singles acts, burned out when the trends turned to album-length releases and the move to psychedelia in 1967-68.

The truth is more complicated than that. It involves Bob Crewe — yes, of Four Seasons fame — a concert featuring Cream and the Who, and an LP that’s apparently truly awful.

It’s my Sunday read. You can enjoy it while listening to this:

That will wake you up.

You can find “What Happened to Mitch Ryder?” here.

That’s SIR Raymond Douglas Davies

ray-davies-70
Image from Mojo.

Somehow, I missed this:

The KinksRay Davies received a knighthood Saturday for his service to the arts as part of Queen Elizabeth’s annual New Year Honours list.

Yes, Ray Davies — Kinks frontman, beer pedestal, tradition-keeper of little shops, china cups and virginity — is now Sir Ray Davies, knight of the realm.

This probably makes me happier than it does Davies, an occasionally curmudgeonly sort who was nevertheless gracious about the honor. “Initially I felt a mixture of surprise, humility, joy and a bit embarrassed but after thinking about it, I accept this for my family and fans as well as everyone who has inspired me to write,” he told the BBC.

But for me, well … Ray Davies may be my favorite songwriter. I love the Beatles, but there’s something about the Kinks that speaks to my innermost heart.

Continue reading

Review: ‘Anatomy of a Song’ by Marc Myers

Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and PopAnatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop by Marc Myers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You can see the underpinnings of a more thorough book in “Anatomy of a Song.”

In this work, Wall Street Journal columnist Marc Myers collects 45 of his articles from his column of the same name, providing a tour of rock history through some key singles. He starts with Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and concludes with R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” taking time to breeze through “Please Mr. Postman,” “Chapel of Love,” “My Girl,” “Different Drum,” “Maggie May,” “Rock the Boat” and several others — 45 songs in honor of the 45 rpm record, the longtime form of the single.

“Breeze” is the operative word. Though there are a few revelations — I had no idea Fats Domino played piano on “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” or there was an early, crummy mix of “Rock the Boat” (and Jim Gordon and Larry Carlton played on THAT) — too much has been written elsewhere, and sometimes you get the feeling chapters are cut off before the artists (or producers, or writers) really have a chance to dig deep.

That’s a given with an 800-word column, but it shouldn’t necessarily be a given in a book from those columns.

Continue reading

Good music everywhere (almost)

vintage_channel_master_14-transistor_two-band_am-fm_radio_model_6518_made_in_japan_red_plastic_26_chrome_circa_1960_8504806163
Image from Wikipedia.

I don’t know where I was specifically — in a restaurant, maybe, or a mall clothing store — but I do know that’s where I heard “Love’s a Real Thing” by the Super Eagles.

Never heard of the Super Eagles? No reason you would. They’re from Gambia, for one thing, and had their greatest success in the ’60s and ’70s.

And yet here I was, hearing this catchy tune in the most unlikely place: a public place.

(Quick update: My wife tells me we heard it at Osteria La Buca on Los Angeles’ Melrose Avenue.)

It’s not the first time I’ve been taken with a song that aired over the speakers at some store. (Mostly) gone are the days of syrupy Muzak, when you’d be subjected to inoffensive versions of “Cecilia” in a clothing shop. Now I hear songs I never would have discovered otherwise — at Starbucks, at Kroger (!), at hole-in-the-wall boutiques and restaurants. Sometimes these places are running a satellite radio channel from SiriusXM; other times they’re airing some employee’s Spotify playlist or old CD collection.

Ironically, the one place I never hear anything surprising is on terrestrial radio (with the occasional exceptions of college stations or the rare independent). Which is why I long ago gave up on terrestrial radio, at least here in the Atlanta market.

But still, I’m glad. Between iTunes and streaming services, we now have access to millions of songs. Thanks to a combination of human curators, clever algorithms (which aren’t as clever as humans) and Shazam, I’m able to listen to — and download — songs that may never have crossed my radar a few years ago.

Don’t take it for granted, kids. You’re living in a world of amazing artistic access.

 

My favorite albums: ‘Something Else by the Kinks’

img00500

O, “Something Else by the Kinks.” How I love you.

You’re not my favorite Kinks album. That honor probably goes to “Village Green Preservation Society,” though I could go with “Arthur” if you catch me on the right day.

You’re also, at times, inconsistent. When I’m generous, I blame the sometimes muddy production by Shel Talmy, who seems to have never figured out the word “nuance.” (Loud guitars and pinned VU meters make for great early Kinks and Who singles, but don’t do well by harpsichords.) When I’m not, I’d just as soon you’d have dropped …

Well, that’s the thing. I can’t figure out what song I’d cut.

Continue reading