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

Frank Deford, 1938-2017

03weber-jumbo
Image from The New York Times.

Well, shit.

Frank Deford has died. He was 78. The cause of death hasn’t been revealed, but according to his wife, he’d been treated for pneumonia recently. I wonder if he’d been more ill than he’d let on; it was less than a month ago that he gave his last of 1,656 commentaries — 37 years’ worth — for NPR.

It’s a tremendous loss for anyone who cares about writing, particularly that form known as the long magazine article — the “bonus story,” as his longtime home Sports Illustrated called it — of depth and compassion.

I don’t know if I can describe him as an influence — though his erudite style couldn’t help but appeal to a much less polished writer like me — but he was certainly a guiding star.

I read my father’s subscription to SI as a child, but for years I seldom got deeper than Herman Weiskopf’s summary of the week in baseball. Sometime during my teenage years, that started changing, and I gained an appreciation for William Nack, Steve Wulf and — especially — Deford. I still remember his piece on Mississippi football coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan almost 35 years after it first appeared. It’s one of the great stories in journalism history, as far as I’m concerned.

It began:

Robert Victor Sullivan, whom you’ve surely never heard of, was the toughest coach of them all. He was so tough he had to have two tough nicknames, Bull and Cyclone, and his name was usually recorded this way: coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan or coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan.

How could you not read that?

Deford also was the editor of The National, the legendary national sports paper that lasted just a couple years in the early ’90s. It deserved better, but its failure wasn’t for lack of trying. Grantland — another writers’ site that died before its time — had a great oral history of it a few years ago.

He was as charming in person as he was on the page. I had the good fortune to interview him for “The Old Ball Game,” a book he wrote about John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. (Of course, when I received the review copy, how could I not book an interview? I’m no hard-bitten journalist, and I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to talk to one of my heroes.)

Anyway, he lived a long, purposeful life, and you could do worse to pick up one of his books — or, better, immerse yourself in SI’s Vault. You’ll find plenty of Deford in there. His “bonus stories” were truly treasures.

Goodbye, Chuck Barris

chuck-barris-gong-show
Image from NBC via Philly.com.

I knew who Chuck Barris was even before I saw him.

I was the kind of kid who watched shows right through to the end credits, and I noticed the Chuck Barris Productions logo was very similar to ABC’s and Dick Clark’s. That made sense, since both Clark (who employed Barris in the late ’50s) and Barris had relationships with ABC. (It’s hard to beat a Paul Rand logo.)

Game show geek that I was, I did watch “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game,” though I didn’t understand any of the snickering double-entendres both shows wallowed in. But somehow I knew they were related to Barris, and that his shows were low-brow fun. (He also did “The New Treasure Hunt.”)

Then came “The Gong Show” and Chuck the smarmy host.

Oh, man, did I watch “The Gong Show.” I loved how they gave out $516.32 for the big prize. I loved the Unknown Comic. I had no idea who Jaye P. Morgan was, but I knew Jamie Farr from “M*A*S*H” and Gary Owens had that wonderful voice.

And then there was Barris, clapping his hands, making crude jokes, taking off his bow tie within five minutes of the show’s opening. Stupid? Absolutely. Fun? Of course.

Of course, “The Gong Show” quickly got mannered — what started out as something between a real talent show and vaudeville became a planned freak parade — and “The Gong Show Movie” was even worse. (Yes, I paid to watch it in the theater.) And “The $1.98 Beauty Show” never did it for me.

But Barris was always a fascinating figure. He liked us to think so, anyway. Who else would claim he was both a TV producer and a CIA agent?

Chuck Barris shuffled off the stage Tuesday. Much to his credit, he wasn’t gonged.

We’ll leave you with Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine.

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.

Robert Osborne, 1932-2017

robert_osborne
Image from classicmoviefavorites.com.

Robert Osborne, the knowledgeable and gracious host of Turner Classic Movies, died Monday. He was 84.

The Los Angeles Times has a wonderful obituary of Osborne, who had a career as an actor before he went into journalism and then television hosting. He had a number of small roles in the ’50s and ’60s, including a bit part as Mr. Drysdale’s assistant on “The Beverly Hillbillies” pilot.

He acquits himself fine, but I’m glad he went into journalism. Lucille Ball, a mentor, told him, “We have enough actors. We don’t have enough people writing about the industry.”

For more than 25 years he wrote a column for The Hollywood Reporter. He was absolutely trusted by many starts; THR has columns by several of them today, all of whom remember him fondly.

I met him just once, when I went over to Turner’s Midtown Atlanta complex to do a brief story on TCM’s “31 Days of Oscar.” He was, of course, charming and kind. He sent me on my way with one of his coffee-table Oscar books. Nobody knew more about the awards and the history behind them. (Not even my friend Tom O’Neil, and Tom knows everything.)

Osborne had been taking a smaller role on TCM, ceding the stage to Ben Mankiewicz and newcomer Tiffany Vazquez, but even when he wasn’t on screen, he was always there. He will be greatly missed.

RIP, man who changed my life

1st-sheet-tv
Image from lostwackys.com.

One day when I was a teenager, I stumbled on the October 1, 1973, issue of New York magazine. Somehow this particular issue, released at the height of Watergate, knew the roots of the person I was to become a few years later because in it there were articles about two satirical creations that had a profound impact on me: Mad magazine and Wacky Packages.

The latter was perhaps my first knowing experience with satire. It was sometimes blunt-force satire, easy jokes for pre-adolescents, but for a 9-year-old kid trying to find an attitude to approach the world, it led to everything else. As I wrote in 2008 upon the release of a “Wacky Packages” book:

From there, it was a short trip to Mad magazine, “Saturday Night Live,” National Lampoon, punk rock, trolling used-book stores and record stores, and indulging in other mind-rotting activities (memorizing trivia, creating puns) until I became the skeptical, disillusioned writer you have before you.

(Incidentally, except for this blog, I don’t usually write in the first person — sorry, Jan and Mira, who always wanted more of me in my pieces — but I made an exception here, because, well, Wackies were so essential to my being.)

I write all this because Jay Lynch is dead. He died Sunday at 72.

Continue reading

In memory of Bharati Mukherjee

1024x1024
Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise. Image from Getty via the San Francisco Chronicle.

My memories of Bharati Mukherjee are misty and faint, mixed with the everyday trappings of a creative writing class. A classroom at Emory, perhaps in the Humanities Building, the fall of 1983. The ditto paper on which we typed our short stories and the smell of ink from the mimeograph machine on which we copied them for the rest of the class. A semicircle of students offering criticisms. Sunlight through the windows. Private jokes.

And this beautiful, sometimes imperious, woman who spoke in elegant, sonorous sentences, making suggestions, soliciting critiques, and always reminding us to make sure we made copies of our stories for everybody. There was a box on the floor outside her office where we’d leave them.

Professor Mukherjee — Bharati — died Saturday. The news started making the rounds yesterday, and I saw some of the obituaries today.

Continue reading

A late note on ‘M*A*S*H’s’ Father Mulcahy, William Christopher

mash-william-christopher-640x320
Image from theinterrobang.com.

William Christopher, “M*A*S*H’s” Father Mulcahy, died New Year’s Eve.

Ever since I heard the news, I’ve been thinking about one of the series’ most famous episodes, “The Interview.” The 1976 episode, shot in black and white, was based on a “See It Now” program in which Edward R. Murrow interviewed Korean War servicemen. It remains one of the best “M*A*S*H” episodes, which is saying something, given how good “M*A*S*H” was.

Christopher had a memorable scene in “The Interview.” I’ll let “M*A*S*H” writer Ken Levine describe it:

I’ve always felt that Bill had the single greatest moment of MASH.  It was during “the Interview” episode when Father Mulcahy says this:

“When the doctors cut into a patient and it’s cold, you know the way it is now, today — steam rises from the body and the doctor will will warm himself over the open wound.   Could anyone look on that and not feel changed?”

I never thought that line could make me any sadder, but from now on it will.  RIP Bill Christopher.

“The Interview” isn’t available on YouTube. (It is on Vimeo — dubbed into another language.) However, producer Larry Gelbart’s remembrance of the episode is.

So long and amen.

Goodbye to all that was 2016?

pricessdeathstarlalo
Lalo Alcaraz’s cartoon via pocho.com.
This year, as all too many people have told us, has been brutal. Between divisive politics, tragic events and what seemed a never-ending, stomach-dropping series of celebrity deaths, people were wishing as long ago as early November for this year to end. (OK, that was me.)

As someone who has written his share of pop culture-related obituaries, I can’t help but think about the celebrities, of all things. And how it’s not going to get any better.

In the journalism business, you try to write obituaries of notables ahead of time so you’re not caught flat-footed when someone shuffles off this mortal coil. So, the actuarial tables being what they are, I kept a list of famous people over 70 who might warrant an advance. (There were also a few younger folks known for troubled lives.)

Not to be morbid, but it was a long list.

Continue reading