Wednesday, October 25, 2017

RIP Fats Domino

Few could bring it like The Fat Man. Thanks for the music, big fella.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

RIP Tom Petty

He hailed from the deepest of the deep south, but that's not where his music came from.

I mean yes, sure it did, at least part of it. Some of what made Tom Petty the musical titan he was came from that Gainesville, Florida upbringing, where the swampy blues clearly took hold of him at an early age. But his music seemed to come from so many other places. From London and Liverpool and from Greenwich Village too. From breezy Southern California to sultry, loping New Orleans and to the earliest cradle of rock-n-roll, Memphis. Tom Petty reached it all.

And today he's gone, way too early at age 66. So let's take a moment to remember just how great, and I am talking GREAT with a capital G-R-E-A-T, this man really was.

He grew up influenced by the biggest of the big, as many American baby boomers were, people like Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn and Roy Orbison. And by the middle of his career he was having his own influence on them. You saw it when he toured with Bob Dylan in the mid-80s, when he played with Dylan and Orbison for one amazing shining moment with the Traveling Wilburys, and every time a smiling and appreciative McGuinn took the stage with him. Because when you're a talent like Tom Pettysongwriter, bandleader, guitar player and oh my God YES, singerit has a tendency to touch everyone. Even your heroes.

But for a man with such an identifiable soundthe nasally tenor, the Byrdsy jangle, the ability to go from sweet to raunchy in the blink of an eye (think of the dramatic vocal and musical turns he made so often, like on "Refugee" and "Here Comes My Girl," something literally no one did as often or as well)it really was hard to pin him down into one category or musical style. It was a byproduct of the stunning confidence he always seemed to carryat least with his music, anywayand a true sense of devil-may-care fearlessness.

It's why a proto-punk-pop ripper like "Don't Do Me Like That" appears alongside an anthem like "Refugee" or a bopping melody like "Century City" on Damn the Torpedoes. It's why maybe his greatest song, the pure crystalline McGuinn splendor of "The Waiting," can appear literally side by side with the near-metal of "A Woman in Love" on Hard Promises. Or why his greatest Roy Orbison-inspired ballad, the ethereal, irony-drenched "Free Fallin'," is right there alongside the Stonesy romp of "Runnin' Down a Dream" on Full Moon Fever. And nearly 20 years after his recording career began, on the remarkable Wildflowers album, he was able to blend gorgeous balladry (the title track), with the kind of barroom raver that would have made Bob Seger proud ("You Wreck Me") and still have time for the bluesy shuffle of "You Don't Know How It Feels."

On the first great song of a career that had just so damn many of them, 1976's pop splendor of "American Girl," Petty wrote and sang this fairly simple lyric:

"After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to."

It never struck me until today just how much that easy, seemingly throwaway defined who Tom Petty was. Musically speaking he had just so much to say, and so many different ways to say it. He surrounded himself with a truly great band in the Heartbreakers (it's hard to imagine a more instinctive or talented backing band than Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Howie Epstein and Stan Lynch)where he, like Bruce Springsteen with the E Street Band, was the clear Alpha Dog. Yet he seemed just as it ease playing alongside his idols in the Wilburys or onstage at Bob Dylan's 30th anniversary concert surrounded by the likes of not only Dylan and McGuinn and George Harrison, but Neil Young and Eric Clapton as well. Wherever he was, Tom Petty was in control. Greatness has a way of doing that to you.

In fact Tom Petty made it look so freaking easy at times, such simple and sweet melodies abounding with such (on the surface) simple and sweet lyrics that it was sometimes easy to miss what was lurking beneath. Let's take one magnificent song as an example.

People have laughed affectionately at lines like the ones in "Free Fallin'," where it almost seems like he's making it up as he goes. ("She's a good girl. Crazy 'bout Elvis. Loves horses. And her boyfriend too.") But TP, as always, knew what he was doing, and no songwriter of his generation or others was a good at playing possum as he was. Because it's all a set up for the one of the greatest lyrical turns in rock-in-roll history. And one that took just five words.

"And I'm free.
Free fallin'."

In the first line we have the very definition of rock-n-roll rebellion, right? Following lyrics on such familiar Southern California banalities like horses and shopping malls, we get the rally cry of "I'm free." And we picture Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash proudly strutting their true, unabashed American birthright of breaking away on their own terms. And for a moment we're lost in it.

But then comes the kicker.

"Free fallin!" 

Everything changes with those two words. He's done running away on his own terms. Now instead, he's plummeting to earth without a bit of control. He's lost, taken by the gravity of everything around him and with the only looming certainty being the surface of the earth getting closer and closer as he falls, an ending as un-romantic as any he could have imagined just a few approaching seconds away. While the lyric begins in the absolute spirit of rock-n-roll freedom, it ends with what we can only imagine will be a literal thud, a million miles from anything that could be described as the rock-n-roll idealogy, And Petty does it all, and says it allspanning a world from unlimited possibility to sheer hopelessnessin just five words.


I saw Tom Petty just once in concert, in the late summer of 1989 on his Full Moon Fever tour, and to be very honest, while I've always been a big fan of his, my primary reason for going that night was my beloved Replacements were the opening act. There were actually more than a few people who were there just to see the Mats that night, many of whom left after their 45-minute ramshackle set (which is chronicled on the Shit, Shower & Shave bootleg.) 

I stayed; damn right I did. And I thought they were nuts for leaving. Because even though you couldn't find two bands at more opposite ends of the spectrumthe cool, polished, eminently tight and professional Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers belied in every way the loose, sloppy and wholly undisciplined nihilism of the Replacementshow could I not? He was just too damn good!

He didn't disappoint. It was a roughly two-hour set that showcased everything great about Tom Petty. From his love of covers (he opened with "So You Wanna Be a Rock-n-Roll Star" and had a very pleasing go at the Gram Parsons-era Byrds' "You Ain't Going Nowhere") to the estimable material from the then-new album ("Running Down a Dream," which closed the show, was a particular live cooker, and the solo acoustic "Yer So Bad" was a delight) to all of those amazing standards (the anthemic "Rebels" towards the end and "American Girl" at the beginning, plus sprawling versions of "Breakdown" and "Don't Come Around Here No More," to name just a few), it was one of the most enjoyable of the many, many concerts I have seen in my life. Today I am especially glad I got to see him live, even if just once.

But the best part of the show, at least to me, came relatively early on, maybe 7-8 songs in, when he did "The Waiting." First of all, doing what could objectively be called possibly his greatest song ever so close to the beginning of a full-length show was a ballsy move. And one you don't see many megastars making.

But it was the way he did it. It's a perfect pop song, period. A perfect recording, a jingly and jangly love opus that starts high and ends higher and just gets better and better each time you hear it. But on this night, as well as many other nights on and around this tour, he did it acoustically. With very little help from the Mike, Benmont, Howie or Stan. It was just him out there, doing an earnest and threadbare version of something everyone came to hear, yet maybe didn't expect it like this. And it was, well, amazing.

(Here he is doing it about a year earlier).

The voice. The confidence. The musicianship. The self-assurance that what he was doing was maybe not what the audience expected to hear, but what he knew they wanted to hear. He had it all that night. Because Tom Petty always had it all.

I'll close with some of his own words, from another one of his later-career gems and one of my favorites, "Walls." Which say what I think all Tom Petty fans are thinking about the man and his music today, as simply, sweetly and appropo as ever:

"Some things are over
Some things go on
Part of me you'll carry
Part of me is gone"