Tom Petty, 1950 – 2017

petty

For me, Tom Petty’s career was a recurring invitation of rediscovery. The Florida native delivered his first album with the Heartbreakers in 1976, which put him right on the cusp of artists who, in my perception, had simply always been there. There was a rustic sound to his music and a plainspoken grace to his lyrics, an implicit embrace of Americana in all its slump-shouldered contradictions. By the time my churlishly swirling music tastes evolved into a uncompromising embrace of college rock and the requisite parallel dismissal of longstanding artists who’d enjoyed significant commercial success, Petty was enough of a mainstay that he seemed exactly the sort of performer who I should dismiss.

But then came Full Moon Fever — technically Petty’s first solo album — and it completely rejuvenated my appreciation for the performer’s sterling songwriting skills. My college radio station had a greater tolerance for mainstream music than most, but we were edging away from it. The quality of Full Moon Fever was undeniable. Though there was a widespread disinclination among my peers to play an artist being thoroughly celebrated elsewhere, we allotted that album generous airtime.

A few years later, Petty was again moving into the realm of afterthought for me, even after another exceptional solo record, the Rick Rubin-produced Wildflowers. Then I saw — of all things — the Edward Burns movie She’s the One. The film is terrible, but Petty provided a batch of songs for it. Right from the opening credits, Petty’s keening voice over a smooth, rich musical melody, I sat in my seat marveling at how good his songs sounded reverberating out of the theater sound system.

There was something about Petty’s very demeanor — genial, easy-going, casually amused by his own celebrity — that made him more approachable than other rock stars of his era. His songwriting didn’t ripple with evident deep personal revelation, anguished cries of angst and rebellion. But they still seemed clearly, unmistakably an expression of him, of who he was and what he believed. Unlike Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp, Petty never seemed to be engaged in a pointed political treatise about the American experience. He just laid it out there, with shrugging honesty. And his crooked-grin charm fit everywhere, from the meta-sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show to the bonkers Kevin Costner drama The Postman, in which Petty seemed to be essentially playing himself, albeit a version of himself living in a arid dystopian future. His eternal just-happy-to-be-here vibe was somehow always the right match.

If his celebrity presence offer rampant pleasures, it was his songwriting that made him one of the greats. A few years back, the Onion AV Club ran an article listing off the fantastic opening lyrics Petty could spin up, seemingly as naturally as breathing. It might be possible in the vast reaches of rock ‘n’ roll to find a better song-starting couplet than “Well, she was an American girl/ Raised on promises,” but a dedicated fan would need to listen far and wide to do so.

In his recent Netflix stand-up special, comedian Marc Maron posits that Tom Petty is the one topic that angrily disparate people can agree upon in our increasingly stratified political era. No matter how heated the dispute, the fragile safe space that can be found is a hearty agreement on the music of the scruffy fellow who became an unlikely titan of music videos, a champion of consumers against his own industry, and a Willbury. Maron is exploring the agonizing fruitlessness of being emotionally invested in national political engagement that’s gone fully off the rails. But the core of the joke is also right. We all like Petty.

Laughing Matters — The Onion, ‘No Way to Prevent This’

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

onion

Today, The Onion posted a story headlined “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” accompanied by a photo of emergency response vehicles below the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Except for the details in the story’s lede, the photograph, and a couple other details, every word is the same. They have posted the repeating story on at least four prior heartbreaking occasions. It is an act of bleak comic genius and bruising social satire. It is the only exhibit needed to demonstrate the invaluable contribution The Onion makes to the discourse.

“At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years were referring to themselves and their situation as ‘helpless,'” the article concludes.

I hope The Onion never has cause to use this piece again. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.

 

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 2

2 end

2. R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”

At the time R.E.M. released their fifth studio album, Document, in 1987, the little ol’ band from Athens, Georgia was still adamantly against a practice that was commonplace in popular music. In contrast to most of their musical brethren, R.E.M. abstained from include lyrics sheets with each new album. Because of that, I knew more than one person who made it into a mission to transcribe the stream of consciousness litany that comprised album standout “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” It’s the sort of devotion that R.E.M. inspired back when they ruled college radio like no other act. And this track immediately announced itself as something special in the band’s catalogue.

According to producer Scott Litt, not everyone had a positive first impression, though. Guitarist Peter Buck didn’t even like the song at first, feeling it was too much of a departure from what the band had delivered before. The song was polished into shape while Buck and the other bandmates were out on a dinner break, and they didn’t weigh in with enthusiasm when they returned.

“It was pretty much done by the time they got back, and Peter hated it,” recounted Stipe. “He capitulated finally and it made the record. Thank God we have always had each other to convince ourselves how wrong and right we can be.”

For the lyrics, Stipe said he drew upon his own dreams, noting that he was regularly beset by apocalyptic visions while sleeping. There were more specific dreams that fed into the words Stipe rattled off.

“I’m extremely aware of everything around me, whether I am in a sleeping state, awake, dream-state or just in day to day life,” explained Stipe. “There’s a part in ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It’ that came from a dream where I was at Lester Bangs’ birthday party and I was the only person there whose initials weren’t L.B. So there was Lenny Bruce, Leonid Brezhnev, Leonard Bernstein. So that ended up in the song along with a lot of stuff I’d seen when I was flipping TV channels. It’s a collection of streams of consciousness.”

Although Stipe’s subconscious fed the lyrics, Buck noted at least one actual experience fed into the details in the song. In the liner notes to the R.E.M.’s hits collection Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011, Buck recounted a 1980 birthday part he and Stipe wound up at, with the legendary music writer also in attendance.

“The guys from Joe King Carrasco and Lester Bangs were there,” wrote Buck. “And all they had was birthday cake and jelly beans, and we were starving and ate that. A random story that popped into a song eight years later. At the time, I was really proud of that song.”

If the resulting song was characterized by propulsive music, Stipe knew he had to deliver accordingly. At the time, the singer was notorious for his withdrawn enunciation. For “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” he pushed himself to a different level.

“I wanted it to be the most bombastic vocal I could possibly muster,” said Stipe. “Something that would completely overwhelm you and drip off your shoulders and stick in your hair like bubblegum.”

Released as the second single from Document, the track didn’t have the same chart success as it’s predecessor, the commercial breakthrough “The One I Love.” It peaked at #69 on the Billboard Hot 100. It did better on commercial rock radio. On college radio, of course, it was nearly peerless. In the span from 1979 to 1989, only one single did better.

But we’ll get to that next week.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

From the Archive — Pleased to Meet Me

mats 1987

A couple of weeks back, a friend of mine was kind enough to share some airtime with me. After participating in the reunion weekend for my old college radio station two years runnings, I decided I was up for swinging north for a sub shift from time to time. So there I found myself, one Sunday night, playing an array of songs that fit snugly on the left end of the dial. To make sure I felt my age, I devoted one set to albums that were celebrating their thirtieth anniversary, concentrating on record releases from the fall of 1987. This led to thoughts of all the albums with that distant copyright date, including the one that I routinely argue deserves inclusion on any discussion of the great rock ‘n’ roll records of all time. Thirty years since Pleased to Meet Me? Suddenly my knees hurt. I also wrote about the album during my Spectrum Culture days, but this particular piece originally went up at my former online home, as part of the “Flashback Friday” series.

For years, whenever I engaged in that favorite late-night, barroom game of debating which rock ‘n’ roll album deserved the designation “the greatest of all time,” I opted for a fairly unique choice: the sixth release from The Replacements, Pleased to Meet Me. Hell, most fans of the Minneapolis band wouldn’t even rank this as their best album, usually opting for the turning point represented by Let It Be, an effort so venerated that you can be chastised for daring to muse over its imperfections. But to me, it’s exactly what a great album should be. It’s a collection of fantastic songs, each with its own personality but also feeling like a true part of a whole. It’s perfectly of the moment, but also timeless. It’s the wondrous clatter of a great band persevering, even as they seem to be falling apart, and if that’s not the overarching story of The Replacements, I don’t know what is.

The album was recorded as a trio, the band having parted ways with guitarist Bob Stinson and not yet recruited Slim Dunlap as his, um, replacement. Being a man down doesn’t lessen the band’s fullness, nor does losing their most sonically combustible member dull their edge. In some ways, it makes the playing of the other members a little rawer, a little more reckless, as if they’re trying to fill the void. The album has some of the same “Ah, what the fuck” energy of the early effort Hootenanny, a willingness to springboard to any different sound or thought that strikes them. The primary thing that sets Pleased apart is that Paul Westerberg has fully come into his own as a songwriter. Nothing here is just tossed off, an old habit of the band’s that seemed to signal their disinterest in the very rock stardom that they couldn’t help but chase. Even the plainest song on the album has a commitment to it that is energizing.

The album begins with a one-two punch that typifies the mix of abandon and polish that will follow. The first song “I.O.U.” is a potent scorcher, a propulsive rock song that finds Westerberg’s old punk scream worn down to growls and moans that don’t undercut the anger of the song one bit. That gives way to what is simply the greatest pop song Westerberg ever conjured up, something I suspect even the legendarily cantankerous songwriter believes. Six minutes and ten seconds into the record, and The Mats have already proclaimed they can take their music anywhere they damn well please, and then they proceed to take it bigger, bolder, brasher and further afield. There’s the gloomy anguish of “The Ledge,” the bounding lovelorn cynicism of “Valentine” (“Well you wish upon a star/That turns into a plane” is a contender for the finest couplet on the record, an incredibly competitive battle), and the happily boozy charge of “Red Red Wine.”

Then it ends as it began, with a pair of songs that brilliantly encapsulate the range and skill of the band. If “Alex Chilton” is Westerberg’s greatest pop song, “Skyway” is his finest love song, an understated, wistful lament that hinges on lovely example of fate’s cruel sense of humor. And, with just a couple of lines, Westerberg also manages to evoke the harshness of Minneapolis winter, giving the song a strong sense of place. That’s followed by the splendid amble of “Can’t Hardly Wait” that captures the weary stasis of a life of “ashtray floors, dirty clothes and filthy jokes.” With its false endings interspersed throughout, it’s the sound of a band that can’t quite motivate themselves to just give up on it all. They’ve been beat up at every turn, but there’s still a chance they may be able to wring some truth out off their guitars if they just grip the neck a little tighter, a little longer. When the track finally fades out and the record is over, in some ways so is the band. There are two more proper albums with the Replacements name on them, and there’s good stuff aplenty on those releases. But this sounds like the end of The Mats, the laughing, indifferent train wrecks from the north who were the last band that mattered, but didn’t really care themselves. May all our endings rock this hard, sting this sharply and shuffle off into the murky night with such aplomb.

One for Friday — Any Trouble, “Girls Are Always Right”

any trouble

This is it, friends. This is exactly what 1980 sounded like. The single “Girls Are Always Right,” from the U.K. new wave band Any Trouble, has some Joe Jackson to it. And Elvis Costello, and Graham Parker, and Marshall Crenshaw. And Squeeze. And Nick Lowe. It could have been the catalyst for the invention of wistful montages in the third acts of eighties high school movies.

It’s flat-out perfect. Much I might try to be wordier, that’s all I got.

Listen or download –> Any Trouble, “Girls Are Always Right”

(Disclaimer: As best as I can tell, this song is currently out of print as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. It is shared in this space with that understanding, but I do know the rules. I will gladly an promptly remove it from my little corner of the digital world if asked to so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Now Playing: It

it

I remember when Stephen King’s novel It was first published, in 1986. Then only a dozen years into his career as a novelist — but already claiming nearly twenty books to his credit —  King was an unstoppable force in the world of popular fiction. The tome was his first length work under only his own name since the absolute blockbuster Pet Sematary, three years earlier. On the King time line of astounding prolificness, that may as well have been an eon. Appropriately, then, the book he delivered, It, read like a magnum opus, a compendium of everything he’d done to that point packed tightly into over 1,110 pages. Alternating between the forlorn persecution felt in youth and the tart disappointment of encroaching middle, the story included so many elements familiar from the author’s previous efforts that it was like sort of Stephen King gumbo, cooked up on the foundation of a dark, dark roux.

The books also, to my recollection, wasn’t all that good. Although I concede it contained one of the few instances of King’s writing genuinely leaving me scared, it was also a tangled mess, the narrative a cyclone that spun forever without ever picking up speed or strength. Its endurance as a favorite entry in King’s bibliography is baffling to me. Surely, there was no reason to expect that a belated film adaption — itself arriving nearly three decades after a television version — would be a success. Movies were once the province of King like few other authors, but those days are long gone, with only the occasional stab at transferring a book to the screen making an appearance, mostly to wan curiosity.

And yet here we are, with a new stab at It proving to be that rarest of beasts at the U.S. box office: a flat-out sensation. The film’s second weekend would have set a record for biggest of September, and the number of feats it will be able to claim by the time it’s done — already It is the highest-grossing horror film of all time — boggles the quivering mind. How the Castle Rock did this happen?

Well, the movie is surprisingly good, even if occasionally tripped up by the problems that are cooked right into the original story. (Thankfully, the most egregious narrative misstep has been excised entirely.) Director Andy Muschetti — who previously presided over Mama, for which I have a surprising, lingering fondness — brings a welcome visual panache to the proceedings, shrewdly determining when the film would benefit from a touch of Spielbergian nostalgia (cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon and score composed Benjamin Wallfisch are able co-conspirators on this mission) and when it needs the edging creepiness of modern, CGI-reinforced horror. The occasional plot lumpiness of the screenplay (credited to Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman) is redeemed by the lowbrow naturalness of the dialogue. The misfit kids in the movie talk the way misfit kids talked in the nineteen-eighties. I type the preceding sentence with some field-tested authority.

The smartest decision made by the filmmakers was to cut out half of the book. King alternated between the kids in late nineteen-fifties and them as adults nearly thirty years later. It, the film, sticks with the kids, bumping the era forward to the summer of 1989. A focus the novel lacked is decisively present in the movie. And there’s an added brutal poignancy to parallels between the metaphysical horrors delivered by Pennywise the evil clown (Bill Skarsgård) and the all too real miseries inflicted by parents, bullies, and authority figures. It helps that Muschetti coaxes solid performances out of his youthful performers, with especially admirable turns from Jack Dylan Grazer (as the eternally fretful Eddie), Sophia Lillis (as the tomboy dream girl Beverly), and Stranger Things carry-over Finn Wolfhard (as motormouth Richie).

To damn with praise so faint it flickers into near-nothingness, It immediately stands as one of the strongest King adaptations, horror division. (Interestingly, given how he’s made his name, King’s more straightforward material has fared better in the journey to film over the years.) That could be why It has broken through like no other adaptation of King’s work. The film is imperfect, peppered with plot holes, and reliant on characterizations that sometimes lean on well-worn archetypes. The same shortcomings can be found in much of King’s writing, including novels that are adored by loads of people, including me. After all this time, and across countless adaptations, the basic methodology for transferring King’s commercial success at bookstores to the movie box office turned out to be incredibly simple. Respect the material. There have been better films sporting King’s name, but few have felt like a more honest realization of his base creative vision.

My Writers: Robert Caro

master

The books are massive, which makes them intimidating. Just glancing at one of the spines, likely wide enough to place a comfortably discernible portrait on it, is enough to tingle up a feeling of exhaustion. And yet one of the things I find most remarkable about Robert Caro’s biographies is the clarity of the writing. There’s a plainspokenness to his writing that makes it approachable, as if a story recounted rather than heavily detailed reportage based on unbelievably exhaustive research. That doesn’t mean the material is simple. Caro locks in on the complexity of lives of people who changed their worlds through sheer will of force.

There is nothing dashed off and no supposition lacking a mound of evidence. And Caro is notorious for his meticulous approach, reworking every last words of manuscripts that swell near to — and sometimes over — one thousand pages. He doesn’t farm out the research, nor does he easily acquiesce to the alterations of editors. Every word is his.

And those words lead the reader expertly, with a constant pull forward. Although Caro is master of the time-honored craft of ending every chapter with a promise for what will come next, he assiduously avoids anxious cliffhangers or other overt manipulations. In Caro’s craft, the pending page is as necessary and as natural as the twinkle of tomorrow.

Caro’s first book was published in 1974. His recent tome was unpacked onto bookstore shelves in 2012. In that multi-decade span, Caro effectively wrote about two men. The earliest biography covered the life and career of Robert Moses, a towering public figure in New York for a sizable chunk of the twentieth century. Four other books — thus far — have traced formative years and political ascendancy of Lyndon B. Johnson, the thirty-seventh President of the United States. Caro was in his forties when the first part of his multi-volume Johnson biography was published. As he’s chipped away at the fifth and probably final volume, the writer has become an octogenarian. Half of Caro’s life has been devoted to the Johnson books. It’s astonishing, speaking to a stalwart sense of mission. And the resulting extended biography is staggering, demonstrating that it is still possible — through dedication, precision, purpose, and artfulness — to create a work that is truly definitive.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.