Wednesday, October 4, 2017


When I was about twelve and started falling hard for this whole rock ’n’ roll thing, I remember reading an article in the original Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock N Roll about Creedence Clearwater Revival, in which the author wrote (approximately), “They became my favorite band so gradually, song by song, that I didn’t even really notice it was happening.” I was fascinated by the idea of an artist sneaking up on you like that, choosing you as much as the other way around.

Turns out that may have been the case with me and Tom Petty, whose death I’m feeling unlike any previous celebrity passing. I was horrified by Cobain’s death, but it didn’t feel to me like I’d lost someone I was close to. And I never met Tom Petty, and never really even tried to, but I saw him in concert twenty times (including two weeks ago in Berkeley), and listened to his songs thousands more, and felt… connected.  And I’m not usually that way with an artist. With art? Definitely. But I’ve never had the gene that connects the art and artist together for me in terms of importance. And I admire a lot of things about Tom Petty, but he’s not a “hero” to me— I know myth-making when I see it. 

So why is this one different? Why can’t I stop listening to him and surfing for information and live shows and random b-sides I may have missed along the years? (I hadn’t, by the way— including live tracks and bootlegs, there are over 400 Petty songs on the Pod. I’m an exhaustive super-fan.)  Why do I feel like a friend has died? I have certainly loved other bands and other music more then Petty’s at times, and we’ve lost several figures in the last year that meant a lot to me. But it turns out that there’s no artist who I’ve been so interested in, so consistently, for so long. Since 1979, when I first heard him on the radio, I have never stopped listening to Tom Petty, and he never stopped making music worth hearing for forty straight years. His best music sits right alongside any other music that matters most to me, and the realization that he’s now made all his music keeps gnawing at me.

After a few days of chewing it over, I think it comes down to three things that Petty gave me as a listener that gave him such staying power in my life.

1— Petty was a lodestar for me.  He’s about 20 years older, but we were born in the same town, both had our lives changed by rock n roll, and both eventually found our spiritual homes in California.  There were important differences; I gave up on musical stardom (rightfully) and went all-in on teaching (where my talent most lies), and saved myself the weariness and perils that a life on the road offers. My own upbringing was far less traumatic and toll-taking. And it turns out I’m a critic more than an artist, which puts me on a different side of a conversation about music from him. But I felt like Tom Petty made music for me to listen to— that he knew I was out there as an audience.  When I heard Wildflowers in my 20s, I felt like my older self was warning me about the pitfalls of adulthood that lay before me. And I was right— those songs mean more to me now than they did then. I recognize the characters in those songs at their best and worst. Tom Petty’s music was a guidepost for me, and the fact that he’ll never do that again makes me... deeply sad.

2— Tom Petty is the great 20th century transcendentalist poet. The truth that his songs communicate more than anything else is the possibility of a transcendent moment even if it’s fleeting, and even if the life you’ll return to is tough and unsatisfying. That is what is most American about him— not the drawl, or the Byrds-go-to-Memphis hybrid— it’s the belief that a moment alone in nature can bring you a epiphany that connects you to everyone. That’s what a Tom Petty concert WAS at its best— we went there to hear songs that told us that our small, individual moments of joy mattered because it was the common ground in the room: the quest for small, individual moments of joy.  That’s Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson and Hawthorne and Dickinson and Thomas Cole plugged into an amp and offered to thousands of people at a time. Is your life defined more by the veil that separates you than a light leading you toward something? If so, then the American Dream has been a lie for you, and that is devastating. AND: you can still roll down 441 with waves crashing and feel alive even while your life is crumbling. Even if all of your dreams are turning to powder, she can look you in the eye and say we’regonnabeforeverdarlin’. You can have a horrible day and catch a glimpse of your wife and realize that she belongs among the wildflowers, or in a boat out at sea. You can free fall out into nothin’ and leave this world for a while, even if you’re a bad man when you return to it.  It was Petty’s particular genius to recognize those moments, and then re-create them as art, and it spoke utterly to my own desire for that to still be an American truth and possibility. I want (maybe even need) to believe that joy is still possible in our current America, that we will allow one another (EVERYONE) to pursue and have it. Am I pouring my grief and rage about Las Vegas into Petty’s death? Maybe. Maybe. If so, it’s because Petty’s art reminds us of moments where, if people could feel them more often, Las Vegas wouldn’t happen. (The gun control conversation will have to wait. I can only handle so much here.)

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow

3— I haven’t tested this theory at all, but I’m ready to declare Tom the greatest first line songwriter of all time (and we can take it back as far as you want). Just think of how evocative these introductions are (off the top of my head, so excuse any inaccuracies):

She was an American girl raised on promises. She couldn’t help thinking that there must be a little more to life somewhere else.  

We got somethin. We both know it, but we don’t talk too much about it.

Well, honey don’t it feel like heaven right now? Don’t it feel like something from a dream?

Honey don’t walk out… I’m too drunk to follow.

There’s a southern accent where I came from. The younguns call it country, the yankees call it dumb.

She used to work in a restaurant… well… that’s what her mama did. But I don’t know if she really could ever have put up with it.

She graduated high school; I bought her a trailer in a little park by the side of the road. I coulda had the Army, I coulda had the Navy, but no; I had to go buy a mobile home.

It’s time to move on, time to get going.  What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing.  But under my feet, baby, grass is growing.

Waiting by the side of the road for day to break so we could go down to Los Angeles, with dirty hands and worn-out knees.

Well, I feel like a forgotten man; I understand the dark.

If these were the first sentences of short stories, I would read EVERY one of them.  And they’re BETTER, because they come with beautiful melodies and expert arrangements in that wounded but triumphant American voice.

4-- Petty is smart enough to know that people matter. He got rich and famous, and the people around him remained the same. He had the same roadie for 50 years. He had basically the same band for almost as long. He called the guys who didn't make the cut for the Heartbreakers 35 years later and reformed Mudcrutch and made two albums and did two tours with those guys. Is there a connection between his example and me staying with my current school for 25+ years? I'm open to the possibility of it.

I once got to hear the professor and Dylanologist Christopher Ricks speak about Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” for 90 minutes. Afterwards, I asked him who else he listens to, and he said, “I don’t listen to anyone else. Ever. I don’t want to waste a second of listening when I could be listening to Dylan. Fifty years from now, people will remember him like Shakespeare, and if you have the chance to see Shakespeare or someone else, it’s no contest.”  While I don’t share that same ability to focus in like Mr. Ricks, I am grateful to have come of age while Tom Petty made his music; it made me feel seen, and it made me feel aspirational. 

This song is my favorite of his, and one of my 20 favorite songs of all time. He played it last month, the last time I’ll ever hear him do it.  I savored every moment, and I’m glad I did. Outside at the Greek in the Berkeley hills, surrounded by people, it was my moment of transcendent joy that made me feel… connected.  Thank you for it, Tom. I don't want to say anything further; let's all just listen it to it once, alone, together.

I’m so tired of being tired, but sure as night follows day, most things I worry about never happen anyway. — “Crawling Back To You,” Tom Petty, Wildflowers, 1994

Sunday, March 12, 2017

SONG #191: Chalk Dust Torture

Phish, Camden NJ 7-10-99 (Live Phish 08), 1999

I don’t know if there’s a more polarizing band for my generation of music fans than Phish.  For a lot of people, they sound like this:

Part of the problem, of course, is that it’s easy to make fun of the band,  The name is ridiculous, and invites people to think of them as a joke.  I love a band that has a sense of humor, but if you name yourself something silly, then you’ll be working against that name for the rest of your career.  Second, their lyrics are frequently head-cockingly weird, and sometimes unforgivably dumb.  Finally, they represent the “jam-band” moniker more than any band in history, including The Grateful Dead.  They’re wasn’t a “jam-band” scene before Phish— there was the Dead’s traveling roadshow, and that’s it.  Phish’s ascendence after Garcia’s death created an entire sub-genre of music that has spawned some seriously unlistenable groups.  I played at High Sierra Music Festival in 2007, and suffered through some seriously weak sets— Phish was on hiatus at that point, and people were so desperate that Phix, a Phish cover band, had a late night headlining set. 

It’s also way too easy to make fun of the fanbase.  I stopped going to Phish shows because of the people with whom I had to stand in a crowd to listen to them.  Every time I went to Shoreline in the 90s to see them, I spent half the show dealing with jackasses who wanted my ticket stub so they could sneak friends down into the pavilion.  When I said no, they were incredulous; “Dude— I’ll leave my wallet AND my beer as collateral!”  “Dude, what makes you so special that you get to keep your ticket?”  “Dude, don’t be such a dick, dude.”  “Dude!”  You get the idea.  I have lovely friends who are devoted Phish fans, but they're definitely the exception once a whole horde of 'em get together.

I have never been a joiner, and I’m still not one— I don’t wear gear when I go to a sporting event, I don’t wear an old concert t-shirt when I see a band, I don’t have bumper stickers on my car, and so the Phish community never really intrigued me.  Like every community that pretends to be inclusive, Phish phans have created a rigid caste system, hilariously judgmental about things that really shouldn’t matter that much.

A mean, if not inaccurate, portrayal.

So I grant all that, happily. 

But here’s the thing— even with all of the silliness, Phish is simultaneously a really inspiring band if you’re a musician my age.  I first saw Phish in 1989, when I was in college and playing in a campus cover band.  I had been in a really serious band in high school, and was frustrated that I hadn’t found a similar outlet in college, and Phish came and reminded me what real practice and devotion looked like.  I didn’t connect with the trampolines, but I was riveted by how well all four members of the band could play.  They were all only a few years older than me, and they all blew my doors off.  Without Phish, I’m not sure I would have re-dedicated myself to practicing like I did, and I might not have made the move from amateur to professional player.

Phish also has done some impressive growing as a band over the years.  They’re a band with specific phases, especially before its first hiatus, from weirdo college band (1989-1994) to jam band phenomenon (1994-1997) to a much darker, funky band (1997-2000).  They kept practicing and evolving as players, and you can hear the difference in their performances and on their studio records.  Phish has been there, jamming away, through my entire adulthood, as I made the transition from weirdo college kid to darker, funkier adult.

They’re also the first band to understand how to use the internet to archive and make their music available.  One thing I do appreciate about the band fan base is their anal-retentive attention to detail.  If you want to hear a Phish show from the last thirty years, it wouldn’t take you much of a search to find a perfect copy of it, well-annotated.  If only every band took its legacy as seriously as Phish has— only Pearl Jam comes close.

So:  here’s a Phish jam that frequently appears on “must-listen” lists.  It’s a live, extended version of one of their most accessible and iconic songs.  It has everything that a Phish fan likes about the band— great interplay, burning guitar, some risk-taking, a little tongue-in-cheek humor.  If you like this one, then there’s literally a lifetime of listening available to you. (I’d recommend starting with the Clifford Ball shows from 1996.)  If you don’t like this one, then there’s no point in exploring further.  Personally, I dig it, but I understand completely if you don’t.  

Sunday, February 19, 2017

SONGS #182- #190: The Who By Numbers (Whole Album)

The Who, The Who By Numbers, 1975

OK— since I published the blog below about “How Many Friends” (#179), several folks whose opinions on music I cherish emerged and revealed that I had done short shrift to The Who By Numbers as an album.  In trying to write snottily about narcissism, I’d tapped into an album that has a lot more to say than just “Look at me!”  (Those records are usually called “Billy Joel” records: see Blog #149-150.  Rim shot!)

So let’s go back to this wonderful, weird Who album from 1975, a collection of observations about turning thirty, falling out of love with rock ’n’ roll, falling out of love with yourself, facing the “cliched-ridden notions”** of middle age and depression, all while holding on to the possibility of redemption.

There’s a separate blog to be written in general about albums like The Who By Numbers, records by huge bands that most people have never explored.  They usually have massive cult followings within the fan base, but never register with the larger zeitgeist.  This album became The Who’s most obscure 70s record primarily, I think, because of its modesty.  It came out after the bizarre film version of Tommy, and was the opposite of that film’s technicolor camp.  Even Numbers’ cover is DIY simplicity.  The band had been off the road for two years, and its last three albums had been high-art, synthesizer-heavy concept art.  This record is a stripped-down rock ’n’ roll album, even bordering on some kind of “heavy-country” approach in places.  Most significantly, Townshend is focused here not on teenage unrest, but middle-aged malaise.  Those hoping for more outward-looking anthems celebrating rebellious youth must have found this record to be a tremendous letdown.  Its ambitions are startlingly scaled back for The Who.

Other critics have called this record a suicide note, or a concept album about not being a concept album, or even a brilliant recalibration of the group as a trio after Quadrophenia’s bombast.  I don’t disagree with any of those ideas, but it’s always sounded to me like something else.  Townshend was unquestionably rock’s most ambitious composer in the 70s.  Who’s Next is his failed attempt to write the “unifying” note, for crying out loud.  The Who By Numbers sounds to me like the work of an artist who, after hitting his creative, physical and emotional limit, rediscovers the original simplicity and intent of his art.  The album most parallel to The Who By Numbers in the band’s catalog is their debut, My Generation.  That’s an album about being twenty where you can hear a young composer discover his craft.  After trying to re-invent rock music as an art form and spending a decade writing for everyone, Townshend, exhausted and burnt out but now a master of his craft, writes a bunch of songs for himself about being thirty.  Then, because the machinery is all in place, those songs become a Who album and a tour and etc etc etc.  But I’ve always heard it as Townshend’s first real solo album, accidentally recorded by the band instead of by just himself, and forever blurring for him the distinction between a potential solo career (which never quite got going) and the band’s career (which can’t seem to end no matter how much the band compromises its legacy).

Pete at 20.

Pete at 30.

The record really only has one great “Who” song on it— the first track, “Slip Kid”— and it feels different from the rest of the record because it’s a leftover from 1971’s Who’s Next.  I think it is the most underrated song in the band’s catalog.  It’s a fantastic song about resisting and resenting responsibility with a infectious mid-tempo groove and a brilliant percussive backing track. It’s not as well-known because the band is terrible at playing it live— they’ve only tried it a few dozen times, and they butcher it at every go.  I’m way more of a Pete fan than a Roger fan, but I feel Daltrey’s frustration on this one; it’s not THAT hard, but Pete can’t bothered to figure out the bridge.  

And then the record takes a pretty wild left turn with “However Much I Booze.”  Sung by Townshend because Daltrey refused to sing lyrics that personal, it establishes both the sound of the rest of the record (country power trio) and the depths of Pete’s breakdown “I see myself on TV / I’m a faker, a paper clown.”  The sunny melody and downright jaunty choruses don’t match the singer’s desperation (“I’m nothing but a well-f*cked sailor”) and it’s unnerving.  It’s also incredibly catchy and features one of Pete’s great non-solos (during which drummer Keith Moon starts soloing incomprehensibly) into a beautiful bridge.

After the regrettable “Squeeze Box” comes “Dreaming From The Waist,” a song with terrific playing and one of the weirdest “hooks” I’ve ever heard. There’s just something about the word “waist” that’s so clinical— so close to where Pete is putting his attention, and yet so far.  The song became one of the highlights of the 1975-76 tour because bassist John Entwistle used it as a platform to play 7,000,000 notes over the course of the tune.  His performance on the album is borderline unhinged, and live, he shows no shame whatsoever.  It was also, apparently, a sticking point in the set:

Here’s John losing his mind live if you have a minute or two:

Side One closes with the ballad “Imagine A Man,” another in a series of quiet songs where the band didn’t know what to do with Moon, so they let him rumble through the choruses.  It’s a pretty schizophrenic track, but has its moments (the melody behind the choruses, Pete’s acoustic guitar playing).

Side Two is much more scattershot— “They Are All In Love” and “In A Hand Or A Face” don’t even sound completely finished to me.  They sound like rough mixes that the band gave up on and released anyway.  Two other songs are worth mentioning, though.  The side begins with Entwistle’s one contribution to the record called “Success Story.”  During the recording of Quadrophenia, John brought in a song that he thought said everything in three minutes that Pete had taken 80 minutes to say.  The same thing happens here— “Success Story” is about all the same themes as the rest of the record, but plumbs the malaise for dark comedy instead.  The band, famous and bored and now stuck on the road and in the studio, is on “Take 276— you know, this used to be fun.”  The fact that the track is on the album speaks to the tensions in the band.  John is openly mocking the hand that feeds him, but he gets his one song regardless.  It’s a fine track, but it’s truly the one thing that’s not like the other; in retrospect, the beginning of the end of The Who starts here.

And I have to say a few words about “Blue Red and Grey,” a Pete ukulele song that producer Glyn Johns insisted be on the record.  I love this song, as do the rest of my fellow Who fanatics— unlike the rest of the record, this song is sweetness and light, a song about trying to find and retain joy.  It’s forgiving where the rest of the album is accusatory, and refreshingly simple in its goals.  The song’s refrain, “I like every minute of the day,” is not a bad life motto.  If nothing else, check out this tune before you move on.

OK— I think that does it.  Next up, a polarizing band.  Getting my critic helmet ready.

* Pete Townshend, “Brilliant Blues,” 1985

Monday, February 13, 2017

SONG #181: Quit Your Low Down Ways

Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3: Rare And Unreleased, 1961-1991

For Michael Flynn.  Good riddance, you ignorant, arrogant, unAmerican radical.

Amazing when a song from 1963 hits the spot in 2017!  I thought this verse about the White House was especially prescient:

"Well, you can run down to the White House
You can gaze at the Capitol Dome, pretty mama
You can pound on the President’s gate
But you oughta know by now it’s gonna be too late"

but I also enjoy the potential allusion to Flynn's toxic sense of the Middle East coming back to haunt him:

"Well, you can run down to the desert
Throw yourself on the burning sand
You can raise up your right hand, pretty mama
But you better understand you done lost your one good man"

And I wouldn't pick the guy up either:

"And you can hitchhike on the highway
You can stand all alone by the side of the road
You can try to flag a ride back home, pretty mama
But you can’t ride in my car no more"

Ignored, burned and alone?  Sounds about right to me.

Also, how on fire was Dylan in 1963?  This is one of almost a dozen tracks left off of Freewheelin' because it wasn't as good as the other twelve he'd written.  And while Dylan's voice isn't pretty, don't tell me he couldn't sing back in the day.

The whole world is watching; let's keep it that way.  
(Slightly different, but the only version on YouTube)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

SONGS #179 & 180: How Many Friends / Somebody Saved Me

The Who, The Who By Numbers, 1975
Somebody Saved Me, All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, 1982

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about narcissism lately.  First, I’ve been teaching the OJ: Made In America documentary to my African-American Lit class, so I’ve been reading Jeffrey Toobin’s book, watching and re-watching the film, and living in the headspace of Los Angeles’ wild combination of liberated self-invention and ruthless racism in the 20th century.  Second, it’s been a crazy first month of the 45th President’s term, and I’ve found far too many of his politburo’s moves to have the infected taint of malignant narcissism.  

Plus, I write a blog about my musical feelies and believies because I think the world needs to know what I think about The Eagles.*

I think we can all agree that narcissists are an enormous pain in the ass, but it’s also true that some of our greatest artists are guilty of unapologetic solipsism.  Take Mr. Townshend, for example, who remains one of very favorite musicians on earth, present or past.  I think Pete’s work is endlessly fascinating, and he’s a great interview, and he’s brought so much depth to my life, and I’ll bet he’s a terrible prick to deal with if you get him on a bad day.

Here are two of Pete’s weirdest songs about his self-obsession, both songs that teeter on the edge of honest self-loathing and unforgivable selfishness.  They’re both about friendship, one from 1975 when Pete had a breakdown at age 30 and tried to leave The Who for the first time, and another from 1982 when he left the band for the second time.  It’s interesting to hear both what’s different about the tracks, and also what has stayed the same for a man who by this point had spent half his life in a space of adoration.

“How Many Friends” is one of the weakest tracks on Numbers, which is a strange Who album.  I happen to love it (surprise) but it’s a total unknown in their catalog for casual fans.  The single was “Squeeze Box,” an accordion-as-vagina throwaway that probably took less time to write than it did to play.  There are some fantastic songs on Numbers, including one of my all-timers in “Slip Kid,” but Side Two is really hit and miss.  This song shows Roger trying to bring gravitas to Pete’s whiny self-indulgence, and mostly failing.  In the first verse, Pete fluctuates between flattery and discomfort as a man hits on him (maybe), one of several homoerotic stanzas in Pete’s catalog.  “He’s being so kind, what’s the reason?”  Pete then goes on to guess that his list of true friends is tiny, unsurprising considering the pity party he’s throwing.  But then, things take a turn, and the song becomes about our collective emptiness, a song more about the 70s than about any individual person.  If Pete’s aware of his bad behavior, and confessing it here, then the song is far more interesting.  In the end, it’s hard to tell, and even though the band bashes away with a great effort, “How Many Friends” is unlikely to make anyone’s greatest hits mix.

Lots of things are different by the time Pete records “Somebody Saved Me.”  For one, he’s making solo albums that matter more to him than Who albums: just compare Empty Glass and Chinese Eyes to Face Dances and It’s Hard. He’s also gone from being an alcoholic in 1975 to a recovering hard drug user in 1982, and it’s brought out a new level of honesty in his writing.  Perhaps, in fact, a little TOO honest: “Somebody Saved Me” is an even darker, more depth-plumbing track than “How Many Friends.”  It doesn’t go for the sweeping collective statement as “Friends;” instead, it’s so personal that it feels uncomfortably confessional.  Both songs start with conquest (and both embarrassingly use the word “ass” in the first verse) but this time it’s Pete making the pass, and what saves him is dumb luck.  Throughout the song, Pete chases the wrong woman, or the wrong scene, and ends up saved by someone else’s intervention.  By the end, he’s caused a friend’s death, and lived to see another series of misadventures.  Like “Friends,” it’s artfully constructed and performed (Pete’s playing on his solo albums from 1979-1985 is really underrated) but it leaves the listener out in the cold.  

Unless, of course, you’re a total narcissist.  If you are, then dig in!

* Search for “One Of These Nights”

Sunday, January 29, 2017

SONG #178: Dimming Of The Day

Richard and Linda Thompson, Pour Down Like Silver, 1975

Richard Thompson is due for a much longer blog entry— he is one of my all-time favorites, not very well-known, and part of the soundtrack of my life since 1985.  I’m posting this song today, however, in response to this weekend’s executive order.  This song is a love song to Islam, particularly the sect of Sufism, to which Thompson converted in the mid-1970s.  I am not a religious man, so I’ve always listened to this song as an extraordinary love song, but given the tenor of our national conversation, I thought I’d present a different Muslim voice in the hopes that it complicates our national conversation and promotes a little of the love that’s expressed in this song.

Link is for the original— Bonnie Raitt does a killer version as well.

This old house is falling down around my ears
I'm drowning in a river of my tears
When all my will is gone you hold me sway
I need you at the dimming of the day

You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide
You know just where I keep my better side

What days have come to keep us far apart
A broken promise or a broken heart
Now all the bonnie birds have wheeled away
I need you at the dimming of the day

Come the night you're only what I want
Come the night you could be my confidant

I see you on the street in company
Why don't you come and ease your mind with me
I'm living for the night we steal away

I need you at the dimming of the day

Saturday, January 21, 2017

SONG #177: The President

Robyn Hitchcock, Element Of Light, 1986

Watching the inauguration yesterday and the inspirational marches across America today, I’m drawn back to this song from 1986.  It’s written by a surrealist Brit, but it’s always been my favorite song about the relationship between the careless use of power and symbol and its effect on an audience.  It was inspired by Reagan’s trip to Bitburg, a Nazi cemetery, where he stated, “They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the Concentration camps:” perhaps Reagan’s most tone-deaf moment as President.  Not only does it match my own sense of overwhelmed bewilderment today, but it has one of my all-time favorite bass tracks by the under-celebrated Matthew Seligman; he steals the show.

Here's to collective participation in the days ahead.

Lyrics below—>

The President is talking to us through a microphone
Like he's trying to pack his mother off
To an old people's home

I know you're out there
I know you're out there somewhere
I know you're out there
When I hear the word "Democracy"
I reach for my headphones

He's the president of Europe and he's talking to the dead
They're the only ones who'll listen or believe a word he said
You know I'm out here
But you can't see me, darlin'
You know I'm out here 
When I hear the word "Security"
I reach for my shotgun

He's standing in a cemetery inside the western zone
I listen on the radio, I'm glad I'm not alone
I know you're out there 
I know you're out there somewhere
God knows you're out there

I can almost hear it raining
I can almost hear it raining