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

Thursday, January 19, 2017

SONG #176: Papa Was A Rollin' Stone

The Temptations, All Directions, 1972

Where were you the first time you really “heard” music for the first time?  Do you have a memory of hearing something that made you different afterwards?  That made you a person who had now heard that music?  Can you still hear it? Feel it?  See it?

Hearing this song for the first time was a turning point in my life.  It changed me, and my whole trajectory.  Without the night I’m about to describe, I would have been (and become) a different person.

I was eight years old, and we were visiting my grandmother in Melbourne FL.  This was not an unusual occurrence.  We went to Florida all the time.  I was born there, and then we moved to Newport RI, and then back to FL (Gainesville this time) and then finally to Maryland, but we went to Florida to see my grandmother three times a year, including every Christmas.  I spent 25-35 days a year at her house until I was in high school.  For a kid who grew up in the snowy East, my memories of childhood Christmases are mostly tropical.

It was a difficult visit every time.  My Ya-Ya (Mom’s family is Greek) was a troubled woman, beset by demons real and constructed.  Being around her took its toll— other songs will let me tell her story more vividly at some other time— and visiting her took work and effort to endure.  Because we went so often, and because I was an only child, I needed to bring entertainment with me to pass the time and to have something familiar to simulate some kind of home space.  In the winter of 1977, I traveled with a little suitcase record player.  

Pretty cool, huh?

When I arrived, there was a stack of 45s sitting in my room waiting for me, left there by a series of my grandmother’s boarders.  Ya-Ya took in foreign students attending FIT, or the Florida Institute of Technology.  The one I remember best is Munder, sent over by Quadafi from Lybia to learn Engineering in English so he could fly recon missions for the Lybian air force.  I swear I am not making that up.  He was an American culture nut, and consumed it uncritically.  The week he left for good in 1981, he bought a radio with a cassette deck in it, 100 90-minute tapes, and taped a top 40 radio station’s broadcast for 128 straight hours.  “I’ll need it,” was what he said when I asked why.  I often think of Munder, flying below our radar throughout the 1980s, spying on American aircraft carriers on the Line of Death, all while listening to Pat Benatar on a knockoff Walkman.

So there’s me, a little suitcase record player, a pile of random 45s, a room decorated in the mid-1960s, and the instructions to stay upstairs and entertain myself.  

A lucite spaghetti lamp: there were several in that room.

The grownups were having a party downstairs, and between my mom’s old friends and the neighbors, things got pretty loose.  After spying on the party a little bit from the top of the spiral staircase, (favorite overheard dialogue: “So you know that I told that damn P.I.G. to go to hey-ell!”) 

In my memory, the partygoers mostly looked like this.

I settled in with the record player and the 45s, and started to go through them one by one.  I don’t remember any of them, though I remember reactions of indifference, familiarity, disinterest, strong dislike, etc.  After an hour, and getting a little bored and stiff from sitting cross-legged in front of it, I reached for the next one.

I can still see it, vividly— it had the purple and yellow Tamla label.  No picture, no real info.

I was intrigued by the length: seven minutes! 45s were four minutes at most in my experience.  And I knew the phrase “Rollin’ Stone” was important— the band, the song, the magazine.  I felt like the title itself gave the song gravitas.  And I loved the name of the band: who were The Temptations?  I pushed the little yellow spindle into the center,

How beautiful is that?

put the record on, and the needle sputtered and caught the outer groove.


I could feel the silence in between the notes.


Those first bass notes and hi-hat were like a punch to the face.  I looked around, suddenly terrified.  I felt like the room had collapsed in size.  The sound of the party downstairs disappeared for me.  Those faraway strings, the rubberband guitar, the lonely trumpet— what the hell am I listening to? 

When’s the last time you listened to this song?  The introduction takes forever— it’s two minutes (1:55, to be exact) before the vocal comes in— you think it’s coming at 1:25, but the track breaks down instead, and 1:42, it’s back to square one, with that brilliantly simple and discordant guitar part imitating the bass.  The introduction is longer than some singles.

And then… “It was the 3rd of September, that day I’ll always remember (yes I will) ‘cause that was the day… that my daddy died.”

My dad had me when he was 22; he was only 30 years old the night I heard that song, and the idea that a kid could lose his father that early hadn’t crossed my mind.  Hell, my dad was still a kid.  And I was eight— the songs that came my way were big radio hits— “We Are The Champions” was #1, I think, right around then.  This song was different.  It was important.  I could feel it reaching out to me.  It felt so stripped down and intimate.  I felt the responsibility to bear witness to what was coming.

“Mama I’m depending on you to tell me the truth.”

And then mama gives that enigmatic half-answer:  “Your papa was a rollin’ stone / Wherever he laid his hat was his home / And when he died / All he left us was alone.”

That was my way into the  song— I had asked my mom what was wrong with Ya-Ya, and her answers were unified by the same vague half-truths.  I already knew there were questions about family you weren’t supposed to ask, and for which there were imperfect answers.  I felt immediate kinship.

But then the song went deeper, and I knew it was a song about something else besides a dead father. It was about the world around the character that had claimed them all, and the song was going to show it to me.

In 1977, we weren’t a rich family.  We rented a two bedroom duplex, both of my parents worked, and we didn’t take vacations that involved airplanes.  My parents paid the rent in quarters one month. I knew we didn’t have a lot of money, but we were stable, and I leaned into that stability.

“Is it true what they say that papa never worked a day in his life?”
“Three outside children and another wife”
“Stealin’ in the name of the lord”

I wasn’t sure what “outside children” meant; for a few years, I thought it meant kids who were homeless.  But I knew it was evil.

This description of poverty explained the difference between my house and theirs— it felt the desperation in it, both the skeletal insecurity (that haunting backing track) and the shared, collective despair (to this day, I imagine five brothers, maybe 6 to 18, all finally asking mom to give them the full story).  I couldn't believe how honest the singers were; the fact that the lead vocal jumped octaves and registers made it seem less like a song than a confrontation.

That night, I watched that record spin around for seven minutes and click off, and then I just sat there, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, alone in the unquiet darkness.  I had never been moved by anything quite like that before.  Almost scared to, I started the song over, and then I spent the 90 minutes playing and replaying it, ten times in a row.  To this day, I still get the chills when I hear it.  I’ve gotten the chills writing about it for the last few hours.  If I've ever had a listening experience like the one Ralph Ellison describes in the prologue of Invisible Man, this was it.

I credit this song with making we want to be a real musician.  It taught me rhythm— the off beat hand claps were the first syncopation I mastered.  It’s also the moment when I first began to understand the consequences of America’s obsession with race that became the focus of my adult scholarship.  I was a white kid who’d spent years in the south— I’d seen and heard plenty of racism.  But this song explained to me why racism was more than just trashy behavior I’d been raised to reject; it explained the impact.  Something began to shift in me that night that has never relented, and as I’ve grown more conversant and educated, the song’s impact doesn’t change— it just hits me differently.  But it always lands— hearing this song means something to me.  Every time.  Without it, I wouldn't have been able to understand what Ellison was talking about eight years later, or have the capacity to let Invisible Man keep changing me just as that song had.

If you wanted to explain race in America to foreigners, or aliens, or yourself, and you could only use three pieces of art to do so, I’d recommend the Frederick Douglass slave narrative, Toni Morrison’s Song Of Solomon, and this song.  “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” explains the sociopolitical, economic, psychological, and artistic fallout of slavery in seven minutes.  It’s as fundamentally American a piece of art to me as anything I’ve ever seen or heard.

So on this inauguration eve, my song is this one, a song that still resonates for me as a cry for American justice.  I plan to continue to do what I can to help us all come up with a better answer for that kid who’s asking his mom why he’s in the mess he’s in.  Yes, his dad lost the thread.  But he had some sinister help finding that darkness.

Where were you the first time you really “heard” music for the first time?  Do you have a memory of hearing something that made you different afterwards?  That made you a person who had now heard that music?  Can you still hear it? Feel it?  See it?

If you have a minute, tell me below.   

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

SONG #175: Every Little Bit

Patti Griffin, Living With Ghosts, 1996

Ah, 2017. 

I’ve spent the last few months trying to figure out an artistic outlet for the voice that wants out of me concerning our country’s impending change in direction, and I’ve been wholly unsuccessful.  I find myself quoting other writers, trying to make connections among myriad texts and moments, binge-planning potential projects, and feeling hollow about them all.  At work, I’m energized, but otherwise I’m feeling a little bereft, spinning in circles.

Meanwhile, amazingly, people keep reading this modest blog and asking me why I’m not writing more of them.

Great question. 

I’m re-committing to the blog for awhile and we’ll see what happens.  I’m gonna start slow and follow where it takes me; maybe writing about one thing will lead me to another, and maybe remembering the past will help me find a voice about the present.  

So it’s back to basics for this quiet, tentative return; I hit shuffle and took the first tune the Pod offered, my favorite Patti Griffin track from her debut record.

Griffin’s first record is essentially the demo she recorded in preparation to make a debut record.  After struggling to give the songs a full-band treatment, she released this version instead.  It’s a great lesson in the pitfalls of record-making (sometimes you can gild the lily) but I also think it ultimately hurt her as a recording artist, as her audience expected her to be a folk troubadour going forward, and she had greater ambitions than that.  I happen to be a Patti Griffin fan who prefers her full band albums (Flaming Red and Silver Bell) and feel sad for her that she’s been forced to return repeatedly to acoustic music to satisfy her less-imaginative fanbase.  That said, there’s something undeniable about the power of this performance.  

I can’t decide whether “Every Little Bit” is a song about a regretful but pursued encounter, or a rape, or a confession about her emotional isolation, or a little bit of all of the above.  I love the skeletal guitar riff (easy enough for a beginner to play, but memorable and effective) and while the vocal is a little showy at the end, if I could sing like that, you better believe I’d hit those notes often.

My most vivid memory of this song was hearing it live. I saw Patti open for Shawn Colvin in 1996 when Colvin was touring her breakup album A Few Small Repairs.  Patti was a solo acoustic opener, and my seat was in the balcony of what was then the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa (now called something else— Wells Fargo Entertainment Box, or something like that).  I had heard of her, and maybe given the record a cursory spin at a Tower Records, but I wasn’t particularly moved by it.  In those days, though, I never missed the opening act.  I had been in my seat for about ten minutes when the lights went out, and Griffin walked onstage at 8:01pm (things start PUNCTUALLY at performing arts centers).  My first thought was how slight she looked— the guitar looked enormous on her.  She went right into the riff that leads off this tune,  opened her mouth, and filled the room instantly.  It was one of the most impressive first twenty seconds of a show I’ve ever seen.  She absolutely killed the whole song, and I was sitting at just the right angle for her guitar to catch the light and shine right at me. It remains a vivid concert memory two decades later.  While the rest of the set was strong, and I left a fan, nothing topped those first five minutes.

My view that night...

In 1996, especially, it spoke to that twenty-something kid in the balcony who was also just figuring out how to come out of his own wiry shell and not see nighttime encounters as skirmishes.  I remember feeling instant kinship with the fractured loneliness embedded both in the lyrics and in the voice, and since I was at the height of my sensitive-ponytail-solo-acoustic music career, I think I went home and wrote a dozen crummy knockoffs.  Listening all the years later, I feel pretty far removed from its jagged disaffection.  And I believe Patti now lives with Robert Plant, so hopefully she’s doing better also.

See you soon.