30 October 2007

The Evolution of A Rock Band: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

When I was young, I had to piece together my knowledge of a rock band bit by bit, story by story, picture by picture, concert by concert. Now I've discovered Wikipedia, among other great things: an online encyclopedia of the history of rock and roll. But while the Wiki folks are still getting there, they can't provide me (yet) with clips of Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty sitting with their guitars in a studio working out a song. They don't have interview footage of how Tom Petty got his drummer to show up for a charity gig by telling him (truthfully) that Ringo would play it if he didn't. And most importantly, Wikipedia does not provide me with concert footage of songs as great as The Last DJ. But Runnin' Down A Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers does. And more.

This Peter Bogdanovich documentary gives us something I've never seen before: the credible, mesmerizing behind-the-scenes story of a real rock and roll band, fighting not only the record companies, but also their own personal demons, and creating great music all the time.

Two of my top 10 producers, Jimmy Iovine and Rick Rubin, come to life in the interview and recording session clips. The Heartbreakers are all lookin' like bad asses in the picture above, but in the film the gentleness, the musical tenacity, and on occasion the moodiness of these vulnerable men comes through.

Petty and Stevie Nicks recount the tale of Nicks' desire to leave Fleetwood Mac and join the Heartbeakers. "But there aren't any girls in the Heartbreakers" Petty tells her again and again. The result: one of several musical collaborations documented here that are now what I call music of the 80's that mattered.

I could go on and on, but I'd only be spoiling Bogdanovich's show. At the heart of this stellar documentary is the evolution of two things: a working rock band keepin' it all together over thirty years of turmoil, and the increasingly mature work of a songwriter/poet that will speak truth to power at any cost.

Of speaking truth to power, let me give you just one example, regarding my personal favorite in the Tom Petty songbook:

Well you can’t turn him into a company man
You can’t turn him into a whore
And the boys upstairs just don’t understand anymore
Well the top brass don’t like him talking so much
And he won’t play what they say to play
And he don’t want to change what don’t need to change

And there goes the last DJ
Who plays what he wants to play
And says what he wants to say
Hey, hey, hey
And there goes your freedom of choice
There goes the last human voice
There goes the last DJ

Well some folks say they’re gonna hang him so high
Because you just can’t do what he did
There’s some things you just can’t put in the minds of those kids
As we celebrate mediocrity, all the boys upstairs want to see
How much you’ll pay for what you used to get for free

And there goes the last DJ
Who plays what he wants to play
And says what he wants to say
Hey, hey, hey
And there goes your freedom of choice
There goes the last human voice
And there goes the last DJ

Well he got him a station down in Mexico
And sometimes it will kinda come in
And I’ll bust a move and remember how it was back then

There goes the last DJ
Who plays what he wants to play
And says what he wants to say
Hey, hey, hey
And there goes your freedom of choice
There goes the last human voice
And there goes the last DJ.
(The Last DJ by Tom Petty)

Corporate takeover of the music industry got the last free DJ. And I now have to pay for what I used to get for free. But the suits haven't cut down the fighters like Dylan, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Bruce, Tom Petty, and community radio. And I've got hope.

27 October 2007

Essential Album Series: Bob Marley and the Wailers' "Uprising"

I realized tonight that I've overlooked one of the major forces in world music and the rebirth of rock in the late seventies, Reggae.

Bob Marley and the Wailers' 1980 album Uprising has got it all: roots reggae (Redemption Song), Ska (Bad Card), and the pure, soulful, slow burn of the rest. Music you just cannot stand still to. Music you cannot help but learn from. Study this one, it's one step on a mature, beautiful voyage.

Jah Rastafariah!


23 October 2007

Essential Albums: "The Chess Box: Chuck Berry"

In the Saturday Night Live broadcast of April 22, 1978, Steve Martin appeared as a psychic in a mock news show entitled "Next Week in Review." His psychic character revealed that next week, Earth will receive the first official message from extraterrestrials (responding to the [NASA deep space probe containing the] Voyager Golden Records). The message: "Send more Chuck Berry." (Source: Wikipedia.)

Chuck Berry. Just the mere mention of his name fills the mind with vivid, indelible images -- images from the very heart of of rock n' roll. (Source: The Chess Box: Chuck Berry liner notes.)
I must lay out certain of my preferences to begin:

1. Keith Richards is my favorite guitar player.

2. After Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie, the next new thing in rock and roll was Chuck Berry.

3. Then came Dylan. And then the man Dylan called "America's best living songwriter", Smokey Robinson. Regarding Smokey, first among his stellar contributions is the the Robinson / Pete Moore / Marv Tarplin composition Tracks of My Tears.

3. Sam Cooke, Patsie Cline, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Sr., and David Ruffin were popular vocalists without equal.

Now on to acknowledgement of the many artists who I have left unmentioned in order to focus on the importance of Chuck Berry's innovations and recordings. But that is a separate post I'm planning on Motown, F.A.M.E., STAX, and Chess Records.

That said, The Chess Box is Chuck Berry's most important catalogue of recordings. Of the work chronologically catalogued in this box set, I would say 1956 -- 1964 was this "brown-eyed handsome man['s]" golden era. At that time, Berry recorded in Chicago for Chess Records, primarily with Chuck's own piano player from his native St. Louis, Johnnie Johnson, and the Chess Studios house rhythm section -- bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon and the incomparable Fred Below on drums (for Below on fire check out Little Walter's Confessin' the Blues). With songs such as Roll Over Beethoven and Johnny B. Goode, Berry reinvented rock and roll for the last time. So far.

Berry's Impact on Popular Music

What made the early Rolling Stones' career was Keith Richards trying to copy Chuck Berry and Mick Jagger singin' the vocals and sounding so black. When the young Mick and Keith met by chance at a railway station many years after they had known each other in school, Keith wasn't so much interested in Mick, but rather the American delta blues, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry records he appeared to have under his arm. The rest is history, with the final chapter on the Stones yet to be written. But without Chuck Berry, there would be no Keith, and hence, no Stones. Berry's Johnny B. Goode, Mabelliene, Roll Over Beethoven, and Little Queenie (via the Stones), quite simply, changed the world.

I can go on and on but Steve Martin's SNL joke says it best: the first thing advanced alien civilizations want from us is "More Chuck Berry". I would send them The Chess Box: Chuck Berry and declare "Mission Accomplished".

"It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it!"


16 October 2007

Potentially Great New Film on the Many Sides of Dylan: "I'm Not There"

On November 17, 2007 one of the most creative, innovative films, so far, about the career of Bob Dylan will be released. To read more about this "metaphorical masterpiece", starring Australian actress extrodinaire Cate Blanchett as on of the actors portraying Dylan in this film, see I'm Not There at IMDb.

11 October 2007

A Sermon -- Johnny Cash style

A while back, I wrote in some detail about the American Recordings, produced by Rick Rubin, that Johnny Cash made in the last years of his life. While listening to some of these songs last Sunday, I reflected on Cash's message and the hollow sermons given in churches these days. It hit me that somebody ought to piece together a great sermon based on Cash's end-of-the-trail lyrics. Here's my humble attempt:


I have been ungrateful
And I have been unwise
Restless from the cradle
But now I realize
It's so hard to see the rainbow
Through glasses dark as these
Maybe I'll be able from down on my knees

Oh I am weak
Oh I know I am vain
Take this weight from me
Let my spirit be unchained

Old man swearin' at the sidewalk
And I am overcome
Seems that we've both forgotten
Forgotten to go home

Have I seen an angel
Or have I seen a ghost
Where's that Rock of Ages
When you need it most

It's so hard to see the rainbow
Through glasses dark as these
Maybe I'll be able
From down on my knees


When The Man Comes Around

And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder:
One of the four beasts saying: "Come and see."
And I saw.
And behold, a white horse

There's a Man goin' 'round takin' names

An' He decides who to free and who to blame

Everybody won't be treated all the same
There'll be a golden ladder reaching down

When the Man comes around

The hairs on your arm will stand up
At the terror in each sip and in each sup'
For you partake of that last offered cup,
Or disappear into the potter's ground.

When the Man comes around.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers
One hundred million angels singin'
Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum.
Voices callin', voices cryin'

Some are born an' some are dyin'.

It's Alpha's and Omega's Kingdom come.

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree

The virgins are all trimming their wicks

The whirlwind is in the thorn tree

It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks

'Till Armageddon, no Shalam, no Shalom

Then the Father hen will call his chickens home.

The wise men will bow down before the throne.

And at His feet they'll cast their golden crown,

When the Man comes around.

Whoever is unjust, let him be unjust still.

Whoever is righteous, let him be righteous still.

Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still.

Listen to the words long written down,

When the Man comes around.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers

When The Man Comes Around


from Redemption

From the hands it came down
From the side it came down

From the feet it came down

And ran to the ground

Between heaven and hell
A teardrop fell
In the deep crimson dew

The tree of life grew

And the blood gave life
To the branches of the tree

And the blood was the price
That set the captives free

And the numbers that came

Through the fire and the flood
Clung to the tree

And were redeemed by the blood

From the tree streamed a light
That started the fight
'Round the tree grew a vine

On whose fruit I could dine

My old friend Lucifer came

Fought to keep me in chains

But I saw through the tricks

Of six-sixty-six

And the blood gave life

To the branches of the tree

And the blood was the price

That set the captives free

And the numbers that came

Through the fire and the flood
Clung to the tree

And were redeemed by the blood
. ...


from "Why Me Lord"

Why me Lord, what have I ever done?
To deserve even one
Of the pleasures I've known
Tell me Lord, what did I ever do?
That was worth loving You

Or the kindness You've shown.

Lord help me Jesus, I've wasted it so
Help me Jesus
I know what I am
Now that I know that I've need You so
Help me Jesus, my soul's in Your hand.

Tell me Lord, if You think there's a way
I can try to repay
All I've taken from You?
Maybe Lord, I can show someone else
What I've been through myself
On my way back to You.

from Personal Jesus

.... Reach out and touch faith.



'A Divided Civilization Subjected to Scrutiny'

Lessing Wins Nobel Literature Prize

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 11, 2007

For six decades, British novelist Doris Lessing has written works of fiction that explore the sometimes painful intertwining of the political and the personal. Today, those efforts landed her the 2007 Nobel Prize for literature.

In awarding her the prize-of-all-writing-prizes, the Swedish Academy championed Lessing as "that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny."

Lessing's work had been of great importance both to other writers and to the broader field of literature, academy secretary Horace Engdahl told Reuters news service. He said members of the academy had discussed her as a potential laureate for years.

"Now the moment was right. Perhaps we could say that she is one of the most carefully considered decisions in the history of the Nobel Prize," Engdahl told the wire service. "She has opened up a new area of experience that earlier had not been very accepted in literature. That has to do with, for instance, female sexuality." ....
Congratulations to Ms. Lessing.

Epigram: I learned later in this day that her watershed masterpiece is her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook.

08 October 2007

Hughie Thomasson: The Passing of an Outlaw

One of The Outlaws last gigs

On September 9, 2007, Hughie Thomasson, vocalist and influential guitarist for The Outlaws, passed away. Another loss of one of our greatest Southern Rock musicians.

On a personal note, The Outlaws formed in Tampa, Florida (my hometown), and the lightning-strike of a song Green Grass and High Tides was a huge part of my musical education. For videos of this song and interviews with the band, click here.

Hughie, rest in peace.

06 October 2007

Transcendental Blues: "The Revolution Starts ... Now"

You gotta check out Steve Earle's 2004 The Revolution Starts ... Now. Tracks (emphasis mine):
  1. "The Revolution Starts ..." – 3:10
  2. "Home to Houston" – 2:41
  3. "Rich Man's War" – 3:25
  4. "Warrior" – 4:11
  5. "The Gringo's Tale" – 4:33
  6. "Condi, Condi" – 3:08
  7. "F the CC" – 3:12
  8. "Comin' Around" – 3:41
  9. "I Thought You Should Know" – 3:46
  10. "The Seeker" – 3:11
  11. "The Revolution Starts ... Now" – 4:23
This masterwork by Mr. Earle is the best protest rock I've heard in years. Are you down with that?

For the whole story on why Earle is the new man, check out David McGee and Earle's story of this artist's road: Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet. Fearless Heart indeed.

I'm with Steve, we are in a revolution -- are you in or out? I want to see the deaths and disappearaces of Bhuddist monks and protesters in Burma stop now!


04 October 2007

History is the Set of Questions ... (Epigram)

I completed viewing all 16 hours of Ken Burns' documentary The War last Tuesday night. I though about my great uncle's (European theater tail gunner) experiences. I spoke twice with his wife (brave homeland supporter and the person who met, among other things, all his post-war emotional needs). I reached two conclusions:

1.) As with all good history, Burns' The War asks more questions than the thousands it answers.

2.) I am 50 now, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, a non-veteran. And I will never look at war, any war, in the same way. Burns' documentary has reshaped not only my views of war, but also the questions I ask of military history.

As the old saying goes, "There are no atheists in the trenches."

01 October 2007

History is the Set of Questions ...

Given my attempt, however successful, for historical analysis interwoven in all these posts; and given that, as of this writing, I have watched every episode broadcast so far of Ken Burns' The War; and given the quality of the music controlled by Wynton Marsalis (who calls on Norah Jones along with vintage artists of the early forties, for a contribution to his score, this documentary is a monumental achievement.

In a tip of the hat to Mr. Burns' work promoting the film, I quote the following from his September 27, 2007 appearance on The Daily Show:

"History is the Set of Questions
We of the Present

Ask of the Past"

Tell it, man!