Somewhere you’ll feel free: ‘Wildflowers’ and All the Rest

29 Oct

My family knows me so, so well. My big birthday present this year was “‘Wildflowers’ & All the Rest,” the long-awaited reissue of Tom Petty’s 1994 masterpiece album that would include additional material intended for the second disc of his original release. The 5-CD, super-deluxe edition I asked for and received also features original solo demos , alternate takes, and live performances of the material and related songs … including two versions of “Girl on LSD” (at last!). There are also liner notes with input from guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, producer Rick Rubin and others who had a hand in the original; an envelope of facsimiles of Petty’s handwritten lyrics (some of which were so preliminary I had a hard time figuring out what songs they became); an art print inspired by “It’s Only a Broken Heart;” and a sticker and patch of the Wildflowers logo.

It’s been said by critics and Petty’s family members that even as his later album, Echo, got dubbed by the press as his divorce album, “Wildflowers” was his real “Blood on the Tracks.” As private as he was about it the time, by the early 1990s Petty was suffering in his marriage to his erratic first wife. At the same time, his professional relationship with Stan Lynch, the Heartbreakers’ original drummer, was unraveling, and his bassist Howie Epstein was struggling with his addiction to heroin. On top of this, he’d moved to a new label and was wrapping up a long stint with Jeff Lynne as his producer. Petty was ready for a new approach.

As fortune would have it, he shared a private plane ride with Rubin, who he initially brushed off as a rap and heavy metal guy – not knowing Rubin was a huge fan of “Full Moon Fever.” Perhaps in an effort to impress his new producing partner, Petty wrote deeply and prodigiously. They ended up with 25 fully-produced songs – yet with the price tag for a two-CD set being too expensive for most of his fans (remember, Petty’s the guy who forced MCA to back off of increasing the list price of Hard Promises by $1 back in 1981), he agreed with Warner Brothers to trim “Wildflowers” to a still-lengthy 15 songs, putting the rest into a vault.

Photo by Mark Seliger for Rolling Stone

“Wildflowers” is the album that turned me into a insatiable Tom Petty nerd. Time and again – in the power tracks that became huge hits and the more introspective cuts – his songwriting floored me. Every word carries its weight. You can see that in his handwritten notes: he’d sharpen a simple phrase that would seem not worth the effort until you saw how the edit made it come alive: “You belong in a boat on the sea” became the more action-oriented, specific “You belong in a boat out at sea.” The more famous example is “You Wreck Me,” which began as “You Rock Me” – a song title that aggravated Petty and his bandmates for being trite and lazy. It took him two months to land on the word “wreck,” which cements the ride-or-die romance between singer and subject.

Even as I am digesting the material that rounds out the official double album, the demo disc is the most revelatory of the set because I can appreciate what a refined, multifaceted instrumentalist he was. Petty would draft the songs in his home studio – or at times in a literal closet at his house – adding harmonies and rhythm to his lead vocal and guitar ahead of sharing them with Campbell. I have a bad habit of assuming the lead singer of any band who plays rhythm guitar is doing so because he isn’t up to the task of being the lead axe man. Listening to the demos, I stand corrected. Any song with an indelible guitar riff, he did those first … along with the bass … and the harmonica … and hell, the rhythm guitar, too.

Photo by Mark Seliger for Rolling Stone

In 2017, Petty got my heart racing by talking about the “Wildflowers” re-release as his next project after he wrapped up the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour. He even proposed a concert series to play through the double album in smaller venues, with a series of guest stars joining him onstage – Eddie Vedder, Stevie Nicks, Steve Winwood were mentioned. But without warning, he died a week after the anniversary tour ended, overdosing on the prescription opioids he’d been taking to numb the pain of performing on a broken hip throughout the tour.

And that’s the thing about listening to it now, during the week of what would have been Tom’s 70th birthday: as much as I’m delighted to have so much new old music to dive into, I can’t ignore the undertow of sorrow that was there when he wrote the album and surrounds it now that he’s gone. I know now, having read Warren Zanes’ 2016 biography, that Petty wrote “Wildflowers” at a time when his personal life was crumbling around him, and bouts of depression and heroin addiction were coming soon if they hadn’t begun already. It reframes my understanding of what the artist’s intentions were and shades my listening experience.

When I first listened to the title track intently a dozen years ago, I imagined it as Tom encouraging his daughters to go out into the world, find love and blaze their own paths as he, their proud father, stood by, happy for their freedom and wistful about them having to leave him to earn it. Then, I interpreted “Wake Up Time,” the original closing track, as a song for his stepson, walking with the young man through disappointment toward the promise of a new day to bring him comfort. Now, thanks to the liner notes, I understand Tom was talking himself through the worst period of his adult life. The demo of “Wake Up Time” is so quiet, broken-voiced and deliberate, it’s as if he can’t see the sunrise as anything but a blinding spotlight on his failures: it’s a harsh wake-up call, not a gentle nudge.

Tom Petty was not a confessional songwriter, and even if his best work drew from the well of his experience, he was deft enough to craft the stories so that others – his listeners, other artists – could make them their own. And as much as I wish he were here to unpack the album for us and thank the many artists who performed at his 70th birthday bash, I’m grateful for the gift of his humanity throughout his career. Despair wasn’t the main story he had to tell – instead, he chose to revel in the humor, hope and resilience of everyday life. Even peering into darkness, he knew we were destined for somewhere we’ll feel free.

See you on the flip side …

A bright sunshiny day: The fierce power of optimism

17 Jun

During a time of worldwide pandemic, demands for racial justice, utter financial catastrophe and unheard of levels of unemployment, I have become a huge fan of optimism.

Granted, pessimism usually has the better jokes, and in these troubled times, optimism runs the risk of coming off as wimpy, myopic or irritatingly cheerful. What I’ve discovered is, when it comes to strength, clarity and results, optimism kicks ass. Here’s why.

Optimism demands action.
Optimism is closely aligned with hope, which is poetically defined by Merriam-Webster as a way “to cherish [meaning nurture] a desire with anticipation.” It’s not to be confused with wishing, which is a pretty passive way of dealing with a challenge; if you just “put it all out to the universe,” you’re waiting for the universe to do all the heavy lifting to bail you out.

Nope, optimism requires work … lots and lots of work: expanding your network; researching new industries; tailoring your resume to fit the job you’re aiming for; going for a walk to dispel anxiety; practicing gratitude by writing down three good things at the end of each day. It’s rarely a “one and done” action, either; you have to keep showing up and putting in the effort.

Optimism requires self-reflection.
I’ve wrestled with “why me?” a lot since being laid off and have indulged in the occasional pity party, replete with Ben & Jerry’s. Still, it’s way more productive to consider this major disruption as a chance to review my past work experiences with an eye toward landing an even better opportunity in the future by asking myself:

  • what I’ve accomplished that makes me proud
  • what didn’t go as well and what I’ve learned as a result
  • which of my current skills adds the most value to a company right now and in the future
  • what skills I still need to learn – and how I can do that while I have some time away from a job

This self-examination can also bring focus during times that may seem hopeless. In an interview for New York magazine, civil rights champion Congressman John Lewis was asked, “What do you do to keep from becoming bitter?” He replied, “I pray over and over again, have what I call an executive session with myself, just self-listen: This is what you must do. This is what you must say. Do what you can, and play the role that you can play.

Optimism coexists with reality.

Having a positive frame of mind doesn’t mean ignoring the facts. It also doesn’t mean there won’t be periods of despair, doubt and fear. Yet optimism can provide moments of grace and gratitude, even when the present is tough and the future is bleak.

Three-time Tony nominee Rebecca Luker acknowledged this in her recent New York Times interview, “After A.L.S. Diagnosis, Rebecca Luker Is ‘Proud I Can Still Sing,’” when she said, “Some days I don’t have hope. The days that I do, I think about all the people that love and support me. There are a lot of exciting medical things coming down the pike in 2020. I know that I’m a strong person and that I can beat this.”

Optimism is a team sport.
As Luker acknowledged, optimism is rooted in those who are rooting for you. One of the first blessings I experienced after losing my job was hearing from so many people from all phases of my life who then took action to help me: putting me in touch with their friends, setting up calls, sharing my resume and so on. This is in addition to my family, who have been a full-service cheerleading squad. It’s motivated me to find ways to pay it forward and to celebrate my friends’ successes in their job searches. If one of us wins, we all do.

Sharing your pain and support with others balances the burden we all carry and helps build perspective. In a recent installment of the New York Times’ “Modern Love” series, Brooklyn resident Kelly Sterling said, “Before entering this quarantine, my husband and I suffered a miscarriage….We started having conversations with our families and friends, opening up about what had happened. People told us stories of their own losses and their friends’ losses. Even though we were stuck at home, we felt love and support from the outside world. Randy and I have come a long way during this time — now, we accept our loss as part of our story.”

Optimism just makes you feel better.
I have no idea how long I will be out of work, or when the pandemic will subside, or if Black Americans will ever receive the racial justice that has been denied them for more than four centuries. I do know that if I fully invest in optimism and positive change, there’s a greater chance that positive results will follow.

Just take it from the Jamaican Olympic bobsledding team.

I love the Johnny Nash original, yet I chose this version from “Cool Runnings” since we could all use some Jamaican joy right now (and Jimmy Cliff is transcendent!)

See you on the flip side … and stay safe!

Everything’s coming up neuroses: surviving quarantine with Ethel Merman

19 May

My younger daughter is a high school senior. Cue the sympathy.
teepublic.com

I listen to David Johansen’s Mansion of Fun show on SiriusXM about every week. During his three-hour slot, the lead singer of the New York Dolls and erstwhile actor puts together an exceedingly eclectic mix of everything from classical to calypso to jazz, blues and rock and roll. These programming often has a theme based on the time of year or current events and string together titles and lyrics accordingly. For instance, Mother’s Day may feature Queen’s “Tie Your Mama Down.” Last year’s Halloween show featured Sheldon Allman’s hysterically weird “Children’s Day at the Morgue. Early in the pandemic, the theme seemed to be, frankly, death. By unfortunate coincidence, he featured a Bill Withers tune and John Prine’s “When I Get to Heaven” – and both musicians passed away a few days later.

Since then, I believe Johansen aims to be less doomsday and more resilient. As proof, this week’s show kicked off with Ethel Merman blaring, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from the original cast album of Gypsy. I was housecleaning at the time and promptly started lip synching into my Swiffer.

If I am asked to do the Facebook challenge to post the top 10 most influential albums of my life, Gypsy will be one of the first ones up. Debuting in 1959, its brassy score by Jule Styne with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim is one of the most thrilling in all of Broadway history, much of it due to Merman’s indelible performance as Mama Rose.

In a 2010 interview with Terry Gross, Sondheim said he and his collaborators didn’t believe she could act because of the roles she’d played throughout her career that were essentially an excuse for her to belt one song after another. They wrote “Roses” in the style of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” the showstopper from her 1934 hit, Anything Goes, so she could just park and bark. “And to our surprise and delight, Ethel could act,” Sondheim admitted.

No kidding. Just listen closely.

The first half of this Act 1 closer is a rousing ego booster from Rose to her shy daughter Louise: “You’ll be swell, you’ll be great!” But as the song progresses, Rose senses that Louise – who she is pressuring to take over the family vaudeville act, now that her sister June ran off to escape her mother’s relentless control – is not up to the task. To convince Louise – and herself – this will work, she tells her:

You can do it. All you need is a hand.
We can do it. Mama is gonna see to it.

Merman falters on “Mama” but recovers quickly to exclaim, “Curtain up!” singing as if her cheerleading had never stopped. Yet she nearly loses it again as she slows slightly, casting around for happy images – sunshine and Santa Claus, bright lights and lollipops – to distract from the panic of likely failure. The orchestration starts to clash against itself, the fear thrumming against the fearlessness, until she hits the final notes, clear and sure as a church bell:

Everything’s coming up roses
For me and for you

This is a chillingly perfect song for moms in quarantine these days. We are trying to hold it together to keep our kids happy and hopeful, despite all we have to manage and all the news to the contrary. We’re aiming to be optimistic when not one damned thing is sure about the future. And no matter what, we are going to get our kids through this, through love, faith and determination.

And music – always music.

See you on the flip side …

Gonna use my style

8 May

For a grown woman, I have an appalling number of rock and roll t-shirts.

Some were given to me as presents by sympathetic friends and family. Some I earned by going to concerts and having enough cash left after the $13 beers to buy swag. A couple came home with me from Nashville after visiting Sun Studios and the Johnny Cash Museum a few years ago. If you know me at all, you won’t be surprised that I also have four Tom Petty shirts: one a Mother’s day gift from the elder daughter, another a fan club thank-you, a third a 40th anniversary tour keepsake, and the fourth a one-of-a-kind item silk-screened by a friend of mine with a talent for creating wearable art.

They are all now in heavy rotation. Since I was let go from my day job a couple of weeks ago, I am no longer required to dress in that sartorial purgatory, Business Casual. Our office switched to this ill-defined style a couple of years ago after decades of Business Professional attire that required women to wear panty hose (a term I may have to explain to anyone under the age of 45). I still have enough blazers to outfit a prep school glee club and a number of those swoopy sweaters we ladies started wearing due to the fact there is not a single professional, flattering dress or top sold in America that has sleeves.

Now that we’re all pretty much home bound, there is nothing stopping me from cruising through my day in unfortunate athleisure or footie pajamas or an inflatable T-Rex costume, for that matter. (Mark my words: once businesses reopen their doors and slowly bring their employees back on campus after months of working from home, they will have a hard time making the case for any sort of dress code beyond ensuring people are wearing clothing below the waist.)

But when there is business to be done, I want to sharpen up. It puts my head in the right space, and even if I’m not on Zoom, it’s a sign of respect to those I’m on the phone with to take this seriously enough to be decently put together. Still, I want to maintain some personal flair. So when I had my first phone interview for a position today, and I wanted to feel comfortable, confident and a little bit kick-ass, I chose my Chrissie Hynde shirt from her 2014 solo tour:

Perhaps this is where the post-pandemic dress code will end up: Business Cool. Let’s hope so.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. If you do wear a rock-themed shirt on Zoom, remember the other participants will see it as a reverse image … meaning Lana Del Rey reads “yeR leD anaL. (Thank you to my elder daughter for making that mistake so the rest of us don’t have to.)

Road to nowhere: David Byrne and the five stages of grief

29 Apr

This has been quite the week.

After more than twelve years of service – including the recent, relentless marathon of communications work in response to COVID-19 – I am out of a job. Following losses of tens of millions of dollars in just a few weeks, my health care organization cut a significant number of corporate positions to better ensure they will be able to get back to whatever “normal” will look like at some point in the future.

Now I and more than 26 million other Americans are attempting to forge a path into a future we can’t see and certainly don’t understand. For the type-A personalities and workaholics out there, it’s hell on earth.

In March, Harvard Business Review published an article that put a name to the disruption, uncertainty and fear we are collectively experiencing as we cope with life during the pandemic: it’s grief. And the musician who is helping me process this grief is, strangely, David Byrne.

David Byrne is not a warm guy. Especially in his younger days, he came across as Mr. Rogers on Adderal, with ball bearing eyes and a perpetual motion machine of a body. While his music is outright groovy, that’s in contrast to the intellectual detachment of the lyrics. In much of his work – from the Talking Heads to his collaboration with St. Vincent, his Imelda Marcos opera written with Fatboy Slim and his wide range of solo material – he describes an off-kilter world full of uneasy people. A 2018 interview in The Guardian put it well: “Even when he wasn’t singing in character – a psychopath, a televangelist, a domestic terrorist – he had a knack for making the familiar strange and unnerving. Animals, vehicles, buildings, TV, weather, haircuts… everything was seen with alien eyes.”

Who better to help us navigate strange and unnerving times than the guy who implored us to stop making sense?

So here are my five stages of David Byrne, which I hope will help you find your path forward.

DENIAL: “Once In a Lifetime” from Remain in Light
“And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!”

ANGER: “My Big Hands (Fall Through The Cracks)” from The Catherine Wheel
“Well it ain’t my fault, my fault things gone wrong”

BARGAINING: “(Nothing But) Flowers” from Naked
“I miss the honky tonks, Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens”

DEPRESSION: “Heaven” from Fear of Music
“Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens”

ACCEPTANCE: “Found a Job” from More Songs about Buildings and Food
“So think about this little scene, apply it to your life
If your work isn’t what you love, then something isn’t right.”

And, as a bonus – the sixth stage of grief:
MEANING: “Road to Nowhere” from Little Creatures
“I’m feeling okay this morning
And you know
We’re on the road to paradise
Here we go, here we go”

See you on the flip side …

Life during wartime

5 Apr

My day job is being the director of internal communications for Michigan’s largest health care company. This means that over the past month, my life has become intertwined, 24/7, with the COVID-19 virus.

I am not a physician, nurse, respiratory therapist or other clinician, all of whom are risking their lives and leaving their families to help others survive. I am blessed to be able to do almost all my work remotely, well away from the hospitals that have been redeploying beds, supplies and staff at lightning speed to fight this pandemic. I am in awe of their dedication, and my heart breaks every time I hear about what they have to go through to ensure they have what they need to take care of patients and themselves. They are at war against an invisible enemy on our behalf, and we’re all in their debt.

For the first time in my career, I feel that what I do helps save lives. In one day, I went from taping a CEO video update for our employees to writing a blurb about a change in sanitary wipes – both equally important. To work with my exceptional internal communications teammates, all of whom have been going full tilt to support our care teams, is an honor and a privilege.

The stress is incessant, though. While our schedule has at last gotten to a point where we do not all have to be on call every day, it’s a rare afternoon, evening or weekend when I don’t have to monitor my email or jump back on my laptop to do something that can’t wait. It’s near impossible to unplug, and the evidence of the pandemic is everywhere. Taking a walk or going for a run, I look ahead to see if I need to swerve more than six feet away from an oncoming pedestrian. Watching late night talk show hosts wrestle with poor video conferencing connections and lack of flattering lighting and makeup is diverting until they have Dr. Anthony Fauci or another expert as a guest. I love having all three kids home for dinner, until I start thinking about why they’re here and not at work, or in New York, or at high school getting ready to graduate.

Even though I know – we all know – this will not last forever, everything right now feels like whistling while walking past a graveyard. When we’re out of this, we’re not sure what we’ll be in, and it’s almost foolish to imagine it. It’s better to keep the next hour of the day in front of you and move through that to the next one as best you can.

There are a few songs that have helped me get through moments of frustration, fatigue and fear. The Rolling Stones catalog, particularly from the Mick Taylor period, have a lot of screamy, brassy anthems that help me blow off steam. I am a sucker for horns, so “Bitch” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” are often on repeat.

I also got hooked on “Sympathy,” one of the songs from Father of The Bride, Vampire Weekend’s most recent album, due to its relentless momentum and a great bass solo at its center:

When I need to let a song take over my brain for a bit, “Chicago” from Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois album is a dreamy trip:

But there is one song – my favorite song – that is almost too apt. (It pains me to hear it in a Walmart commercial right now, even though they’re thanking their employees as essential workers.) To me, it represents hope against all odds, no matter how dire the situation. I’m trying to wait to really listen to it until that moment, weeks or months from now, when we can all literally breathe easier.

Here it is, in German, in one of the best uses of the song I’ve seen:

I hope you’ll share the songs that are helping you get through all this. Until then, much love, stay safe, wash your hands, stick to science, and look out for each other.

See you on the flip side …

At the end of the play, you’re another day older

21 Feb

wattpad.com

Unlike me at her age, my younger daughter does not want to be a professional actor when she grows up. She’s too interested in too many things to make that a priority. That said, she adored being in her high school’s musicals and plans to audition for shows in college. She loves the camaraderie, the costumes and the commitment to ensuring the audience has as good a time as the performers. This was never more evident than her junior year, when she played the title role in Hello Dolly: eight costume changes, huge production numbers, four sets of lovers coming together by show’s end, lot of color and smiles and red feather headdresses. What a delight!

Then they announced the show for her senior year: Les Misérables — the polar opposite of delightful. It’s an ambitious choice for most professionals, much less high schoolers in an affluent suburb with only a fleeting acquaintance with poverty. What’s more, they decided to give the major roles to girls who hadn’t had a featured part before … and last year’s Dolly Levi was cast as this year’s Whore #2. (“Do you at least get the lyric, ‘Bit of skirt – she’s the one sold her hair’?” I asked hopefully. “No, Mom, that’s Whore #1.”)

For those who need a brush up, the three-hour musical is based on Victor Hugo’s sprawling 1862 novel about justice versus mercy against the backdrop of the unsuccessful 1832 Paris uprising in support of the poor (not the French Revolution — honestly, people, pay attention in world history!). The show debuted in 1985 and took the world by storm, with any number of theater kids belting out “On My Own” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” in their showers for years to come.

However, this show is kind of a hard sell these days. While many are eager to quote Hugo’s message of hope — “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise” — as the moral of the show, it can also be boiled down to: Don’t dream of love or you’ll end up a dead prostitute/ street waif. Don’t dream of a better future because you and all your friends will die. Don’t fight for your principles because nothing ever changes. And oh, don’t get too fond of anyone because only two main characters are still going to be breathing at the end of the show.

There have also been more parodies and jokes than true fandom lately. That was kind of true when it first debuted. Back in the late 1980s when the wicked parody show Forbidden Broadway was at its best, it had a whole Les Miz medley featuring the actress playing Fantine complaining about the dreariness of the setting after a career of tap dancing in flashy costumes and styled wigs: “There was a time when shows were fun …” The 2012 movie version was derided for casting non-singer Russell Crowe as Javert, and despite Anne Hathaway earning an armful of awards including an Oscar for playing Fantine, the following year was marked by articles like “The Most Annoying Celebrity of 2013,” “Why do people hate Anne Hathaway?” and “Do we really hate Anne Hathaway?

Then there was Diner Lobster:

With all this snark out there, where did that leave this suburban high school production in 2020? Despite weeks of nerve-wracking rehearsals and a bout of flu nearly sidelining Jean Valjean the first weekend, they came through with a solid show infused with a lot of heart. The vast majority of these kids will never suffer the pain, desperation and injustice their characters faced, but there they were by the dozens, sharing the stories of those who were pummeled by life yet kept fighting for their children, their society and the chance that goodness will prevail. The experience of walking in their characters’ boots will stay with them, I am certain.

And, my daughter was a consummate pro, changing from nun to factory worker to hooker and downtrodden Parisian with great aplomb as a featured chorus member. She did what I could never have done in high school: set aside any prideful grousing about what the musical isn’t to focus on what the musical can be: moving, collaborative, and even a bit humbling.

Thankfully, she left the snarkiness to theater professionals like me:

See you on the flip side …

Come back again, and again, and again: Brandi Carlile and The Highwomen

28 Jan

Shh … his Versace has a lot to say
(L.A. Times)

There is a lot of barroom debate among rock and roll fans about the quality of contemporary country music. It’s not that we don’t like country music, we explain patiently over a $12 draft as Buck Owens plays on the Pandora stream; we just don’t like popular country music. As Tom Petty put it, “What they would call country today is sort of like bad rock with a fiddle.”

I cop to the snobbery. For the bulk of my country music library, the older the better. I have a lot more Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline than I will ever have Florida Georgia Line. Likewise, I am the only American citizen who has yet to hear a single one of the kabillion remixes of “Old Town Road.”

It’s not a stretch to say I enjoy a lot of alt country artists, because it’s a very convenient category that fits all the acts I like and excludes any I think are too crass or too well known. The list is long: John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Calexico, Uncle Tupelo and the Civil Wars (RIP) are a representative few. They know the aching perfection of a small detail that reveals the whole of heartbreak or the delight of a smartalecky lyric you wish you’d thought of first. And while the vocal styles and quality are just as all over the map as rock and roll, country music allows for a crystalline purity of tone and harmony that just stops me in my tracks.

So it was about time I listened to Brandi Carlile. Last night, she won two Grammys to add to the three she got last year – and thanks to Carlile’s songwriting and production, Tanya Tucker earned her first gold gramophone for the resolute and tender, “Bring My Flowers Now.”

Last week, I finally checked out the debut album by the Highwomen, the supergroup Carlile formed last year with Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby, with guest vocalists Yola and Sheryl Crow helping them out here and there and Jason Isbell contributing songs and guitar support. The name of the group – and their lead track – come from Jimmy Webb’s song that was famously adopted in the 1980s by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings in their own star-studded project.

With Webb’s blessing and assistance, the song was reframed to tell the stories of women whose spirit lives on even after they died in service to others. As Carlile said in Rolling Stone, “[The Highwaymen’s characters] all died doing things that men do. Willie was a bandit. Johnny Cash drove a fucking starship, nobody knows why … We rewrote it with fates that befell women …”

I listened to the song in the dark of my morning commute and couldn’t stop crying. It’s so moving, resolute and fierce – and the harmonies are utterly gorgeous. It hits me hard every time I listen.

The album has a lot of humor in its heart. “Redesigning Women” salutes those who are “Skipping the bread for the butter/ Changing our minds like we change our hair color.” The lyrics of “Loose Change” have the nested cleverness of imagery that country songwriters are famous for:

You don’t see my value
I’m gonna be somebody’s lucky penny someday
Instead of rollin’ ’round in your pocket like loose change

And, the cowboys aren’t always the ones getting the girl, either:

Songwriter Harlon Howard famously said, “Country music is three chords and the truth.” Brandi Carlile and her collaborators are expanding who gets to tell the truth – and drawing me in as a fan eager to listen.

See you on the flip side …

Shot through the heart: Why I have a thing for Hawkeye

5 Aug

Kate Bishop in Hawkeye #9
(Fraction, Aja)

This is pretty much old news – forgive me. Being on vacation and weeks of confounding problems with my home WiFi have prevented me from debriefing San Diego Comic Con a couple of weeks ago.

But, to quote Ruby Rod in The Fifth Element, OHMYGOD! OHMYGOD! OHMYGOD! OHMYGOD! OHMYGOD!

Master producer Kevin Feige’s announcements regarding the MCU’s future are beyond incredible. First on the docket are a number of series extending the stories of several Avengers secondary characters as Disney launches its streaming service, Disney+, this fall. Loki isn’t dead! Winter Soldier will have some time to pal around with Falcon before the latter takes up Cap’s shield! Scarlet Witch and her AI-driven boyfriend Vision will happily co-exist in the 1950s (I think)!

But the best news was about Jeremy Renner’s next gig – starting with the logo:

I have to confess, I am a comics newbie (bordering on poseur). I didn’t grow up reading comic books. The few times I’d get my hands on an odd title, I read it too quickly to appreciate the art and got frustrated for entering in the middle of a story line with no context. I only got interested in Marvel because Robert Downey Jr. knocked the genre sideways in the first Iron Man film in 2008. As the MCU saga continued, I got more and more intrigued, until finally this year, I dipped my toe in the broad, deep pool of source material with the 2012-2015 Hawkeye series written by Matt Fraction and illustrated (mostly) by David Aja.

The lettering of Marvel’s announcement card matches Aja’s distinctive graphic design – and I knew that! (Call me cool or what?)

Created by Stan Lee and Don Heck in 1964, Hawkeye began his career as a reluctant villain but soon became an Avenger, replete with mask and tights. Fraction and Aja brilliantly bring the character into the 21st century by focusing on the daily life of Clint Barton, who is all too human in an industry dominated by super soldiers, aliens and gods. When he jumps off buildings, he breaks bones and ends up in the hospital; in most panels, he’s sporting bandages and bruises from the action a few pages back. He spends a chunk of his ample Avengers salary to keep creeps away from his neighbors in their Bed-Stuy apartment building. He is literally a guy folks want to have a beer with.

Unlike the movie incarnation, here Clint is divorced and has a history with a number of super-women, including Black Widow. One exception is his mentee Kate Bishop, who has filled in for Clint as Hawkeye upon occasion. Young and ambitious, she is probably the most important woman in his life – all the more reason to keep their relationship professional despite an occasional sidelong glance.

The new series will introduce Kate – no word yet on who will play her. Given this photo of Renner exalting before her image from the Fraction/Aja series, it looks like they’ll build in a lot of the comics’ aesthetic and personality – whoo hoo!

What I love about the modern era’s Clint Barton, in print and on the screen, is this: Hawkeye is in on the joke and fully appreciates the ridiculousness of his being an Avenger. Clint states on the first page of the comic, as he falls a dozen stories and hurtles toward a hard landing on a parked car: “I’m an orphan raised by carnies fighting with a stick and a string from the Paleolithic era.” Or, as Hawkeye told Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron: “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.”

It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to be awesome. And this is so, so awesome!

See you on the flip side …

P.S. As anyone who’s seen a Jeep commercial lately knows, Jeremy Renner has a side gig as a musician. Not my genre at all, but hey, you gotta admit the guy looks happier than he does in most of the Avengers movies.

Echo in the Canyon: A 12-String Serenade to the California Sound

21 Jul

A few months ago, I saw a trailer for Echo in the Canyon, a documentary focusing on California’s Laurel Canyon-based musicians who turned folk music into rock legend in the mid to late 1960s. And, for a brief few seconds, I saw my dear, departed Tom Petty on screen in a guitar store talking shop. I realized it must have been the last documentary project he ever did, so, with wistful anticipation, I planned to see it when it came to metro Detroit.

Thankfully, my partner saw it was playing at the Main Art Theater in Royal Oak on a hellishly hot afternoon when all any sane person would want to do was sit in an air-conditioned theater with an artisanal chocolate bar and iced black tea. I hustled over to catch a matinee.

The billed “star” of the documentary is Jakob Dylan, Bob’s fourth born and the lead singer of the middling Wallflowers. He and director Andrew Slater chose to focus on the prolific years of 1965-1967 to support their 2015 concert featuring stars of the 1990s and 2000s singing key songs by the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beach Boys.

That is great material hobbled by a lousy premise. As much as I am glad Fiona Apple can still get a gig, the cover versions do nothing the originals didn’t do a thousand times better. Jakob has the sturdy timbre, diction and tone his father could never muster, but he is a passionless performer. He is stone faced during each recording session; he ably hits the notes and plays guitar, but there is no warmth or grit to hang your eardrums on. Additionally, no one benefits from Jakob’s staged conversations with Regina Spektor, Cat Power and Beck jammed together on a couch next to a coffee table piled with LPs. These talented, eccentric musicians say nothing about how the albums they hold in their hands affected their personal or professional lives. It’s a missed opportunity.

What Jakob does have is connections, and that’s where the documentary earns its cred. While it’s not stated, I imagine he has known many of these legends from childhood, and they easily open up to him. He gets Stephen Stills to admit he “booked” when the cops showed up one night, leaving Eric Clapton and others to get handcuffed for pot possession. Michelle Phillips, now a bright-eyed grandmother, gleefully shares how her dalliance with band mate Denny Doherty was the impetus for her husband (also a band mate) John writing, “Go Where You Wanna Go.” Brian Wilson jokes that Jakob and his backing band are playing “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” in the wrong key. Ringo confirms that George Harrison sent Roger McGuinn a note that he had based his opening riff in “If I Needed Someone” on McGuinn’s “The Bells of Rhymney.” Even Neil Young shows up, although he is only seen playing behind glass in a studio toward the end of the film without comment.

And, thankfully, Jakob’s dad’s brother Wilbury, Tom Petty, gets significant opportunities to be the consummate rock historian he was. He sets the record straight from the start: it’s Rickenbacker, not “Bach-er,” that made the 12-string guitar at the heart of the Byrds’ shimmering sound. Throughout the film, he provides the perspectives only he – as a lifelong fan, a musical beneficiary and a peer of the featured acts – could share. (I so miss that guy.)

Echo in the Canyon illustrates three years of pop music innovation and collaboration, nurtured by the woodsy Laurel Canyon culture where you could drop by your neighbor’s pad and noodle around on a song that would become rock and roll canon. It’s worth hunting for whenever you need a break from the heat while still enjoying the sunshine.

See you on the flip side …

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