Tag Archives: RIck Rubin

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 …

Bonanzatronic madness: Gogol Bordello at the Royal Oak Theater

6 Aug

Gogol Bordello sign

A band that can cause a real panic at the disco …

Raise your hand if you’ve never heard of Gogol Bordello … or if you have heard of them, raise your beer so you don’t spill it as you crowd-surf.

The eight-member gypsy punk outfit is led by Eugene Hutz, a Ukrainian by birth with Romani heritage on his German mother’s side whose family moved after Chernobyl  and eventually relocated to Vermont; he now lives in Brazil. Hutz is skinny and beaky, with a silver canine tooth, wild hair and a pirate’s mustache. He sings with a pronounced accent that serves his material well and plays a rugged acoustic guitar with rambunctious grace.

Photo by my concert buddy Davis Kurepa-Peers

Photo by my concert buddy Davis Kurepa-Peers

The rest of the line-up is just as internationally far-flung, with musicians from Belarus, Scotland by way of China, Russia, Ethiopia, Ecuador and Los Angeles. The name is an homage to Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol … and, well, a brothel. The lyrics are a mix of English, Romani, Spanish and for all I know, Esperanto. Their songs jump from pogo-worthy punk to ska to straight-up rock, along with several ballads that sound like what you’d hear at the end of a Russian wedding reception right before the last of the drunken guests are kicked out of the hall.

My partner is quite the fan of Gogol Bordello, starting with their 2010 album Trans-Continental Hustle. (I just found out that was produced by Rick Rubin, whose exquisite taste knows no musical boundaries.) She took our older daughter to see them at the Fillmore a couple of years ago and sat in the balcony as our daughter joined the crush of fans standing near the stage. After more than 90 minutes of mosh pit churn with the “gypsters” she was dehydrated and half-deaf: in other words, she’d had a great time.

Gogol Bordello blue

Photo by Davis Kurepa-Peers

When she learned my partner had gotten tickets for me and our younger daughter to see the band in Royal Oak, she had just one piece of advice: “Wear shoes you don’t care about.”

We arrived early enough to stake a claim standing one level above the main floor behind a railing so we could see everything without getting trampled. Our neighbors to the left were a pony-tailed guy and his girlfriend with an ice-blue pixie cut and flawless red lipstick (who, upon learning my daughter was 12, told her, “You’re gonna go far, honey”). On the right was Bald Tattooed Handlebar Mustache Guy, who brought half his family with him since he’d had so much fun at the Fillmore show. Who needs an opening act when you’ve got an audience like this?

(There was an opening act: Man Man, which brought funk and surrealism together in a way that might have made Frank Zappa proud … although someone will have to explain to me what was up with the guy in the neon green boiler suit and melted piggy face mask who wandered on stage during a couple of their numbers.)

Gogol Bordello puts on an amazing concert, even if you’re like me and don’t know the words to their songs (and have no desire to slam dance). Grinning the entire time, we were swept away by their energy and showmanship – although they aren’t as zany as in their earlier days:

Yet this show was not shtick or the “bonanzatronic madness” Hutz described in Mother Jones a few years back. It’s a combination of tribal tradition and new music, partying and protest: the world seen through immigrants’ eyes. As they sing in “Immigraniada,”

It’s a book of true stories
True stories that can’t be denied
It’s more than true, it actually happened
We comin’ rougher every time

 

See you on the flip side at the show I’ve been waiting for all summer: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at DTE Energy Music Theater August 23!

P.S. Looking for a rock and roll romance?  Love and Other B-Sides is available in paperback and e-book editions now on Amazon.

The Civil Wars: Ever so aptly named

6 Aug

Your public library: a rock and roll goldmine

Your public library: a rock and roll goldmine

Picking through the soundtrack CDs at the library is like panning for gold. If you patiently sift through the Glee compilations and dusty copies of Phantom of the Opera you’ll eventually find movie scores full of sensational rarities, intriguing covers of classic songs and great singles used to elevate crappy movies. (For instance, I got a copy of “ABC” by the Jackson 5 off the soundtrack of Clerks II.)

I hit a rich vein of nuggets tonight. I found both Breaking Dawn soundtracks, to my great delight. Trust me, I’m no Twihard – I’ve never seen so much as a screenshot from any of those movies. That said, all four Twilight soundtracks serve up an amazing range of pop and alt-rock that often is exclusive to the films; the Breaking Dawn discs feature everyone from Bruno Mars to the Noisettes. I also picked up the fourth collection from the HBO series True Blood. Unlike their Northwestern bloodsucking brethren, the musical tastes of these bayou-based immortals skew toward swampy blues and ominous reinterpretations of familiar material. Another intriguing find is Soundtrack for a Revolution from the PBS documentary about the music of the civil rights movement, interpreted for the film by artists like The Roots, John Legend and The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Then I hit the mother lode: the soundtrack to A Place at the Table, a documentary about hunger in America featuring original music by T Bone Burnett and The Civil Wars. I didn’t think there were more than a couple of albums by The Civil Wars, including the one debuting this week. Given their acrimonious and very public rift, there may not be any others.

The duo in 2011

The  duo in 2011

... and here they are just two short years later

… and again, just two short years later

The Civil Wars is John Paul White and Joy Williams, each of whom had been trying to make a go of solo music careers for several years before they first met in Nashville. Their voices are a perfect match, twining around each other like silk ribbons on the hilt of a Confederate sword. Their first album, Barton Hollow,  is spare and passionate, the aching romance of the music prompting most of the reviews to point out that White and Williams are happily married … to other people.

Together they hit it big fast: winning Grammys; touring with Adele; contributing a duet with Taylor Swift and another song to The Hunger Games‘ backwoodsy soundtrack (which I also picked up this evening); landing on many Best Albums of 2011 lists. And through it all, they were getting more and more distant from each other. By the time Rick Rubin convinced them to record a second studio album, they weren’t on speaking terms. White refuses to do any press for the album, leaving Williams to carefully speak only for herself about their current work and future prospects, as she does this week for Rolling Stone:

[S]he is hopeful, and ready to talk reconciliation. If John Paul and I can find a place to meet in the middle, I believe that there could be a future for the band,” she explains. “I would be open to having a dialogue … I would be open to trying to mend the bridges that I think we both burned. … It takes two.”

(For what it’s worth, Williams is the epitome of class in the interviews I’ve heard and read, never criticizing her former musical partner and asserting that she is as much to blame as he is for the band’s dissolution. How sadly rare is that?)

Given that they canceled last year’s tour while it was in progress, citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition,” I’m not sure when they recorded A Place at the Table. I am simply grateful that they did. They blend well with Burnett’s acoustic guitar and his simple, direct style as a producer. As The Civil Wars’ battles continue, this is a chance to savor a little more of their music.

The saga of the band could be a movie itself one day. One wonders who would be featured on the soundtrack.

See you on the flip side …

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