Tag Archives: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

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 …

Heartbroken: Tom Petty, RIP

4 Oct

Tom Petty in a vanWith all the literal disasters that have happened in the last month – three hurricanes, an earthquake, the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas – it seems almost silly to be bereft over the loss of a rock musician.

And yet … Tom Petty seeped into all corners of my life. Sure, everyone has to go sometime, but his death came so abruptly without warning, it’s like the air has been sucked out of me. Jeez, I just saw his 40th anniversary concert in July. Even as he’d intimated this could be his and the Heartbreakers’ last large-scale tour, he also admitted he didn’t like to stay still and probably would renege on that vow. He had promised to release another album of songs from Wildflowers – his best era, in my opinion – and maybe do concerts in which he’d play the entire thing. He had so much more ahead of him. He was having such a good time.

TPATH photo - 1979

Petty became my reference point for all other music: you can connect him to practically any other major act in two steps. He recorded with two Beatles; he backed Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash; he shared the stage with everyone from Bo Diddley to Eric Clapton to Prince. His SiriusXM Buried Treasure show championed artists I now love: Lucinda Williams, Big Joe Turner, Ann Peebles, Louis Jordan, the Shangri-Las. He had incredible taste, which was a remarkable contrast to the bloated acts that clogged the 1970s when he came up in the business. And he kept up his songwriting chops throughout his career. Someone I read years ago pointed out that every one of his albums rated at least 7 out of 10; that was as true of Hypnotic Eye as his eponymous debut.

He also had a sense of humor. Witness his appearance on The Larry Sanders Show trying to clock Greg Kinnear and Clint Black:

 

And a flair for animation V/O:

 

There are any number of respectful obituaries that list Petty’s hits and talk about his talent for championing the underdog in his songs and his fights with his labels. Thing is, he was rarely included in critics’ lists of the “best” American rock musicians: that is an honor bestowed on Elvis, Dylan, Springsteen, and possibly Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry or other pioneers. That is probably because he was less an innovator than a craftsman. He and that insanely talented band of his, the Heartbreakers, could play just about anything, original songs or covers, from muscular chord-based rock to devastating ballads:

After that night in Vegas/ And the hell that we went through
We went down swingin’

Throughout the last 24 hours, I’ve received a lot of genuine condolences from friends and coworkers. My daughters have been checking on me often, offering support and shoulders to sigh on. My elder daughter pointed out what a privilege it is to connect deeply to an artist’s work during his lifetime, especially since he inspired me to create my own. (This blog and Love and Other B-Sides would not be here without me falling head first into his catalog.) I’ve also gotten some solace from listening to SiriusXM’s “wake” on his channel, with famous fans (Cameron Crowe, John Fogerty) and regular folks calling in to share what Tom Petty meant to them.

Means to them.

Means to us.

Means to me.

This is going to take a long time to get over, folks. Thank God we have each other.

See you on the flip side …

Classic rock and writer’s block

20 Jul

This is the Age of the Great Blog Revival. Or at least the Week.

Three of the blogs I follow – Defending Axl RoseEvery Record Tells a Story and Soul Searching at Starbucks – recently posted new content after several days/weeks/months of silence. They inspired me to find out how much I remember about WordPress.

Officially, I put the blog aside a couple of years ago to focus on fiction. I also believed I’d exhausted my organizing principle: how, in the space of a generation, rock music has gone from rebellious teens giving their parents the proverbial finger to a great way for middle-aged suburbanites to bond with their kids. And after five years, my readership numbers were way down. Fewer and fewer people appreciated my humblebragging about being fortunate enough to see Bruce Springsteen, The Killers, Weezer, Nick Cage, Aretha Franklin and Spoon in the space of a year in three different countries (ahem). When I realized that no one – really, no one – cared that I scored spot at the lip of the stage at a Heartless Bastards concert at St. Andrew’s Hall so I could watch Craig Finn flare his nostrils as the opening act, I put the blog on a shelf.

Tom Petty - 2017Then Tom Petty came to town on his 40th anniversary concert tour this week, and the spark was rekindled.

Forty years ago there probably weren’t many musicians who expected to have a career in rock and roll. It was all single by single, show by show. Back then, Tom probably couldn’t have imagined ever being 66 years old, much less singing “American Girl” in the original key at that astronomical age. Yet here he is, still playing with some of the world’s best musical craftsmen he also calls friends, having the time of his life.

That palpable joy is what Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have that most bands don’t. They really dig making music. It doesn’t look like they regret playing “Refugee” for the umpteenth zillionth time, and they bring the same fire they did in the Seventies. Tom’s delight is infectious, his gratitude genuine.

I left the venue wondering, what’s out there that could bring me that much glee?

Writing. Duh.

Therefore, after a couple of years of false starts, a whale of a day job, a lot of negative self-talk and one too many hours spent in YouTube rat holes, I am determined to get back into the habit, produce some pages and care less about what others might think of my crappy first draft.

I even struck a bargain with myself:

 

I splurged on a baseball tour shirt, paying what we in our family call “loaded old people prices” to bring it home. Then, per my older daughter’s diabolically perfect advice, I handed it over to my younger daughter to keep until I’ve produced at least 40 pages of my next story. It’ll be a tangible reward for getting back into the game. Petty would be proud.

So, here’s to all you artists out there, whether your tool of choice is a Rickenbacker or a blog post. Your dedication is my inspiration. Now,  if you’ll excuse me, I have writing to do and stories to tell … and I really want to wear that great shirt before my September birthday. As Tom sings fifty times a summer,

And if she had to die/ trying, she
Had one little promise she was gonna keep

See you on the flip side …

 

Oh, my my! Oh, hell, yes! Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers at DTE Energy Music Theatre

28 Aug

Tom Petty smiling at DTE - 082414

So happy, he glows/ Photo by Davis Kurepa-Peers

Anyone reading this who knows me – and that’s a given because those who don’t know me never read this blog – knows I’m a Tom Petty fan.

Who am I kidding? I am a shameless, obsessive and thoroughly insufferable bozo of a Tom Petty fan. Two framed, autographed album covers adorn my office walls. I’ve downloaded pretty much every song the guy’s written, sung, played, produced or mentioned in passing. I’ve bought his autobiography, Conversations with Tom Petty. I’ve seen the Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary multiple times.  I’ve even gone down numerous YouTube rat holes searching for prizes like this one from 1976, when his label mate Dwight Twilley needed a bass player to stand behind him while he lip-synched songs for a long-forgotten TV program – fast forward to 1:42:

 

I am also one of those saps with a paid membership in the Tom Petty Highway Companions fan club. There are two reasons I pony up the dough every year. For one, I get to listen to “Buried Treasure,” his weekly XM Sirius program featuring “the best in rock, rhythm and blues,” which has introduced me to a number of great records over the years. And for another, I can buy concert tickets several days before they go on sale to the general public. I don’t get any discounts, mind you; I just get to buy sooner and have better seats to choose from … all while paying an annual membership fee on top of it.

My high-velocity fandom only began a few years ago, and I may never completely understand why this man overran my musical receptors so completely. It’s like Nick Hornby’s description of the bond between a musician and his fan in Juliet, Naked:

You speak to him. For him. He connects. You plug right into a very complicated-looking socket in his back. I don’t know why, but you do.

TP at DTE - 082414Tom and the boys released their 13th album, Hypnotic Eye, a few weeks ago. New material from a classic rock band is often not a reason to celebrate. They may just go  through the motions; vocal power may wane and songwriting can get stale. Or, the band may decide there’s no time like the present to release that experimental album they always wanted to do, even if their audience doesn’t want more than their hits from a generation ago. (Even I didn’t care much for their 2010 release, Mojo, a bluesy psychedelic saga of an album that gave guitarist Mike Campbell permission to jam in any direction he wanted to, breaking their cardinal rule for success: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”)

Petty acknowledges as much. As he said in an interview in Men’s Journal recently,

[S]uccess is a dangerous thing. What great band hasn’t done some absolute shit? So I’m kind of to a point where, if I’m going to do it, I want it to be good. Otherwise there’s no point. Who needs another Tom Petty record?

Let me tell you: we needed this Tom Petty record. Hypnotic Eye is honest-to-God rock-and-roll, which is surprisingly rare these days. Its lyrics are timely and the melodies have grit. Petty’s got a gift for portraying downtrodden men who hold onto hope. At this point in his life, though, his hippie optimism has gotten hammered, and sometimes he’s  just grateful to be noticed. My favorite song on the new album is “Forgotten Man,” with a Bo Diddley beat driving lines home like, “I feel like a four-letter word”:

 

Steve Winwood - 082414

Steve Winwood/ Photo by Davis Kurepa-Peers

Leading off their concert at Pine Knob (aka, DTE Energy Music Theatre, whatever) was the phenomenal Steve Winwood, who still sings like a teenager and can fill in for Eric Clapton in the Blind Faith songs with ease. By the time the headliners opened their set with the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” I was vibrating with glee. Tom Petty was in fine voice and good humor, exchanging licks with Mike Campbell on some of the most beautiful guitars on the planet. They even included some older material they don’t play at every show: the redneck howler “Spike” and “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me),” one of the best breakup songs ever written. Even the group of exceedingly tall, exceptionally drunk people who kept filing in and out of the row in front of us didn’t diminish the experience.

My favorite musician and his crackerjack band played some of my favorite songs in the world less than 50 feet away for a crowd of 15,000 … and also just for me. It was magic.

See you at the final stop on my summer Concertpalooza tour: The Black Keys at Joe Louis Arena with special guests Cage the Elephant on September 12.

P.S. Is your book club gearing up for the fall? Want to chat about reading, writing and rock and roll? I’d love to do a reading of Love and Other B-Sides in person or via Skype for you and your book-loving friends. Just reply to this post.

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