Tag Archives: Tom Petty

A Poem is a Naked Person: Leon Russell’s New 1974 Documentary

11 Nov

http://www.janusfilms.com/poem/downloads

“I’ll put on a show for you if you put on a show for me” (www.janusfilms.com/poem)

If you can hum “A Song for You,” “Tightrope” or “Superstar,” you already know more about Leon Russell than you’d learn from watching A Poem is a Naked Person. This free-form documentary has been kept out of distribution since it was completed in 1974 due to creative differences between Russell and director Les Blank, who chose to focus less on the musician and more on the crazy quilt of people surrounding him – including the director himself. Following Blank’s death in 2013, Russell relented, and now the film is making the rounds of art houses, including the Detroit Film Theater at the DIA.

Russell was in demand as a session pianist and arranger before he became better known as a songwriter and Joe Cocker’s long-haired bandleader for the Mad Dogs & Englishmen concerts in 1970. In the 1960s, he played behind everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Herb Alpert to the Rolling Stones. Working for Phil Spector, he arranged Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” He toured with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends; one such Friend, George Harrison, called him into service to manage the superstar line up playing the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Around that time Russell released his first solo album, featuring “A Song for You” – which is as lovely a love song as ever was written.

poem_poster_smallBy the time Blank showed up in Oklahoma in 1972 with his cameras, Russell had founded the Shelter recording label and was building a studio in rural Tulsa to give a variety of musicians a place to play and develop. But instead of putting Russell center stage in his own documentary – a movie he spent $660,000 to produce – Blank looped in whatever image, sound or message he found interesting (undoubtedly made all the more interesting thanks to the huge quantities of drugs they must have ingested, if the ruby-red eyeballs and twitchy freak outs of Russell’s bandmates are any indication).

For a fan like me who’s eager to see Russell performing in his prime as a headliner rather than a band leader, the film is a frustrating experience. It captures a few moments of musical genius, like clips of Russell’s concert performances and studio sessions for his Hank Wilson’s Back country album, including George Jones singing a heartbreaking solo version of “Take Me.” But Blunt’s penchant for the bizarre overwhelms the impact of the music and the story of the star. In addition to a lot of b-roll of the (often toothless) denizens of Tulsa, the director wastes valuable screen time in order to pontificate about art and capitalism, demonstrated by a boa constrictor killing and swallowing a chick (you read that correctly). You can understand why Russell was less than happy.

Yet it’s not a total loss. Watching Russell play – gray-eyed and steel-haired, his elegant fingers rolling from gospel to honky-tonk to rock and roll – is transporting.  It’s worth the 90 minutes of drug-soaked oddness just to see that.

See you on the flip side …

Bonus Tom Petty trivia! In 1974, Petty and his Mudcrutch bandmates traveled from Florida to Los Angeles with a demo in hand. London Records offered them a record deal the first day they arrived, thanks to a mix of talent and beginner’s luck. Thrilled by the prospect, they went back home to sell everything they owned to relocate. While in rehearsal, they got a call from Leon Russell’s producing partner Denny Cordell, who convinced them to stop in Tulsa on their way to LA to meet him at the studio at Shelter Records. They spent the night, did a session in the studio and decided to sign with Shelter instead … which resulted in the first two albums Petty recorded with the Heartbreakers. 

The Last DJ: SiriusXM

12 May

As they say about anything addictive, the first taste is free.

When we bought a new car a few months ago, it came with a three-month trial subscription to SiriusXM satellite radio. Since it wouldn’t be my primary ride, I didn’t think this would matter much to me, but once I realized 1) we were going on a cross-country vacation and this could save me from 20+ hours of radio hell, 2) I could also access the stations via the web and a phone app and 3) there is a station dedicated to playing repeats of Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure 24/7, I knew it would spell my doom.

Camera:   DCS420A          Serial #: 420-2040 Width:    1524 Height:   1012 Date:  11/24/97 Time:   11:39:45 DCS4XX Image FW Ver:   081596           TIFF Image Look:   Product ---------------------- Counter:    [88] ISO:        100  Aperture:   F2.8 Shutter:    60   Lens (mm):  28   Exposure:   M    Program:    Po   Exp Comp:    0.0 Meter area: Mtrx Flash sync: Norm Drive mode: S    Focus mode: S    Focus area: Wide Distance:   3.4m


Paying for satellite radio seems practically un-American

I am not a fan of the concept of satellite radio. I believe that, like schools and security, radio ought to be a free service existing for the public good, providing listeners a quality listening experience with as much variety and as few commercials as possible. Following this logic, I should cut my Comcast cord, slap the round antenna back onto my television and be grateful for the times I can get PBS without too much snow on the screen … and turn off the TV during pledge drives.

Many problems exist with this model now, particularly for rock enthusiasts. There are only so many channels on the dial, and that sorry few have to balance popular taste (which is often an oxymoron), the sheer quantity of rock songs produced since “Rocket 88” started the fad, and the overwhelming competition from more flexible streaming options that serve every possible taste.

Streaming sites have their advantages, particularly the fact that anything that’s ever been recorded is right there, a few keystrokes away. If you detest commercials or crappy loading speeds, you can pay for their services, meaning that instead of being completely ripped off, signed artists might make minimum wage once their songs get played approximately 1.1 million times. (Check out the amazingly depressing infographic to see how the streaming sites stack up in terms of how well they pay their artists … if at all.)

But what if you have lousy taste and want to expand your horizons? What if you don’t have a patient older brother (or cool mom) to take you through the milk crates or playlists? Who’s going to tell you what’s worth your time? The answer is DJs: music geeks with robust personalities, vast musical memories and voices with a bit of grit. That’s what’s missing from the streaming sites, and that’s what got me hooked on SiriusXM good and quick.

Little Steven's Underground GarageThe E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt is a pillar of SiriusXM as the leader of his namesake Underground Garage channel. In addition to his own show, he’s got a passel of DJs “spinning” a great mix of gritty rock classics, recent pop punk and little-known gems including a weekly Coolest Song in the World. My favorite is Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators NYC – check him out here and on tour:

I’m sure the other 964 channels have their charms, and one has Tom Petty 24/7, which I may have mentioned already (ahem). I’ll have to find out before my six-month fix subscription runs out …

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Need a beach read? Love and Other B-Sides is the perfect paperback for summer: breezy, romantic, and holds up in the heat!

Good artists copy, great artists steal: Tom Petty, Sam Smith and so many others

13 Feb

Especially in the wake of Sam Smith cleaning up at the Grammys, I’m sure you’ve been waiting with bated breath for me to chime in about the revelation that Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne will each get 12.5% of his royalties for the mega-hit “Stay With Me” because of the similarities between its melody and that of “I Won’t Back Down.”

Sorry to take so long to comment about this because … well, I’m torn.

No surprise I’d like to come down on Tom’s side, especially as he graciously said in his Facebook page statement there was no lawsuit and he has no hard feelings because “these things can happen.” Smith stated that when the similarities were pointed out, his team agreed to name Petty and Lynne as co-writers even though he hadn’t ever heard Petty’s song because “I am 22 years old.” (Snap!)

But here’s the thing: Petty’s people hunted down Smith’s for royalties, even though he just shrugged it off when other acts blatantly ripped off his work on purpose. To wit:

  • “Dani California” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers mimics the licks and the lyrics of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (although this YouTubian blames their common producer, Rick Rubin)
  • The Strokes admitted they lifted a lot of “American Girl” in their 2001 tune, “Last Nite” – which, according to Petty, “made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’”

So why did he go after Sam Smith? There can be any number of cynical reasons, leading off with Lynne and Petty wanting a piece of his revenue stream to see them into their sunset years. Perhaps this is also part of some kind of campaign to remind the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame folks to induct ELO on the ballot next year.

As for me, I’d like to think it’s retribution on behalf of their great friend and fellow Wilbury, George Harrison.My Sweet Lord

He's So Fine“My Sweet Lord” was the first single off of Harrison’s 1970 solo album, All Things Must Pass. In January 1971, music publisher Bright Tunes sued him over similarities between Harrison’s hit and “He’s So Fine,” a Ronald Mack song made popular by The Chiffons in 1963. The suit lingered on for years and was settled in favor of Bright Tunes when the judge determined Harrison had committed “subconscious” plagiarism and owed $1.6 million in damages. But from the start, Harrison contended he was actually inspired by a different song: “Oh, Happy Day,” a hymn that was in public domain.

The additional kick in the head? By the time the suit went to trial in 1981 (having begun in 1976), Bright Tunes was owned by Allen Klein, Harrison’s manager who had advised him when the suit began. Harrison eventually bought Klein out for $587,000 to settle the case, and it took until 1998 to wrap up all the loose ends. It cast a lingering pall over Harrison’s songwriting, although he found a way to laugh about it at the time:

(Extra points if you can identify the comely blonde juror in the black hat.)

So, in my vain hope that Tom Petty was being somehow altruistic when he sloughed off thousands of dollars from a man who had no knowledge of his music, I choose to see the “Won’t Back Down”/”Stay With Me” settlement as karma … because in the music business, what goes around, comes around.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Love is on the airwaves! Get your copy of Love and Other B-Sides for the Valentine in your life!

Blessed: Lucinda Williams at the Royal Oak Theater

25 Nov

Beat the Bots

Foo Fighters tickets went on sale last Saturday. Being all about sticking up for the little guy, the band kicked it off with a “Beat the Bots” pre-sale. As an email explained, “Fans sick of Scalper-BOTS programmed to clog online queues and snatch up huge amounts of tickets to resell them will get first shot at tickets to the show.” So, just as in days of old, those of us wanting good seats could drive down to the box office and get in line.

Of course, Saturday was the last day of a bitter cold snap, with freezing rain turning every parking lot and bridge into a luge track. We were allowed to start lining up at 8:00 a.m. with the box office opening two hours later. It was about 8:10 when I realized that, while I had thought to bring my Rolling Stone with Dave Grohl on the cover to keep myself occupied, I didn’t have warm socks, waterproof boots or long johns. I was woefully underdressed. For the next two and a half hours, I shifted from foot to foot, jammed my gloved hands into my pockets and tried to stay limber while my teeth chattered.

As I felt my spine go numb and my gums freeze, I had to ask myself: why do I put myself through this? 

I could say it’s to earn the admiration of those in my age group who, due to other commitments and common sense, don’t go the extra mile I often do to see my favorite musicians perform live. “You are awesome,” read one post on my Facebook page; “Young. At. Heart” read another. If my race against decrepitude and boredom lands me in a mosh pit every once in a while, I’ll have the support of those living vicariously through my folly.

But there’s a more valid reason. Live music connects us physically with the singer and the song in ways a pair of headphones never will. It amplifies our ability to experience pure joy. Case in point: the transcendent Lucinda Williams, who I saw at the Royal Oak Theatre on Saturday night.

Lucinda Williams

Singer/songwriter Williams grew up in Louisiana, the daughter of a poet who was also a rabid Hank Williams fan (no relation … pity). Tom Petty was my gateway to her music. He did a blistering cover of Williams’ “Changed the Locks” for the soundtrack of She’s the One. (Lucinda returned the favor, covering “Rebels” when Petty received the ASCAP Founders Award this year.)

She’s got a voice like a broken beer bottle and views the world through cigarette smoke and smeared eyeliner. Her genre is hard to pin down. Alt-country, blues, rock, folk and gospel fuse together in her fearless lyrics that demand she be treated with passion and respect, as in one of her evocative creations, “Unsuffer Me”:

 

Her three-piece band was phenomenal, filling the sold-out venue with a dense, precision playing so thrilling, Lucinda herself would pull to the side of the stage to watch. She balanced her new material with old, plus some apt covers including Detroiter Bettye LaVette’s “Joy” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” She was having so much fun, when she finished her nearly two hour set, she came back for an encore … then another … then another (and perhaps another: I lost count in my glee). She got to a point that she ran out of numbers in the songbook she kept on her music stand; she sent the roadie offstage to fetch more lyric sheets so she could do more songs. (Kenneth Brian, the leader of the band that opened the show, told us in the lobby that she was making up for a stuffy gig the night before in Cleveland; “I’ve never seen her like this,” he said, astonished.)

Foo Fighters ticketsLucinda Williams was a perfect way to close out a year of remarkable shows, as I’ve been blessed by great opportunity and more often than not, a willing concert buddy. She reinforced my resolve to keep showing up, despite the cold or cost or clueless drunks air-drumming throughout the evening. And good thing, too … because I have a date with Dave and the boys in August 2015!

See you on the flip side … 

P.S. If you live in the Brighton, Michigan area, there’s still time to RSVP for the Brighton District Library Local Author Showcase, featuring yours truly and signed copies of Love and Other B-Sides! Let us know you’re coming by registering here: http://bit.ly/1vauiBR

 

 

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.

Lyrical Genius: 10 Great Snippets of Rock

22 Jan

Top 10One of the articles I’ve read about how to attract online readership suggests creating top 10 lists. I’ve avoided this for a long time, not for some noble reason like I don’t want to stoop to using gimmicks to trawl for readers … or to beg them to read and share … and post comments … pretty please?

Anyway, I don’t do top 10 lists because I’m a wimp. I can’t stand the pressure. I choose nine solid entries then panic. I don’t want to make a lame final choice and leave out something worthy. I don’t want to slight my other favorites by not including them. I can’t prioritize them, either; it would be like choosing which of my children is my favorite. (Don’t worry, honey: it’s you. Keep reading … pretty please …)

But hey, anything to attract online readership.

I tend to be drawn toward words and phrases rather than the sweep of an entire verse or the story of an entire song. Some are clever, others conjure up vivid images. I like what sticks in my brain.  So, in no particular order, here are my choices for ten of the best snippets of lyrics in rock.

Tom Waits1. “don’t you know there ain’t no devil that’s just god when he’s drunk” – Tom Waits, Heartattack and Vine
(First time I heard this, once I deciphered what Old Golden Throat was singing, I cackled.)

2. “I said, ‘I’m so happy, I could die.’ She said, ‘Drop dead’ and left with another guy” – Elvis Costello, (Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes
(Always has been one of my favorites … 1980s snark at its best)

3. “When I get 400 dollars, I’m goin’ to see Melinda” – Tom Petty, Melinda
(All that’s standing between him and this guy’s happiness? Four hundred dollars. Wow.)

4. “I bet there’s rich folks eating from a fancy dining car/ They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars” – Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues
(This one hits me for a similar reason. What describes freedom for this prisoner? Drinkin’ coffee …)

Cash and Petty flanking Carl Perkins who was no slouch in the lyric department, either

Cash and Petty flanking Carl Perkins who was no slouch in the lyric department, either

5. “Some days are diamonds, some days are rocks” – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Walls (Circus)
(Tom Petty said this line was inspired by something Johnny Cash said to him … no wonder it works)

6. “Life is what happens to you/ While you’re busy making other plans” – John Lennon, Beautiful Boy
(Word.)

7. “I could build me a castle of memories just to have somewhere to go” – John Prine, Clay Pigeons
(John Prine is one of those lyricists who tosses gems like this into so many songs, and his voice is so unassuming you don’t realize how beautiful they are at first.)

8. “I live my life like I wasn’t invited” – Wilco, Candyfloss
(Been there. Done that. May still be doing that.)

9. “I’m so broke I can’t even pay attention” – Jimi Hendrix, Taking Care of No Business
(Jimi probably stole this from some other blues guy. No matter – he delivers it with a smile)

And, oh hell, let’s just put this out there as #10:

“Now I walk with a man in my face/ Ooh, a woman in my hair
“I’ve got you all lookin’ out through my eyes/ My feet are a prayer”

The Who, Sister Disco
(All I can say is, Pete, what were you on?)

So, please read, share, post, discuss and let me know your favorites … pretty, pretty please!

See you on the flip side …

In the Summertime

4 Sep

Every year there seems to be a new Song of the Summer, a pop tune played  incessantly between May and August that reportedly captures the sparkle and sun of the season. This year’s is probably Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.” Everyone from Justin Bieber to the Harvard University Baseball Team (and President Obama) have co-opted it at some point. That song is everywhere … except anywhere near me. I’ve dodged the bullet and haven’t heard the song once.

Instead, I’ve been steeped in the true songs of summer: the classic rock radio standards that just won’t die.

These are the songs I tune into when I’m cleaning house and need a beat. They are what our family listens to when we’re on a long car trip up north and our “alternative radio” options are country pop or Christian sermons. They are the background to yard work and block parties and barbecues. They are indestructible and inescapable and uncontroversial, like:

  • “Brandy” by Looking Glass
  • “Still the One” by Orleans
  • “The Pina Colada Song” by Rupert Holmes
  • Anything by a band with a three-word name (Grand Funk Railroad, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Three Dog Night)
  • Anything by a band named after a land mass (Boston, Chicago, Kansas, Asia)

Rupert Holmes: the master of subtlety

These songs survive, despite changes in taste and generation (and the fact that many of them weren’t particularly good to begin with).  I have memorized every damn lyric of these songs even though I’d rather be cool and sing along with The Kills instead.

It’s sad that the careers of some of the better artists have been boiled down to the one song that was able to break the Top 40. Thanks to Tom Petty’s “Buried Treasure” show for XM, which I access online as part of my Highway Companions fan club membership (yeah, I’m thatkind of slobbering TP fan), I know that The Romantics are much, much more than their deathless single, “What I Like About You.”  Yet if they ever play an outdoor venue or corporate gig, the audience will be in the beer tent until that song comes on – and anything they play after that tune will be ignored in the rush to get to the parking lot.

It’s a shame. Their song, “Out of My Mind (Into My Head)”  is a remarkable surprise. But you’ll probably never hear it on the radio unless you pay Tom Petty to bring it to you via satellite.

This all gets me wondering: if I were in a band that had marketable talent, would it be better to have had a song that will play forever in shopping malls and commercial radio as background music or to have less catchy, more critically durable material that requires a listener’s full attention and earns their respect?

It’s noble to say I’d want to be the latter, snob that I am. But I have to admit, it would be great to know that everyone, everywhere, just can’t get my song out of their heads.

Take it away, boys.

See you on the flip side …

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