I’m learning to fly, around the clouds

When former Eagle and gifted guitarist Don Felder was in his early 20s, he gave guitar lessons at a Gainesville, FL, music store.  “One day this scrawny, blond-haired kid came in and wanted lessons,” he said in 2010.  “He already played bass and sang in a band, but he wanted to switch to guitar, so I started teaching him, and we became friends.  I remembering telling another teacher, ‘This kid is already really good.  He’s got what it takes to make it — the talent, the charisma and the commitment.'”

Unknown-7That blond-haired kid was Tom Petty.  And Felder was certainly right — he had what it took to make it, in a very big way.

The rock music world was shocked on Monday when word spread of the fatal heart attack Petty suffered at his Malibu home.  He and his band, The Heartbreakers, had just completed an extensive 40th Anniversary Tour with three sold-out shows at the Hollywood Bowl only a week earlier.

And now he’s gone, yet another rock hero taken too soon.  He was 66.

IMG_2069I used to review concerts for a Cleveland newspaper in the 1980s, and the other day I dug up a clipping of a piece I wrote about a Tom Petty concert in 1983.  While I confessed to being largely ambivalent about his records at that point, I readily admitted he had won me over with his live show.  “Petty and his band were superb, injecting a healthy dose of vitality and enthusiasm into his no-nonsense material.”  I labeled his music thusly:  “It isn’t heavy metal, or rhythm-and-blues, or English arty rock, or three-chord rockabilly.  It’s straightforward American rock ‘n’ roll, with emphasis on melody and rhythm.”

Petty was a true giant in the business, with 15 classic albums, a couple dozen now-standard rock radio hits,  and some high-profile collaborations since his debut in 1976.  lat_petty043017big_19167598_8colHis music has offered “a more stripped down, passion-filled, elemental form of rock and roll,” as The LA Times‘ Randy Lewis put it.  His songs borrowed from his ’60s influences — The Byrds, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, as well as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash — to produce his own unique style.

“We always wanted very much to create our own sound,” Petty said in 2006.  “I tried to take whatever influences I had and make them meld together into something that was our own thing.  And we somehow did that.  I don’t know how.”

He was not “a rebel without a clue,” as the lyrics to “Learning to Fly” went.  He was instead a rebel with a passion, and a fierce determination to do things his way.  He famously stood up to corporate record companies and spoke on behalf of the average fan.  “I Won’t Back Down,” one of his best known tracks, is the more apt lyrical description of the man.

Bob-Dylan-Tom-Petty-sydney-1986-896x600Other rock music icons reacted swiftly to the news of Petty’s passing.  “It’s shocking, crushing news,” said Bob Dylan, with whom Petty teamed up in the late ’80s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.  “I thought the world of Tom.  He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”

Bruce Springsteen added, “Down here on E Street, we’re devastated and heartbroken over the death of Tom Petty.  I’ve always felt a deep kinship with his music.  A great songwriter and performer.   Whenever we saw each other, it was like running into a long lost brother.  Our world will be a sadder placed without him.”

Born in 1950 in Florida, Petty was among the thousands of American kids who saw The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and knew what they wanted to do.  “I saw that this was the way to do it.  You form a band, you write your own songs, you do everything you can to maintain control of your dream.  The first time you count four, and suddenly, rock and roll is playing — it’s bigger than life itself.  It was the greatest moment in my experience, really.”

He learned his chops in his first group, The Sundowners, and in lessons from Felder.  By 1970, he formed Mudcrutch, which included guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, who would become mainstays of the Heartbreakers.   The band enjoyed a local following and even won a record contract with Shelter Records, Leon Russell’s label, and relocated to L.A., but not much came of it, and Mudcrutch soon disbanded.  But TomPettyDebutCoverPetty had a solo contract, and he cut a few demos of original songs (“Breakdown,” “Anything That’s Rock ‘n Roll,” “American Girl” and others) with Campbell and Tench, adding Stan Lynch on drums and Ron Blair on bass.

As Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, this lineup did modest business on its first two LPs, charting first in England and eventually in the US.  “You’re Gonna Get It!”, the second LP featuring “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart,” reached a respectable #23 in 1978.  “I think we made the most of not knowing what the hell we were doing,” Petty told Warren Zane in his 2015 book, “Petty:  The Biography.”  “We were having a blast, living the rock ‘n’ roll dream, writing and recording our own music, performing all over the country.  It was a great time to be alive.”

But it was the band’s third LP, 1979’s “Damn the Torpedoes,” that truly launched Petty as 220px-TomPetty&theHeartbreakersDamntheTorpedoesa star, reaching #2 and selling three million copies on the strength of time-honored tracks like “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Even the Losers,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Louisiana Rain.”

Petty and the Heartbreakers toured relentlessly, first in support and eventually as headliners, as the venues and the crowds got bigger.  As the group returned to the studio for its fourth album, “Hard Promises,” MCA Records decided they would capitalize on their newfound success by slapping a $9.98 “superstar pricing” on the next release instead of the then-customary $8.98.  Petty balked, and withheld the master tapes in protest, which helped make the issue a popular cause among music fans.  When he threatened to rename the album “$8.98” to drive home his point, the label backed down.

More than 20 years later, Petty’s LP “The Last DJ” (2002) continued his argument on behalf of the common man, offering scathing criticism of the corporate mentality that TPATH-LastJD_cvrwas dominating the record business more than ever, at the expense of artistic concerns.  The lyrics to “Money Becomes King” yearn for the old days when average fans could afford concert tickets in great seats, before lip-synching, TV commercials, V.I.P. areas and other greed-driven developments changed the vibe:  “As the crowd arrived, as far as I could see, the faces were all different, there was no one there like me, they sat in golden circles, and waiters served them wine, and talked through all the music and paid John little mind, and way up in the nosebleeds, we watched upon the screen they hung between the billboards so cheaper seats could see…”

In a 2002 Rolling Stone interview, Petty said, “Everywhere we look, all they want is to make the most money possible.  This is a dangerous, corrupt notion.  It’s where you see the advent of programming on the radio, and radio research, all these silly things.  That has made pop music the wasteland it is today. Everything – morals, truth, art – is all going out the window in favor of profit.”

_96871101_6e361f15-deef-47f0-9c55-c34d3c3f39ccIn the ’80s and ’90s, though, Petty and the Heartbreakers were riding high with one success after another.  The “Hard Promises” sessions spawned not only “The Waiting” but also Petty’s superb duet with Stevie Nicks, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which appeared on “Bella Donna,” Nicks’ huge solo debut.  Heartbreakers LPs “Long After Dark” (1982) and “Southern Accents” (1985) both were Top Ten hits.   A 1986 tour where Petty & Company backed Dylan broke attendance records at multiple venues.  And that experience led to the fun, musically solid merger of Petty and Dylan with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison on “The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1,” which featured Petty’s vocals on “Last Night” and “End of the Line.”

In 1989, Petty decided to try a solo record (although he ended up using most of the Heartbreakers on most tracks anyway), and he ended up with perhaps his most popular album of all, the multi-platinum “Full Moon Fever,” with “Free Fallin’,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “I Won’t Back Down.”  The follow-up project, 1991’s Heartbreakers LP “Into Tom_Petty_Full_Moon_Feverthe Great Wide Open,” nearly equalled the impact of “Full Moon,” with solid tracks like “Learning to Fly,” “Out in the Cold,” “King’s Highway” and the title cut.

Against Petty’s wishes, MCA released a “Greatest Hits” package in 1993, which included a new single, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”  He later acknowledged the compilation was an attractive option for the casual fan who didn’t already own the original albums, and indeed, the “Best Of” CD remained on Billboard’s Top 200 Album chart for more than six years.

Petty’s second solo album, 1994’s “Wildflowers,” again emphasized his acoustic side, with fine tunes like “Don’t Fade on Me,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “It’s Good to Be King,” “Only a Broken Heart” and the title song, which recall Neil Young and Dylan more than The Stones and The Beatles.

The late ’90s proved to be a challenging time for Petty, with a few more departures from his customary routine.  He and the band regrouped to provide soundtrack music for the Cameron Diaz-Jennifer Aniston film “She’s the One,” which included work by other artists as well.  Then the Heartbreakers lent their talents to Johnny Cash for his new record, “Unchained,” which won a Best Country Album Grammy.  But behind the scenes, Petty and his wife of 22 years divorced, which sent him into a spiral that included heroin use.  He bounced back somewhat by using the experience to write his darkest album yet, the Heartbreakers effort, “Echo.”  Then, after his friend Harrison died of cancer in 2001, Petty joined in a group effort with Lynne, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and others for the superb “Concert for George” concert and subsequent CD the following year.  Petty contributed covers of “Taxman,” “I Need You” and “Handle With Care.”

images-4So many of Petty’s songs, even those from later releases like the bluesy “Mojo” (2010) and the rocking “Hypnotic Eye” (2014), have hit resoundingly with his fan base, which, by the way, covers at least three generations of music lovers now.  “I know the songs mean a lot to people, and that means a lot to me,” said Petty recently.   “Rock ‘n’ roll is more than just something that you can manipulate into advertising, or whatever they do with them.  It means way more than that to me, and apparently to others as well.”

220px-Mudcrutch_album_coverIn 2007, Petty had reached a point in his career where he could indulge himself a bit, so he surprised fans and Heartbreakers colleagues alike by reuniting Mudcrutch for an album and a tour, and then a second LP in 2016.  Mike Campbell, a member of both groups, said, “The beauty of this is Tom wanted to connect with his old friends, and with the pure joy of revisiting the energy we started with.  It’s been very, very spiritual.  It’s commendable that he’d do something so generous.”

A few years back, Petty reflected on his career, and his strengths and weaknesses.  “I don’t have a trained singing voice, and I sure didn’t get into this to be a pinup,” he said with a chuckle.  “Some people are so good looking they can’t help but be a poster boy, but I’ve certainly never been saddled with that problem.

rs-203017-GettyImages-457038636-1“I wanted to be taken seriously as far as writing songs and making music are concerned.  As you’re coming up, you’re recognized song for song, or album for album.  What’s changed these days is that the man who approaches me on the street is more or less thanking me for a body of work – the soundtrack to his life, as a lot of them say.  And that’s a wonderful feeling.  It’s all an artist can ask for.”

R.I.P., Tom.  Although you left us an enviable catalog of great music, you and your brand of authentic American rock will be sorely missed.




Are you gathering up the tears?

Consider, if you will, the misfits and ne’er-do-wells who populate many of the songs in the Steely Dan catalog:

Charlie Freak.  Kid Charlemagne.  Showbiz kids.  Deacon Blues.  Babylon sisters.  Mister LaPage.  Cousin Dupree.  Doctor Wu.  Felonious the midnight cruiser.  The bookkeeper’s son with a case of dynamite.

These are fringe people, generally unpleasant outcast types:  drug dealers, embezzlers, deadbeat dads, trust-fund brats, fugitives, prostitutes, pedophiles, mass murderers, gentlemen losers.

What kind of songwriter comes up with characters like these, and then tells their stories to catchy irresistible beats and quasi-jazzy rhythms?  I’ll tell you who — musical geniuses who always considered themselves loners, marginal sorts, people who didn’t seem to fit in.  People like Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.


Donald Fagen (left) and Walter Becker

“You can infer certain things about the lives of people who would write these songs,” said Becker cryptically in a 2000 interview.  “This we cannot and do not deny.”

Although Steely Dan’s music was smart, sophisticated, likable and accessible, the lyrics were subversive, mordant and sketchy.  As Becker put it in 2008, “That’s what we wanted to do, conquer from the margins.  Donald and I were creatures of the margin and of alienation, and the characters in our lyrics were eccentric, alienated types as well, and so was much of our audience, at least initially.”

Unknown-3And now Becker is gone, dead at 67 from as-yet-unannounced causes.  He had been ill most of the summer and had recently undergone a surgical procedure, but that’s about all we know.  It doesn’t really matter — what matters to us is the fact that he’s no longer here to record and perform the songs we love so well.

“Walter was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met at Bard College in 1967,” said Fagen the day after Becker’s passing.  “He was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter.  He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny.”

At the recent Classic West and East concerts in July, Fagen soldiered on without him, excusing Becker’s absence by saying, “Walter’s recovering from a procedure and we hope he’ll be fine very soon.”

The Steely Dan “band” has been the perennial revolving door of almost interchangeable players — different guitarists, drummers, bassists, sax players, backing singers — so frankly, it wasn’t all that difficult to mask the fact that Becker’s guitar or bass wasn’t on stage.  With that in mind, I venture to say Fagen and company will continue to tour as they have every year or so since Steely Dan was reborn in 1993 after a 13-year absence.

images-1Becker and Fagen were the eccentric wizards behind the compelling music found on the seven brilliant Steely Dan albums of their initial 1972-1980 run, and two lesser LPs in 2000 and 2003.  Almost universally praised for their imaginative creativity and sonically perfect recordings, Becker and Fagen disliked touring because of the weary grind of it all, and the fact that the performances were so erratic.

As Becker put it in 2008, “It wasn’t so much fun back then.  It’s like anything else.  Some nights, it’s fun.  Some nights, it’s not fun.  Back in the ’70s, I’m not sure I cared if it was fun or not.  There were good performances, but it was much harder to guarantee a certain level of quality.”

In 1975, the duo decided to quit touring and concentrate on writing and recording.  The rest of the original band — guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias, and drummer Jim Hodder — wanted (and needed) to tour.  Becker conceded in 1977, “It was unfair of us to spend eight months writing and recording, when Baxter and others wanted to be out touring a lot, making money.  We didn’t want to tour, so that was that.”

From then on, their albums featured the work of dozens of veteran session musicians, seasoned pros who were among the industry’s finest on their respective instruments.  On “Katy Lied,” for instance, guitarists Larry Carlton, Rick Derringer, Elliott Randall, Dean Parks and Hugh McCracken all appear.  On 1977’s best seller “Aja,” Fagen and Becker recruited six different drummers, four additional keyboard players, five sax players (including the legendary Wayne Shorter), and the backing voices of Michael McDonald, Timothy B. Schmidt, Clydie King, Venetta Fields and Sherlie Matthews.  Other greats featured on other albums include Mark Knopfler, Steve Gadd, Victor Feldman, Tom Scott, Joe Sample and Don Grolnick.

“Actually, we’ve had outside musicians on our songs from the first album on,” said Becker in 1977.  “That’s Elliott Randall doing the guitar solo on ‘Reelin’ in the Years.’  You know, The Beatles used Eric Clapton on The White Album, so it wasn’t a new idea to have what we came to call our ‘expanded band concept.'”

Unknown-1Becker grew up in Queens, NY, and graduated from a prestigious high school there in 1967.  He moved on to Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, where he met Fagen and almost immediately formed a bond.  “We liked the same kind of music,” said Fagen, “and when we started writing songs, we found that I could start one and Walter could finish it, and vice versa.  We thought along the same lines.”

They also both disliked Bard (referenced in the lyric, “That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale” in 1973’s “My Old School”), so they left and moved to California, where they secured a contract with ABC Records as staff songwriters. They did the soundtrack for the early Richard Pryor film “You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It” and even got Barbra Streisand to record one of their songs (“I Mean to Shine”).

They met producer Gary Katz at ABC, who loved their music and urged them to form a band.  “Your stuff is so unique and personal, no one else can sing it,” Fagen said Katz told 1828771them.  They indeed formed a band, with Katz at the helm manning the boards, and, in their first rebellious act, named the group Steely Dan, which was the brand name of a sex toy in William S. Burroughs classic novel “Naked Lunch.”

When their debut LP, “Can’t But a Thrill,” was released in the autumn of 1972, it was an instant Top Ten hit, thanks to the hit single “Do It Again,” and its follow-up, “Reelin’ in the Years.”  It was hailed as “literate college rock,” infused with salsa, soul, blues, jazz and straight rock, and it proved influential for dozens of groups throughout the ’70s and beyond.

Unknown-5The band followed with 1973’s underrated “Countdown to Ecstasy,” which featured longer tracks like “Bodhisattva,” “King of the World,” “Show Biz Kids” and “Pearl of the Quarter” where the players could stretch out a bit.  “Pretzel Logic” followed in 1974, with more 3-minute gems like “Parker’s Band,” “Barrytown,” “Night by Night” and their highest-charting single, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” (#4).

Unknown-4Becker disagreed with critics who described their music as an amalgam of rock and jazz.  “We’re not interested in rock/jazz fusion,” he said at the time.  “That has only resulted in ponderous results so far.  We play rock and roll, but we swing when we play.  We want that ongoing flow, that lightness, that forward rush of jazz.”

cover_3340717112009“Katy Lied” and “The Royal Scam” (1975 and 1976) began the new approach, in which they remained holed up in the studio doing take after laborious take, earning a reputation as relentless perfectionists.  And it showed.  On tracks like “Rose Darling,” “Chain Lightning,” “Bad Sneakers,” “Don’t Take Me Alive,” “The Fez” and “Haitian Divorce,” the sound quality on those albums was the envy of rock and jazz 1617480musicians everywhere.

Unknown-1“Aja” in 1977 was perhaps their finest moment, and certainly their commercial peak.  It reached #3 in the US and #5 in England, and sold six million copies.  “Josie,” “Peg,” “Black Cow,” “Deacon Blues” and the title track still get loads of airplay today.

But Becker had developed a heroin habit, lost a girlfriend to a drug overdose, and broke his leg when he was hit by a car.  All this conspired to cause tension and delays during the making of “Gaucho,” which didn’t come out until 1980 (the hit “Hey Nineteen,” along with “Time Out of Mind” and “Babylon Sisters,” f8d43183ab30b0b7ee0baf5d697654dbremain in heavy rotation).  By then, the duo chose to quietly disband.  As Fagen explained, “Walter’s habits got the better of him, and we lost touch for a while.”  Fagen stayed active with an engaging solo LP, “The Nightfly,” and the occasional song for movie soundtracks.  Becker moved to Maui, away from the music business, and went through detox while dabbling at avocado farming.

becker2Becker returned in the late ’80s, producing other artists’ albums and eventually sitting in with Fagen’s new project, the New York Rock ‘n Soul Revue, a veritable cornucopia of musical names including Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald, Phoebe Snow and the Brigati brothers from The Young Rascals.  In 1993, Becker and Fagen ended up producing each other’s solo albums (Fagen’s “Kamakiriad” and Becker’s “11 Tracks of Whack”).  That went well enough for them to decide the time was right to re-boot Steely Dan and tour for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Technology had improved significantly, Becker noted, “and we had more control.  We felt confident that the concerts sounded pretty great just about every night.”

playback-steely-dan100~_v-img__16__9__xl_-d31c35f8186ebeb80b0cd843a7c267a0e0c81647Fagen and Becker wrote and recorded a couple dozen songs and released them as “Two Against Nature” in 2000 and “Everything Must Go” in 2003.  They sounded superb, as expected, but overall, they somehow lacked the appeal of their earlier work.  Still, improbably, the Grammys voters chose “Two Against Nature” as Album of the Year, and Steely Dan has remained a regular touring act throughout the new millennium.

Older fans who cherished the band’s original seven albums have been thrilled to finally have the opportunity to hear Steely Dan songs performed live in recent years.  On some tours, the band played classic albums in their entirety.  When asked in 2013 if there were any older songs he didn’t want to play, Becker said wryly, “As a guitar player, I’m not opposed to anything.  If I were singing them, that would be different.  I might be opposed.”


Becker had been very matter-of-fact about the financial side of things.  When probing Becker’s thoughts on the state of the music industry in 2014, an interviewer pointed out, “Kids are stealing your songs from the Internet left and right.”  Becker responded, “They’re just kids.  They really don’t know what’s right or wrong.  I mean, what can I say?  I’m just glad they like our music and listen to it.”

Fagen, who is perhaps more practical about it, was quoted this week as saying, “I have to tour to make a living.  I get maybe 8% of the royalty money I used to make.  With the amount of free downloading, the business is no longer a business, really.  Also, you have to understand, our songs aren’t covered very often by other artists because they’re very personal.  Generally speaking, Walter and I came from an ironic standpoint, so pop singers really don’t do them much.”

But Becker leaves us with his legacy intact.  Bohemian singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, for whom Becker produced her “Flying Cowboys” LP in the late ’80s, made this poignant observation the other day:  “Walter knew what he was doing.  He planted music.  It grows all around us now.”