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.

 

 

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The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll

“If you don’t know the blues, there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll, or any other music, for that matter.” — Keith Richards

When people are feeling down and out, they get depressed.  They get sad.  It happens to everyone.  They get what has often been known as The Blues.

How do we deal with these negative feelings?  As is often the case, we turn to music to put salve on our psychic wounds.  We just sing.  We just play the guitar, or fiddle, or harmonica, and let the music take us to a better place.

bradfordville_540x242And yet, at its purest sense, blues music has been largely ignored by the mainstream public at large.  For instance, there aren’t more than a handful of truly blues songs that have found their way on to the Top 40 pop charts.  Back in 1958, Eddie Cochran’s smoldering cover of  “Summertime Blues” reached #8 on the pop charts, and The Who’s live version ended up at #27 in 1970.   But those are exceptions to the rule.

Still, blues has played a pivotal role in the evolution of rock music, and most major rock bands have included pure blues tunes in their repertoire.  Witness “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” or “For You Blue” by The Beatles, or “Roadhouse Blues” by The Doors, or “One Way Out” by The Allman Brothers, or “Black Limousine” by The Rolling Stones, even “Steamroller” by James Taylor.

Blues music is soulful.  It’s full of deep emotion.  It attempts to address the pain of those who suffer, yet it gives hope and support as well.  And it’s important to acknowledge the fact that the blues emerged from the Southern U.S. cotton fields, where slaves and indentured blacks toiled, looking for a break in their bleak existence.  They found solace in song, and put melody, rhythm and words to their misery.

The first appearance of the blues is usually dated after the end of the Civil War, between 1870 and 1900, a period that also saw the rise of so-called “juke joints” where blacks went to listen to music and dance after a hard day’s work.

9772_b-b-kingsAs blues guitar legend B.B. King put it:

“Blues was started by the slaves, and I think everyone thinks it should all be sad.  But even the slaves had fun with it.  Blues began out of feeling misused, mistreated, feeling like they had nobody to turn to.  But blues don’t have to be sung by people from Mississippi, like me.  There are people having problems all over the world.” 

Icons like Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were the first to record early blues songs in the 1920s in the Delta, at the same time country legends were doing the same thing in Memphis and elsewhere.  The two genres have had a lot in common, and have merged many times in their mutual evolution.  In fact, in the first half of the 20th Century, blues was known as “country blues,” played on acoustic guitars, harmonicas and pianos.  Later, after blacks migrated to St. Louis, Chicago and other Northern cities, “urban blues” developed, which featured electric guitars, basses, organs and brass instruments.

Robert_Johnson

Robert Johnson

But let’s really look at The Blues.  Let’s look at Sonny Boy Williamson (“Bring It on Home,” “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’,” “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” “One Way Out”),  and Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Baby Please Don’t Go”), and Big Bill Broonzy (“Key to the Highway”), and Willie Dixon (“Spoonful,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Little Red Rooster”), and so many other legends who wrote and played heartfelt songs that were popular not only in blues circles at the time but were later interpreted to greater success by others like Cream, Sam Cooke, Johnny Winter, Derek and the Dominos, Steppenwolf, Dave Mason and The Doobie Brothers.

 

We ought to thank the sailors on the postwar merchant ships who brought early blues records with them on their long voyages to England, where youngsters like John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton got their hands on them and had a spiritual awakening.  They formed bands, and  cranked out electric versions of these same blues — records like The Stones’ “Not Fade Away” and The Beatles’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” and “Bad Boy.”

MaRainey

Ma Rainey

“When we started playing in London in 1962,” notes Keith Richards, “we started off with Chicago blues.  If you wanted stardom and fame, clearly that was not the way to go.”

 

By the late ’60s, American musicians had also become reacquainted with the blues, and they joined the blues revival:  Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, Paul Butterfield, Taj Mahal, and so on.  Still, it was the Brits who continued to be the main source of blues music interpretations, thanks to artists like Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck.

Here’s the thing about The Blues:  The best blues you’ve heard, or will ever hear, is not in some domed stadium, arena or large venue.  It will come instead in some dive joint down a dark street in some sketchy neighborhood, where seasoned veterans will play blues music all night long.

chi-muddy-waters-home-museum-20140128-001

Muddy Waters

Perhaps that’s why many music lovers I know have only a small window of appreciation for the blues.  “I’ll enjoy two or three songs, but then I want something else,” says my wife, while I’d be happy to sit in that blues club and groove along until four in the morning.

 

Blues artists have always seemed to be satisfied cruising along just under the radar, gaining just enough attention for people to keep packing the clubs and buying an album or two, but not necessarily seeking top-of-the-charts fame.

I’d like call out the blues music artists, and their albums, that I believe are the ones you should explore.  These are blues legends, or more recent artists who have embraced blues music and are worthy of your consideration.

 

Eric_Clapton_UnpluggedEric Clapton has probably done more to promote the blues than anyone in the music industry.   His work with Cream (1966-1969) revitalized names like Willie Dixon (“Spoonful”), Albert King (“Born Under a Bad Sign”), Chester Burnett (“Sitting on Top of the World”), and Robert Johnson (“Crossroads”).  And the “Layla” album, where he played in tandem with Duane Allman, is one of the best blues albums of all time (“Key to the Highway,” “Have You Ever Loved a Woman”).  In his solo career, he explored many non-blues forms, but he always returned to the blues, his true love.  His bluesiest albums to check out:  John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers “Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton” (1965).  Cream’s “Disraeli Gears” (1967) and “Wheels of Fire” (1968).   Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla” (1970).   Solo albums:  “Just One Night” (1980), “Money and Cigarettes” (1983), “Unplugged,” (1992),  “From the Cradle” (1994), “Riding With the King” (2000), “Me and Mr. Johnson” (2004).

 

Buddy_Guy_SRV

Stevie Ray Vaughan (left) with Buddy Guy

Stevie Ray Vaughan was the heir apparent to the blues guitar throne in the late 1980s.  He emerged from an Austin, Texas, scene with smoldering tracks like “Texas Flood” and “Pride and Joy,” and even had the audacity to cover Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”.  His work made him an attraction to stars like David Bowie, who featured him on his monumental “Let’s Dance” LP in 1983.  Vaughan died in a freak helicopter crash in 1990, just as his career was gaining momentum.  Albums to check out:  “Texas Flood” (1983) “Soul to Soul” (1985), “In Step” (1989).

 

0001132301Buddy Guy is a true legend, and a man Clapton describes as “the best blues guitar player ever, bar none.”  Now 81, Guy has been an explosive force in concert for more than 60 years, and has influenced most of the better known guitarists in the business.  Check out “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” (1991).

Jimmy Page, first with The Yardbirds and then Led Zeppelin, has been at the top of everyone’s list of great blues guitarists, and Zeppelin’s debut “Led Zeppelin” (1969) is the best place to hear it.

John Lee Hooker was a towering blues guitarist and songwriter from his teens in the early ’30s until his death in 2001.  He was a multiple Grammy winner and a major influence on blues music for seven decades.  Try “The Healer” (1989) and “Mr. Lucky” (1991).

Jimi Hendrix recorded only two pure blues songs on his official releases — “Voodoo Chile” and “Red House” — but he did more to reinvent the blues than any guitarist in history.  “Are You Experienced?” (1967) and “Electric Ladyland” (1968) showcase Hendrix’s unique style of blues-based originals.

008811164614BB King, rightly dubbed “King of the Blues” in most music polls, lived to the ripe age of 89, and continued performing upwards of 250 shows a year right up until the end in 2015.  His string-bending guitar style influenced dozens of electric blues guitarists who followed.  I recommend “Live at The Regal” (1965) and “Completely Well” (1969), and his collaboration with Clapton, “Riding With the King” (2000).

Peter Green, founder of the venerable Fleetwood Mac, was in charge of the group for its first three years, when they were known as Britain’s best blues band.  It was Green’s outstanding blues guitar and songwriting that put them at the top of the charts there.  Check out “Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac” (1968) and “Mr. Wonderful” (1968).

617gSnp3ovL._SL500_Duane & Gregg Allman are among the top two or three blues guitarists and singers, respectively, in the business.  Duane died at only 24 but laid down some of the best blues recordings ever in his short life.  Gregg just died this year, and contributed great vocals, organ and songwriting throughout his lengthy career.  Check out “Live  at Fillmore East” (1971), “Eat a Peach” (1972) and “Laid Back” (1973).

Joe Bonamassa was a guitar prodigy, playing electric guitar before he entered kindergarten!  Now 40, Bonamassa puts on a virtual guitar clinic with every performance.  He has such a passion for the blues that he devotes time and treasure to a non-profit called Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation, which funds music scholarships and music education all over the country.  I would recommend “Beacon Theater:  Live From New York” (2012) and “Blues of Desperation” (2016).

Janis Joplin had perhaps the most dynamic blues voice of all, but we only got to hear it for a few years.  Fortunately, records like “Cheap Thrills” (1968) and “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!” (1969) captured her spine-tingling vocals at their best.

John Mayall was and still is a sort of “father figure” to blues musicians from 1960 on.  Consider that Clapton, Green, and The Stones’ Mick Taylor all spent time as guitarists for Mayall’s band The Bluesbreakers.  “John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton” (1965) is an absolute must, as are “The Turning Point” (1969) and “Chicago Line” (1988).

Jeff_Beck-TruthJeff Beck is still blowing people’s minds today at age 73 with his innovative guitar playing.  While he also delved into jazz fusion and progressive rock, he cut his teeth on the blues, as evidenced by his work with The Yardbirds on “Roger the Engineer” (1966) and his stunning solo debut, “Truth” (1968).

John Mayer writes beautiful melodies and sings them with a sweet voice, but until you see him live, you may not realize what a phenomenal blues guitarist he is.  The best album to illustrate this is “Where the Light Is:  Live in Los Angeles” (2008).

Paul Rodgers, former lead singer of Free and Bad Company, was nominated for a Grammy for his superlative album “Muddy Water Blues: A Tribute to Muddy Waters” (1993), which features some of the top guitarists guesting on Waters’ best songs.

Robert Cray, starting in the mid-’80s and continuing to this day, has released new blues albums every couple of years, highlighting his smooth blues guitar work and vocals.  “Strong Persuader” (1986) and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (1988) are excellent LPs from his strong catalog.

j1523_stones_packshot-digital-4000x4000-layered-f23ca9df-dee7-4b99-a7d4-a18b920f3501Jonny Lang was only 15 when he astounded blues music lovers with his debut LP “Lie to Me” (1997).  He continues to amaze concertgoers with his talents on blues guitar.

The Rolling Stones, for more than 50 years, have wanted to make a blues album, playing the music they did when they were just starting out.  They finally did, and it’s a revelation:  “Blue and Lonesome” (2016).

 

 

While blues music only occasionally shows up at the top of the pop charts, and its popularity waxes and wanes over the years, it’s durable.  There’s always a place for the blues.  In a 1968 interview, Willie Dixon was philosophical about the role that the blues play in the larger musical picture:  “The blues are the roots, and the other musics are the fruits.  It’s better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on.  The blues are the roots of all American music — country, jazz, rock.  As long as American music survives, so will the blues.”