The untimely death of the great Tom Petty a few weeks ago forces us to look back in wonder at his amazing career and his frankly unbelievable trove of fantastic songs. There are very few American artists in any popular song-making genre who were able to sustain such a prodigiously satisfying output while also experimenting within what was ultimately a singularly unique personal style. Dylan, of course, and probably Springsteen and Paul Simon. But after that I’m at a loss.
Love Is A Long Road
“Love Is A Long Road” is a sterling example of Petty remaining true to his earliest rock instincts even while pursuing new artistic directions. Off of his first solo album, 1989’s Full Moon Fever, and relased at the height of his collaboration with his Traveling Willbury’s bandmate, Jeff Lynne, the song is a standout among such blockbuster hits as “Free Fallin’,”“Running Down A Dream” and “I Won’t Back Down” precisely because it doesn’t resemble them. Rather, it’s classic Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, less slick and more emotional than those other chart toppers. You can draw a straight line from earlier dark horse standouts like “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)” and “Straight Into Darkness” right to “Long Road” and clearly see its intense similarity by way of raw emotion and well-constructed gritty rock dynamics. It’s also a wonderful showcase for Petty’s uniquely evocative voice and it’s no wonder it remained an Easter Egg-like staple in his live arsenal even though the song never charted.
We here at Man’s Fine Life are deeply saddened by the untimely passing of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Tom Petty at the age of 66 after a cardiac arrest at his LA home on October 2. The Rolling Stone obituary is here.
Tom Petty was one of the best of the straight-ahead American rock ‘n rollers to come out of the 1970s, arguably forming a triumvirate with Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger that spearheaded a rebirth of singer-songwriter rock with a gritty edge characterized by narrative lyrics about the common man and impeccably crafted tunes played by top notch bands. It’s easy to forget just what that meant at a time when it looked like conventional blues-based rock was on the wane due to the onslaught of Disco, Heavy Metal, Wus Rock (Firefall, Dan Fogelberg, Bread, et al) and Punk. But like Springsteen and the E Street Band and Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recaptured traditional fans of rock and made legions of new ones with whole albums full of catchy singles suffused with the passion of the true believer in the redemptive power of Rock.
Petty and the Heartbreakers started off with a bang way back in 1976 when they had Top 40 hit with the sinuously assertive “Breakdown” and a very influential non-hit with the Byrds-inflected “American Girl” on their eponymous debut album (legend has it that people were calling up Roger McGuinn to see if it was his new single). With Petty’s oddly effecting trademark nasal delivery and 12-string Rickenbacker, Mike Campbell’s stinging lead guitar, Benmont Tench’s pivotal swirling organ adding uncommon depth and the rock solid rhythm section of the late Howie Epstein on bass and Stan Lynch on drums, the original lineup seemed to emerge as a finely tuned outfit from day one and never took their foot off the gas for the next few years. Their consistently excellent efforts culminated in one of the decade’s best albums, Damn the Torpedoes, in 1979. With such all-time classic as “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl” and “Breakdown,” Torpedoes was an artistic and commercial smash, going 3-times platinum with over three million in sales.
The band entered the 80s with two more fine releases — Hard Promises (1981) and Long AfterDark (1982)– that, while not as successful as Torpedoes, still solidified their rep as major hit makers and one of the most important acts around. Then came Southern Accents in 1983. A beautiful album with a very troubled recording process — Petty broke his hand badly punching a wall in frustration during the mix of the lead single “Rebels” — Southern Accents was originally conceived as something of a concept album by way of an exploration Petty’s “red neck” Florida roots. Other than a general thematic similarity the songs on Accents do not quite add up to a concept album, perhaps because it was trimmed down from a double LP. But it is beautifully produced, significant for its lyrical ambitions and ultimately lovely and artistically satisfying. It hit platinum and so was also successful commercially. But Petty considered it a noble failure and for him the album never quite lived up to the magnum opus that he had in his head when he conceived it.
Southern Accents and the strains of making it marked a true turning point and after that Petty and the band changed subtly but significantly, as if the reach for something grander and more profound had led instead to a sort of artistic burnout. After Petty’s rehab and recuperation from his self-inflicted wound, as well as drug issues which would continue to plague him in the years to come, the music became much simpler and more stripped down if no less radio friendly. On the full band’s Let Me UP (I’ve Had Enough) (1987) and Into the Great Wide Open(1991), as well as Petty’s smash solo album Full Moon Fever (1989), the narratives became more detached, the characters observed from a distance for the most part rather than from within their skins as had been the case on the band’s earlier material. The songs seem more programmatic, more LA and less Gainesville, and frankly, from an artistic standpoint, less interesting. There’s a less nuanced, less bluesy feel overall that sacrificed some complexity for a more universal “rock” sound, which ironically hasn’t aged as well as the earlier hits. If it marked a return to the basic pleasures of the straight-ahead 3-minute single the updated style clearly seemed to abandon much of the passionate involvement of the earlier 1970s music.
His work with the enjoyably light supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, where he teamed up with other legends like Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and ELO mastermind and super producer Jeff Lynne, to create one of the surprise hit albums of the late 1980s seemed to confirm that Petty was done taking things too seriously and suffering for his art. From here on out it would be all rock, no angst, jamming with friends, playing the hits live and just generally enjoying being one of the world’s most successful rock musicians. Petty evolved into a wryly funny wise old hand with hooded eyes and his trademark deadpan drawl, almost a different person from the strangely sharp featured, almost androgynous angry young rocker of the early days.
And who could blame him for that transition from hot blooded rebelliousness to satisfied professionalism? Taken in its entirety the music is still good and highly enjoyable in the later 80s and 90s. But that earlier stuff is where the magic still shines and resonates in a timeless way. Those first 9 years were a remarkable run and stand up with the creative output of pretty much any Rock artist of any era over that kind of sustained period of time. Of course there are probably fans who fall into the other camp and prefer the later, lighter stuff. But for me I’ll take the music up to and including Southern Accents as peak Petty. It’s the music I grew up with and the music I still reach for and play with pleasure.
Personal preferences aside, one thing’s for sure — Tom Petty was a great rocker and well deserving of his Hall of Fame status. He was a music giant who will be sorely missed and the world is poorer for his passing. But the gift of his music lives on as one of the real high water marks in Rock & Roll because Petty was one of the genuine originals in a genre where that’s about as rare as hen’s teeth. Godspeed, Tom, and thanks for the terrific tunes.
I blame that damn Volkswagen commercial with the nice old Irish lady and her family. Or maybe it’s a hangover from a certain Vermont senator’s 2016 campaign. But Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” has been absolutely stuck in my head for weeks now. And so I’m going to inflict it on you, as well, in an attempt to exorcise it from my ear canal
Obviously it’s a gorgeous 1960s classic redolent of complex youthful emotions, lyrics that effortlessly paint a detailed and profoundly human mise en scène and lifted skyward by those patented soaring S&G harmonies. There’s even a very George Harrison-like guitar sound in there rendered instead by Larry Knechtel’s Hammond organ, as well as Hal Blaine’s thundering drums, giving what could otherwise be a straight forward folk ballad complexity, texture and heft. Essentially it’s a perfect single where the words seamlessly dovetail with the music — “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together” — and one that profoundly captures the troubled, fraying zeitgeist of 1968 America. I just hope that by finally posting it I’ll be rid of this masterpiece in my mind’s ear for a while. Sorry if it infects you in the process but it has to be done!
The sad and shocking news that Chris Cornell, founder and frontman of both Soundgarden and Audiosoave and one of the most gifted rock vocalists of his generation, has died at the age of 52 is still reverberating around the music world. He was found dead in his hotel room in Detroit on May 17th while on tour with his re-formed original band, the great grunge pioneers from Seattle, an apparent suicide. Cornell’s loss as an individual and his loss to rock music as a whole is hard to fully process. Our sincere condolences go out to his family and friends.
Searching With My Good Eye Closed – Badmotorfinger (1991)
Unlike their local peers Nirvana and Pearl Jam, with whom they are most closely grouped, Soundgarden was less true “grunge” than an extension of classic 70s hard rock, albeit with sophisticated lyrical themes and innovative musical techniques. While initially satirizing the over-the-top nature of metal at the time they began in the late 80s — see “Big Dumb Sex” for the apotheosis of this in your face, on the nose send-up of hardcore metal misogyny — Soundgarden quickly graduated to a more lyrically complex, more darkly psychedelic metal sound that was uniquely their own. Their real breakthrough was Badmotorfinger, one of the seminal albums of the 90s in any genre. A borderline concept album, Badmotorfinger was inestimably weird and powerful, featuring guitarist Kim Thayil’s patented Drop D tuning on several hard-hitting classics like “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Outshined,” the soaring & ominous “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” and the punishing and mystical “Room A Thousand Years Wide.” Another track from this awesome album, “Mind Riot,” seemed to point in the direction that Cornell and the band would take in future: hard-edged, certainly, but with an almost ballad-like emotional intensity and strikingly original lyrics of searching strangeness and loss.
I was crying from my eye teeth and bleeding from my soul
And I sharpened my wits on a dead man’s skull
I built an elevator from his bones
Had climb to the top floor just to stamp out the coals (I’ve been caught in a mind riot)
Candle’s burning yesterday
Somebody’s best friend died
I’ve been caught in a mind riot
Mind Riot – Badmotorfinger (1991)
After the explosion of Grunge as a distinct genre onto the national scene, fueled by their own success and that of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Screaming Trees among others, Soundgarden followed up Badmotorfinger with an even bigger hit, Superunknown. The new album was characterized by a subtle shift away from pure heavy metal and more emphasis on mystical guitar driven psychedelia. Propelled by the huge MTV hits “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman,” the album also featured other classics like the title track and the propulsive “My Wave.”
Superunknown – Superunknown (1994)
The band also honed their penchant for extreme pessimism with the beautiful downers “The Day I Tried To Live,” “Like Suicide” and the very heavy “Mailman” and “4th of July.” Continue reading →
This old Big Country song from their remarkable Steeltown album way back in 1984 has been going through my head on repeat to start 2017. The late, great Stuart Adamson certainly had a way with a socially conscience anthem.
Aside from the more charismatic elements of the subject it definitely reminds me of someone today. Can’t quite put my finger on it but it’ll come to me, I’m sure…
In the 1960s, AM pop radio was king. FM wasn’t wide spread or heavily commercialized yet — most car and portable radios didn’t even have Frequency Modulation — and the majority of FM’s content was talk and Jazz, with some avant garde college stations breaking new ground by playing true alternative music like the Velvet Undergorund. But if you wanted to hear the hits you’d hear them on AM. While it’s easy to think that only heavyweights like Cream, Hendrix, The Doors and The Byrds were getting all the airplay two of the biggest AM chart toppers of that pop friendly-era were The Grass Roots and The Rascals.
I’d Wait a Million Years – The Grass Roots
The Grass Roots were a prototypical LA band: a good looking and interchangeable bunch of non-threatening white guys who could write a little, play a little but mostly sing very well while letting professional session musicians handle the recording dates and a master producer and songwriting team create their “sound.” On vinyl they were often backed up by that famous group of anonymous studio aces, The Wrecking Crew. But unlike other truly ersatz acts like The Association and The Monkees, The Grass Roots could really Rock when called upon with the commitment that makes for great Blue-Eyed Soul and pop rock. Sure, their music was heavily produced and the band members wound up coming and going at a dizzying pace — their only real mainstay was bassist/singer Rob Grill who wound up owning the band’s name and kept the Grass Roots going until his death in 2011. But under their nod-and-a-wink hippy moniker and backed by the remarkable West Coast songwriting team of PF Sloan and Steve Barri (of “Secret Agent Man” fame) and that great ultra-pop producer/Svengali Lou Adler (Mammas & the Papas, Carole King) and his Dunhill Records label, the Grass Roots cranked out some the seminal hits of the 60s.
Foremost among them is the great “Let’s Live For Today”. Released in 1967 at the height of the Summer of Love, “Live for Today” seemed to capture the youth explosion at its most optimistic, literally proclaiming carpe diem in 2:47 of dramatically arranged, beautifully constructed near-perfection. If it wasn’t “A Day In the Life” or “Good Vibrations”, well, not much else was either and “Let’s Live For Today”s yearning, passionate optimism and chiming but slightly wobbly, almost Eastern guitar notes — not to mention that great shouted “1-2-3-4!” bridge — signaled generational change and renunciation of establishment expectations in the guise of a plaintive love song. It brought the band major success, charting at #8 and selling over a million copies, and it’s simply a great pop record redolent of 60s zeitgeist that still holds up very well.
Midnight Confessions – The Grass Roots
Though not an album band due to their somewhat manufactured, ad hoc structure the Grass Roots had another smash with the beautifully produced and well-arranged “Midnight Confessions,” a typical hopeless love song elevated to super-hooky greatness by a swirling Hammond organ, a walking bass line and some innovative time shifts by the percussion. It deservedly reached #5 on the pop charts late in 1968.
Temptation Eyes – The Grass Roots
1969 saw them score another big hit standing out from a lot of middling material with the intense “Wait a Million Years” and its through-line of insistent electronic beep, dramatic horns and propulsive rhythms. Amidst much band reshuffling the ‘Roots had one more really good song in them, 1970’s “Temptation Eyes”, a solid straight-ahead rocker that was definitely consistent with their overall sound and contribution to the Rock canon. While they’d have even more success with 1971’s “Sooner or Later” and “Two Divided By Love”, those songs are pretty weak sauce with an inescapably cloying Wonder Bread mushiness that does the band no credit. It’s no wonder that they soon petered out and onto the oldies circuit. But their best songs still hold up really well and are a pleasure to listen to. By definition a 60s band, The Grass Roots nevertheless seem prescient in predicting the pop direction of similar acts like The Raspberries, Three Dog Night and Atlanta Rhythm Section.
The Rascals might be viewed as the mirror image of a band like the Grass Roots. Although they charted just as frequently on AM radio during the 60s and their music was also an integral part of the pop soundscape of the era, the Rascals (originally the Young Rascals) were not a West Coast studio creation at all, despite the excellent production and sophisticated arrangements of their best singles. The Rascals hailed from back east in New Jersey and were a real band with four longstanding members who wrote and performed their own material: Felix Caviellieri on keyboard and vocals, the band’s linchpin, Eddie Bregati on vocals and percussion, Gene Cornish on guitar and Dino Danelli on drums. With three of their members having already honed their chops in the band Joey Dee and the Starlighters, The Young Rascals came out of the shoot ready to rock with two reasonably successful hits, the pleasingly raw “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” (1965) and the propulsive, all-time great party anthem “Good Lovin'” (1966).
Good Lovin’ – The Young Rascals
Already the authenticity of the vocals and more rough-hewn, organic excellence of the musicianship declare that the Rascals are not going to be just another sweet sounding pop band with only one or two hits. With an attack owing more to garage bands like the Standells and The Outsiders than to the highly polished sheen of LA’s “West Coast Sound,” but also with more than a casual nod to the British Invasion, the Rascals made the case that East Coast Rock ‘n Roll would not go gently into that good, super-sweet AM radio night.
Which is not to say that the Rascals were radical or confrontational in any overt way. They weren’t musical revolutinaries like Love or social rabble rousers like Jefferson Airplane. But neither were they bubblegum pop. The Rascals were grittier Blue-Eyed Soul with an authentic, intuitive feel for a non-condescending, non-homogenized version of that sub-genre that so many other white acts just couldn’t match. They kept up the good work in 1967 with the Bacharach-like “How Can I be Sure” (covered to even better effect by Dusty Springfield for my money), the surprisingly soulful ode to love and good times, “Groovin'”, a #1 chart-topper, and its fraternal twin single, 1968’s “A Beautiful Morning.”
A Beautiful Morning – The Rascals
Those last two lush and ostensibly happy singles cleverly utilize hints of Latin percussion and feature Cavaliere’s wonderfully evocative, emotionally complex vocals, turning what could easily be pop tripe into something lasting, universal and great. The Rascals were also dedicated participants in their tumultuous times, taking a stand on racial segregation by not accepting bookings on segregated, all-white bills. And when Martin Kuther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1968 it seemed only fitting that they’d be releasing a single that made the case for peace, tolerance and brotherhood, “People Got To Be Free.”
The Rascals peaked early and wouldn’t last much into the 70s, failing to find chart success when they tried to be more ambitious than the 3-minute single and ventured into longer-form tracks incorporating psychedelia, Eastern philosophy and jazz fusion (though for true aficionados the later recordings are still worth a listen, as the musicianship is always excellent). Nonetheless, as a band that wrote & performed almost all of their own material, they were undoubtedly a more serious, substantial Rock band than The Grass Roots despite sharing a similar timeline of success, no argument. As if to prove the point, The Rascals were inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. But for pure listening pleasure, both The Rascals and The Grass Roots still deliver the thrills and hooks of a beautifully fresh pop sound that resonates all the way from the late 1960s to today, whether you’re listening via AM, FM or WiFi.
I sometimes feel that Bruce Springsteen is a victim of his own popularity as well as his perceived New York/New Jersey-ness, often dismissed these days as more of an institution than great artist, a touring extravaganza for nostalgic old East Coasters. But the length and breadth of his musical accomplishments places him firmly in the realm of the greats of Rock, somewhat so obviously that, like a certain type of Hall of Fame athlete, you take him for granted until you start revisiting his oeuvre. I consider him part of the Big 3 of 1970s power pop singer-songwriters along with Tom Petty and Bob Seger, all artists of great integrity and short story-like lyrical brilliance who also share the same talent of being able to surround themselves with phenomenal backing bands.
On 1973’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, recorded two years before the breakthrough smash Born To Run, you can hear the young Springsteen growing by leaps and bounds and handily shedding the “New Dylan” moniker/trap that weighed heavily on so many talented artists in the 70s. The album contains the all-time concert fav “Rosalita” among several other standouts. But it’s the semi-title track, “The E Street Shuffle,” that gives a glimpse of the future for The Boss in terms of lyrical dexterity in painting a vibrant, multi-character milieu with a now-effortless rush of impressionistic words in contrast to the somewhat self-conscious overwriting of his debut Greetings From Asbury Park. Just as importantly, the track is the fullest realization yet of what would become the E Street Band’s trademark ultra-propulsive interplay between rhythm, melody and a big band sound that would lead to so many smash hits in the very near future.
The fully integrated sound that would lead Born To Run to such great musical heights is in full swing on “E Street Shuffle” with dazzling percussion, horns led by the dearly missed Clarence Clemmons’ big barroom sax and oddball instruments like a very wet and bouncy electric piano, as well as sizzling switches between Springsteen’s funk-inflected rhythm guitar and his incisive leads (the great Steve Van Zandt had not yet joined the band). Starting with a brief New Orleanian horn tune up, the song winds up being four and half minutes of unbridled joy and ecstatic catharsis, a tune about a party in the streets that sounds like a party in the studio. That there is a false ending and the last 50 seconds or so goes out with a nearly Isley Brothers-ish, oh-so-early-70s waketcha-waketcha boogie down guitar and horns orgasm makes this kick-ass track all the better.
“The E Street Shuffle” shows Springsteen and the E Street Band very near the peak of their rapidly developing powers as crafters of great American narrative Rock ‘n Roll. The characters spring to life with muscular, impressionistic lyrics, a Springsteen hallmark that would only become magnified with time. And the genuine ebullience and optimism of “E Street Shuffle” would be carried over and amplified on Born To Run but then begin to quickly fade into something much more pessimistic about the broken promises of the American dream with the edgier Darkness On The Edge Of Town, the very sad, downtrodden The River, the misunderstood, highly disillusioned Born In The USA and then the utter despair of Nebraska. Revisiting “The E Street Shuffle” it’s nice to hear a young Bruce and his compatriots healthy, vibrant and bursting at the seams with joy. All the more so because, just like most things in life, that spirit of unbridled optimism wouldn’t last.
As a bonus, here is a pretty friggin’ great live version from 2012 in Denmark where Bruce & the band are joined by the Roots for a good ol’ fashioned block party sing-a-long. From all the miles he’s traveled and the ups and downs he’s been through, The Boss’s enthusiasm for performing and collaborating still shines though and it’s clearly infectious even on an entirely new generation of musicians. The energy the two bands are giving each other while sharing the stage is a joy to behold.
2016 has officially become one of those singularly awful periods in Rock history, like 1959, when Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper all died in a single plane crash. Or that fateful stretch from 1970 to 1971 when Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all OD’d. Continuing this year’s traumatic trend, the world lost the whirlwind musical talent known as Prince this past Thursday, April 21st. The Purple One joins his fellow chameleonic, gender-bending artist David Bowie, as well as Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey among the colossal figures in the Rock pantheon who’ve passed away this year. (Another we lost in 2016 is fabled Beatles producer George Martin, who thankfully lived to the ripe old age of 90).
It’s easy to forget with the passing of time what a controversial figure Prince was when he broke onto the scene in the early 1980s. But then, with album titles like Dirty Mind and Controversy he made it clear he was courting it. It was the Reagan era, a promised return to straight-laced, wholesome American values after the free-love 1960s and the if-it-feels-good-do-it pre-AIDS 1970s. Yet here was this diminutive, light skinned African American emerging fully formed from Minneapolis of all places, dressed like an English dandy and singing some of the dirtiest come-ons ever put to vinyl. A wonderfully unusual lover man — handsome yet pretty, satyr-like but delicate and petite with his pencil thin mustache, long hair and soft speaking voice belying his powerfully expressive singing style — it wasn’t hard for the manly men and hair metal rockers to make fun of Prince. Except that while they and their buddies were down at the local watering hole drinking Buds and listening to Slayer, Prince was systematically bedding their women and bringing those lucky ladies to previously undreamed of paroxysms of ecstasy.
With his utterly unique musical gift for passionate eclecticism, effortlessly blending Soul, R&B, Funk and Rock into one heady hedonistic potion with which to intoxicate listeners, he wasn’t just upsetting to uptight macho guys or self-appointed moral police like Tipper Gore’s dumb Parent’s Music Resource Center. Prince was downright revolutionary, challenging the established musical order of that era. A light-skinned black dude who could shred on guitar like a latter day Hendrix or Ernie Isley while simultaneously promising to ravage America’s daughters of all colors — was he an R&B/Funk sensation or a crossover artist like Michael Jackson, another rare performer who couldn’t be contained or labeled by the then-prevailing radio segregation between “R&B,” “Pop” and “Rock”? Was he just a borderline obscene libertine provocateur or in fact a sensitive sensualist poet-prophet for a new generation? The answer to all of those and many more questions about Prince was invariably Yes.
Prince was aided and abetted in his cross-cultural takeover by the coincidental rise of an even greater societal force, MTV, becoming one of the budding video network’s omnipresent early stars with his seminal (literally) video for the double-entendre filled “Little Red Corvette.” 1984 saw the culmination of Prince’s conquest with the spectacularly popular, semi-autobiographical film Purple Rain, the massively successful album of the same name and its host of high-charting hits, not least of them the gospel-infused title track, which became as close to a theme song as the ever-changing Prince ever had (or maybe it was really “Dirty Mind”). As someone who went to that movie upon its initial release in a small-town theater while away at school, I can testify to Purple Rain‘s impact on a bunch of horny teenaged white kids, even if today we might look back and see nothing much more than a long form video with a typically 80s outsider-makes-good storyline. With the United States still very much on Cold War footing with the Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear annihilation pervading the darkest corners of our young minds, when Prince sang “We’re all excited/But we don’t know why/Maybe it’s ’cause/We’re all gonna die!” on “Let’s Go Crazy” it was pure catharsis. Not to mention a fine excuse to live it up to the fullest right freaking now.
If Prince would never achieve those Olympian heights again his place in the pop music firmament was nonetheless firmly enshrined. He dabbled with Bowie-esque gender bending, as on the especially erotic yet thoroughly empathetic “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” He went through backing bands like Kleenex and collaborated with other artists with a similarly hyperactive drive, writing hit songs for the Bangles, Sinead O’Connor, Stevie Nicks and many others, while also shepherding new acts like Vanity, Bria Valente, Morris Day and the Time and Sheila E. He split from his record label, self-released his music and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, then returned to a major label and started using Prince again. All the while, as he cranked out a ton of amazing music with or without further chart success, it was clear that he was not only his own unique phenomenon but also the spiritual heir to all those great musicians who merged the sacred with the profane, from the Delta bluesmen to Ray Charles and Sam Cooke to Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Rick James. In the process he created an unsettling, stimulating, booty shaking mix of something close to sexual Gospel music for the modern age.
Most of all, Prince refused to be pigeonholed. He was simply the greatest singer/producer/arranger/guitar player/keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist and showman of his time, the fantastic culmination of 20th century African-American music in one diminutive, hyperkinetic package. In the end there was no one like him, before or since. The purple light’s gone out all too prematurely. But we can thank the heavens for his tragically brief but utterly amazing 57 years on this humdrum planet. Because the eternal soul of Prince will always be here to guide us, his dearly beloved mere mortals, and help get us through this thing called life.
Once in a while I like to compare the same really good song done by two really good artists. In rare cases, you can get several versions that all work in different ways. Four is pretty unprecedented but In this case it’s warranted. Because the song in question is the reflective, melancholy Jackson Browne classic, “These Days.” Logically, most of us tend to think of the great singer-songwriter’s own version as THE version. It was released on his second album, 1973’s For Everyman, with a beautifully clean and relatively spare arrangement, highlighting Browne’s distinctively straightforward and non-self pitying vocals as they play against the very sad lyrics and the evocative guitar solos.
But Browne’s years as a teenage songwriting prodigy meant that this was not, in fact, the recorded debut of “These Days.” That honor would go to the enigmatic German artist, Nico, most famous for strangely yet appropriately taking lead vocals on 3 tracks for the Velvet Underground’s debut album (at Andy Warhol’s insistence). When Nico went solo for her 1967 album, Chelsea Girl, there was “These Days” with then-lover Jackson Browne on acoustic guitar, no less, and six years before he would get around to recording it for himself. If you’re a fan of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tannenbaums, you’ll know this version, where Nico’s trademark Teutonic non-emotive, not-really-singing seems to fit the bittersweet, offbeat comedy of that great movie.
More cover versions would not be confined to the past, though. Like few other songs in Rock, “These Days” was certified catnip for different artists’ interpretations. No sooner had Browne recorded his own version of the song, putting Nico’s in the rearview, than Gregg Allman almost simultaneously released a version for his 1973 solo debut album, Laid Back. In truth, Allman had helped Browne with his For Everyman arrangement so it seems only fair that the Southern Rock god would get to interpret it his way. Allman’s take was so good, with his trademark weeping guitar and the stoically resigned double-tracked vocals, that Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone called it “the definitive version” of the song, better even than the songwriter’s own. High praise indeed, even if Mr. Browne and his die-hard fans might disagree.
However, DeCurtis’s declaration predates another very fine version of “These Days” that I’m especially fond of. Paul Westerberg of Replacements fame covered it for his excellent 2003 solo album, Come Feel Me Tremble, speeding it up a bit from the song’s traditional dirge-like pace, adding a loping, almost dobro like guitar in place of the standard 1970s country-rock flatpicking and playing against a nicely chugging rhythm section for momentum.
I think the interesting thing about Westerberg’s version compared to the other three, aside from his trademark ugly-beautiful, slightly wobbly and cigarette-damaged vocals, is that Paul was much older than the other three when he came to record this classic song of regret and resignation. Amazingly, Browne claims to have written “These Days” at the age of 16 (!), so his intense evocation of adult setbacks and heartbreak is precocious in the extreme. By the time he got around to recording it, Browne was still only 25. Allman was likewise a young man of 26 and even the eternally gloomy Nico was only 29 or so. Obviously Rock years are not like regular human years and you could say that even in their mid or late 20s this was a trio of old souls. In fact, Allman had lost his brother Duane and another bandmate, Berry Oakley, the year prior to tackling “These Days,” Browne was already a Rock veteran by 1973 and god knows what Nico had been through in her young life between her time in New York with Warhol, Lou Reed and the Velvets. But when then 44-year-old Westerberg begs “Please don’t confront me with my failures/I have not forgotten them,” you can tell that by this point in his life and career he’s had his fair share.
Any way you slice it, “These Days” is an amazing song open to different interpretations that still retain the essential forlorn quality of the lyrics. And no matter which version you prefer, you’ve got to hand it to the author for writing one of the great rock ballads. In fact, it’s hard to believe it sometimes gets overlooked in the vast Jackson Browne canon. I suppose you could chalk this post up to making sure this gem stays on your radar in one form or another.
Finally got around to acquiring The Kinks’ Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Pt. I on digital after never replacing my old LP of it (probably still in a box in the garage beneath 10 other boxes of CDs!). I had forgotten what a great album it is. Not only the oft-played hits “Lola” and Apeman”, two relatively rare examples of humor propelling successful Rock songs, but also the wonderfully sardonic “Top of the Pops” and the groovin’ “Powerman”. Really the whole album has this lovely, organically acoustic feel via the liberal use of dobros, Martin guitars and banjos that contrasts sharply but pleasantly with the worldly, jaded lyrics. That also leads to an interesting Roots-Americana influence on a band that is really the most archetypally British of all the British Invaders. But perhaps my favorite track on this standout 1970 album is the beautifully wistful “This Time Tomorrow.”
Encapsulating the yearning and ennui inherent in the constant touring of the Rock ‘n Roll lifestyle, the song is 3:21 of musical bliss. From the jet engine opening to the wonderful banjo-guitar-piano interplay to the always excellent Ray Davies’ heartfelt but never maudlin lyrics, “This Time Tomorrow” is one of the great life-on-the-road Rock songs. It also fits in so well with Lola‘s leitmotif of all around disenchantment with the music business at large. After all, whenever you start doing something for money it loses a lot of its charm and romance, its bright-eyed innocence & enthusiasm. But the paradox is that Ray Davies and the Kinks’ very jaundiced reflections on their life as professional musicians vis a vis Lola Versus Powerman produced such a sparklingly gorgeous pop ballad. And like the best of The Kinks, it sounds as good and fresh today as it did 45 years ago. That’s writing what you know even though you may be sick to death of it and still turning it into gold.