Since Tom Petty’s untimely death a few months back, I’ve gone back and listened to a lot of his stuff. All of it, really. It takes a while to digest that many songs, but I started to notice patterns and tropes and themes. He’s always enjoyed telling stories in his songs, and he populates the lyrics with characters who are flawed and funny and all-too-human. Let’s take a quick spin through some of it, shall we?
First and foremost, Tom Petty characters are very flawed. Narrators are open about their foibles — the guy in “The Waiting” openly admits, “Yeah, I might’a chased a couple women around/All it ever got me was down,” while the narrator of “Don’t Do Me Like That” receives a warning from his friend: “Then he said, ‘You better watch your step/Or you’re gonna get hurt yourself/Someone’s gonna tell you a lie/Cut you down to size,” clearly implying the narrator thinks far too much of himself and his abilities with the ladies, but even he won’t be immune when a woman far more clever and uncaring than he rolls around.
We can especially see the flaws when Petty tells a story. In “Something Big,” the main character — known as Speedball — checks into a hotel while he works on…well, something big, just like the title says. There’s no indication of what that something is — it’s implied to be less-than-completely-legal and probably along the lines of a get rich quick scheme — or what, exactly, Speedball is doing to hit that something big, but he’s definitely working on it…until he simply disappears. As the maids clean his room, one of them wonders who he was and what he was doing. Her coworker dismisses Speedball as just another guy “workin’ on something big,” and leaves it at that.
There’s a world-weariness to a lot of Petty’s characters. Even the ones who start out optimistic and full of hope — Eddie in “Into the Great Wide Open,” for instance — end up getting chewed up by the machinery of life and left cynical and apathetic. We see it clearly with Eddie: the youthful optimism as he moves out to Hollywood, gets a tattoo, and learns to play the guitar from his girlfriend, which all gives way to increasing disconnect from his roots as he becomes a big deal and gets a “leather jacket” with “chains that would jingle,” while his A&R representative starts to chide him for not creating a radio single. Eddie, like so many other Petty characters, has the optimism and naivete worn out of him. His wide-eyed enthusiasm for being a big star is ground down to a weary apathy by the end of the song.
Petty himself was no stranger to the corporate cogs that ground down the likes of Eddie or the nameless rocker from “Money Becomes King” (who might well have been Eddie himself). His famous fight with his record company over album pricing, his resistance to the corporatization of rock and roll and radio, his insistence on retreating from the big shiny pop of Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open by following it up with the stripped-down Wildflowers…Tom Petty always did things the way he wanted to do them, the torpedoes be damned.
And despite it all — despite the cynicism and world-weariness in his characters, despite the victory of corporations over people so many times, despite the dehumanizing effect of so much of modern society — Petty always seemed kind of hopeful. He was a guy who truly believed in the power of music, especially rock and roll. While The Last DJ is by no means a good album (despite what my brother keeps insisting), the title track does send a thrill down the spine and remind you of the redemptive, almost religious power of music. Find the right song, sing the right words, and you can free the mind, body, and spirit. “Even the losers get lucky sometime,” he sang. “You can stand me up at the gates of Hell but I’ll/Stand my ground/And I won’t back down.” He may have sung songs about the downtrodden and the weary, about folks down on their luck and out on their asses, but he did it with a wry grin and the belief that you could recover from failure. It’s explicit in songs like “Climb That Hill,” with its admonition to “Get up/Climb that hill again.”
Back when Wildflowers came out, I listened to the album obsessively. It came out in 1994, when I was fourteen and the perfect age to obsessively listen to something. At the time, my least-favorite song on the album was the closer, “Wake Up Time.” It was slow, meditative, and not what a 14-year-old who wasn’t quite convinced of his own mortality yet really wanted to listen to. The album was, if I’m honest, too mature for me. I wasn’t ready for it. But that just means I’ve gone from giggling about the line about rolling a joint in “You Don’t Know How it Feels” to really, truly appreciating how heartbreakingly beautiful some of these songs truly are. I’ve been given a blessing, in a way: the opportunity to grow up with this amazing piece of music, to gain new insight and understanding into its songs as I’ve grown older and (hopefully) wiser. And now, I’m better able to appreciate “Wake Up Time.” The first half of the last verse goes like so:
Well, if he gets lucky, a boy finds a girl
To help him to shoulder the pain in this world
And if you follow your feelings
And you follow your dreams
You might find the forest there in the trees
Wildflowers is a sad album, a lot of the time. It’s one of those divorce records that so many artists have made over the years (Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Beck’s Sea Change, & etc.). But, like so much else that he did, Petty couldn’t help but slip a bit of hope in there. Things are falling apart, yes, but there’s a chance you can put yourself back together afterwards. Not all is lost. And, ultimately, I think that’s the legacy of Petty’s songwriting: he was a guy who told stories that gave us hope. What better legacy could there be?
I’ll be honest: the past couple of months, I’ve thought about giving up on writing.
It’s all very self-pitying. Book Two has not been selling. At all. And that’s had my depression whispering in my ear that I’m not good enough and that I should just quit. It’s a seductive, nasty voice, one that I’ve worked hard over the years to learn to ignore. Nonetheless, it still pops up from time to time, still tells me I’m not good enough and that giving up would be so much easier.
Then I got a call from my brother over the weekend. He’s been one of my patrons over on Patreon, which is apparently in the middle of revising its approach to patron fees in a way that really screws over the folks who are supporting you. He wanted to let me know he was going to cancel his pledge due to the fees issue, but he still wanted to send me money every month.
“That’s not really necessary,” I said.
“No, it is,” he replied, and proceeded to explain:
Apparently, my niece, Annabelle, enjoys reading my comics every morning, but she really got excited when she found out I write books. She’s been trying to read one of them (which, um, she really shouldn’t. It’s not meant for five-year-olds), and has even started trying to write a book of her own.
And it just…well, I might’ve cried a bit, as I am wont to do.
It was encouraging, and reminded me why I enjoy writing so much in the first place. I love telling stories. I love inspiring people. And I love that my niece wants to write and read things I’ve written.
So, maybe I need to take a break from writing hard-boiled detective stories. I’ve got two more already written and ready to send to an editor, so I could take a break from Eddie and company and work on things more age-appropriate for my niece. I already have an idea. I already know what it’ll be about. It’ll be right up her alley, and it’ll be written so that she can read it and enjoy it.
And then, when she’s older, maybe she can read the Hazzard Pay books. Maybe.
Regardless, I’m not going to stop writing. I’m not giving up. That voice in my ear is strong and cruel, but I’m stronger. And I’m stubborn. I’ll keep plugging away until I accomplish what I want.
I’ve come to appreciate the songwriting of Cyndi Lauper over time. While the arrangements for her songs are often very much of their time, the bones of the songs are really solid.
Case in point: apparently, Cyndi Lauper plays the Appalachian dulcimer, and is widely considered one of the most accomplished performers on that instrument. And she’s used this skill to rework some of her songs in very different arrangements that completely transform them.
All of which is a long way of saying: check out this video of Cyndia Lauper performing “Time After Time” on the Appalachian dulcimer. It’s amazing.
I’ve been listening to the latest entry in Bob Dylan’s long-running Bootleg Series, Trouble No More, which catalogs his “born again” years, 1979-1981. It’s mostly just live versions and alternate takes of the songs from his three born again albums: Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love. It’s a pretty limited time frame, not presenting one of Dylan’s most prolific periods (compared to, say, the equally-narrow Basement Tapes era or the early-career Witmark Demos from ’62-’64), and tends to present the same six or seven songs over and over again. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting, worthwhile listen for the Dylan fan.
On the whole, it’s more than a little fascinating listening to these songs. Where the studio versions always seemed a little flat and passionless (ironic, given the subject matter), these live versions come…well, alive. There’s an energy and passion that were definitely absent in the studio versions. Songs like “Precious Angel” and “Solid Rock” sound vital and interesting in a live setting, while songs that were already pretty good — “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Dead Man, Dead Man,” or “Slow Train Comin'” — sound amazing. The band is pretty solid, the backing vocalists are fabulous, and Dylan sounds like a man with conviction, something he was sorely lacking in the studio versions. And this is Dylan, so even though you hear the same song six times in some cases (“Slow Train Comin'” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” both pop up at least six times over the course of the 102 tracks), they often sound drastically different from version to version. This is still Bob Dylan, after all, and he’s always tweaking things and changing it up. The studio version of a Dylan song has always ever been a foundation to build on, not a blueprint that has to be slavishly followed. He changes up time signatures, rhythms, vocal delivery, instrumentation, all in the name of finding the heart of the song. It makes for some fascinating listening.
It’s particularly interesting hearing the few songs from that era that didn’t end up on an album, such as the breezy “Caribbean Wind,” the reggae-tinged “Cover Down, Pray Through,” or the bluesy, chugging “Yonder Comes Sin.” One wonders why these songs were left off the albums in favor of other (in many cases, weaker) songs.
I will admit, 102 tracks is a bit of a slog. I have to listen in smaller chunks (and not just because I really only listen to music on my way to and from work), mostly so I don’t hear two versions of “Slow Train Comin'” on the same drive. Trouble No More does, at least, reframe this part of Dylan’s career, presenting these songs as vital and energetic instead of flat and lifeless. It’s a nice look at such a divisive period.
It’s November 1st, and we all know what that means: NaNoWriMo! That’s right, its’ National Novel Writing Month again. Last year, I worked on a series of short stories (only a couple of which I actually ended up liking), and the year before that was The Invisible Crown. A few years before that – the first time I did NaNoWriMo – I wrote the original draft of The Hidden Throne. And the year after that one, I wrote what’s now Book 4 in the series, the as-yet-unreleased Crooked Halos.
What I’m saying is, I like doing NaNoWriMo. I like the challenge and the structure of it. I always intend to do so much writing during the summer months, when my schedule is looser and there aren’t nearly so many obligations eating away at my time. But I always end up getting nothing done. It doesn’t help that my depression usually rears its ugly head during the summer months, when I’m more socially-isolated than the rest of the year.
But November, for whatever reason, is prime writing time for me. I get so much written every November, even if it’s not a full novel. And it usually carries over into the rest of the winter, with me getting lots of words in throughout December and January as well. I can usually get at least one book written during that time, sometimes more.
So, here’s to a positive and productive NaNoWriMo! I’m planning to use the time this year to work on a few short stories I’ve got rattling around, and maybe I’ll finish up Book 5 while I’m at it. There’s always plenty to do!
Rough draft of a poem I’ve been working on, in case you were wanting a closer look at occasionally-fragile mental state.
I’m afraid of silence
Of the thoughts that bubble up, unbidden,
When I am quiet
So I surround myself with noise
Aural chaff, static to fill the void.
I’m afraid of simplicity
So I make things more complicated than they really need to be
I fill each moment with too much
As a distraction from the truth.
I’m afraid of happiness
Of what it might mean to allow myself to just be me
To just be content in my own skin
So I surround myself with things
To distract my thoughts
The ones that come in the silence
That tell me it’s okay to have simplicity
It’s okay to let myself
Once in a while.