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.
Book Two, The Hidden Throne, is now available for pre-order! It goes live on October 20th, a week from tomorrow. I’m very excited that this one is finally getting out there. I’m hoping to have Book Three ready sometime in February or March.
I’m very proud of this book. I’ve spent the past five years working on it, really, tweaking things and making it the best it can possibly be. I hope you’ll pick it up. Like The Invisible Crown, it’s only $2.99 for the ebook. That’s cheaper than a latte at Starbucks.
Ever since I heard about Tom Petty’s passing on Monday, I’ve been listening to his music, both with and without the Heartbreakers (though let’s be honest: even when it was billed as solo Tom Petty outing, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench were along for the ride). But where would a Tom Petty novice start their listening journey? You could always pick up a single-disc greatest hits collection, and that would give you all the really well-known Tom Petty tunes. Or you could dig a little deeper, go for the two-disc Anthology that came out back around the turn of the 21st century (and it features the non-album tracks “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Surrender,” both of which are fabulous).
But if you want to go back and listen to the actual albums? Well, that’s where we have to have our talk. There are plenty of Tom Petty albums that are great start-to-finish, and also quite a few that are spotty, and a couple that are…well, we’ll talk about them. Read on for a run-down of what Tom Petty albums to buy.
We’ll start off with the ones you should definitely buy and listen to in full. Top of the list, as far as I’m concerned, is Damn the Torpedoes! It was the band’s big breakthrough album, and it plays (as so many of these must-buys do) as a greatest hits all its own. “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Even the Losers” make up part of one of the best side 1s ever. On the back half, “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “What Are You Doin’ In My Life?” rock hard, while closer “Louisiana Rain” rounds out the album and ends everything on a wistful note. But even the lesser-known songs from the record — “Century City,” “Shadow of a Doubt (Complex Kid),” and “You Tell Me” — are well-written and compelling.
The next choice is the obvious one: Full Moon Fever. Everyone knows the hits from this album — “Free Fallin’,” “Won’t Back Down,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” are understandably and deservedly monster hits. But there’s even more to love here, too: “Yer So Bad” is funny and classic Petty; “Zombie Zoo” is a brilliant homage to goth culture; “The Apartment Song” and “A Mind With a Heart of Its Own” are slight but fun rockers. Sure, “Feel a Whole Lot Better” is one of the most unnecessary covers of all time, but you can hear Petty enjoying himself, and it’s hard to fault him for that.
From there, the next album to grab would be Wildflowers. Not only is the title track one of the most beautiful songs Petty ever wrote, you’ve also got the stomping “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” the grungy “Honeybee,” and the contemplative “To Find A Friend” and “Crawling Back to You,” the racing “Higher Place,” and the elegiac “It’s Good To Be King” and “Only a Broken Heart.” It is, hands down, my favorite Tom Petty record, the one I go back to over and over again.
From there, you’ve got a whole lot of fair-to-middling albums to choose from. I personally love Into the Great Wide Open, which follows the style and feel of Full Moon Fever. The songwriting isn’t as strong, but it does feature the title track and “Learning to Fly,” and I kind of love everything on that record (also, I can play pretty much all of the songs on it on the guitar, which is always fun). Their self-titled debut is pretty solid, featuring “Breakdown” and “American Girl,” two of their best-known songs. There’s also “Hometown Blues,” a fun little stompy rocker. They haven’t quite found their sound, and the songwriting is uneven, but it’s worth listening to. Echo is the last of the classic albums. “Room at the Top,” “Accused of Love,” “Won’t Last Long,” the title track, “Lonesome Sundown,” “Counting On You,” “This One’s For Me,” “About to Give Out”…honestly, there’s not a bad song on the album. I only recently came to appreciate the album, but damn is it good. An underrated gem is the soundtrack to She’s the One. “Walls,” “Climb That Hill,” “Angel Dream,” “Supernatural Radio,” and “Zero From Outer Space” are all excellent, and the rest of the songs — including a cover of the Beck song “Asshole” — are equally strong. It feels like it’s of a piece with Wildflowers, which is not a bad thing at all.
From here, we move on to the albums that are a bit more mediocre. Hard Promises, the follow-up to Damn the Torpedoes!, is pretty solid. Songs like the phenomenal “The Waiting,” “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me,” and the driving “Kings Road” all make this an excellent choice. You’re Gonna Get It features “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart,” two of Petty’s best tunes. Another standout is “Too Much Ain’t Enough.” Long After Dark has “You Got Lucky,” “Change of Heart,” and “Straight Into Darkness.” Southern Accents features the beautiful title track, “Rebels,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and “The Best of Everything.” All that being said, “Spike” is really freakin’ weird. Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) features “Jammin’ Me” (co-written with Bob Dylan), “Runaway Trains,” and the gorgeous “It’ll All Work Out.” Highway Companion, Petty’s third solo album, was almost as good as his first two solo outings, including tracks like the bluesy “Saving Grace,” the graceful “Square One,” and the bouncy “Big Weekend.”
Finally, we’ve got the bottom of the barrel. These albums all have a good song or two, but they’re not really vital. Mojo is bluesy but forgettable. Hypnotic Eye, the band’s most recent album, is pretty solid, but again is fairly forgettable. But the worst of the bunch is The Last DJ, Petty’s effort to craft a loose song cycle about the death of independent radio and musical freedom. It’s…not good. The songs don’t feel particularly inspired, the lyrics are weak, and it all feels more than a little hackneyed. The title track is pretty good, and “Dreamville” is quite nice, but it’s not an album you’ll reach for very often, if at all.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers had a hell of a run. They cranked out more classic albums than most bands could dream of producing. If you’re looking to get into his work, I hope this helps you find your starting point.
When my wife and I first got together, we went to a Tom Petty concert at Jiffy Lube Live (nee Nissan Pavilion). It was a great show, as every Tom Petty show I’ve ever been to was: he played the hits, running through them with the Heartbreakers like they were brand new songs. Everything felt fresh. It always did. I sang along as loudly as I could, which I also always did at Tom Petty concerts.
Tom Petty was one of the first musicians I developed a strong liking for independent of my father’s musical tastes. Sure, dad like Tom Petty, but I really dug the guy’s stuff. Dad got me Damn the Torpedoes! on tape, as well as Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open. I listened to them until the tapes warped.
The first time I saw Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers play live was in Oklahoma City in 1991. I was all of 11 years old, but my dad had managed to snag front row center tickets for us (I think Uncle Randy had actually got the tickets for us, since dad was usually on the road working and couldn’t be at the phone the second the tickets went on sale). Regardless, it was the greatest concert experience of my life. Petty and the band danced around the stage — which featured a massive inflatable tree with a doorway in the trunk — and Petty had some antics with a storage trunk and that hat he wore a lot in the ’80s and early ’90s, then he got chased around by guys in Nixon and Reagan masks in a bit of political theater 11-year-old me was definitely not tuned in to. It was a hell of a show, and I sang along to every song. At the end of the show, Tom Petty leaned down from the stage and handed me his guitar pick. I was stunned. I was ecstatic. I was grinning so wide my head just about split in half. I’ve still got that pick, tucked away in a baggie with a second edition Boy Scout Handbook at one of my parents’ houses.
Tom Petty’s death has hit me hard, harder than Bowie or Prince did. It hits as hard as George Harrison’s death back in 2001. I listen to his work on a pretty constant basis. No matter what other music comes into my life, I know that Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers are always there with their chiming guitars and nasally vocals. Petty always seemed like he was having such fun making music, even when it was about serious stuff. The Heartbreakers were the band I wanted to be in — sure, there were better, more popular bands out there. There were even a few with better songs, though not many. And no one seemed like they enjoyed their work more than these guys. Petty had this laid back, chill vibe, and an aw-shucks sort of approach to his own super-stardom that was very endearing. The shots of him in the behind-the-scenes video about the Traveling Wilburys — the supergroup he was in with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison — made it clear he felt like he’d hit some sort of undeserved jackpot. There’s always a “what the hell am I doing here?” grin on his face. He was the fan who became an equal.
Petty’s songs are going to outlive us all. “Free Fallin’,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “The Waiting”…there are so many classics on every album they put out. Damn the Torpedoes! especially would be some other band’s greatest hits. Any other guy would’ve put out Wildflowers and coasted on it for the rest of their career. Not Tom Petty. He kept cranking out well-crafted tunes that other musicians would’ve killed to have written.
Tom Petty was and remains one of my all-time favorites. In the hypothetical desert island discs top-5, Wildflowers or Damn the Torpedoes! would definitely be on there. He passed too soon. The great ones always do. And while his death leaves a massive hole in my life, at least I have all the music he created to try to fill that hole.
I am a sucker for Beatles-based pop music. It’s cliche, but they’re my favorite band. Always have been. I may not listen to them as much as I did when I was younger, but I still know all the words to all the songs. I can sing along to the guitar solos. I can name the albums in order without looking.
You know who else could probably do that? Jeff Lynne of the band Electric Light Orchestra (or ELO, as I’ll be referring to them for the rest of this post). Lynne married the smart pop sensibilities of the Beatles to classical strings and weird keyboards, and created some of the best damn pop music ever.
It’s a tremendously clever idea, and Jeff Lynne is a damn solid songwriter. By turns serious and silly, bombastic and subtle, he wove together disparate elements into cohesive songs. Outside of diehard fans, though, I don’t think many people know who he is (he was the guy in the Traveling Wilburys who wasn’t George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, or Roy Orbison). Yet he deserves accolades and admiration. The man is meticulous and precise, a perfectionist who tweaks and fiddles until everything is just so.
Lynne’s style, both as a solo artist and with ELO, is glossy and shiny. He takes the Phil Spector Wall of Sound approach and cranks it up to eleven, adding layers of shimmery guitars and soaring strings over odd keyboard riffs and a solid rhythm section. And his vocals . . . Lynne can do the warbling croon of Roy Orbison, then suddenly switch to Del Shannon’s falsetto, and it all sounds amazing.
If you’re interested in getting into ELO, where should you begin? Skip their first couple of records. The sound and the songwriting just aren’t quite there yet. And skip their last couple of albums from the mid-’80s, where the band is almost unrecognizable from its mid-’70s heyday. Start with either Face the Music, A New World Record, or Out of the Blue. They’re all excellent. Out of the Blue is a double album and gets sorta bogged down here and there, but it does feature some of the band’s best-known tunes, like “Turn to Stone,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” and “Mr. Blue Sky.” Face the Music starts with the amazing instrumental “Fire on High,” and then goes on to classics like “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic.” It’s probably the least of the three classic-era albums, but it’s still damn solid. A New World Record is just awesome from beginning to end, featuring “Telephone Line,” the opera and classical music name-dropping “Rockaria!,” “Livin’ Thing,” and “Do Ya.” Honestly, I’d just start with that one.
If those three albums whet your appetite and leave you wanting more, the next trio of albums to dig into are Eldorado, Discovery, and Time. Eldorado and Time play as loose concept albums, with Time feeling very much of its, um, time, with the early-’80s production and emphasis on keyboards and weird vocal and guitar effects, but it has some great songs including “Twilight,” “The Way Life’s Meant to Be,” “Rain is Falling,” and “Hold on Tight.” Eldorado is lighter on great songs, but the whole thing holds together and flows very well, taking the concept of the Rock Opera and going whole hog with an overture, reprise, and everything. Discovery is the least of these three, honestly, though it does feature the smash hit “Don’t Bring Me Down.” It’s honestly not that great, lacking the strong songwriting and clever hooks of peak-ELO.
From there, I’d suggest the two most recent ELO albums, Zoom and Alone in the Universe. Both feel like classic ELO, though they’re mostly just Jeff Lynne doing everything himself (except for the strings and a couple of slide guitar parts on Zoom provided by George Harrison). There’s nothing particularly memorable about Alone in the Universe; it’s good, and sounds great, but it’s pretty forgettable.
After that, I guess you can pick up their first three albums, No Answer, Electric Light Orchestra II, and On the Third Day, and their mid-’80s work, Secret Messages and Balance of Power, but none of them are particularly essential. No Answer doesn’t even sound like the same band; there’s a lot more emphasis on the strings, and it’s definitely less poppy. I chalk that up to the fact that Lynne wasn’t in charge of the band quite yet (Roy Wood was the driving force initially, but he left after the first album and Lynne took over). Electric Light Orchestra II features ELO’s version of “Roll Over Beethoven,” which is pretty much perfect. On the Third Day starts to sound more like the ELO we know and love; songs like “Showdown,” “Daybreaker,” and “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle” are classics, and their cover of the classical tune “In the Halls of the Mountain King” to close out the album is brilliant.
When the band went on hiatus in the mid-’80s, Lynne focused on producing, and helped produce some of the best albums of the era. He did Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever and Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Into the Great Wide Open. He also produced George Harrison’s ’80s comeback Cloud 9, and Roy Orbison’s final studio album, Mystery Girl. He was also one of the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup to end all supergroups. Suffice to say, the dude stayed pretty damn busy in the late ’80s.
All in all, you really can’t go wrong with ELO. If you’re intimidated by all the albums, the two-disc Strange Magic compilation is a pretty solid introduction to the band’s work, giving you the decent songs from the crappy albums and the greatest hits from the really good albums. There are other compilations out there, too, but that’s the one I recommend the most.
I’m sure most authors have lots of bits and pieces of writing, scenes or chunks of dialogue that got cut from a story because they didn’t fit the tone or killed the pace or just weren’t really needed. Orphans, I call them. Pieces of writing that don’t fit into any existing work, or that were cut for whatever (often very valid!) reason. A lot of it is stuff you might actually like, that could be very well-written, but just not what was needed. They say authors need to kill their darlings, a reminder while editing that just because you love some thing you wrote doesn’t mean it belongs in the book you’re writing. But I’m not sure you have to kill them, per se. I think you can save them, tuck them away in a folder somewhere in the off chance that someday, somewhere, you’ll find the spot for that little piece that you wrote. You’ll find it a home, a forever home, and the warm glow in the pit of your stomach will leave you feelin’ fine.
I’ve got a couple of places I store such orphans. There’s a folder in Dropbox that has everything I’ve written related to Eddie Hazzard over the years. There’s lots of Word documents with a paragraph or two jotted down, an exchange between characters or the description of a scene or a crime that I want to keep because I like the idea. I also have a note on my phone of Hazzard lines, usually short bits of dialogue or a quip from Eddie that I particularly like (these often end up getting shared on Twitter for the #1LineWed hashtag game). Many, if not most, of those will end up in a Hazzard story someday. A couple of them I’ve actually written short stories or scenes in a book around already.
Below, I’ve decided to share an orphan that I really like, one that may someday fit into a book or a short story or…something. I hope you like it.
* * *
It takes a lot to get me to blink. I’m not a man prone to backing off from a confrontation, which has brought me sorrow and pain more times than I can count.
But it’s just not in me to back down from a fight. I can’t do it.
Which is how I found myself staring across a room full of people at my nemesis, one Maribelle Vander Grove. Her skirt was pleated and pressed perfectly, her white blouse was unblemished by wrinkle or food stain, not a hair was out of place on her head. Her whole demeanor put my carelessly rumpled self to shame.
“Well?” I asked, not breaking eye contact.
“Jane Seymour,” she responded evenly.
I broke away first and glanced around at the rest of the room. Ten other children, all aged about 12, sat there, staring back at me. “Is that, um, is that right?” I asked.
Joey Standlin, a skinny kid who managed to project an aura of pocket protector-ness even though he was dressed identically to everyone else in the room and wasn’t wearing a pocket protector, cleared his throat hesitantly. “Um, yes, Mr. Hazzard, Maribelle is correct.”
I straightened up from the defensive crouch I’d instinctively taken during my confrontation with the child. “Well, then, a point to Maribelle,” I said.
My name’s Eddie Hazzard, and I’m a private detective currently pretending to be a substitute teacher. My coffee is most definitely spiked.
I was sick over the weekend and the beginning of this week, which means I got a whole lot of nothing written (well, I wrote exactly two things: a one-liner for Miss Typewell that I like, and a couple lines of what will eventually be a song).
But I was busy last week! During my downtime (mostly lunch time), I did a second draft of Book 3 of Eddie Hazzard’s adventures. In the process of polishing things and making sure it all made sense and wasn’t absolute crap (jury is still out on all that; it needs to go to my beta readers next), I added about 2,000 words to its length. My stuff tends to be short; this book currently clocks in at about 55,000 words. Book 2 is a little over 60,000, and Book 1 was around 56,000. But I believe in getting in there, getting the story told, and getting out. I don’t need to describe every single brick of every single building. This ain’t Tolkien. Could I expand things, make the story longer or add in more detail? Sure, I could probably do those things. But I like economic storytelling. I like stories that can be read quickly. So that’s the sort of stories I write.
Sometime in the next few months, it’ll go out to my beta readers for their opinions and perspectives. I trust them; the two ladies who’ve beta read my other books have offered excellent advice and suggestions. Then, I’ll make a few tweaks based on their feedback and find an editor to pick through it. With any luck, I should have the book ready to publish by early next year.
I’ll probably start doing the next draft of Book 4 in the next few weeks. It needs more work than the earlier books did; of everything I’ve written, it’s the one I’m least-confident in (it’s also technically the second full-length novel I wrote; it’s gone through two massive rewrites since the first draft back in, like, 2013). With any luck, that one will be off to the beta readers before the end of the year.
One of the things I’ve noticed about successful self-publishing authors (from this Facebook group I’m in) is that they’re constantly working on multiple projects at once. They’ve always got things in various stages of completion. I need to do that to capitalize on any momentum I might end up generating with one of my books. Sure, the first book hasn’t really sold well (or at all, to be completely honest), but that’s okay. It’s the first one. I have to build the audience and bring in the readers over time. Eventually, they’ll be there. The sales will be there. I’m mostly doing all of this for fun. It’d be nice to recoup expenses (good editing services are not cheap), but I’m mostly doing this because I love telling stories. That’s not going to change anytime soon.
So, it’s the end of summer, and the beginning of a new school year. This time of year is always a bit strange for me. While most folks think of autumn as a time when things slow down as the weather grows colder and the trees shift colors, I tend to feel more energized. It probably has something to do with getting back to school and in front of the classroom.
Summer tends to be a bit of a doldrums for me, writing-wise. I think I maybe wrote 1,000 words the entire summer. I did do quite a bit of planning on a couple of works in progress, but I didn’t get a whole lot of actual words on the page, so to speak.
That being said, it’s the first week of the new school year for me, and already I’ve managed to get quite a bit done. I finally reformatted The Invisible Crown for the paperback version with the new cover and a few minor tweaks to the text here and there. I also formatted the paperback version of The Hidden Throne, though I’m still waiting on the cover for that one. I’ve also released a free ebook version of my short story, “Solitaire,” through the website Instafreebie. The idea is that the short story will serve as a way to pull people into the world of Eddie Hazzard and maybe convince them to buy the book. It’s only been downloaded a few times since I put it up, but it’s already translated to at least a couple of sales, so I’m happy about it.
So, what’s coming up? Well, The Hidden Throne is ready to roll as soon as it gets a cover. In the meantime, I’ve started work on a new Hazzard short story about his first case as a solo private detective. I’m also working on a young adult novel (it’s mostly planned out, though I’ve only written a few thousand words on it so far). Of course, there’s also editing and proofing of Hazzard Pay Books 3 and 4 to be done, and I’m still working on Book 5. Books 6 and 7 are in the rough plotting stage, too. So there’s lots of writing ahead, and my motivation seems to finally be kicking in again after the word drought of summer.