The July Project

While I’m entering the home stretch with the rewrite of Book 4, I’ve decided I want to spend the month of July doing something a little different. So, every day for the month of July, I’m going to write a song or a poem. I’ll probably share a few of them here as we go along.

“Even the Losers”

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?

Trouble No More

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.

The Tom Petty Discography – A Primer

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.

Favorites: Electric Light Orchestra

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.

ELO face the musicIt’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.ELO_A_New_World_Record

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.

ELO-Out_of_the_Blue_LpIf 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.

ELO live.jpgAfter 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.

The Doubleclicks – Love Problems

I think the thing I’ve always liked about the Doubleclicks – aside from their unapologetically geeky topics and references – is their earnestness. There’s an open honesty to their songs, an understanding of the human heart that they’ve just chosen to discuss in the context of comic conventions and science and Dungeons & Dragons.

While there are fewer of those references in their latest, Love Problems, the sisters retain that honesty and understanding. It’s a gorgeous album, musically their strongest yet, and more direct in its addressing of their core issues.

Before, the ‘Clicks used pop culture as a lens through which to examine the treatment of women in contemporary society and how forming meaningful connections is difficult and maybe sometimes not entirely worth it? People are awesome, but also sometimes the worst. On Love Problems, they address those concerns more directly. There are songs about gender and sexual orientation, about being sensitive but also very much a badass, and about our need to be important in someone’s life. But there’s plenty about the alienation people often feel, even when they’re not physically alone.

I’ve got a lot of favorites from this album already. The opener, “Lord of the Rings,” examines the ways an old relationship can ruin things you always loved (except LOTR. No one gets to take that away from you). “Kilogram” manages to be a touching love song about the actual Kilogram, the object in France from which all other kilograms get their standard. “Sensitive Badass” is . . . well, it’s exactly that, and it gives me the feels, as the kids these days say. “Big Bang” is a sadly beautiful duet featuring Jonathan Coulton, while “Out of Charge” is an a capella ode to when our phone (or our self) is just too low on battery for us to be able to do anything. “Extra Gin” is the drunken barroom singalong geeks have been waiting for and never knew it.

Songs like “Now is the Time,” “Women Know Math,” and “Wrong About Gender” deal with sense of self in very direct ways, addressing women’s issues and the sense of fear that women are forced to experience by an oppressively patriarchal society. But there’s a sense of defiance and determination that permeates these songs (and the rest of the album, really). “If you haven’t yet realized that we are political, you haven’t heard us,” Angela Webber sings in “Sensitive Badass,” and damn if that isn’t the truth.

Should you listen to the Doubleclicks’ Love Problems? Yes. Very much yes. While there’s a lot of hurt and frustration in the lyrics of the songs on Love Problems, there’s also a sense of hope and determination there. This isn’t the music of people who are resigned to just accepting the way the world is. This is what it sounds like when women raise their voices and announce they’re not going to sit idly by. Stand up and raise your voice with them.

Envy

Well, after having the cover to my book as my phone background since November, I finally changed it earlier this week.  I tend to change phone backgrounds pretty frequently, so my dedication to the book cover background was unusual.

I switched to the image above, a sketch by the artist Nick Derington.  A quick perusal through his website – especially the sketchbook section – was pretty inspiring and impressive.  I love the guy’s art style.  Reminds me quite a bit of Chris Samnee or Darwyn Cooke.

And his stuff makes me extremely jealous.

I mean, that Batman image is a rough sketch he did with a ballpoint pen.  My finished art has never looked that good.  Never will.  Part of me is so envious of his talent.

It’s the same way with lots of authors, too.  I read their work and I’m jealous of their talent, their skill, their ability to craft a story or a character or even just a line of dialogue.  “I’ll never write anything that good,” I say to myself, discouraged and deflated.

Here’s the thing, though: everyone who does anything creative or artistic feels that way at some point.  When someone as talented and well-regarded as Neil Gaiman can still experience impostor syndrome, you know it’s a worry that weighs heavily on all of us.

So I constantly have to remind myself that someone else’s skill does not detract or reduce what I do.  I think back to a thing I heard, years ago, about music: every song is someone’s favorite.  By correlation, every book or comic must be someone’s favorite, too.  So, while there’s folks out there who absolutely love that image of Batman up there (like I do), there’s probably someone out there who prefers something I’ve drawn.  For every fan of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, there’s someone out there who loves some other book more (maybe even my book, though I’m not so full of myself to think that’s actually true).  Hell, there’s probably even someone out there who likes the “song” (and I use that term loosely) “Revolution #9.”

Am I still jealous of Nick Derington’s skills?  God, yes.  Am I going to let that stop me from creating my own stuff?  Hell, no.

Flash Fiction: Valeria’s Song

The Giant’s Barrel, a rough-and-tumble pub in the worst part of Halftown, was exactly what you’d expect it to be.  The proprietor, Grim Harstaff, saw to it that was the case: he personally sloshed beer onto the half-rotted straw strewn across the floor.  He’d put several of the nicks and notches on the bartop himself with an old dagger from some ancient war campaign he’d fought in a lifetime ago.  The place was kept dimly-lit, smelled of stale sweat and beer, and had air the general consistency of a thin gruel.  Certain qualities were expected, he said, and he wanted to provide the right ambiance to his clientele.

Valeria liked the Giant’s Barrel.  The beer was cheap, most of the men drinking there didn’t try to ogle her, and Grim would occasionally let her play her lute on the makeshift stage Grim and Garric would erect with a few planks over a couple of barrels at one end of the bar’s great room.

Not that Valeria ever understood why anyone wanted to ogle her.  She was a barbarian from the great northern tribes, where they bred their men and women for heartiness, not loveliness.  Her chest was better described as pecs rather than breasts, and she had broader shoulders than almost all of the pub’s regulars.  And, as the Giant’s Barrel was the watering hole for mercenaries and soldiers of fortune, adventurers and treasure hunters, this was saying something significant.

She kept her hair cropped short; she usually cut it herself with her dagger, the same blade that she cut her meat and stabbed her foes with.  Valeria was not picky about her appearance.  She had no interest in attracting a mate or even a brief romantic partner.  Valeria would rather learn a new tune than bed someone.  Yes, she’d had her dalliances as a young woman; she’d taken men and women to bed, searching for that spark that so many others described when engaging in bedroom shenanigans.  But she’d never felt it, and had accepted that it just wasn’t for her and moved on to more important things.

Most important was her music.  Her instrument was meant for delicate, gently-plucked melodies, but she’d always hammered on the strings like they were slabs of metal hot from the smith’s forge.  Valeria’s maestro when she was a young woman – a small, bald old man with nearly-useless eyes and the sharpest hearing imaginable – lamented her wasted talent.  “You could play any song you set your mind to,” he said, “but you always choose these old drinking songs and tavern sing-a-longs.”  And then he’d mutter to himself for the rest of her lesson.

Valeria was also unique in her ability to turn her tunes into magic spells.  The bardic spellcasting skill was virtually unheard of among her tribe; not that there were many bards in her tribe to begin with.  She’d been destined for training as a berserker.  She was certainly built for it, and no one excelled in shield biting like Valeria.  But she loved music more, and snuck away from her martial tutors and made for the city of Melorica, where she found the best musicians she could and started learning everything possible about playing.  Within a few years, she had a reputation as a daring interpreter of existing compositions and a lyrical, innovative composer in her own right.  The fact that she liked to write drinking songs for the common man was a source of some embarrassment among the musical intelligencia, but Valeria did not care even a little.  She loved what she played, and she found a way to turn her music into supportive spells for her allies in battle.

And Valeria was finding herself drawn to battle.  Yes, she’d abandoned her studies with the tribal war master, Carrouk, years earlier, but she still had the blood of the Hoursmooth tribe flowing in her veins, and she still felt the need for glorious battle.

So she’d taken up with the dwarf, Garric, and started adventuring.  And it fulfilled a need she’d forgotten she had, sated a desire that she’d thought she’d buried years ago.  That she got to combine her desire for battle and her love of music to become the world’s only barbarian bard was just icing on the proverbial cake.

Occasionally, though, Valeria felt the need to just play music for the sake of playing music.  On those occasions, she would head to the Giant’s Barrel, have Garric and Grim assemble the makeshift stage, and sit on the stage for hours at a time strumming and plucking the strings of her lute.  She played familiar folk tunes, drinking songs passed down for generations that everyone knew the words to, and original compositions of her own.  The crowds were always appreciative, clapping and hooting and singing drunkenly along.

There was one song, though, that Valeria never played at the pub.  One song that she kept to herself, only played when she was alone.  It was a sad song, a song full of longing and nostalgia and sentiment.  Anyone who knew Valeria would have been surprised she had an ounce of sentimentality in her soul; barbarians were not well-known for their pathos.  It was a song about home, about growing apart from everything you knew, about loneliness and the desire for amiable companionship.  Not about love, not exactly, but about something akin to it, like friendship only deeper.  Someone to share things with.  Garric came close, Valeria would admit, but he wasn’t quite it.

So the song was for herself, and no one else.  Maybe someday, someone else would get to hear it.  Maybe she’d even share it with Garric, if the time was right.  But for now, it was hers alone, and she would sit and play it for herself on quiet nights when no one was around.

 

Protest Music

If you’ve had a conversation that lasts more than two minutes with me in the past month or so, you’ve probably heard me go off on some rant about the current political climate and America’s current administration.  Believe me, I’d love to talk about something else, but every time I turn around, something new and horrifying has happened and I get angry and riled up all over again.

Now, this may seem tangential, but my creative pursuits go in waves.  Sometimes, I’m all about novel writing, sometimes it’s comics and drawing, and sometimes it’s music.  Lately, it’s been music.  And here’s where it connects: the single upside to my current mood and reaction to American politics has been to write a slew of protest songs.

Now, there’s a long history of musicians picking up an instrument and address injustice and inequality.  Guys like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie made their careers writing songs of protest (sure, Dylan moved away from that pretty quick, but that’s how he started out).  Speaking out for the less fortunate, the voiceless, the silent masses – that’s what protest music is all about.

And so, despite my distaste for the current administration and its policies, my songwriting has felt pretty inspired lately.  I would gladly trade inspiration for a different president, mind you.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Echo Reconsidered

I’m a pretty big Tom Petty fan.  I’ve seen him in concert three times, the first on the Into the Great Wide Open tour (front row center, and I got Petty’s guitar pick at the end of the show!), then again for Wildflowers, and then on a tour where he just played greatest hits a few years ago.  It’s safe to say he’s one of my favorite musicians.

If I have to rank Petty’s albums (both solo and with the Heartbreakers), it’s pretty easy.  Wildflowers is sitting pretty at the top, followed closely (in no particular order, ’cause they’re too close to call) by Full Moon Fever, Damn the Torpedoes!, and Into the Great Wide Open.  Somewhere further down the list, after Hard Promises and Southern Accents but before Mojo and (shudder) The Last DJ, there’s Echo, the 1999 follow-up to Wildflowers (and the soundtrack to She’s the One, which was of a piece with Wildflowers).

When it initially came out, I enjoyed the record, but wasn’t all that impressed with it.  Wildflowers had set a ridiculously high bar for Tom Petty albums, after all.  You weren’t going to top that thing.  I really enjoyed “Room at the Top,” the album opener, and a few other tracks along the way, but it’s very telling that, with most Tom Petty albums, I can sing along to every single song without a problem.  But I can’t do that with Echo.  I know the choruses (Petty’s choruses are always catchy as hell), and I’m vaguely familiar with the songs, but they haven’t become ingrained in my brain the way, say, the songs from Into the Great Wide Open or Full Moon Fever have.  The album always felt too long: it’s 15 songs, over an hour long, and just felt too full.

But when I got into the car a few days ago, and decided I wanted to hear Echo, it was an opportunity to reevaluate the album and see if an older, wiser (?) Charlie could appreciate it in a way that 19-year-old me could not.

For starters, “Room at the Top” is still freakin’ awesome and a great opener.  It’s anthematic, hopeful, heartfelt, and just all-around great.  “Counting on You” is a solid, classic Petty song, and “Free Girl Now” rocks as hard as any of the rockers on Wildflowers.  “Swingin’,” with its extended baseball metaphor, kind of drags, but things pick up real quick with “Accused of Love,” which was one of my favorites from the album back in the day and holds up remarkably well.  The title track is a little too plodding for my tastes, but it’s not a bad song. “Won’t Last Long” is a tune in the same vein as “Won’t Back Down,” a statement of defiance and resilience.  “This One’s For Me” is a fun, strummy song that feels like classic Petty songwriting.  “About to Give Out” has a driving beat and is a lot of fun.  “Rhino Skin” is a weird song, but does feature the phrase “you need elephant balls,” which I’m kind of amazed he worked into a song with a straight face.

Overall, my estimation of Echo is a bit higher than it was when it came out 17 years ago.  Petty’s songwriting is as strong as ever, the band feel expressive and lively, and everyone sounds like they’re having a blast playing these tunes.  All pretty strange, considering it’s a post-divorce album (those’re typically dour affairs, even as they generate plenty of fodder for the songwriter’s muse).  Petty seemed to make some pretty damn good lemonade out of those lemons, if you ask me.