Grunge

Runnin’ Down a Dream

When Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers first burst on the scene in the mid-70s, I was…ah… suspicious — it seemed to me, inexperienced music fan that I was at the time, there was a possibility the band was aiming for pop stardom or LA pretty boy fame that could be leveraged into… I dunno…a career as game show hosts? Stars of the next Cameron Crowe movie? Well, it quickly became apparent that my radar had been faulty as Damn the Torpedoes, their big breakout album, proved to be a smart, rockin’ affair, chock-full of great tunes and great playing. Even at this point in his career there was an edge to Petty that, although he was laconic and laid back about it, basically announced to the world and any and all potential business associates, that he was always gonna do it his way. Call me crazy, but I can’t help but admire a person with those kinds of instincts and sensibilities. Though he never sounded or acted much like a Southern Rocker, for all intents and purposes Petty was; one just had to peel back the layers a bit to see it. And then, there was The Heartbreakers, his backing band. And what a band! Guitarist Mike Campbell quickly established himself as a “tastemaster”; a well-grounded player versed in all of the essential elements of great rock and roll styles, but disciplined enough to always support the singer and the song. Likewise for the keyboards of Benmont Tench. Neither guy ever overplayed his hand. The great rhythm section of Stan Lynch/Ron Blair gave Petty the ability to write songs as tight as The Beatles/Byrds or as loose and funky as Stax/Booker T and the MGs, which is exactly what he did and they always pulled it off awesomely. As the 70s rolled on into the 80s, Petty’s star kept rising and though some of the albums were not fully realized and some of the critics chided him for being shallow or not fully committed to I don’t know what, there was always that Tom Petty song on the radio that I didn’t change the dial on…and so the moorings of a 40+ year career were established.

By the mid 80s he was headlining a whole new genre — HEARTLAND ROCK; a “movement” that only lasted about 10 minutes in 1985, but is still a thing in programming jargon. How Petty and his band went from LA New Wave to heroes in Iowa in the space of 10 years is still a mystery. Perhaps LIVE AID had something to do with it. Or FARM AID. I dunno…the 80s were a little confusing. I was certainly confused sometimes…Talk about connecting with your (or somebody else’s) roots! U2 was probably more than a little jealous. After all they TRIED to do the same thing with Rattle and Hum and all they got was well-deserved derision. (Maybe it’s just me, but the guy who wears the sock hat constantly never sounded particularly “rootsy”). The truth is TP and the Heartbreakers kept building their nationwide audience by subterfuge; they had played Heartland-sounding music from the beginning, wrote great songs, and avoided all of the bombast and most of the overexposure that plagued other 80s stars (Phil Collins, Sting, Huey Lewis). Sure, Stevie Nicks sang with the band on a big hit song, but not liking Stevie Nicks is downright UnAmerican. The band was able to score hit song after hit song because that is the medium to which Petty excelled as a writer and probably how he related to rock and roll in the first place. So, as a band they were always around, no matter the “era”.

The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades!

Then there was what I like to call the LIKE-ABILITY FACTOR. A lot of rock stars aren’t really very likeable, some are even complete a-holes. Yet, one always got the sense that Tom Petty was a pretty cool, down-to-earth, affable guy, even if he was ornery sometimes. You understood the orneriness and accepted it though because he was in a tough business and no matter who you are, everybody’s had to fight to be free. He didn’t take himself too, too seriously and was always honest about his feelings and intentions and that counted for a lot. You never felt like he was putting you on or telling you stories about people he read about in the newspaper. I hate that crap. With Tom it was always personal, but never overblown. He knew how to write and sing to people so they didn’t feel put upon. Did you know that the song I Won’t Back Down was inspired by an arsonist burning down Tom’s house? While he and his family were in it? Most of the house did burn down and the person was never caught and that’s pretty messed up, yet a very succinct and brilliant song came out of the ordeal. A song you could sing after 9/11 or in the cancer ward…or after someone tries to burn down your beautiful house. There was always that to-the-point authenticity to Petty’s single-based songcraft and the fact that he didn’t give you a 9 minute story like Dylan, turn it into a hopeless dirge like Springsteen or pile 34 different instruments onto the track like Mellencamp made you like him even more. He wasn’t ever gonna be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but, thousands and thousands of people were capable of singing along because they KNEW his songs. That’s a pretty impressive achievement, especially in today’s 8 second attention span world.

By the end of the 80s Tom completely looked the part of a wizened California mega-stoner with his acoustic guitar, his traveling top hat, and the friends in super high places: Harrison, Dylan, Lynn, Orbison, Garcia and Ringo. (You have to be cool if you have Ringo as a friend). He was in a very successful project with some of these “friends”, recorded a career-defining solo album, Full Moon Fever, and a suddenly a whole new era of Pettiness began. Just in time too because there was a whole new generation of angst-ridden Generation X youths who, in time, would come to appreciate Tom and the Heartbreakers just as the previous generation had…and for the same reasons. Unlike the loudmouth/controversial-type rock stars that prowl the horizon and the pages of tabloids, I don’t think there was an I Hate Tom Petty Fan Club out there in the universe. Even hipsters grudgingly respected him in that ironic kind of way. How could you hate a guy who wrote…

Take Back Joe Piscopo!

…into one of his chart-topping songs? Petty’s inherent goofiness and rock and roll sincerity made everybody sit up and RESPECT because he had that real deal gift for the art of communication. Even the songs that don’t sound like much will fool you. Listen again and you will find they usually contain a line or couplet that just defines life or a person’s place therein, and you’ll realize (after your 50th listen) that maybe it’s this small comment on emotions, the unfair nature of life, or unbridled human determination to go on that was the basis for the whole song in the first place. Tom did that a whole lot because these moments are scattered throughout his catalog. He would continue writing and recording songs for another two decades with the same sense of assurance and modeled on the same sounds and influences that always worked. In time, the band became an institution and I do believe that Tom knew that his time was coming to an end, at least as a rock star, so he loaded up the tour wagon one more time and went out like a boss, doing what he loved, taking it to the people like he and the Heartbreakers had been doing since the 1970s.

And so… I was shopping for Christmas dinner a few months after Tom Petty passed over and his voice suddenly filled the store, singing that silly Christmas song he released back in the early 90s and there I was, staring into a cheese display for three minutes. I saw Tom in many mediums, but going back to when I was still a teen, through all of the jobs I had, including many driving hours, when rock and roll radio was always on, I LOVED to hear his songs on the radio because they fit so perfectly. And now to realize that this voice, this guy, who has been singing and talking through this medium for more than forty years will only exist that way from now on — forty years of radio, concerts, MTV, and playing his music…forty years worth of LIFE blast through my head in the space of a few seconds. While it’s hard not to get sad and emotional, there comes the realization of not only the inevitability of life and death, but also, though I could’ve lived at any time, I lived in this time and heard all of this music and so much more… and my life was made so much richer by it.

Recently I was able to attend the Loser’s Lounge Tribute to Tom Petty and it was pretty fun. This long-running music cabaret has thrilled and chilled audiences for a quarter century at this point. WOW! This is the first time I’ve seen them though and this isn’t something I would normally do, but I’m glad I went. The basic band is HOT! They are led by Joe McGinty and they are seriously crazy good…probably the BEST drummer I’ve seen in a long time only because he was so solid and crushing and you need that if you are going to put on a show like this. But everybody else: bass, guitars, percussion and backup/lead vocals by the core band was just brilliant. They had my attention all night. They had guest singers come up for the long two sets of songs they did and while some of it didn’t work, the stuff that did more than made up. The evening made me realize even more how great Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers were, because even the stupendous versions by these great musicians still came up short and so would anyone’s attempt to try to copy one of rock’s truest originals. Fare thee well Tom…Thank you! May you run down that dream forever!

Cool CDs — COWS, 5678s, High on Fire

Every once in awhile I listen to a bunch of loud music from the old days…the fabulous 1990s. Above is COWS bringing it from 1996 in Minneapolis. Saw them that year! In addition to regular club dates they were on the Indie stage at Lollapalooza and toured with TOOL. They completely plow through these songs with their trademark razor wire guitar + throbbing rhythm section + demented front man with total abandon! There are quite a few live COWS shows from those days up on YouTube now and that is a great thing! Brings it all back for us who were there and helps those who weren’t and wished they could’ve been glean a little of what it was like. Bands like COWS should be preserved for posterity. That was some a-ok fun and reckless stuff happening right there ladies and gentlemen.

I hear, well saw actually, that there was a reunion show in Minneapolis last year that was very well-attended and enjoyable for all who were there. I think there have been a few of those over the past couple of years, but guitarist Thor Eisentrager bowed out in 1998 and has never returned. I think that is why today if something happens they are referred to as COWZ. There have been releases (?) of old material and some different things?. Of course, Amphetamine Reptile Records is the label that released all of the COWS material and a whole lot of other great aggro-noise besides. They are still in existence, in a limited way. I got the hankering to DO SOME MOO (listen to COWS) and looked through my stacks. I knew I still had some COWS cds and I do and I threw them on and started looking about the internet to see what’s what. I found out that Old Gold, which is a compilation of their first 3 albums: Daddy Has a Tail, Effete and Impudent Snobs, and Peaceticka, is completely out of print. Hmm. I would imagine the albums it represents are also long gone, but, through the magic of YouTube, they LIVE, NOW ON your computer. Pretty cool.

cows3The music on Old Gold is pretty crazy, especially the early stuff. COWS hadn’t quite worked out their sound and presentation yet, but tracks like Camouflage Monkey, Shakin’ and Memorial (always in rotation in many COWS sets) prove that even back in the late 80s, they had all of raw energy and power necessary to become a great punk and noise band. Some of the other “songs” like Dirty Leg, Whitey in the Woodpile and Bum in the Alley are just plain weird. By the time you reach Peacetika (peace sign and swastika get it?) the band is really coming together. Hitting the Wall (one of the band’s defining tunes) is some of the most unhinged, volatile, molotov-cocktail music produced by anyone ever. The title track is also a great tune — an “instrumental” sound collage that drives in a Sonny Sharrock meets Joy Division direction that I wish the band would’ve explored further. Cant’ Die and 3 Way Lisa are also le terrifique! There are a few folks out there who think Peacetika is the best COWS release and it is definitely #2 for me! (I review 1992s Cunning Stunts, in the right column and believe that to be #1, though not by much.)

cows2The COWS songs had both feet in the disaffected rage of the Beavis and Butthead trailer-park generation; that slimy underbelly of the rust belt towns that were once built around a church and a somewhat stable economy. Kind of like the movie Fargo if everyone acting in the movie did so on 3 hits of really hot blotter and a tub of Big Mickeys. They represented and embodied the post-industrial, post-modern, post-Grand Funk/Stooges generations even if some of they did was pure drug-induced psychosis or prairie schtick. Musically there was a mess of blues, jazz, and the sounds Midwestern rock icons like The Stooges and Alice Cooper scattered throughout. Sometimes what sounds like a guitar is actually a bass line all distorted, effected and played with a slide! I can’t say for sure he invented it, but I’ve never seen anyone but Kevin Rutmanis play bottleneck bass. On cuts like Shitbeard, off of the Sexy Pee Story disc, both Rutmanis and guitarist Eisentrager play slide on their respective instruments! Talking about rippin’ up the rule book! Any pretense of typical technique is not really evident, but repeated listening will prove that these guys worked hard on putting together a group sound that was much more than any one individual’s musical abilities. Supposedly guitarist Thor would come to sessions with pages of his parts notated out. There is a lot to enjoy and learn here and I hope there are younger musicians out there who pick up on it. This is one of the things people did before there was an internet and American Idol and running through the East Village because of a rumored Kanye West secret show on a post office loading dock. Ok…so maybe it would’ve been at Webster Hall. Still. srsly?

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Anyhow, in the course of going through my stuff I came across discogs.com, which is a pretty hip, user-generated-type site that has all kind of really important information pertaining to the recorded media one may have. This is where I found out that Old Gold is something people want. What’s even more bloody brilliant is that I have a promo copy of Old Gold too. I have no idea where I got this, but it’s in great shape, except it looks like it’s 20 years old. Oh wait…it is.

cows1The track listing isn’t any different, but I saw that someone is asking almost $100 for it on Ebay. Wow! Of course, vinyl is the way to go! Some of that stuff is really worth a lot, but I don’t have any. I’m glad people are seeking out these COWS releases…Way cool! I’m sure it’s tough to drum up the support necessary for a full re-release so hopefully everyone who wants a copy will somehow manage to get one. I may even part with mine eventually, who knows? The thing about CDs is the discs are usually in pretty good shape long after the listener has major problems (haha). You really have to take care of vinyl to have it still sound good 20 years later.

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Another CD that I have is this one by The 5678s — a band favored Quentin Tarentino (the band made an appearance in the movie Kill Bill) and assorted guys with backpacks everywhere. New CDs are selling on Amazon for $150. Holy Smoke. These gals were/are sassy and sultry and they got the Americana retro thing down like a shimmyshack. I saw them a long time ago in a small club in NYC, but they were pretty ordinary as far as really being able to bring it live unfortunately. Maybe they had jet lag. Japan is pretty far away, you know? I gotta say though…they gave it their all and looked fantastic!

56781I’m pretty sure I bought this from my friends at Vital Music Records a long time ago. I like this CD and love the Americana music even more than I used to, but I do, in my old age, prefer the polish of someone say, like Friends of Dean Martinez over the kitschy power of The 5678s. But, as with COWS, it’s great younger people seek this stuff out. Back in the day RAWK like this was flying off the shelves everywhere. Things have changed, I know, but Rock and Toll is a force you need in your life!

The last thing I found diggin’ through the stacks was this copy of High On Fire’s first release. This looks to be an in-demand item on discogs.com too — 91 people want it and only 17 people have it, although no price is mentioned. This release was put out by 12th Records, which I think, didn’t do anything else after. The three songs that appear on this CD would also appear on the Man’s Ruin release The Art of Self-Defense in 2000, but I’m pretty sure they are different versions. Master of Fists is slower and sludgier, but all three are performed very well. It’s easy to see that guitarist/leader and ex-member of the legendary Sleep, Matt Pike, already had his sound, style and riff factory up and running it was only a matter of time before the metal world caught on.

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