Culturespill » Mike Campbell

Tom Petty: Live in Ft. Lauderdale

19th July

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Not more than two seconds into a thunderous opener of “You Wreck Me,” a knock-out whiff of Moroccan hash blooms from somewhere a few rows back, and most people around me lift their noses to the air and sniff like cats in a fish market, hoping to elicit a mild high. And as soon as Tom Petty spreads his arms like some lost eagle on stage, slowly meandering through the band with a mildly disturbing aimlessness as they play with these “oh, here goes Tom again” looks on their faces, I understand that the dudes behind me aren’t the only ones who are stoned. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be–this is a Tom Petty show, where people go to feel good, forget all the bullshit of their daily lives for a couple of hours, and cheer on the songs that sneaked their way, somehow, into some of their most vivid memories.

I wonder which memory revisits the couple in front of me, as they openly embrace immediately upon hearing the first few strokes of “Free Falling” yawn from Petty’s guitar, a vaguely florescent cloud of weed smoke cloaking their silhouettes in the dark arena–maybe it’s the song that accompanied a first kiss in a parked car under the bridge, maybe it’s the song that reminds her boyfriend of all the horrible tramps he survived to find the woman he’s with, maybe it’s nothing anyone else in this writhing crowd could possibly imagine–yes, probably that–not even our closest friends and relatives are aware of even a fraction of the personal mysteries we take to our graves, after all.


Tom Petty: “Listen to her Heart,” Live in Gainsville (2006)

Few bands deliver as steady an onslaught of syrupy riffs and hooks as Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers, a monumentally underappreciated talent that cynical Emo wannabes dismiss in their desperate pursuit of an identity their friends will approve of. A public distaste for the likes of Tom Petty is as much a rite of passage among that crowd as a good ol’ fashioned paddling at the frat house; and it’s a damned shame, because the human saga that unfolds at one of these shows is as humbling as it is inspiring. Take the beer-bellied dad with a backwards Marlins cap squeezing his huge, balding head up front, for instance, clutching the gates that close him into the first row seats he probably won by calling into a local radio show one day, hoping to score a pair of seats for himself and his kid, maybe to give him a taste of what “pop music” sounded like back before it meant more than a pair of porcelain boobs and a tongue kiss at the Grammies. The lights that scroll the crowd catch him in their glare for a second–he’s belting out every line of “Listen to Her Heart” with a series of convulsive heaves, every one of which takes maybe another ounce of the world’s weight off his shoulders, if only for one night.

When Mike Campbell busts out the 12-string on “Free Fallin'” or lifts his guitar chest-high and beats another searing solo out of the thing, I almost start to believe he’s one of the most underappreciated guitarists in rock ‘n roll. But that’s before Steve Winwood takes the stage to join the band for a killer take on “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and it immediately becomes apparent that Campbell, however accomplished as he may be, is one small trout in a sea of aging but wily sharks. Winwood’s fingers flutter over the guitar he straps on and strums in a single smooth motion–one he’s performed for nearly half a century now–a fact that’s evident in his effortless aplomb as he saunters over the the organ for a surprise from his Spencer David Group days, the enduring miracle of his voice overcoming the band’s noticeably rigid interpretation of “Gimme Some Lovin'”–though the crowd’s relatively indifferent response suggests it’s not an entirely welcome one, with lines to the pisser or the beer stand assembling in the aisles.

Something seems to sour on stage in the aftermath of Winwood’s cameo, as the Heartbreakers stumble out of their cover-by-the-numbers take on “Gimme Some Lovin'” with a frenetic delivery of “Saving Grace,” a newer track from Petty’s admittedly uneven but no-less underrated solo album, 2007’s Highway Companion. The band is obviously insecure in its newer material, as they overreach to turn the tune into a raving rocker with a clutter of misguided noise that ruins what is, in its original form, a blistering and bluesy rocker. For a band that is always remarkably true to each song’s original recording on stage, it’s an especially jarring moment that feels like an eternity.


Tom Petty: “Saving Grace,” Highway Companion (2007)

But a second wind of anthems follows, and you realize, with a modest touch of awe, just how relevant these guys have managed to remain throughout four decades now, tricking high schoolers into a love of Thunderclap Newman’s 1969 hit “Something in the Air” when Petty slapped it onto his greatest hits package in 1994, discovering a polished echo of grunge’s grit on the mischievous staple “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”–a song which, the second Petty unleashes it on stage here in Ft. Lauderdale, is met with the entire crowd’s instantaneous delirium, as if they’ve gone blue in the face holding their breath for this very moment since they took their seats at 8.

Petty and the band hopsctoch in and out of the four decades they swept through–the ’70s (Refugee, American Girl); the ’80s (End of the Line, Runnin’ Down A Dream, Don’t Come Around Here No More); the ’90s (Learning to Fly, Honey Bee, Won’t Back Down). But the true testament to just how many diamonds this band has mined over the years is the crowd of kids who fumble through the lot under the peach glow of parking lot lights after the show, singing their best rendition of “The Waiting,” yet another anthem which, somehow, just couldn’t be crammed into the 150-minutes of rock ‘n roll we witnessed under the dome of Ft. Lauderdale’s Bank Atlantic Center, one of many corporate civic centers cropping up around the country that look every bit as impersonal as their names suggest–a crudeness overshadowed only by the music of those folks who, as Rocky Frisco puts it, “write from the heart, not the wallet.”

Well, Petty’s wallet is doing just fine, but there’s something about the genuinely emotional response his music evokes–that couple embracing before me, the pot-bellied dad screaming the band’s songs back at them with his mesmerized son at his side–that proves beyond any doubt that Petty is one of the heroes Frisco had in mind–an authentic pioneer the likes of whom become fewer and farther between with each passing year.

Ft. Lauderdale Set List 7-15-08

You Wreck Me

Listen to Her Heart

Won’t Back Down

Even The Losers

Free Fallin’

Mary Jane’s Last Dance

End of the Line (Traveling Wilburys)

Can’t Find My Way Home (w/Steve Windwood)
Gimme Some Lovin’ (w/Steve Winwood)

Saving Grace

Breakdown

Honey Bee

Learning To Fly

Don’t Come Around Here No More

Refugee

Encore:

Runnin’ Down A Dream

Bo Didley’s A Gunslinger/Mystic Eyes

American Girl

In Memoriam: Del Shannon

6th June

Memorial
Memorial at the Buddy Holly Crash Site

Just five days before Del Shannon pressed a .22 caliber to his head and pulled the trigger, leaving his wife to find him dead in the den with the rifle next to his body at their home in Santa Clarita, CA, he played the last gig of his life on February 3rd–the anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death. He played it at the Civic Center in Fargo, ND–exactly where Buddy’s plane was headed the night it smashed into a frozen Iowa cornfield at 170 mph just minutes after taking off into a gusty snowstorm, leaving another wife to dig her way out of the wreckage of a broken heart just six months after marrying the man. She did, somehow–but not before miscarrying Buddy’s only child.

It was an especially inopportune time for Shannon to die–as if there is ever an “opportune” time. He had nearly completed a record with Jeff Lynne in the wake of Lynne’s monumental success producing The Traveling Wilburys’ debut and Tom Petty’s ridiculously successful Full Moon Fever album. Shannon was no stranger to success himself–his hit single “Runaway,” the song he would sing for the rest of his life, sold at a clip of 80,000 copies a day back in 1961–but, as with so many pop stars of Shannon’s era, the world with its ever-diminishing attention span quickly moved on to the next fad and the next (prog rock, punk, disco, new wave–none of them exactly suited to the quivering falsetto of a country rock has been.) Shannon’s response was not an unusual one: alcohol. Lots of it. Such cruel reversals of fortune are not easy on anybody, but for a former truck driver who worked his way out of a furniture factory and into the big time on nothing but raw talent, balls, and a song he wrote while working at a carpet store, it had to be an especially difficult wound to his pride.


Del Shannon Performing “Runaway” in 1988
(At 53 years-old, Shannon’s voice was in stunning form here)

Even more tragic was the quality of the music he’d been brewing with Lynne in those sessions, which produced the posthumous and poignantly titled Rock On! in 1991–an album that went on to become one of Shannon’s best-selling records. There was something about Lynne’s signature pop sound and the enduring miracle of Del Shannon’s voice that culminated in some of the finest music the man had ever made–tracks like “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am” or “Walk Away” restored Shannon to the throne of his forgotten legacy, one that Richard Cromelin described as “haunting vignettes of heartbreak and restlessness [that] contain something of a cosmic undercurrent which has the protagonist tragically doomed to a bleak, shadowy struggle.” How was anyone to know, though, that all along he was singing about himself, that somewhere amid all the gloss and syrup of early ’60s pop production stood a man alone with demons he could only face in front of thousands of fans. Maybe that’s what Joan Baez meant when she said that “the easiest relationship is with ten thousand people. The hardest is with one.”

That’s both the mystery and tragedy of Shannon’s premature demise. He took his own life just as it seemed he was catching on again. Tom Petty, a friend of Shannon’s who infuriated him by stealing the equally doomed Howie Epstein from Shannon’s band when Ron Blair quit The Heartbreakers in 1976, reconciled enough with him to produce his Drop Down and Get Me LP in 1982, which featured Shannon backed by Petty’s Heartbreakers (“His voice is like a siren,” Mike Campbell would say.) The album wasn’t exactly a commercial success, but it earned Shannon a minor hit with his cover of Phil Phillips’s “Sea of Love,” reawakening critics to the flame of a talent that still burned as brightly as ever. Shannon scored another hit a few years later when Michael Mann chose “Runaway” as the theme song for his short-lived TV drama Crime Story in 1986. And it was yet another irony in Shannon’s life that another legend who died in the midst of a stunning resurgence–Roy Orbison–left a spot open for Shannon on the next Traveling Wilburys album, a no-brainer given Shannon’s established relationship with Petty and Lynne.

Shannon
Del Shannon with Tom Petty

“It just doesn’t make sense,” so many would say to themselves as they turned on the news the night of February 9th to learn that Del Shannon had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head the night before. But who can say what tormented voices swarm the mind of a man who puts the butt of a gun to his head with the full intention of finishing the job? It’s only nonsensical to we who have not fallen victim to those demons. Though Shannon had reportedly quit the bottle years before when he returned from a creative oblivion to pair with Petty for Drop Down and Get Me, no amount of resurgent glory was powerful enough to push away his pain. “I hated the taste of booze,” Shannon would tell the NY Times of his alcoholism, “But I liked where it took me–oblivion.”

Shannon’s widow, Bonnie LeAnne Tyson, blames her husband’s suicide on the anti-depressants he was taking at the time, a known impetus for suicide. As an article at antidepressantfacts.com puts it, the morbid legacy of psychiatric drugs in the lives of people like Shannon constitutes a “hidden war against artists . . . the powerful psychiatric drug Prozac, which WHO magazine described as the drug ‘thought by some to have a darker side,’ would bring his renewed hopes and dreams of a revitalized career to an abrupt end.” Bonnie would later argue that her husband was “a well-informed and physically healthy man and father, [who] died violently after taking Prozac for only 15 days.” Ultimately, one can’t help but consider the bleak irony with which Del Shannon himself became the “Runaway” he always sang about.

Special Feature: The day after Del Shannon died, his good friend Tom Lazaros wrote a song in his memory called “That Runaway Man.” Check out the video here. The Shannon-esque falsetto chants of “Why, Why, Why” in the background are absolutey heartbreaking.

Culturespill Flashback: Warren Zevon’s “The Wind”

15th May

Zevon in Shadows

One lesson learned from the success of Warren Zevon’s musical epitaph, The Wind, is that any artist struggling too long for that big break probably hasn’t tried dying yet. As the speed with which Zevon’s final album flew off the shelves confirms, there is no better way of boosting record sales than a well-timed death. The album, released just two weeks before Zevon succumbed to lung cancer, sold over 50,000 copies in only its first week out of the gate, making it his first top forty album since 1978’s Excitable Boy.

Mostly, Warren Zevon’s name might get passed around a few dinner tables now and then, and, in a reasonably informed household, the grumbly old man will grunt something like “oh, yeah, the werewolf guy who died of cancer,” before stuffing another forkful of canned lasagna in his face. Yes, it’s true, Zevon wrote the immortal “Werewolves of London,” and if he is remembered for nothing more than its instantly captivating piano riff and that wolf guy strolling the rainy streets of Soho for some Beef Chow Mein, well, that’s more than most schmucks will be able to say for themselves when their cards are called.

It is also true that Zevon did indeed fall prey to cancer at 56 years old Sunday, September 6th, 2003, but not without having something to say about it. He had a whole lot to say, actually-nearly 3 decades worth of death, blood and gore. Zevon always seemed like the kind of guy who’ll take fangs over flowers any day of the week. That said, it’s most fitting that Mr. Zevon’s last word includes some of the most emotionally urgent music of his life, void of even the slightest pose or mask; though a few of the album’s real rockers do pack a claw or two.


Warren Zevon: “My Shit’s Fucked Up”

Death’s approach galvanizes even the most mundane lyric on The Wind. When Zevon sings “Let’s party for the rest of the night . . . we may never get this chance again,” he means it quite literally. The tune itself rocks with the fury of war, as Tom Petty and his trusty Heartbreakers sidekick, Mike Campbell, rock and howl their way right through the song’s last line.

Most remarkable is Zevon’s apparent ease with the fate that awaits him, as though, after learning from his doctor of the inoperable tumor in his lung, he decided to record The Wind in celebration, not despair, for the life he was about to lose. Zevon audibly trades chuckles with members of the band on numerous tracks as they erupt into song together. “Let’s do another bad one, then,” Zevon tells his bandmates before lapsteel guitarist David Lindley rips into “Numb As A Statue,” the album’s fourth track, “because I like it when the blood drains from Dave’s face.”

Of the many renowned friends that joined Zevon to help him make what they knew would be his last album — names like Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder and Billy Bob Thornton top the list — still the primal drum work of lesser-known Luis Conte raises “The Rest of the Night” to the height of its booming promise. One icon falls; another gets busy making his name.

But while similar tracks would rock most other acts off the stage–the stomping, electric blues of “Rub Me Raw” or Springsteen’s jangling guitar searing through the frenzied “Disorder in the House,” for instance–it is the album’s surprisingly tender moments that make it a masterpiece. Concluding with one of the most poignant codas in rock history, the divine, understated “Keep me In Your Heart,” The Wind congeals into a uniquely sincere and confident embrace of mortality. “Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath / keep me in your heart for a while / If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less / keep me in your heart for a while,” Zevon croons along to Jorge Calderon’s acoustic guitar and the legendary Jim Keltner’s shuffling drums.


In Memoriam: Warren Zevon

It is interesting to note another song that begins with an image of “falling shadows”: “Not Dark Yet,” by one of the many noted comrades Zevon gathered over the years, Bob Dylan:

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Whether or not Warren had Dylan’s song in mind when penning his own, it is just as preciously coincidental as it is moving. This is not the only shadow Dylan casts over the album. Zevon’s taut cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is nothing short of sublime. The timeless tune is another of the album’s bitingly appropriate and all too literal anticipations of finality.

Arguably, though, the album’s highest moment arrives amid the ghostly, possessed chants of “Prison Grove”:

Dug in, hunkered down,
Hours race without a sound
Gonna carry me to where I’m bound
Looking down on Prison Grove

Iron will hard as rock
Hold me up for the fateful knock
When they walk me down in a mortal lock
Out on Prison grove

Zevon groans as a harrowing swarm of voices that sound like the mantras of the dead howl “Shine on / Shine on all these broken lives / Shine on / Shine the light on me,” as though begging for a break from some underworld of their own doing. Everyone and their mothers chime in for this one, including old pals Jackson Browne, Billy Bob Thornton, T-Bone Burnett, Bruce Springsteen and, of course, Warren himself. The effect is chilling as Warren snarls “come on!” before each additional chant, as though daring death to show its face amid such dark divinity. Ry Cooder is in rare form here, his famous slide guitar rivaling even the licks he got in on John Hiatt’s brilliant Bring the Family seventeen years prior. Cooder’s prowess captures perfectly the immediacy and courage with which Zevon confronts his owndestruction. “They say you’ll hear your own bones crack,” Zevon asserts, “When they bend you back to bible black.” Well, Warren, is it true?