Friday, October 06, 2017

Tom Petty: "He was happy to be upstaged..."

As great as Tom Petty was, I'm not sure he ever got his due.  Throughout the course of an amazing career, it always seemed as if someone else was getting more attention, getting more ink.  It might have been Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Seger, or Jackson Browne, or even someone a little more off the wall like Warren Zevon.

But think of the staying power.

I started thinking of all the times in my life I've listened to "Runnin' Down a Dream" and how with each listen, the thrill of the song never fails to catch me.  If it's on the radio or on shuffle, I never fail to turn it up as loud as it will go; certainly louder than is healthy for these 57-year old eardrums.  Then I think of the other songs for which the same thing is true: "American Girl."  "Here Comes My Girl." "I Need to Know."  "Jammin' Me." "Free Fallin'."  "Into the Great Wide Open."  "Swingin'."  "Learning to Fly."  "You Wreck Me."  "Out in the Cold."  Many others.

People who know me know how important music has been to my life.  I've always had a test to measure a song's true greatness - for a song to be truly great, it has to sound just as great on the 500th listen as it does on the first.  Not every song meets that test.  But Tom Petty had enough of them to fill up an entire album; perhaps a double album.  Probably more than that.

But as Greil Marcus noted, "he was happy to be upstaged," whether it be while backing up Roger McGuinn at Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert, or setting the stage for what might have been Prince's most legendary performance, on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" during George Harrison's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  (Sheila O'Malley also nails this aspect of Petty in her great tribute).

Those weren't the only times.  Think of all the songs when the thing you remember most about a Tom Petty song is the Mike Campbell guitar solo, or a gorgeous piano or organ line from Benmont Tench.  I absolutely love this story from Petty, about playing with Johnny Cash during one of his sessions with Rick Rubin:

"Rick Rubin called me and said, "Hey, would you like to play bass on this Johnny Cash record I'm doing?"  I said, "Aw shit, yeah, I love to play the bass."  I started out as a bass player and did that for years before the Heartbreakers, where I switched to guitar.  And of course any time I could work with John I'd be right there. To my surprise I turned up and Benmont Tench was there and Mike Campell and within a couple of days all the Heartbreakers were there, so we were pretty much Johnny Cash's backing band.  And you know what?  We've made a whole lot of records but I really think that was the truest Heartbreakers record I've ever heard.  And it's still really one of the only ones that I just absolutely put on and listen to.  John brought something out of this group that kept on amazing me day to day.  I don't know how he did it."

Honest modesty is a sign of true greatness, and Tom Petty was modest even though there's no doubting that he deserved to be right up there with every one of those legends.

R.I.P.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Ara Parseghian

If you became a college football fan at any time from the mid-1960s through the mid 1970s, you were fed a steady dish of Notre Dame football, whether or not you rooted for the Irish. The team had its own program that aired every Sunday morning, with the legendary Lindsey Nelson narrating a summary of the day's previous game ("...and now we pick up the action in the second quarter, with Notre Dame driving..."). Of course, they nearly always won.
Their coach during that era was Ara Parseghian. Not particularly flashy, and certainly not as charismatic as his peers Bear Bryant, John McKay, Woody Hayes, Darrell Royal or Bo Schembechler, all Parseghian did was win, as evidenced by his ND record of 95-17-4 - with two national championships to his credit. And sure, while one could say that in Notre Dame Parseghian had a built-in advantage that no other school in the country enjoyed, the intervening years have proven that it takes more than a talented coach to win a national title at Notre Dame.
Parseghian could have stayed at Notre Dame for as long as he wanted, but he left about as close to the top as one could imagine - an Orange Bowl upset of top-ranked Alabama, once again vexing the legendary Bear, just as his team had done two seasons before in one of the greatest college football games ever played: the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Eve 1973, which ended with the Irish prevailing 24-23.
Parseghian led a good, if not always easy life - he was a World War II veteran, he would have celebrated his 70th wedding anniversary next year, and in his later years he was a tireless advocate for medical research, after his daughter was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and after three of his grandchildren died from a rare genetic disease.

And on a day when it once again appears that our "leaders" may be prepared to turn their backs on the words of Emma Lazarus, it is worth mentioning that Parseghian's father immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, to escape the Armenian Genocide. In his honor and in the honor of his son, let's hope that future generations will have the opportunities to succeed that Ara Parseghian had.

R.I.P.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Album of the Day - "Sanctuary," J. Geils Band (1978)

It's probably a fair bet that when the death of J. Geils was announced earlier this week, the mental picture that most people had in their minds was that of Peter Wolf. As the singer for the band that carried Geils' name, Wolf was by far the most visible member of the group, with the great harmonica player Magic Dick probably being second (if not him, than Seth Justman, keyboardist and co-songwriter with Wolf of the band's biggest hits).
Although they had been around since the late 1960s and held close to legendary status in certain parts of the country throughout the 70s, the band didn't really strike gold until the early 1980s, with the album and song "Love Stinks" and then the monster hit, and multi-platinum, "Centerfold." Not long after that Peter Wolf decided to leave the group, and not long after that, the band called it quits.
"Freeze-Frame" and "Centerfold" were both great songs, no doubt - and one of my favorite musical memories was the night in Deutsch Hall at UC Berkeley when a Cal Bear football player, fueled by a few too many beers (and who knows what else) decided it would be fun to do a crazy, naked dance to "Centerfold" to celebrate the end of finals week. His performance ended with about 8 of us chasing him down the hallway, to make sure he didn't follow through on his threat to repeat the performance over in the girls' only dorm.
For me, the band hit its artistic peak with "Geils" in 1977, and "Sanctuary" the following year. For this post I chose the latter, which I prefer slightly because of "One Last Kiss," a song I still consider to be one of the best of that decade. Produced by old pro Joe Wissert (who also manned the boards for Boz Scaggs' "Silk Degrees"), the album is a remarkably consistent example of what the band did best - hard rock, tinged with a touch of R&B and soul, and frequently featuring the unique harmonica solos of the Magic Man. No flashy guitar solos, just some hard-driving, well crafted, for lack of a better term, "classic rock."
R.I.P., J. Geils.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Top Sports Moments of January

This is something that I've been thinking about doing for a while, so I guess this falls into the "better late than never" category.  Each month, I'll pick what I thought were the Top 5 sports moments of the month, and at the end of the year will rank them from 1-60 (assuming there are 5 great moments each month, which probably isn't much of a stretch).

For January:

1. College Football Championship game, Clemson v. Alabama.  Hard to argue with a hard-fought, competitive game that comes down to the very last play.

2. Rose Bowl Game.  Longtime readers will know that I'm not a fan of USC, but I have to give them their props for coming from WAY behind to nip Penn State in an all-time thriller.  And just like baseball is better when the Yankees are great, College Football is better when USC is great.  Now I just hope the Cal Bears can beat them some day.

3. Federer v. Nadal, Australian Open Men's Final.  Two great warriors facing off in a great match.  Something we never thought we'd see again.

4. Williams v. Williams, Australian Open Women's Final.  See above.  Ranked lower only because the match wasn't quite as good.  This has been going on for almost two decades now - extraordinary.

5. Green Bay defeats Dallas, NFL Divisional Playoff.  Pittsburgh v. KC was also an excellent playoff game, but this one was for the ages.  AARON RODGERS!  (But props to Mason Crosby and the Cowboys' Dak Prescott as well).

Albums of 2016

Memorializing.

  • The Weight of These Wings, Miranda Lambert
  • Blue and Lonesome - The Rolling Stones
  • 57th and 9th, Sting
  • Joanne - Lady Gaga
  • A Very Kacey Christmas - Kacey Musgraves
  • Walls - Kings of Leon
  • 22, A Million - Bon Iver
  • My Piece of Land - Amanda Shires
  • We're All Gonna Die - Dawes
  • American Band - Drive-By Truckers
  • Day of the Dead - Various Artists
  • Real - Lydia Loveless
  • Freetown Sound - Blood Orange
  • Eyeland - The Low Anthem
  • True Sadness - The Avett Brothers
  • Big Day in a Small Town - Brandy Clark
  • Blackstar - David Bowie
  • Hero - Maren Morris
  • Stranger to Stranger - Paul Simon
  • Hag - The Best of Merle Haggard
  • The Things That We Are Made Of - Mary Chapin Carpenter
  • HitnRun Phase Two - Prince
  • HitnRun Phase One - Prince
  • Painting of a Panic Attack - Frightened Rabbit
  • The Hope Six Demolition Project - PJ Harvey
  • Human Performance - Parquet Courts
  • A Sailor's Guide to Earth - Sturgill Simpson
  • Upland Stories - Robbie Fulks
  • Midwest Farmer's Daughter - Margo Price
  • E*mo*tion - Carly Rae Jepsen
  • Full Circle - Loretta Lynn
  • Untitled Unmastered - Kendrick Lamar
  • Ourboros - Ray LaMontagne
  • The Ghosts of Highway 20 - Lucinda Williams
  • Wonderful Crazy Night - Elton John
  • Palomino - Trampled by Turtles
  • Duluth - Trampled by Turtles
  • Divers - Joanna Newsome
  • Coming Home - Leon Bridges