Monday, August 7, 2017

Rock On

On Stephen Stills and Tom Petty

Several years ago an academic colleague and I embarked on what we called a “Stills-off”: we would listen to our record collections and narrow the musician Stephen Stills’s oeuvre down to its top five songs. Then we’d see whose list was better. I assumed our choices would overlap, and that high among them would be “4 + 20,” whose piercing Appalachian melancholy seems to belong more to the ages than to the moody twenty-four-year-old who wrote it, as well as “Find the Cost of Freedom” with its sea shanty cry of grief and endurance. We would both surely include his Buffalo Springfield resistance anthem “For What It’s Worth,” with Stills’s calm, urgent baritone and rhythmic stops; originally released to protest a Los Angeles curfew—its composition probably began earlier when Stills was still nineteen—it has endured long past its original occasion. According to Tim Rice it is “one of the best songs ever written with just two chords.” (Rice is a lyricist: the song has more than two chords.)

But my colleague and I could not stay away from Stills’s rocking guitar solos—“Crossroads,” for instance, or “Ain’t It Always,” pieces that got Stills labeled “Guitar God” on YouTube. Then there is “The Love Gangster,” from his double album, Manassas, on which Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones plays bass. Wyman wanted at the time to leave the Stones and join Stills’s band; the instruments on Manassas are all in the hands of virtuosos. Stills has put out recordings in which, like Prince, he has played all the instruments and sung all the parts. (“Do for the Others,” a song from his first solo album, is aptly named.) But Manassas did not require that.

And so our lists began to burst at the seams and soon the Stills-off seemed an increasingly stupid exercise. Stills, now seventy-two, has often been named one of the top rock guitarists of all time and is the only musician to have recorded with both Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton on the same album—his first solo LP (1970). His work has sprung from every stripe of American music—blues, folk, rock, “songs with roots,” as he has put it; he was “Americana” and “singer-songwriter” before those terms were used. And although as a child he began as a drummer and tap dancer, the only percussion one is likely to hear from him now might be when he knocks rhythmically against an acoustic guitar. Once, on a 2006 tour that was being filmed, he tripped over some electrical cords and fell to the stage with a certain percussive flair. “We’ve got more lights than we’re used to,” he said. “We usually don’t care if they can see us because we’re old.”

A year after my misbegotten Stills-off I attended a sold-out concert in Nashville by the Long Players, a tribute band that performs one single album from start to finish at each of its concerts. This time they had chosen Déjà Vu (witty!), which is the first and best (and for a long while was the only) album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. (Ampersand and no Oxford comma for Young: when he needs to get out of a band he flees quickly.) No sooner had the Long Players begun with Stills’s “Carry On” than the capacity crowd was standing—this cannot always be counted on with members of the AARP—and singing along at the top of their lungs. Jubilant, revelatory, the evening was more than a geezer-pleaser: it was baby boomer church, late-middle-aged ecstasy, a generation stating that it had not just yet entirely surrendered to the next. I started to suspect that no American demographic had so thoroughly memorized an album—not even one by the Beatles or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell—as this generation of baby boomers had Déjà Vu.

by Lorrie Moore, NY Review of Books |  Read more: (Ain't It Always Stephen Stills)

In 1979, I was an undersized FM-generation high-school junior with a voice that wouldn’t change, a stressed single mom, and a bedroom in a rented gray two-family house in which I had to play my stereo low so I wouldn’t disturb all the people living close around me. And then my daily affront at this complete lack of agency found validation when some skinny blond dude calling his album “Damn the Torpedoes” uplifted my evenings with a simple phrase about being cut down to size on a regular basis: “Don’t do me like that.” He wasn’t celebrating humiliation—he understood the condition, which is, foremost, the inability to make the humiliation stop. There was nothing to do except to say to hell with annoying Mom and the neighbors and, in my alarmingly pitched treble that sounded like a radio veering between frequencies, to sing out that ambrosial phrase right along with Petty: “Don’t do me like that.”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been filling the air with pop masterpieces for forty years now. Their hits have spent so much time in cars, in grocery aisles, in offices, and on beaches, and have such aural clarity that they are instantly individuating—you can be immersed in your own business, busy with tasks, and within three bright chords you are sure to recognize “American Girl” or “Runnin’ Down a Dream” or “I Won’t Back Down.” That kind of cultural endurance is sufficiently unusual that this summer, during what Petty has said is the band’s final big tour, I have found myself circling back and wondering what it is about Petty that’s kept him so much around. Certainly, Petty’s early embattled lyrical world view wouldn’t have promised such resilience; and the days and nights seemed to press hard on his gaunt, underfed pallor.

But protecting Petty against the inimical forces through the years have been his many admirable qualities: wry detachment, a bitter-green sense of humor, understated layers of musical ingenuity, and a completely original delivery. That voice! The incomparably distinct Petty vocal is thin, top-register, nasal, and yet cured in oak barrels. No white man in America works his septum through a vowel as distinctively as Petty, except maybe Jack Nicholson on a very good day. The voice is so seductive that it’s possible to listen to Petty describe the absolute mundane quotidian and feel completely ecstatic: “It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down, I had the radio on, I was drivin’.” Most advantageous of all, the voice communicates Petty’s great subject, which is strain.

As I grew older, Petty became for me a classic-rock fave; I was always glad when the songs appeared, but didn’t habitually seek them out. And that’s why it took me a long time to notice that, over the years, Petty’s alluring vocals, plugged into the beautiful, purring engine of his band, contrasted in their bright-sized vitality with what Petty was actually saying—which was pretty near the same thing that first brought me to him as a kid. Even twenty years into his career, on his 1994 solo hit “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” the message still seemed caught in that aggrieved adolescent moment. There were, in fact, so many songs of grievance, so many songs casting unhappily inward, so many songs expressing the perpetually injured and afflicted American male. That man’s wounds are inevitably some woman’s fault. She leads him on. She keeps him waiting. She wrecks him. He knows her heart’s beyond wicked, but he can’t kick it. Yes, there’s the occasional bluesman brag: “You got lucky, babe, when I found you.” But even then, it’s all about him—and that glint of grievance. He’s sticking around to take it because taking it is what he does.

The emotions Petty describes are, of course, emotions most people experience, and to Petty’s credit, they aren’t what most people like to advertise about their inner lives. If for some the songs were awash in self-pity, many others heard the adversity in them and located something hopeful and persevering—they listened and thought, That’s me. (This was, perhaps, especially the case during breakups.) And Petty could also write excellent songs in a more romantic key, such as “Wildflowers.” Yet, in the end, so many of his memorable compositions work a path beginning with pain and leading to resentment. This is even true of “Here Comes My Girl,” in which a primary benefit of enduring love is that it enables a man feeling stuck and discouraged to “tell the whole wide world to shove it!” That thick and affirming carapace of injustice suggests that a man can subsist a long time on nothing more than his favorite grudge. As Petty writes of a man in “Rebels,” his characters are “a little rough around the edges, inside a little hollow.”

by Nicholas Dawidoff, New Yorker |  Read more: (The Proud Pain of Tom Petty)