I was channel flipping the other day, and stopped for a moment to indulge both my love of music videos and love of really bad music. The 80s were a great time for both.
This song really doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, which is sort of its appeal. I think. It is catchy. I’m also pretty sure Grace Slick was probably high on something at the time. It seems to want to be a protest against the ever-increasing corporatization of rock music, but comes out as incomprehensible pop glop. There’s a very tiny trace of the rebellion that once made the band that Slick sang for one of the symbols of rebellion and counterculturalism in the 60s.
Of course by the time “We Built This City” was released in 1985 that band had long since mutated into pop glop and had virtually disappeared. The Jefferson Airplane was one of the leading bands of psychedelic rock–the aforementioned symbol of rebellion and counterculturalism. They were also one of the few commercially successful psychedelic bands, so I guess pop glop was always in their veins. In the 70s, they made their first major transition into the Jefferson Starship and became even more poppy and gloppy. Marty Balin and Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen escaped, but Grace Slick and Mickey Thomas (Balin’s replacement on vocals) hung around. “Jefferson” was dropped, and the band just became Starship in the 1980s. And the rest is pop glop history.
Really, most of Starship’s output is gloriously awful. (Have you ever heard the song they did for the 80s “classic” Mannequin? Well, you’re in for a pop treat that so sugary and gloppy, it might as well be the filling inside a pecan pie. Not even the utterly adorable Andrew McCarthy at the height of his adorableness could save that movie.) None of their music has aged especially well. Which is too bad, I guess. It really is quite catchy.
Antoine “Fats” Domino has left this world at the age of 89. We were lucky we had him so long. We almost lost him in New Orleans in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but he survived and kept making music. We got twelve more years of that wonderful voice and unbelievable smile. (I need to add him to that mental list I have of musicians who love their work so much they can’t contain themselves.) Domino was always smiling at the piano, and even when he wasn’t, you could still see the echo of that smile in his eyes. He was irrepressible.
Domino was also one of the original architects of Rock & Roll. Without his trademark piano style, drawn from the jazz and blues that filled the air in his native New Orleans, the music I and so many others love so much would not have sounded the same. The old guard is dwindling now–just a few of the originals are still out there. But the music is still as vital and alive as it was decades ago.
If you’ve got some time to kill and want to be truly entertained, watch the episode of American Masters devoted to Domino. You will not be sorry to have spent an hour in the presence of this lovely, talented human.
The one bad part about an artist as successful as Tom Petty, with or without the Heartbreakers, is that a lot of really great music gets overlooked or forgotten. Such is the fate of the album Echo, which is to my mind one of TP & the Heartbreakers’ best. It’s his divorce album, written and recorded after the end of his first marriage. But unlike many great break-up albums, Petty gave himself a little time to absorb the loss before he committed his feelings to his music. (He also gave himself enough time to almost drink himself into a deep, deep hole, which might have been a contributing factor to his divorce.) It’s not as angry and bitter as these magnum opuses of lost love can be, nor is it morose and depressing. It’s more elegiac and mournful, almost gentle. More circumspect. There isn’t any recrimination or blame, just damn good music.
“Swingin'” has always been one of the best tracks. The defiance and swagger here are trademark Petty, but more muted. He knows this isn’t a happy story and adjusts his typical attitude accordingly. But it is a proud tale of a woman who wasn’t going to give in to whatever is beating her down. She fights back even though she knows she’s probably going to lose. Because in losing this way, she really wins. And she might just take down her adversary, too. I’ve always felt like it was about Jane; I don’t know what happened to their marriage, but I’ll bet that once she’d decided she wasn’t going to put up with Tom’s bullshit anymore, she made sure he knew it. You can feel the blows landing in this song, but it’s okay because it was probably at least a fair fight.
From today’s Los Angeles Times:
“The thing about the Heartbreakers is, it’s still holy to me . . . There’s a holiness there. If that were to go away, I don’t think I would be interested in it, and I don’t think they would. We’re a real rock ‘n’ roll band–always have been. And to us, in the era we came up in, it was a religion in a way. It was about more than commerce, it wasn’t about that. It was about something much greater. It was about moving people and changing the world, and I really believed in rock ‘n’ roll–I still do.”
When I was thirteen, I walked up to the counter at Big Ben’s music store and asked “Who is this?” The bored clerk pointed to the red and black album displayed on the counter and said “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.” I was stone cold in love from that moment on.
No, he wasn’t especially good-looking. But there was a gleam in his eye and a sly grin on his face that told you all you needed to know. He was funny and sexy and he never took anything, especially himself, all that seriously. Except the music. He always took the music seriously.
I remember an interview with Petty back in the 90s. He told his parents he was leaving school to become a musician. His father said he might want to get an education anyway, just in case he needed something to fall back on. But Petty replied, “I won’t fall back.” There were a lot of rough times at the beginning, but he was right. Tom Petty never fell back, he never backed down, and we have all his wonderful music because of it.
The song that was playing in the store when I was thirteen was “You Got Lucky.” I was lucky my parents wanted to rent a movie that night so I could hear that song on the store’s PA system. It’s still my favorite.
One of the podcasts I listen to is 99% Invisible, which is about design and how it affects and influences our lives (it’s way more interesting than the summary makes it sound). I am still making my way through a LARGE backlog of episodes, so I’m still years behind in my listening. Every so often, podmaster Roman Mars will include an episode from one of Radiotopia’s other podcasts and it’s always fun to get a sample. Song Exploder is one of the most frequent add-ons. I like this one because it panders to the music geek in me. An 99PI from a couple of years ago included a Song Exploder about a song by an artist called The Long Winters that was already a couple of years old when it originally aired.
Yeah, I could’ve been way more concise with how I worded that. One of my creative writing teachers called it “shielding your nouns,” a phenomenon that stems from trying to write about something that is profoundly uncomfortable or emotional. That’s what this song is.
“The Commander Thinks Aloud” is about the Columbia disaster. It is almost as devastating as the explosion that destroyed the shuttle. I downloaded the song today, but not after some soul-searching. I don’t know that I ever want to hear this song again, but I cannot forget it. It is a stunning piece of work, in the sense that you will feel a little bit like you got hit over the head with a two by four. It is also a very good piece of art. Do not listen to it if you are depressed. Do not listen to it if you have not braced yourself sufficiently. This is not an experience for the faint of heart. But it is an experience worth having at least once.
I freely admit that I am currently just the tiniest bit obsessed with Josh Ritter. Maybe it’s because the music is so damn good. Maybe it’s because he seems so freakin’ happy when he’s onstage. Joyful, really, and who couldn’t use a little more joy in their lives?
I was actually having a little trouble finding a Ritter song I hadn’t posted on the jukebox already. Or reposted a couple of times (search “Snow is Gone”). I thought about posting one of the more depressing songs (“Lawrence, KS”), but like I said earlier, who doesn’t need a little more joy in their lives? And without a doubt, this is a joyful song. “Good Man” is the rare song by Ritter that I love, but didn’t really connect with right away. It kind of snuck up on me, like an outlaw ambush in a black & white Western where you can tell the good guys from the bad by the color of their hats. I also happen to prefer the studio version, but that brings me back to the joyful thing again.
The song itself is kind of a low-key joy, full of sidelong glances and sly smiles. But Ritter’s performance in this clip, like almost every single one of his performances, is overflowing with that emotion. Besides Yo-Yo Ma, I have never seen anyone smile so much when they’re onstage. He is practically bubbling. And it’s infectious. As I was watching the clip, I kept thinking how much I liked the studio version, yet I kept watching anyway. And smiling. Unconsciously, almost unwillingly, smiling. Full on, crinkle up the eyes smiling. Because that’s what Josh Ritter inspires in me. Like he sings in the song, “I’m a good man for you.”