America

Tom Petty

I started writing this the night Tom Petty died. I was sat in a quiet office when the news broke on social media, swirling for a few hours in a vacuum of facts. I didn’t want to believe it. We clung to the notion of a miraculous recovery. It didn’t come, and I sank a couple of pints of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord in the Dog and Fox , appealing to colleagues for some sign that they felt like I did, before heading home. I left it unfinished, but this week’s announcement of the coroner’s report sent me back to it, and back to his music.

Tom Petty’s death hit me a great deal harder than I expected it to. After last year, you’d think we were all used to the idea of being suddenly grief-stricken by the death of someone we never met, but this one bothers me more than Prince or Bowie. Musing on death as one does at these moments, I’m hard pressed to think of many artists I’m going to miss more.

I’d spent much of last year grumbling about the ticket prices for his only European date, and the fact that it was in Hyde Park in London, renowned for mediocre sound brought on by overzealous local noise restrictions. I’d tried to get tickets to the Royal Albert Hall a few years before, but it sold out half an hour after going on sale and well before I got to the front of the queue. And now I never shall.

One grasps for ways to personalise the tragedy. He was too young. He was looking forward to spending time with his granddaughter. Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell will never play with their friend and co-conspirator of 40 years again. But really, it’s the gut punch of knowing I’ll never see them play, a combination of living too late and in the wrong place, too broke or too stubborn. I’m not ready to live in a world that doesn’t have Tom Petty in it.

His songs are so timeless, so imbued with a kind of rock and roll immortality descended straight from Elvis and the Beatles, that it seemed glorious that their creator still walked among us; I grew up expecting bands I discovered in my parents’ record collection to be dead, disbanded or distinctly past their best, but Petty was real, alive and consistently producing high quality work. That’s why it hurts, I think; it’s one thing to be born too late to see the Beatles, it’s another to know in your heart of hearts you probably should have forgone something in order to see someone play while you had the chance.

Full Moon Fever is part of the soundtrack to my childhood; there’s grainy 90s home video of me jumping up and down to “Runnin’ Down a Dream”. The Wilburys albums on tape were part of the soundtrack to long car journeys in the back of my Dad’s old blue Volvo.

Eventually, probably via the DVD of the George Harrison memorial concert at the Royal Albert Hall, I rediscovered the Heartbreakers. That led me back to my dad’s copy of Full Moon Fever. I’m far from alone in holding “Free Fallin’” dear; that is, after all, what makes a classic. The moment it became the soundtrack to a moment in my life, I was on Navy Pier, a gaudy strip of lightbulbs and what America calls cotton candy jutting out into Lake Michigan from the north side of Chicago. I was drunk on Americana, realising that the line between fact and fiction is blurry, eating chilli dogs from Bubba Gump, an actual restaurant chain branded after the one Tom Hanks’ titular Forrest Gump founded. There, probably to this day, plays a band doing something they call live band karaoke, and a quick scan down their song list led me to “Free Fallin’”, without fully appreciating how high the chorus is. My vocal inadequacies aside, it functioned as the perfect three-minute user manual to Americana.

I returned, and worked my way voraciously through the Greatest Hits, Damn the Torpedoes, Hard Promises and Into The Great Wide Open. By then I was playing bass and guitar in bands, and I developed a keen appreciation of Petty’s songcraft and Mike Campbell’s guitar playing. (Later, I spent a long time studying first Ron Blair and then Howie Epstein, but that’s for another, more bass-centric day…).

Songs weave themselves into the fabric of your life. I celebrated my 21st birthday with a scratch band of friends, playing some of my favourite songs, and we opened with “Runnin’ Down a Dream”. I’m about to put most of that band back together for my wedding reception, and it’ll probably stay in the set. Highway Companion will now always be the soundtrack to clearing out my great uncle’s’ house; Wildflowers the soundtrack to a recording session where we kept accidentally re-writing “Crawling Back To You”.

In time, perhaps this is going to wear off, the urge to seek out the saddest parts of his catalogue, to wallow there, rage against the dying of the light, grasp at straws and insist that someone, some succession of someones, must have screwed up pretty spectacularly to prescribe that cocktail of opiates to a former addict with chronic pain and a renowned work ethic. I’ll get back to the pure, rock and roll joy of “Listen To Her Heart” or “The Waiting”, “Honey Bee” or “You Wreck Me”. And once the immediacy is gone, once the pain fades away a little, probably when my fiancee is out, I’ll sit down with the full 4 hours of Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary and the accompanying coffee table hardback book. Right now, I’m not sure I could.

I could wax lyrical about the universality of popular song, about the sheer rock‘n’roll bravado you need to call your band the Heartbreakers, about how that seems to have been coupled to a generous spirit and a true anti-establishment sensibility. Instead, here’s three songs you might have missed.

As Jack Harris and anyone who’s heard him set a pub quiz knows, my all time favourite Tom Petty song is “Listen To Her Heart”.  A gem on the otherwise-underwhelming second album, it features the opening couplet “You think you’re gonna take her away with your money and your cocaine / Keep thinking that her mind is gonna change, but I know everything is OK.”

Zombie Zoo is the best Halloween song ever written, and captures something about watching teenagers queue up outside nightclubs that is near-universal. Best/worst lyric: “Sometimes you’re so impulsive, you shaved off all your hair / You look like Boris Karloff and you don’t even care.”

Room at the Top is Petty mid-divorce, bitter, unbending. Mike Campbell wields a Gibson SG with a rare vigour, slicing through the slow, determined groove. Campbell and Benmont Tench trade off uncharacteristically busy solos.

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A Postscript: Anecdotes from the War on Terror

I realised after I’d posted yesterday that I’d missed out perhaps the most powerful intrusion of the War On Terror (TM) into my life, the liquid explosives plot of August 2006 which happened the same week I flew to Chicago. It also happens to be the funniest, in a maudlin kind of way.

It was 14th August 2006, three days since three men attempted to smuggle liquid explosives onto airliners. Flights were cancelled, and whilst everything was now in theory back to normal, the backlog of flights and the lengthy security checks means the reality couldn’t be further from that. Check-in times were extended, which for a flight which left before 8am now meant a 4am checkin time, which meant a National Express coach at 12.10am.

I have certainly said before now that Friends Don’t Let Friends Take the National Express, a mantra I stick to so strongly that I once drove to Heathrow (a round trip of 250-odd miles) to pick up an American friend to spare her that fate. This attitude was forged that night, principally because it was a perfect illustration of Trains Good, Coaches Bad. Trains are long. This gives trains the crucial advatage that should you find yourself near someone or something noisy/scary/unpleasant, you can pretty much rely on being able to stand up, wander along and pick a new place to sit. Trains have also worked out that whilst toilets are useful and neccesary things, they are best positioned between carriages where you can ignore them until such time as you wish to use one. The humble coach, however, has no such luxury. No-one should have to witness the terror of a toddler who is convinced the bus toilet is going to swallow him up, or the stuggles of his mother trying to convince him otherwise, or indeed the smell that results because she is crouching in the doorway trying to reassure him and thus cannot close said door. Sleep? Nothing could have seemed more distant and unattainable. I arrived at Heathrow in the middle of the night, bleary-eyed and promising never to travel on one of these infernal vehicles ever again.

That morning, Heathrow was like a warzone; policemen with machine guns, kids wrapped in space blankets, families who had been stranded for three days trying to get home, backpackers camped out on their rolled-out foam mats by check-in desks. I had my shoes sniffed for explosives, we checked in all our hand luggage and carried passport and boarding pass in a clear plastic bag. No inflight movies, nothing to read, no-one really in a talking mood either, strangely enough. There was an exception to that rule in the shape of a tall, 50-something, extravagantly camp American Airlines steward with a DeVito-esque Noo Yoik accent who wandered down the aisle of the 767 exclaiming, “Would ya like the calzone or the folded pizza?” The children, of course, were seriously considering this non-choice. Every so often an adult with a working knowledge of what a calzone was would make eye contact with him, and he would return their gaze with an imploring look that said “Please don’t ruin this for them, we could all use a laugh this morning.” He was right about that.

As the first flight to O’Hare that day, we managed to get take-off and landing slots. I learned later that the next two were cancelled. I came very close to joining the ranks of the space-blanketed, kipping on a bench and living off fried chicken in Terminal 3 to await a seat.

Border control at O’Hare were jumpy, perhaps understandably, and lone male travellers aren’t exactly their favourite thing anyway, but after a brief, intense set of rapid-fire questions about whether or not I could prove I had a return ticket (difficult without my luggage, but I eventually found a print-out of my Travelocity receipt; what might have happened if I hadn’t bothered putting that in my see-through plastic bag we will never know), I was admitted to the Land of the Free, Home of the Preternaturally Suspicious.

By that afternoon I was, admittedly in a somewhat jetlagged state, looking out over Lake Michigan from a tiny beach by the north shore suburb of Winnetka IL. Lucky doesn’t begin to cover it.


Streetlights

New York, NY :: © 2009 Tom Sweeney

A little something I wrote for Folktales on LSRfm, Sunday 6th February 2011, 3pm.  It belongs next to this track.  If you tuned in as you were encouraged to a couple of hours ago, you’ll understand how it works.  If you didn’t/couldn’t, you should be able to listen to the show here when it’s available.  Enjoy.

—————————————

He opened his eyes. Everything was rotated, out of place. Lying on his side, sofa cushion forcing his neck into painful contortions. The ceiling flashing blue, white, blue, reflecting the light of the TV, left on all night. He looked up at the window; dark, the sodium glow of the streetlight turning the window frame amber. He glanced down at his watch. A little after 5pm. Wednesday had slipped by unnoticed.

On the screen, a young man in a white t-shirt and black leather jacket stepped out of a car, wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead and ran his hands through his slicked-back hair. He stood for a moment then was knocked stumbling back into the side of the car, embraced by a beautiful girl. Detroit perhaps, Motown itself. Dark streets, rain, streetlamps and stop signs, spots of colour reflected on the wet roads. Camaros, Thunderbirds, girls in denim, chrome-plated glory. (more…)


Brief thoughts on Mad Men Season 4

Don adopts a Socratic pose

As the Siberian winds dump seemingly infinite amounts of snow on the UK, one tiny shard of light arrived in our living rooms at 10pm on Wednesday night.  Alas, that too has now gone out, snuffed out by the cold wind of capitalism in the form of Rupert Murdoch; the last episode of Season Four of Mad Men, and, significantly, the last episode to go out on the BBC.  No more uninterrupted, free-of-charge 1960s drama goodness for us.  Instead, we will be forced to sign up to Sky Atlantic, and then to sit through ad breaks.

I suppose complaining about advertisements in a show set in an advertising firm is tantamount to irony.  All the same, when it comes to watching such an elegant work of television as this without breaks, I fear we won’t know what we had ‘til it’s gone.

We, of course, are few in number; outside of TV critics, MM attracts a tiny audience.  Quite why the Beeb never saw fit to reshow it on BBC 2 later in the week (or, to risk setting the cat firmly among the pigeons, just move it there in the first place) is anyone’s guess, but languishing in the rarified backwater that is BBC Four it was never going to pull millions of viewers.

Tonight’s episode was a fine example of why we happy few love Mad Men so. (more…)


Manhattan

Manhattan Sky, originally uploaded by pourdownlikesilver.

Like everyone who passes through and falls in love with the place, I feel a strange pull today, a desire to be there, to stand beside New Yorkers and remember. To stand once again on the perimeter of the chasm left in downtown that they called Ground Zero. To stand beside those who will rally today in support of the Islamic Cultural Centre and all that its construction represents, in the knowledge that tolerance and mutual understanding is the only way out of these dark days.

11.9.01
In Memoriam


USA October 2009 : VI – Boston, MA

In Boston, MA. Finally. Thanks a bunch, Amtrak…

Custom House Tower, Boston, MA

The experience was instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever had a track break on an electric trainset, except that in the real world trains are heavy and have significant momentum. Thus, deprived of current they don’t skid to a sudden, plasticky halt but rather slide on for half a mile, slowly but inevitably losing speed. Everything bar the fire escape signs suddenly and simultaneously went out, and slowly, deliberately, the whine of the engine dipped and eventually ceased. After an ominous silence, the first of a succession of interruptions began. The hilarious announcements from the man on the tannoy (who probably had a ridiculous job title, but it’s slipped my mind) who seemed to know remarkably little about the man who was apparently trying to “recycle” the engine, let alone whether such a process was wise or likely to succeed. The banter between the passengers was fascinating, and delightfully American in its world-weary but essentially optimistic humour. The English train traveller would have been swearing under his breath at some unseen authority figure responsible for all such disasters, whereas the Americans started sharing anecdotes and advice, calling ahead to their relatives or cracking jokes. At one point we seemed destined to be shunted onto another train in what sounded like a spectacularly dangerous line-up-the-trains-and-jump-across manoeuvre, but then, miraculously, it sprang to life again and we were off, our 45-minute stay in that particular stretch of Rhode Island over with. (more…)


USA October 2009 : V – New York, NY

Back in NYC on a whim

450W14

Returning to New York was impulsive. Having checked out of my Baltimore B&B, I spent the morning wandering the city, trying and failing to find any internet access; I still had in my mind the idea that I wanted to go to Boston, but in all my searching I had found nowhere to stay. In the end, I gave up and fled back to New York. Nominally, this was because I knew where there was an affordable hotel and plentiful internet, but it was a flight back to familiarity on other levels as well.

I boarded a train in Baltimore, bound for Penn Station, New York, NY; does anyone ever get used to that? The immensity of that destination? Can anywhere, except perhaps Grand Central, be so storied, so laden with myth? Even in its current subterranean concrete-bound incarnation, it comes with excitement and anticipation as standard. (more…)