The late Tom Petty appeared in a number of hilarious and visually stunning videos for his own songs. His affable and good natured persona became an important part of his appeal to fans. Petty also played a small role in the 1997 big budget bomb The Postman, presumably playing himself.
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This week’s relentless rain hasn’t helped us face the harrowing news from Las Vegas one bit. It’s as if we’re living in a world gone mad, only unlike in the movies there doesn’t seem to be someplace safe to which we can all escape in the end.
As with the terrorist attack inside Paris’ Bataclan Theater, we are struck and stunned by by the fact that these events happen at live music events. We have no complaints about being checked for weapons when entering a venue, which we experienced as recently as last week when we went to a show at 7th Street Entry. Live music quickly returned to Paris after the November 2015 attack in that theater and other locations, and we appreciated what two two Irish performers had to say at the time.
The heavy sense of sorrow which hung drearily over this little neighborhood record shop yesterday was made all the worse by the news that Tom Petty, one of the most endearing of the elder statesmen of rock and roll, had passed away at the age of sixty-six. He was found at his home in Malibu, California in a state of cardiac arrest and was taken off life support yesterday surrounded by family and friends.
Petty was so often seen with a cigarette, and in the 90s went through rehab for a heroin addiction, all of which likely took a toll on his heart. Nothing would change the way fan feel about the Gainesville, Florida singer and songwriter who never pretended to be anything else. Fans identified with Tom Petty in a way they didn’t with other marquee names like those he joined to form the Traveling Wilburys “supergroup.”
There’s a sense of wonder and with it a sense of humor in all of his music. You can see it in the smirk on the cover of his 1976 debut LP with the Heartbreakers, and you could hear it in the silly “What’s in here?” interlude on Into the Great Wide Open fifteen years later. And let’s not forget those ridiculous “Hello CD listeners” and “Hello cassette listeners” moments which will presumably be lost now that vinyl has, as they tell us, ‘come back.’
We read an exceptional AV Club piece about Petty ages ago which we still remembered when opening our copy of his last album, Hypnotic Eye, in 2014. Writer Noel Murray, who deserves a Pulitzer Prize for the piece, posits the case that the best moment in every Tom Petty song is its first lyric. This is true for many of our favorites, especially “Rebels,” the underrated rocker which also opens the album Southern Accent in 1985. Of course, you can find a great line nearly anywhere you drop the needle on one of his albums. In the middle of his soundtrack to She’s the One in 1995 we hear Tom sing,
You think you’re so above me, you think that you’re so big
Well I saw you kick that dog when the wind blew off your wig
The soundtrack was one of the albums Petty freely admitted was a low-point in his career (along with Long After Dark and Echo) but that throwaway joke in “Zero From Outer Space” captures Petty’s humor as completely as it does his tenacity. Always an underdog, even at the height of his success, Petty was never a warrior and the snarkiest of his working class wit was always reserved for those who never knew how to handle newfound affluence — think of the opening of “Listen to Her Heart,” for instance. Or much of his debut solo album, Full Moon Fever from which came what’s being called his signature tune, “I Won’t Back Down.”
The Heartbreakers’ return-to-roots sound coincided with the appearance of bands like the Ramones, Television and the New York Dolls, but, but Petty was never a punk rocker. He did have a rebellious streak, though. His relationship with his label’s distributor became famously fractured when MCA announced it would charge a dollar more for his 1981 album than what consumers were used to paying — the bump to so-called “superstar pricing” of $9.98 inspired Petty to threaten to shitcan the record or insist it be titled $8.98. This led to a Rolling Stone cover story subtitled “One Man’s War Against High Record Prices.”
When finally released, Hard Promises featured one of Petty’s most memorable hits, “The Waiting,” and featured him standing in a record shop on the jacket. We’d love to know what record store Petty is standing in because he’s next to an overstuffed spinning 45 display very much like the one in our shop.
During the press push for Hypnotic Eye in 2014 Petty dismissed EDM and the DJ scene, as well as digital downloads. “I hate MP3s,” Petty told USA Today. “You hear exactly 5% of the record I made. The CD is not as good as it can be, but it’s 100 times better than an MP3. The good news is vinyl is coming back.”
Everyone had a sense that the Heartbreakers’ 40th Anniversary Tour, which had passed through the Twin Cities just a few weeks ago, was the band’s farewell. We never had the sense that Petty was going to retire, however. News of his passing has already brought regular customers into the shop to talk about their favorite songs and look at what we have left in stock. Last night while playing a board game with out kids we listened to several albums and realized we couldn’t choose a favorite, let along narrow down his songs to a list of favorites. For anyone who loved rock and roll Tom Petty was the real deal. And through his records a good friend who was always there when you needed him.
When huge success comes, things get much more serious. Suddenly you wear a lot of hats and become a grown-up.”
For today we have the music of a composer who was largely unknown until late in his life. Conlon Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas but spent most of his life living in Mexico. His early musical education included a stint as a trumpeter in a jazz band and studies with eminent American composers Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and others. He left Boston at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War to join the XV International Brigade (the famed “Abraham Lincoln brigade”) in fighting the fascist Francisco Franco. Uncomfortable in the United States after his release from the Gurs internment camp in France, Nancarrow fled to Mexico City where he made his home and returned to his study of music.
Having found performances of his complex compositions unreliable and inspired by Henry Cowell’s polyrhythmic theory in the book New Musical Resources, Nancarrow took an interest in composing for the player piano. With an inheritance he returned to New York City in 1947 to acquire a custom piano roll punching machine and began to produce by hand rolls which carried his compositions. The work was so slow that some of his Studies for Player Piano which last only a few minutes took more than a year to program.
The player piano can “perform” at speeds far beyond human ability, allowing Nancarrow to create previously unimaginable polyrhythmic structures in his Studies. At the same time, player pianos are unable to produce tones with the delicacy of human fingers, and pound out the notes in a furious fortissimo. Nancarrow accommodated for this challenge by adapting his two Ampico player pianos — covering the hammers of one with metal and in the other with leather in a manner familiar to followers of Henry Cowell of John Cage.
Nancarrow’s work with the player piano presages much of the early explorations into electronic composition (such as the music in this post from May). He would later admit that if he had waited a little longer to begin his work he would have taken an interest in electronics. His Studies for Player Piano evolve over the years from the first several which bear the mark of Art Tatum’s advanced stride piano technique to complex canons with entirely idiosyncratic rhythmic ratios.
The release of an album of his Studies in 1969 brought some attention, but he continued to work in isolation into the 1970s. He was not even known to Mexican musicians and composers. The work of two American avant garde composers began to bring about Nancarrow’s rise to recognition. The first was minimalist composer Peter Garland, who started publishing Nancarrow’s scores in 1976, and the second was Charles Amirkhanian, then the musical director of a listener-funded Berkeley, California radio station one might compare to Minneapolis’ own KFAI. Amirkhanian recorded the complete Studies for Player Piano on Nancarrow’s player pianos under the composer’s supervision and released them on four volumes on his record label, 1750 Arch.
The first of these volumes is presented here today. These records are out of print, but there is a CD box set which collects them all. A couple later CD sets collect the late Studies composed after the recording of the 1740 Arch albums. Amirkhanian’s extensive notes contain enticing details about Nancarrow’s works, as well as a photograph of an unfinished pneumatic percussion machine which was to perform the work of an ensemble from programmed rolls.
One of the most enthusiastic acolytes of Nancarrow’s music was György Ligeti, the Hungarian composer best known to American audiences through the frequent use of his music in Stanley Kubrick’s films. Legeti discovered these albums in a record shop while, according to one story, looking for albums of his own, and they were an inspiration for his own landmark Etudes. In a television documentary, Ligeti said of Nancarrow, “His music is so utterly original, enjoyable, perfectly constructed, but at the same time emotional … for me it’s the best music of any composer living today.”
We wonder when the “just say no” songs will shift their focus from crack to opioids. Then again, there was this album of celebrity PSAs way back in the day.
Here is a fun 45 to brighten up this dreary Monday morning. You will almost certainly recognize the voice.
Jim Henson was one of the most universally beloved celebrities in America at the time of his sudden and tragic death in 1990, but he was hardly an overnight success. In fact, Henson’s slow rise to fame is an inspiring tale of perseverance and passion. It was a few years after the release of this single that Henson, as Rowlf the Dog, became a regular character on The Jimmy Dean Show – You can watch him clown around about one minute into this episode. He even makes a joke about his host having “a new hit record.” Henson himself, performing as Ernie, hit #16 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 1970 with the single “Rubber Duckie.” This is one of several times Sesame Street produced an unexpected hit record.
One of Henson’s magical legacies is the way he, along with Sesame Street‘s musical directors Jeffrey Moss and Joe Raposo, revived the music of Vaudeville and early American theater. This was carried on when The Muppet Show debuted in the fall of 1976, and throughout the franchise’s ongoing films. This included performing early 20th century hits like “The Bird in Nellie’s Hat” and “The Varsity Drag” as well original songs like Henson’s incredible duet with himself in “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along.”
All of this was still in his future when Henson released “The Countryside” in 1960 with its ridiculous credit “Orchestra conducted by Frank Sinatra.” Of course, years later Ol’ Blue Eyes did record Henson’s signature tune, “Bein’ Green,” which was written by their mutual friend Joe Raposo for Sesame Strret with the simple instruction, “We need a song for the frog.”
Last month we posted A Child’s Introduction to Jazz by Captain Kangaroo, and today we’re featuring a similar LP which looks more closely at the unique qualities of the music often called America’s greatest artistic achievement.
For many Leonard Bernstein is primarily known as a conductor, due no doubt to the commercial success of his recordings with the New York Philharmonic during his eleven years as their musical director. He was also an accomplished composer, and many of his works imply the influence of jazz: notably passages from his West Side Story score (a favorite of ours featured in a post here) and in the second part of his Symphony no. 2, The Age of Anxiety.
As a teenager Bernstein formed a jazz orchestra, and he was only twenty-five when he first conducted the New York Philharmonic (hear his debut here). In the 1950s he was an occasional host of a television program called Omnibus, which presented analysis of the arts in accessible terms. In one memorable episode Bernstein proposed how Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony may have sounded different by conducting some of the unused ideas the composer discarded. Over several years, and all three major networks, he also discussed musical comedy and opera, and in what became the basis for this 1956 LP, jazz. The musical samples are derived from Columbia’s extensive catalog.