Learning to Jam

Screenshot-2017-10-3 Traveling Wilburys - End Of The Line - YouTube.png

Another empty rocking chair in the Wilbury household this week, sadly, as Charlie T. rode the late train out of town to join Lefty and Nelson at the end of the line.

Tom Petty was a hitmaker on the volume scale of Motown’s song factories, and the “was” in this sentence is doing a lot of grim work, because, in contrast to some other mourned celebrity passings, Petty, at sixty-six, remained an active and strong performer. We saw him in concert just this spring, my first time, and he was just as good and strong as I hoped. There’s a real loss here.

A 2009 Wall Street Journal article published in conjunction with the release of Petty’s career-retrospective¬†Live Anthology memorably made the case that Petty’s slightly lower situation in the proverbial Rock Pantheon was due, in my reading, to the irony that his songs were too popular. It’s funny because it’s true, but it says more about the fans than the artist. We hold Springsteen, to borrow the foil from that WSJ piece, in higher regard because he had fewer hits? I don’t know why, or if that’s how it really works, but at some point it misses the mark to parse the greats like this.

It also misses the mark on Petty, who always seemed to belie his deep catalogue of radio-friendly tunes with his ability to wink at that great big world of entertainment with a sly smile worn by one who could take or leave the trappings of celebrity that pop stardom can offer. As he told the Journal in ’09, “We were never really Boy Scouts, you know. My vision of a rock and roll band wasn’t one that cuddled up to politicians, or went down the red carpet. That kind of thing you see so much of today. I felt like once that stuff starts happening your audience doesn’t know whether to trust you or not.” That article continues:

Mr. Petty set himself apart in other ways. While Dylan and the Stones have licensed their music to advertisers, Mr. Petty says, what for? “We don’t really need the dough that bad.” The singer has sought keep his concert tickets affordable. And unlike, say, Mr. Costello, who has collaborated with string quartets, Mr. Petty says he’s satisfied with being a workaday auteur: “To write a good song is enough. That was the loftiest ambition I had: to write a song that would endure.”

Or you could just take a look at his perfect initial interaction opposite Kevin Costner in 1997’s The Postman. Or his appearance as the Mad Hatter, forever my envisage of that character, in his own music video:

While we’re here, let’s do a few more:

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Electric Light Extended Jam

To make up for the relative dearth of Friday Jams in recent months, today’s Jam is a full BBC program on someone who is just the type of artist or athlete I like to feature in these pages and was, in part, the face of my first internet operation. Perfect for a lazy Friday afternoon at the office or elsewhere.

(HT: Shackleton)

LaMichael James, Tom Petty, and the Heisman Trophy

Two years ago, Wall Street Journal entertainment writer John Jurgensen wrote a retrospective on Tom Petty. The musician certainly wasn’t finished, but the then-upcoming release of a career-spanning anthology provided the occasion to look back and consider his legacy. The thesis of the piece was that, in terms of legacy, Petty was too good for his own good. Somehow, because he has been so popular and successful for so long, people almost lose track of him and forget to list him when discussing the great rock and rollers of the period.

An analogous narrative may apply to Oregon running back LaMichael James. The thought came to me while listening to the most recent episode of The Solid Verbal podcast on the Grantland Network. Ty Hildenbrandt casually referenced James’ numbers in Saturday’s Pacific Twelve championship game: 219 yards, 3 touchdowns, 8.8 yards/carry. Hildenbrandt’s co-host and acknowledged Oregon homer Dan Rubenstein appropriately led the show into a discussion of the James’ absurd statistical output and the casual response it generally receives. Indeed, the Heisman Trophy finalists were announced this week, and James’ name was not among them.

There are plenty of reasons why people may not bat an eye at James and his numbers– he plays on the West Coast, in Oregon’s offensive system, and has been doing so for a long time in relative terms (and he’s only a junior, which, along with the existence of a strong field of contenders, may help to explain his omission from the Heisman list this year)– but one can strum up plenty of reasons for Petty’s treatment in the popular realm too– he isn’t a flashy guitar shredder, his voice isn’t inherently iconic, he didn’t have a mega-hit of temporal cultural relevance, he’s kinda goofy-looking. Yet Jurgensen’s too-good-for-his-own-good thesis applies equally to both men. Indeed, these listed reasons really aren’t exceptions to the overarching notion; the fact that they are good or at least debatable factors tends to support it.

I don’t think that familiarity always breeds contempt. In the case of Petty and James, the combination of familiarity and success appear to breed forgettableness.