The Great Music Poet Releases Long-Awaited New Album

I deliberately let this one simmer for a while. As a more casual listener of Bob Dylan, I felt giving Rough and Rowdy Ways more time to sink in was the right thing to do. Dylan’s 39th studio album, his first with original songs since Tempest from September 2012, appeared yesterday on Columbia Records.

To be very clear upfront, I’m not trying to compete with clever music critics, so if you’re hoping for any sort of interpretation what the maestro’s lyrics mean and to what extent they are autobiographical, you can probably stop reading here. Frankly, I’m not sure anyone on the planet can fully figure out the man – I certainly can’t and won’t pretend I can!

When Dylan released the album’s first single Murder Most Foul in late March, I didn’t quite know how to feel about it. Clocking in at just under 17 minutes, my first thought was it’s massive. I also wondered whether we really needed yet another account about the murder of JFK, one of the most widely covered stories – not to mention all the crazy conspiracy theories around it!

Of course, I fully realize Dylan’s timing in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t look like coincidence and points to a broader meaning. But we’re getting into interpretation, which is exactly what I said at the outset I didn’t want to do!

Weirdly, the more often I listen to Murder Most Foul, the better I like it. To some extent perhaps it’s simply getting more used it. Another factor could be that Dylan without any doubt in my mind is one of the most significant contemporary music artists, so I kind of feel a bit reluctant to “dismiss” it outright. I mean who am I after all to judge him!

The next single was the record’s opener I Contain Multitudes, which came out in mid-April. While I didn’t exactly jump up and down, I felt that tune was easier to process. But it really did take the May 8 release of the third single, False Prophet, to get my full attention. I can’t deny the fact it probably helped that the track is a blues, one of my favorite music genres. Plus, at that time it also became clear we weren’t just looking at a series of one-off singles but a forthcoming new Dylan album.

Photo by Chris Pizzello/AP/REX/Shutterstock (6261732a) Bob Dylan Bob Dylan performs in Los Angeles. Fifty years into his career as a recording artist and a week away from release of an extraordinary new CD, Dylan spent his Tuesday evening where he seems to feel most comfortable – on a stage Music Bob Dylan, Los Angeles, USA

Generally speaking, when it comes to songs, I primarily pay attention to the music and the vocals, viewing great lyrics more like nice icing on the cake. Otherwise, how could I possibly explain that I love songs with lyrics like I want to hold your hand; she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah; or love, love me do, you know I love you! Nothing wrong with silly love songs, but that’s what they are: Silly, at least from a lyrical perspective!

So how about the remaining tracks on Rough and Rowdy Ways? Well, let’s get to some of them!

Here’s My Own Version of You. A lyrical excerpt: All through the summers, into January/I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries/Looking for the necessary body parts/Limbs and livers and brains and hearts/I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do/I wanna create my own version of you…cheerful stuff! Somehow as I’m reading this, I’m picturing the video of Tom Petty’s Mary Jane’s Last Dance.

Next up: Black Rider, a quiet ballad. Is it about death? No idea! But a cheerful tune it certainly is not. Black rider, black rider, all dressed in black/ I’m walking away, you try to make me look back/ My heart is at rest, I’d like to keep it that way/ I don’t wanna fight, at least not today/ Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine/ One of these days I’ll forget to be kind. As Max from PowerPop and I were joking earlier today, one would hope these lyrics aren’t autobiographical!

Crossing the Rubicon is another blues-oriented track. I kind of like the slow burning groove of that tune. And, yes, you guessed it, there are more cheerful lyrics here: …I feel the bones beneath my skin and they’re tremblin’ with rage/I’ll make your wife a widow – you’ll never see old age/Show me one good man in sight that the sun shines down upon/I pawned my watch and I paid my debts and I crossed the Rubicon…Jeez, don’t mess with Bob!

The last track I’d like to call out is Key West (Philosopher Pirate). I think this is actually becoming one of my favorite songs on the album. I find Dylan’s singing here strangely pretty in spite of his less than opera quality vocals and the lyrics:…‪I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track/Like Ginsberg, Corsi and Kerouac/Like Louis and Jimmy and Buddy and all the rest/Well, it might not be the thing to do/But I’m sticking with you through and through/Down in the flatlands, way down in Key West

In addition to Dylan (vocals, guitar), who is also listed as producer, Rough and Rowdy Ways features Bob Britt (guitar), Matt Chamberlain (drums), Tony Garnier (bass), Donnie Herron (steel guitar, violin, accordion) and Charlie Sexton (guitar). These musicians make up the band that has been backing Dylan on his Never Ending Tour, which is currently on hold due to the coronavirus. Additional musicians/guests, among others, include Fiona Apple (vocals) and Benmont Tench, founding member, keyboarder and vocalist of Tom Petty’s former band The Heartbreakers.

I thought I give the final word to Dylan, so naively went to his website to see whether there is any statement there. Since that would have been the obvious thing, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that my search came up empty. Instead, one of the first things you see is a news item titled Bob Dylan remains an immeasurable and inimitable force, a review by The Line of Best Fit, which by its own description is “the UK’s biggest independent website devoted to new music.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Bob Dylan website; The Line of Best Fit; YouTube

Second Tom Petty Posthumous Album Out

Career-spanning compilation features hits and two previously unreleased recordings

The title pretty much says it all. The Best Of Everything is a compilation of Tom Petty’s amazing music from his 40 years as a recording artist, largely focusing on his better known songs. Released yesterday, it’s billed as his first career-spanning collection of hits. Unlike last September’s An American Treasure, the 38 tracks for the most part were taken from past albums. There are two exceptions: For Real, a previously unreleased tune, and an alternate version of the title track that restores a lost second verse.

While to a longtime Tom Petty fan like myself it’s not exactly news what an outstanding songwriter he was, it’s still impressive when you see the track listing. Free Fallin’, Mary Jane’s Last DanceSaving Grace, Breakdown, Refugee, American GirlThe Last DJRunnin’ Down A Dream and Even The Losers, to name some of the gems, surely make for a beautiful collection. While I would say American Treasure is more for die-hard Tom Petty fans, The Best Of Everything is a terrific compilation for folks who know just a few songs and would like to further explore his music beyond the fantastic first Greatest Hits mid-career collection from November 1993.

Tom Petty_The Best Of Everything Collage
Released via Geffen Records/UMe, The Best Of Everything is available as a 2-CD or 4-LP set

To make it truly career-spanning, it would have been nice to include a couple of tunes from The Traveling Wilburys. Sure, it’s fair to note the supergroup wasn’t Petty’s band. The Wilburys were primarily initiated by George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, and their songs were credited to all members. Unlike Mudcrutch and Petty’s solo albums, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, who helped put together The Best Of Everything and last year’s compilation, had no involvement with the Wilburys. There may also have been legal reasons for keeping the supergroup’s material out. Still, adding two tunes featuring Charlie T. Wilbur Junior on lead vocals would have been cool, in my humble opinion!

Let’s get to some music. I deliberately skip the big hits. The track order seems to be a bit random. Perhaps part of the idea here was to spread the bigger hits throughout to keep the more casual Tom Petty fans engaged. The number of YouTube clips from The Best Of Everything is still limited, so I’m borrowing clips from the original albums, as needed. The first tune I’d like to call out is Dreamville from The Last DJ, the 11th studio album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, released in October 2002. I’m glad they included this beautiful ballad, which definitely is not among Petty’s big hits.

I Should Have Known It is a nice rocker with a great guitar riff – my kind of song! Perhaps not surprisingly Campbell was a co-writer for this guitar player type of tune, which appeared on the band’s 12th studio record Mojo from June 2010. “I was glad that was on there, because I’m really proud of that track and that performance,” Campbell noted during an interview with Variety, conducted together with Tench and Petty’s eldest daughter Adria Petty, who was also involved in assembling the collection. “It showed a band in their later development still doing quality music.” Listen for yourself!

Next up: The alternate version of The Best Of Everything, another great tune! Originally, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recorded it for their sixth studio album Southern Accents, which came out in March 1985. Even though I own that record on CD, frankly, I had forgotten about the song.

Scare Easy is a track from the first Mudcrutch album simply titled Mudcrutch, which appeared in April 2008. Initially formed in Gainesville, Fla. in 1970, Mudcrutch was the predecessor to The Heartbreakers. After recording some demos and releasing one single that failed to chart, Mudcrutch broke up in 1975. It’s kind of remarkable they lasted for more than four years. Then, in August 2007, Petty reunited the band. In addition to Campbell (guitar, mandolin) and Tench (keyboards), the lineup featured the other two original members Randall Marsh (drums) and Tom Leadon (guitar), with Petty on bass and lead vocals.

The last tune I’d like to call out is For Real. This previously unreleased song also wasn’t available on any bootlegs, so until it came out as a single a few weeks ago, it’s something even fans hadn’t heard before. According to Rolling Stone, the track was recorded in August 2000 and is “a declaration of purpose” by Petty. “That song to me sounds like Tom reporting from his heart — reporting from the front,” Tench told Variety during the above interview. “It may sound like it’s meant to be a summing up of a career or something, but it’s not, really, because it’s almost 20 years old. We weren’t quite as long-in-tooth and gray then.” I think Tench is right, though it’s the perfect tune to close out the collection.

“When I went back through all this stuff… I don’t want to get heavy with it, but it’s very emotional, in being nostalgic, because we were never nostalgic when we were working,” Campbell told Variety. “We never looked back. We just always were looking forward. But Ben and I were forced to look back as we went through this stuff, and we both had an epiphany about how we have a legacy that has integrity. We were sad, but also very proud of what we’ve done.” Who can blame them.

Added Adria Petty: “I feel like Ben and Mike haven’t had a second to process this, what the next chapter can be, and I think for us, it’s kind of the same. Ben had a baby for the first time six or seven weeks after my dad died, and he’s been deeply in love and entrenched in that. It’s a really horrible thing to have to process both things at the same time, so he probably finally has a little space to just focus on that. Mike’s going to be on the road with Fleetwood Mac through April. He had his first grandchild right after Dad died. There’s a third generation of Heartbreaker kids coming in that are all amazing.”

Benmont Tench & Mike Campbell
Benmont Tench (l) and Mike Campbell, August 2018

So after two major compilations, what else might be in store or in the vault I should perhaps better ask. “There a bunch of really great stuff,” Tench told Billboard. He noted early Mudcrutch recordings, demos from The Last DJ and music from the period of Hypnotic Eye, the final studio album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers from July 2014.

Campbell would like to explore a live album from the band’s shows at the Fillmore from 1997 to 1999, he explained to Rolling Stone. “For me, that was almost the pinnacle of the band just being totally spontaneous night to night to night. We might throw in a Grateful Dead song that we just learned that afternoon. We recorded every show and we had guest artists from Bo Diddley to Roger McGuinn to John Lee Hooker. And I know, in my memory of those 20 nights, there’s an amazing album in there.” That surely sounds like a great idea to me!

However, both Tench and Campbell want to be mindful about further releases to make sure the quality is right and Petty would have wanted to release the material. Adria Petty agrees. “I don’t want to inundate the fans with “Hey, here’s another record!”,” she told Variety. That’s a good thing!

Sources: Wikipedia, Tom Petty official website, Variety, Rolling Stone, Billboard, YouTube

Great Covers Tom Petty Style

American Girl, Refugee, You Got Lucky, Runnin’ Down A Dream, BreakdownFree Fallin’, Southern AccentsMary Jane’s Last Dance, The Last DJ – there are countless great songs written by Tom Petty. In addition to that, Petty has also performed many fantastic covers, especially during his concerts. With The Heartbreakers, he had one hell of a backing band. I was reminded of that earlier today, when I came across and listened to an EP titled Bad Girl Boogie, which apparently was exclusively released on Amazon.com in June 2010 as a bonus CD to the DVD Live At The Olympic: The Last DJ. This triggered the idea of putting together a post focused on covers played by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

I’d like to start things off with what I believe was the first cover I ever heard from Tom Petty: Needles And Pins, a song I’ve always dug. It was included on Pack Up The Plantation: Live!, the first official live album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,  which appeared in November 1985. Written by Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono, the tune was first released by Jackie DeShannon in April 1963. In January 1964, The Searchers turned it into a no. 1 hit single in the U.K. In the U.S., it performed strongly as well, peaking at no. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Petty’s great rendition features Stevie Nicks on backing vocals.

Next up: Green Onions, simply one of the coolest instrumentals I know. It appears on The Live Anothology, a live box set and true treasure trove released in November 2009. The tune was initially written by Booker T. Jones and recorded by Booker T. & The M.G.’s in 1962 in a largely improvised fashion while waiting to back another artist in the studio. It became the title track of the Stax house band’s debut album from October 1962 and their signature tune. According to the liner notes, the Heartbreakers’ killer take was recorded during a February 6, 1997 gig at The Fillmore in San Francisco.

Here’s I’m Crying from the above mentioned bonus CD to the Live At The Olympic DVD. The concert was recorded on October 16, 2002 at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Written by Eric Burden and Alan Price, this great tune by The Animals first appeared as the B-side to the Australian version of their 1964 single Boom Boom, a cover of the John Lee Hooker tune. I’m Crying was also included on their second U.S. studio album The Animals On Tour.

Another intriguing cover appearing on The Live Anthology is Goldfinger – yep, that would be the title track of the classic 1964 James Bond motion picture! Composed by John Barry, with lyrics co-written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, it’s one of the greatest movie songs I know. Presumably because it would have been hard to capture the amazing vocal by Shirley Bassey, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the track as a cool Shadows-style instrumental. Mike Campbell is doing an outstanding job that I assume made Hank Marvin proud, if he heard it. Like Green Onions, Goldfinger was captured at The Fillmore in San Francisco, except it was a different date: January 31, 1997.

The last cover I’d like to highlight in this post also appears on the above Bad Girl Boogie EP/bonus CD: The Chuck Berry classic Carol, first released as a single in August 1958. It also appeared on Berry’s first compilation album Chuck Berry Is On Top from July 1959. This take features more awesome guitar work by Campbell and some kickass honky piano by Benmont Tench – great gosh a’ mighty, to borrow from another talented gentleman and piano player called Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube