The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 7: The King, Queen, and a Prince

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020.

Exploring just a few of my Spotify playlists in roughly alphabetical order.

As I add my little autobiographical notes, try not to get chronological whiplash as I wildly veer back and forth between modern-day, my college years, my middle school years, and pre-school…

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were the best American band of the last four decades. Fight me.

Notice I didn’t say “greatest.” They had no interest creating moments of “sweeping grandeur” or delivering Major Statements. I didn’t say “innovative,” either. Several bands can probably top them on that. No, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers simply settled for being the best, especially when you consider the length of their career. (Yes, best vs. greatest is a distinction I make in my own mind, but I think you know what I mean.)

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They were always getting left out of the conversation because they made it look too easy. Whenever there would be debates about “best bands,” and people would be throwing around their R.E.M.s and Radioheads, it would always be up to me to say, “What about Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers?” There was always a short pause, then a lot of nodding and people murmuring “ohhh, yeah…” They were never #1 on anyone’s list, and often forgotten about…but no one could deny the goods they brought to the table, year in and year out.

Petty’s first two albums without the Heartbreakers — Full Moon Fever (1989) and Wildflowers (1994) also generated tons of favorites. In fact, the casual listener might be more familiar with Petty’s solo work than his Heartbreakers stuff. “Free Fallin’,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and several other radio staples all came from his solo work. Wildflowers is probably one of my top ten albums of all time (I haven’t ranked them in quite awhile), and Petty was working on an expanded, deluxe, remastered re-issue at the time of his death. (It finally came out on October 16th of this year.)

I’m convinced any doubters would be turned into Petty fans if they took the time to sit through Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream, perhaps the greatest (now I will say “greatest”) rock documentary ever if you have anything approaching an attention span. Behind his laidback demeanor and crooked grin, Petty ran the Heartbreaks like a benevolent dictator, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Always collaborative, always respectful…but undoubtedly always in charge. He had a steely resolve and a stubborn streak, but was one of the most principled and generous people in the rock & roll pantheon. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell was the “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers” of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers — underrated and overlooked, never getting his due as one of the best guitarists of the modern era. Keyboardist Benmont Tench was valued for his keen wit, his unerring taste, and reliable bullshit detector, not to mention his formidable, classically-trained musicianship. 

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To my (incredibly over-biased) ears, even their lowest moments never dipped too far below their high bar. Yes, the loose concept album The Last DJ (2002) didn’t really coalesce all that well, Mojo (2010) suffered from bloat, and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987) — the lowest of their not-that-low — sounded exhausted even in its title…but that’s about it. Three clunkers in forty years. I’ll take it. (OK, four clunkers — Petty’s third and final solo album, 2006’s Highway Companion, didn’t quite do it for me.)

Anyway, Tom Petty is really the founder of our little feast here. His death in October of 2017 spurred me to sign up to Spotify and begin laboring over my in-tribute playlist. He is one of the few artists to earn “100 song” status, and it’s still the playlist I’m proudest of — the perfect blend of major hits, deep album cuts, live tracks, obscurities, and side-project stuff. 

huge_avatarAs much as I hate the trite term, seeing Tom Petty in concert was on my “bucket list.” I somehow kept missing him. I’d seen the Stones (twice). I’d seen Dylan (twice). I’d seen the Who (still with Entwistle). I’d seen McCartney. Petty was the only empty spot on my trophy shelf. The closest I came was when the woman I was dating in 2006 got us tickets, but we broke up before the concert. She ended up going with her ex-husband. So it goes.

For his 40th Anniversary Tour, I was gifted tickets by my wife Shannon’s family as an early birthday present. Just in time, too. Petty had been hinting this would be the last time he toured on this scale. The show was going to be at Sacramento’s brand-new Golden 1 Center, and was scheduled for August 25, 2017 — then was cancelled at the literal last minute. My in-laws were already on their way up from the Bay Area to join us when we got the alert on our phone — “As Tom Petty heals from laryngitis and bronchitis, he has been advised to take additional days off before performing.” My in-laws had to settle for dinner and a movie.

The show was re-scheduled for September 1. The in-laws made the trek east into the Sacramento Valley once more. This time, they were plunged into a pit of hellfire. I was afraid the respiratory-challenged Petty would cancel again — the air was soupy and almost unbreathable. Raging wildfires are now a seasonal event here in California, and we had a lively one going up in Butte County not too far away. The temperature hovered around 100 as the sun set, visible as a fiercely-glowing coal on the western horizon through layers of gray ash. Several people milling around the exterior of the Golden 1 Arena were actually wearing masks — an unusual and almost comical sight…at the time.

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The Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, CA

Settling into my arena seat with a beer in hand, the conditions outside were forgotten. The opening act was a group of young Petty proteges from L.A., the Shelters. The sound was horrendous, but those kids were clearly having a blast being a rock & roll band, leaping around the stage and striking poses for the still-filling arena. 

Once they wrapped up and cleared the stage, it wasn’t more than a few minutes before the house lights dimmed. (That’s what I love about attending concerts with an audience that skews, shall we say, older. They always start on time, because everyone wants to be in bed by ten-thirty.) Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone came out to huge applause. He settled himself onto the drum stool, and gave his bass drum a few tentative kicks. I could feel the reverberation in my breastbone. Oh, this was going to be loud. The the rest of the Heartbreakers wandered onto the stage, putting down water bottles and picking up instruments. Then, in an instant, the house lights dropped altogether, the stage was awash in green and blue lights, and the Man Himself was before us — heavily bearded and in shades, blasting out the opening chords to “Rockin’ Around (With You)” from their 1976 debut album.

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Onstage at the Golden 1 — September 1, 2017

It was definitely a “greatest hits” type set, and fully half the songs were from his solo albums, a testament to their overall popularity. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” closed with an appropriately psychedelic extended freak-out, and Mojo’s “I Should Have Known It” pulsed with new life, re-interpreted as a Clapton-style blues guitar showcase for Mike Campbell. The sound was still a little muddy (basketball arenas are not concert halls), but the power and authority of the performance was towering. I emerged into the dark, smoky air deliriously happy, the encore “American Girl” still ringing in my ears. I looked forward to seeing Petty again someday in what he said would be his new concert incarnation — smaller, more intimate venues, stripped-down, Deep Cuts.

Petty played four more shows after Sacramento — the KAABOO Festival in Del Mar, then three nights at the Hollywood Bowl. Then he died on October 2, 2017 from an overdose of pain medication. The night I saw him, he was likely in agony the whole time from a fractured hip, but soldiered on and played a great show. He kept quiet about the hip injury in order to finish the tour and keep his band and his road crew employed.

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(Pointless aside — according to my research, it is more stylistically correct to keep the article “the” before a band name lowercase unless it starts the sentence. It’s “the Beatles,” not “The Beatles,” despite what 9 out of 10 websites and even many professional writers go with. So I’ve been sticking to that rule. Unless the band name follows an ampersand. I don’t care what’s stylistically correct, “Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers” just looks wrong to my tiny mind. It’ll be “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers” here.)

Living out in the middle of nowhere for a few years during my time in middle school meant that I was a bus rider. As we jounced along rutted gravel roads that bisected the rice fields of the Sutter Basin in a quarter-filled, half-sized Blue Bird school bus, I would try to concentrate on my brick-sized paperback copy of Ray Coleman’s Lennon, which I carried in my backpack like a talisman for almost two years.

One day, two black, squirrel-like eyes appeared over the back of the bus seat in front of me. It was the seventh-grader Randall Cummings. Randall’s permanent puzzled squint, up-turned nose, and battered ballcap gave him the appearance of Beaver Cleaver gone to seed. He smelled like a bed-wetter. He was homophobic in the literal sense. He repeatedly told of recurring nightmares in which he would be kidnapped by “the gay people” — because that’s what they do — and whisked away to live in servitude in San Francisco. (At which point “recurring nightmare” evolved into “fantasy” is a question I’d like to ask him as an adult.)

“Hey, [Holy Bee], wanna hear something?”

There was little to nothing I ever wanted to hear from Randall Cummings, but I sighed and put my book down. “What?”

“My brother told me that David Lee Roth has a hole cut in the back of his guitar, and when he’s playing shows, y’know, he puts his thing in there and there’s a machine in there that, y’know, jacks him off.”

I stared at him, dead-eyed, for a moment. Then went into de-bunking mode for the benefit of this dull-witted, backwards child. I explained that a typical solid-body electric guitar had a width of about 2 and ¾ inches. If one could drill a hole into the solid wood, avoiding the wiring for the pick-ups and whatnot, and if one could somehow install a surreptitious, customized auto-erotic device, there would only be room for a portion of the male member (if the device did what it was supposed to do.) On top of which, the cavortings and leapings-about of a typical rock performer sound like a recipe for horrifying disaster if his “thing” is partially stuck in a hole in his guitar. (Obviously, I couched all this slightly different verbiage more suitable for my age at the time, but this was the gist. I also vaguely knew Wesley’s mouth-breathing older brother, and it’s just the sort of thing he would believe to the core of his being.)

Finally, my capper: David Lee Roth is a singer only — he has never laid a finger (or anything else) on a guitar!

This is what finally convinced Randall Cummings. As he sunk back down into his seat, defeated, he muttered, “Maybe it was Prince…”

That gave me pause. With Prince, I would almost consider it possible. 

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I approached making my Prince playlist with trepidation. I knew I would make it through his classic ‘80s albums with pleasure, but I was worried about the later (and much longer) portion of his career, when his already-prolific output went up and the quality control got shaky. Then I thought I had found the perfect workaround — there was a collection called Anthology: 1995-2010, that roughly corresponded to the era I was shying away from. I would simply throw its contents in there and have a pretty good representation of that troublesome timespan. Cheating, yes, but I was flirting with playlist burnout at that point. 

I decided I’d better listen to it, and that’s when my plan went off the rails. For almost every Anthology track, I decided there had to be a better one from the album it was representing. So I ended up listening to all of his late-period stuff anyway — and came up with a much stronger playlist because of it. And enjoyed the process, to my burned-out surprise. Even second-tier Prince is a hell of a lot of fun.

Lesson learned. Don’t try to beat the system you yourself invented. 

I always refer to my discovery of the Beatles as my musical epiphany, but you could say I had a slightly earlier mini-epiphany. I was an Elvis fan a little bit before I was a Beatles fan.

I’ve said before that my parents were not really music fans, and that’s probably a little unfair to them. They certainly enjoyed music, but did not make it a point to obsessively memorize discographies and release dates (the mark of a true fan, of course), and their collection — a blend of vinyl and 8-track tapes — was haphazard and on the small side.

Nothing is more emblematic of music in the 1970s and early ‘80s than the 8-track tape. A spool of tape concealed inside a plastic cartridge the size of a thick slice of bread, the 8-track made it possible for the first time to listen to a full-length album of your choice in your car. Imagine! No longer at the mercy of radio DJs, you could be your own in-vehicle DJ. Inevitably, there were limitations. You couldn’t skip from track to track, but you could skip from program to program. A “program” was roughly equivalent to an LP album side, containing four or five songs. And I do mean roughly. A song would often fade out halfway through, or within twenty seconds, or with only twenty seconds to go, to be resumed at the start of the next “program.”

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The 8-track player on our family room stereo was so fundamentally simple even a pre-schooler (i.e., the Holy Bee at the time) could operate it. I went through my parents’ 8-tracks one by one. Neil Sedaka? Yechh. Eject. Toss over shoulder. Phoebe Snow? Double-yechh. Eject. Throw over shoulder with a little more force. Soundtrack to Grease? A little better. Especially “Greased Lightning,” which would set me to racing around the house (“Go, go, go…go go go go go go go…”). Soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever? Better still (except for those Yvonne Ellman speedbumps). My older sister and cousins played that one all the time.

Elvis Presley’s Twin Set (“Special TV Offer — 2 Records on 1 Tape!”)? Jackpot! You had me at “Hound Dog.” As soon as I came across that one, I played it non-stop. I 100% percent guarantee you I had never seen any performance footage of Elvis (only about two years gone at that time), but when I was acting out in front of the speakers to those songs, my pelvis loosened and my left leg got the shakes. 

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Not a bad Elvis tutorial for a beginner. Missing “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” but most major hits from ’56 to ’63 are there.

A couple of Christmases down the road, I was finally deemed competent to operate the delicate tone-arm on the turntable of our stereo (which was a little more complex than “shove 8-track in, yank 8-track out”). I received my very first Elvis Presley vinyl double-LP, and it was an odd one — the soundtrack to the 1981 documentary film This Is Elvis.

Odd, but logical. The movie was new — anyone shopping for an Elvis album in the fall of ‘81 (e.g., my mom doing her Christmas shopping) would have seen this one filling up the Elvis section of the record store, maybe even on special display. But the contents of the album were rather bizarre — snippets of TV interviews, press conferences, versions of songs that were not the original recordings but taken from TV shows like Stage Show with the Dorsey Brothers, and The Milton Berle Show. Maybe not the ideal Elvis primer, but I already had that with the Twin Set 8-track. The This Is Elvis soundtrack was one of the first foundation stones in building a pop-culture historian.

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Just a couple of months after receiving and absorbing This Is Elvis, I had my Beatles Discovery Moment (detailed in Vol. 3.3), and Elvis went on the back burner. But a back burner still burns, and I still consider myself an Elvis fan.

My older sister had her own clutch of vinyl geared toward the Top 40 stuff of the day, so she wasn’t much of a classic rock sherpa to me the way many older siblings sometimes are (although the Top 40 of 1979/1980 would be considered “classic rock” by the time I started serious music collecting). I know she had AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, which in retrospect surprises me, because she was much more of a Journey/Styx type, maybe Foreigner if she was really letting her (feathered) hair down. She also had The Game by Queen. I thought the four band members pictured on the cover sporting retro motorcycle leathers in glamorous black-and-white were the coolest-looking, toughest, most bad-ass guys on the face of the earth. The dark-haired one who was clearly the leader looked like particular trouble. If I ever met him in a dark alley, I would likely get stomped or stabbed. 

I don’t know how many times I would pull out the album, stare at the cover, and quickly put it back before actually daring to play the songs. The opening track, “Play the Game,” lulled me into a false sense of security, then those thugs showed their true colors with the explosive assault of “Dragon Attack,” and after that came “Another One Bites the Dust.” Jesus Christ, they had machine guns? It was worse than I thought…

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Long after learning that Queen were campy, fun-loving glammers playing the role of “tough guys” on that album cover, The Game, remained by favorite album by them. (Runner-up? Jazz. Very underrated.) 

After all I’ve written about them, and the life I’ve led enjoying them, it would be a safe assumption that the Beatles are my “favorite” band. And in a general sense, that would be true. But it’s like saying “sunlight” and “oxygen” are my favorite “things.” The Beatles, similarly, are essential. They’re the firmament. They’re a given. (And there’s always some hipster/punk contrarian who says things like “I don’t see what was so great about the Beatles” in a condescending tone. These people are joyless cranks with an obsessive need to seem “different from the herd,” and can be safely dismissed as the vacant trolls that they are.)

So if the Beatles should be taken as a permanent fixture in the heavens, then who, truly, is my favorite band? Well, that’s easy and logical enough: the Beatles’ perpetual runner-up in the Great British Band-Off, the Rolling Stones. The Stones started as one of dozens of blues/R&B cover bands on the early ‘60s London scene, clawing their way to the top of that particular heap. They quickly mastered songwriting, and exploded across multiple genres through multiple decades with justifiable swagger, savvy, and just so much goddamn personality. Their highs are unreachable, and their lows are gasp-inducing trainwrecks, but I love them all the more because of their flaws. 

By the start of summer vacation 1990, my CD collection could still barely fill a single shelf on my bedroom bookcase. My core fifteen Beatles CDs nestled next to Are You Experienced?, CCR’s Chronicle Vol. 1, best of Dylan, best of the Byrds, best of the Yardbirds, and a “best of the Animals” compilation that was actually a 1970s cash-grab set of re-recordings of Animals classics by lead singer Eric Burdon and a bunch of studio hacks. Buyer beware. The Friday that school let out (the end of my freshman year of high school) was a half-day, and I had big plans. Good grades had earned me a little spending cash. First I would catch a matinee by myself at the cineplex (Another 48 Hrs. — rated R, but I was never once denied a ticket when I was “unaccompanied by an adult” in my early teens), then that evening, I would join the friends I had miraculously made towards the end of the school year for pizza and the opening night of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. 

In between would be CD shopping at all the local record stores. My Schwinn ten-speed would get a workout that afternoon, as would my sweat glands — a typical northern Sacramento Valley mid-June day pushes the mercury towards 100. The record stores’ air conditioning would be mercifully cool on the wet spot on my back, my backpack having been turned in at the front counter to ensure I wouldn’t shoplift. I decided it was long past time to invite the Rolling Stones to my CD collection…and I had enough in my wallet for a double CD! So that meant…Hot Rocks, a two-disc compilation first released in 1971, and responsible for creating Stones fans by the bushel ever since.

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I can’t think of a better introduction to a band than the Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks 1964-1971 (except maybe Tom Petty’s single-disc Greatest Hits), nor a stronger way to dispel the notion that the Sixties were all about peace and love. Only 21 songs long, Hot Rocks serves as the Stones’ cultural manifesto. Mostly thumping, leering aggression, even its quieter moments are dark, restless and uneasy. The Stones were never satisfied. 

Pretty early on in my CD collecting, I acquired Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and Born in the USA from the used racks, already swelling with copies of Human Touch and Lucky Town around that time, but I wasn’t ready for those yet. No, I got the ones that my handy Rolling Stone Album Guide told me were among his most essential. I took them home, listened to them, and sort of shrugged. They then sat on the shelf, mostly untouched.

Fast forward a few years. By that time, I’d worked a few jobs, had a few failed relationships, lived a little. Then Springsteen’s songs suddenly had resonance, and I began collecting his stuff with the same fervor I had formerly associated with collecting the Beatles and Stones. (Ironically, by his own happy admission, Springsteen never worked at a real job in his life.) You have to have a few miles on you to appreciate Bruce.

In the studio, Springsteen tended to over-record, to put it mildly. He would come in with two dozen or more songs, sweat through them all, take after take, finally nailing the perfect performance. Then he would start his winnowing-down process, and select only the ten or twelve songs that precisely matched the theme or mood he had decided on for the final version of the album. The rest were shelved, and it was on to the next project. There was nothing wrong with the “outtakes.” Most of them were as good (and sometimes better) than what ended up on the album. They just didn’t fit. 

The Legend of Bruce’s Vaults grew among Springsteen aficionados. Sometimes he would play a couple of lost treasures in concert, but for the most part, these songs were semi-mythical. Then, in 1998, came Tracks. Springsteen and his team cherry-picked the best of the best of his outtakes going back to 1972, and released them to the public. Even the curated “best of the best” filled four pretty lengthy CDs. The Tracks box set was the must-have release among my group of friends, and this was at a point in our lives (final year of college, or just graduated) when the financial outlay for a 4-CD set was…impactful. It meant missing several meals. But we all had it, and it was totally worth it.

My Springsteen playlist is absolutely stuffed with Tracks songs, material that could literally have built the career of another artist. And, yes, one or two questionable picks. The goofy nursery-rhyme shuffle “Bishop Danced” kept getting booted off my list, then reinstated, like an audio Billy Martin, but I ultimately erred on the side of inclusion.

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I hadn’t spun a lot of Springsteen in recent years, to the point where I hadn’t even heard his last three albums, so when it came time to research and listen for the playlist, the joy of rediscovery was palpable. The relatively recent book Bruce Springsteen: The Story Behind Every Song was a great help, and if you haven’t seen his one-man show, Springsteen On Broadway — songs interspersed with his honest, hilarious, and gleefully profane commentary — it’s worth the price of an HBO subscription.     

Tom Waits has two distinct phases: the jazz poet of his Asylum Records years in the 1970s, and the unhinged, wheezing, percussive mad bluesman/carny barker — equal parts Bertolt Brecht and Captain Beefheart — heralded by his arrival on Island Records in 1983, and the skin he’s occupied ever since. I first heard him early in my “alt-rock” phase as a vocal cameo on Primus’ “Tommy the Cat.” He cropped up again a few years later, as a vanload of friends and I were trying get from Nevada City to Yuba City on the back mountain roads, socked in by fog, on a frigid December night. The van’s heater whirred cozily as the headlights picked out little but swirling mist as we crept along. We had Waits’ 1985 album Rain Dogs on repeat, and hearing things like “Clap Hands” and the spoken-word “9th and Hennepin” served to augment the spooky, slightly surreal atmosphere as we nosed our way home. I’ve been a rabid Waits fan ever since.

I had originally intended to mix a healthy dose of Jack White’s solo material and his work with the Raconteurs into my White Stripes playlist, but the White Stripes aesthetics are just so idiosyncratic, and so pure, that anything not sharing that very peculiar presentation feels like an intruder. So it’s the beautiful red-black-white primitivism of the White Stripes, and them alone, that constitute my playlist. 

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Filed under Music -- 1950s & Before, Music -- 1960s, Music -- 1970s-80s, Music -- 1990s, Music -- 2000s

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