quinta-feira, dezembro 22, 2005
My favorite jazz record released this year, and one of my favorites of any year, was made in 1957. I first heard "Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall" (Blue Note) at the Library of Congress in April, after the news of its discovery had been made public. It sounded pretty good then, but you can never really tell when hearing something over a high-quality sound system in front of interested parties. I have listened to it repeatedly since, and it seems to be much better than I first thought - solid, juicy, truly great.
Another of the year's new jazz records - John Coltrane's "One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note" (Impulse) - was made in 1965. It disqualifies itself from consideration for my list of the year's best jazz albums only because it has been heard, in bits and pieces, on illegal tapes for 40 years. (I got mine from a great saxophonist who wanted to spread the word.) But it is also, I think, a masterpiece.
There's a reason why these records stand out as the year's best, and I get the sense that many people feel they know that reason.
They believe, or have heard, that jazz crinkled up and collapsed after Coltrane. That the musicians have defaulted on audiences, going deep into their own heads instead. That there's been no successor, because Coltrane broke the mold, threw away the key, set the bar too high, stretched the envelope as far as it would go, established a holding pattern, and other truth-obscuring clichés.
It would simplify things, but no. In fact, I don't think the reason has much to do with Coltrane per se - other than the obvious fact that he made superior music. (He did create a few stock models in jazz that persisted for an impressively long period after his death, but that's a different matter.)
These are among the year's great albums because they are high-quality proofs of one of jazz's basic properties: the possibility for transcendence on the gig, for a great band to be even better. This is true in any kind of music, but it is much more true in jazz.
There are a lot of great jazz musicians in New York, and in the world. But the number of great and economically sustainable bands has declined, along with an international audience and a circuit of clubs that encourages those bands to feel a sense of competition, and opportunities for those bands to play repeatedly for regular audiences in the same small places. A. J. Liebling once wrote that French food declined after World War I with the rise of highway driving, since small restaurants weren't committed to satisfying the same clientele night after night. Instead, they could serve the same dishes and not worry about improvement; regular waves of new diners would chew away, unaware of the stasis.
In a way, the same goes for jazz. Both bands, the Monk-Coltrane Quartet of 1957 and the Coltrane Quartet of 1965, had places in New York to take root. Monk and Coltrane played as many as 75 nights within a five-month stretch at the Five Spot Cafe in the East Village. The Coltrane Quartet played 14 weeks at the Half Note in the span of a year, from spring 1964 to spring 1965. Fourteen. It was a different time in many ways: it seems that anytime I meet someone who saw either of those bands at those clubs, they won't say that they went once, as if to cross it off a list; they went twice or three times a week, as part of their lives. (No Internet. No TiVo. Cheap rent. No risk of being thought a loser if you liked to go to jazz clubs at night.)
So there were hundreds of new jazz records this year that weren't as good? It gets forgotten, so it needs repeating: the studio is an unreliable gauge of what the best jazz groups are really up to, even at the highest levels.
Monk's quartet with Coltrane recorded three songs in the studio in summer 1957, at the beginning of that band's short existence. They can be heard on "Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane" (Riverside/Fantasy). They're very good, and they contain a newly advanced Coltrane. But they are dry-runs when set next to the 51 minutes from Carnegie Hall, which were discovered for the first time in January.
The Carnegie tape comes from late November 1957, after five rigorous months of Five Spot gigs, toward the end of the band's six-month life. (Very little taped material of this band in that year at the Five Spot, and with low fidelity, is known to exist.) On the Carnegie album the band is relaxed, limber, magnetic; the tempos are more wakeful. Compare the tune "Nutty" between the studio and stage versions, and you will hear it quickly. Coltrane has become agile, finding a flexible way of running his original patterns. Monk balances an inscrutable serenity against driving, almost violent figures. And everything coming from Shadow Wilson, the drummer, is to be savored: he guards and upholds the groove, while building small, richly detailed accents around it.
But the band ended a little more than a month later, and contractual issues between Coltrane and Monk's record labels made it impossible for them to record again. We're lucky to have this.
The Coltrane "One Down, One Up" recordings were made by the radio station WABC-FM, in 1965, for a radio show called "Portraits in Jazz" with Alan Grant. Even more than the Monk-Coltrane recording, the music is completely based in the rhetoric of the band's live performances; it is a different discipline entirely from studio recordings. The longest piece on the Monk-Coltrane, "Sweet and Lovely," is nine and a half minutes; the title track of "One Down, One Up" runs to nearly 28. The Coltrane band had been playing pieces at this length for at least four years, but was still making fairly structured music in the studio. What we hear is a band's shared language in its highest period; Coltrane and the drummer Elvin Jones rarely sounded more individually free, and still elastically tethered to each other.
The same principle has generated other good records this year, too. An excellent, previously unknown Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie concert from 1945, released on Uptown Records. A new Wynton Marsalis record, "Live at the House of Tribes," recorded in front of an audience of 50 - his best, to a certain way of thinking, since "Live at Blues Alley" in 1986. And coming in February, a recording from 1996 of the Omer Avital Sextet at Smalls, an excellent band of its moment that played hundreds of nights at that tiny club and never got to put out a record properly during its life.
Whenever history tells you that a masterpiece was recorded in the studio on a certain day at a certain hour - Charlie Parker's "Koko," Pat Metheny's "Bright Size Life," Ornette Coleman's "Shape of Jazz to Come" - it's probably not a patch on what those groups did later that night.
This is how jazz works. It is not a volume business. (Its essence is the opposite of business.) Its greatest experiences are given away cheaply, to rooms of 50 to 200 people. Literature and visual art are both so different: the creator stands back, judges a fixed object, then refines or discards before letting the words go to print, or putting images to walls. A posthumously found Hemingway novel is never as good as what he judged to be his best work. But in jazz there is always the promise that the art's greatest examples - even by those long dead - may still be found.
sábado, dezembro 17, 2005
Parece impossível para alguém de mais de quarenta anos e de formação pré-internet entender que a indústria do disco, como até hoje a conhecemos, acabou. Kaput. Finita. Mas não é uma opinião, é um fato. É só uma questão de tempo. E dinheiro. O indício mais recente, que comprova o desespero pré-agônico: a truculenta RIAA, associação americana da indústria do disco, que já fechou judicialmente o Napster, mas não consegue impedir que nasçam e cresçam os novos sites de trocas de arquivo, agora atira pesado até contra seus ex-aliados históricos e maiores consumidores: os estudantes. Acaba de entrar com processos contra quatro universitários americanos que mantinham sites de trocas de arquivos musicais usando a banda ultra-rápida que as universidades disponibilizam para os estudantes em suas redes internas. Acusa-os de ladrões de copyright e exige bilhões, sim, bilhões de dólares de indenização, US$ 150 mil por música nas listas.
Claro, eles não esperam receber essa grana dos universitários e de suas famílias, querem só dar um susto. Por enquanto. Muitos falcões da indústria, em nome de seus lucros, adorariam levar à falência Harvard ou Princeton, como co-responsáveis pelas contravenções de seus alunos, conforme repetidas ameaças às direções das universidades. Por isso escolheram para inimigos quatro, entre dezenas de estudantes que mantêm sites de troca de arquivos nos campi, para serem exemplados, obrigados a fazer acordos judiciais públicos e humilhantes, que não serão bilionários, mas pelo menos, esperam os advogados, quebrarão as famílias dos réus, dos piratas, dos criminosos.
Esses mercenários da lei e da justiça enfrentam uma nova e estranha forma de contravenção: os contraventores não estavam ganhando um centavo com os sites, os serviços que ofereciam eram gratuitos, não eram empreendimentos comerciais, ninguém pagava e ninguém recebia. Era só um troca-troca. Sim, é desonesto — e ilegal — oferecer, mesmo de graça, propriedade alheia, sem autorização. Mas isso não é jeito de tratar jovens que amam a música e foram, desde sempre, o maior sustentáculo, a grande força promocional e massa consumidora da indústria do disco. Agora é guerra, que — como a de Bush contra o terrorismo — não terá fim.
Antigamente os estudantes faziam cópias das músicas de que gostavam em minicassete para os colegas, entregavam em mãos, e a indústria adorava a promoção gratuita, que gerava novas tendências e criava sucessos milionários. E tanto que, durante anos, investiu pesadamente nas rádios universitárias e manteve escritórios promocionais em todos os campi. Agora, quando as músicas são copiadas digitalmente on-line, os antigos maiores aliados viraram piratas, ladrões e criminosos. Vamos ver se entendemos: quando a música era copiada fisicamente, analogicamente, e registrada nos átomos da fita cassete, era legal; agora, transferir os dígitos da mesma música, só que on-line e em segundos, para o hard drive de outro, é crime. O que o pessoal dos átomos teria contra os dígitos?
Talvez o fato de terem mais de quarenta anos e serem pré-internet os incapacite a entender esses paradoxos do progresso tecnológico e as novas liberdades que eles geram. Já os universitários não são otários. São de uma geração criada com todas as facilidades e gratuidades da internet, acostumados a ter informações e serviços preciosos de graça e a experimentar à vontade antes de comprar qualquer produto. Alguns reitores, professores e estudantes de boa vontade trabalharam juntos em propostas para impor uma taxa mensal aos estudantes — como as cobradas pela assinatura de jornais e revistas ou pelo uso de piscinas e ginásios — para baixar músicas pela internet. A RIAA não quis nem conversar. E certamente não ouviu quando David Bowie profetizou o óbvio: que num futuro próximo a música será algo como a água corrente, o gás, a energia elétrica ou a TV a cabo — o consumidor pagará uma taxa mensal pelo seu uso. Tantos litros, tantos watts ou tantos dígitos musicais, tanto faz. Mas a indústria do disco acha que pode continuar nadando nessa sopa, que fez dela, dos anos 60 aos 90, uma das mais lucrativas do mundo, com executivos ganhando salários e bônus que rivalizavam com os das indústrias de energia, farmacêutica, automobilística.
Sob suas asas generosas, imbecis e ignorantes com algum suingue e muita audácia se tornaram milionários da noite para o dia, pop stars oligofrênicos usaram e foram usados por máquinas bilionárias de marketing, mitos e fraudes foram criados ao sabor do jabá radiofônico, televisivo e impresso e de generosos presentes e contribuições de todo tipo para todo o mundo que ajudasse a construir um sucesso. Esse mundo está ruindo, caindo de podre. O que restará para a história é a extraordinária contribuição cultural dada pela indústria do disco, registrando e distribuindo para o mundo a grande música do século 20. Restará a história gloriosa dos grandes homens do disco, gente como os irmãos Nesuhi e Ahmet Ertegun, Berry Gordy, Clive Davis, Chris Blackwell e outros que amavam a música e que descobriram e desenvolveram grandes artistas; ninguém se lembrará de advogados, financistas e marqueteiros que hoje dominam a indústria.
Nelson Motta, 60, é jornalista, escritor e produtor musical
The Greatest Bluesman Standing Whams His Not So Marginal Differentiations All The Way Home (by Robert Christgau for The Village Voice)
It was a courtesy call. Eighty-year-old B.B. King aside, Buddy Guy is the most honored bluesman standing, such a big deal he's on RCA-linked Silvertone, where he's been putting out notable albums since 1991. Yet it had been many years since I'd seen him with spit-singing harmonica maestro Junior Wells, whose 1998 death ended an off-and-on partnership of three decades. So when a death-metal guitarist I know became a blues nut working a summer job as an apprentice luthier, we made a date for a free show at Borough of Manhattan Community College's 900-seat Tribeca Performing Arts Center November 15. As a bonus I'd get a look at 26-year-old Shemekia Copeland, Johnny's daughter, on profile and rep one of blues's few ranking youngbloods.
I'd hoped Copeland's set would help me hear her records. Instead it convinced me that her voice lacked the size and her songs the edge that a red hot mama needs—not to reach the specialist audience, which has been padding its waistline on marginal differentiation for so long that it can barely get to the corner anymore, but the rest of us. The major blues album is a vanishing artifact. Along with Robert Cray and Corey Harris, Guy himself is one of the few living humans with more than one. Competent work abounds—the specialist audience knows how sustaining bent notes and aab closure can be. But the tweak of the new is hard to come by, and not just on record.Stacy Mitchhart at B.B. King's November 27, who with his yeoman's voice and panoply of guitar options ground fatback "I'm a King Bee" and sirloin "It Hurts Me Too" into hamburger as nondescript as his originals, can stand in for 100 others just as honorable and committed. The winner of the 2003 Albert King Award for most promising guitarist packed no more surprise than Slippery When Wet, who regaled the insatiable at B.B.'s after Bon Jovi played the Garden two nights later.
But in Tribeca, 69-year-old Buddy Guy ignored all obituaries. He looked spectacular—shaved head, embroidered sky-blue overalls, pin-striped navy-blue dress shirt, black-and-white shoes midway between sneakers and spats. And when he began playing he played . . . almost nothing: quiet little pinging blue notes high up on the fretboard to which he eventually added a few crooned lines of "I'm Going Down." An audacious trick, and it worked—the full house strained to listen. Moreover, similar teases dominated the show, their pleasure intensified by blasts of sound like the raucously out solo with which newsboy- capped hipster pianist Marty Sammon finished off the opener. Guy can still big up, sure thing. He long ago decided that Hendrix kid had ideas worth stealing, and sometimes he rocked whole songs. He also freed strapping young guitarist Ric Hall to get dirty for 32 bars, and left space for a solo that could have been a Buddy Guy transcription by goateed hipster saxophonist Jason Moynihan. But what made the show transfixing was its dynamics—the almost sexual expertise with which Guy withheld and then slammed home the payoff. Sammon never shone so loud again, but he was attentive and imaginative throughout, as was man-mountain drummer Tim Austin. The band anticipated every shift in rhythm and volume. As Guy put it more than once, the total effect was so funky you could smell it.
The coolest touch came when—accompanied by an aide with a flashlight, his bone density ain't what it used to be—Guy walked singing and sometimes playing to the rear of the theater. Halfway back down, he guided the wrist of a female audience member—no hottie, a stout fiftysomething who looked like she worked at BMCC—until she was strumming his guitar. He provided the fancy stuff up the fretboard, and suddenly this college administrator, let's say, was playing a blues solo. Due to the miracle of cordless technology, however, it emanated physically from the stage, although few had their heads turned toward the three band members doing a dance routine there. It was an inspired image of formal mastery in all its generosity and artifice.
But there was more to come, and soon Guy was introducing the "friend" he claims pressured him into putting Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams to Remember" on his songful and soulful if not altogether successful new Bring 'Em In: accidental teenthrob John Mayer, a VH1-favored member of the Dave Matthews–Justin Mraz school of jazzy pop-rock who caught the blues bug just when it was presumed extinct. I respect Mayer, a decent and funny guy, but I assumed he'd prove a dabbler, and I was wrong. He had his own mellow, soft-edged sound on guitar, and traded vocals with Guy even up. Modestly, he tried to duck away after the cameo, but Guy insisted he stay, so there was no blaming him for the solo he couldn't find his way out of, and if Guy good-naturedly obliterated him every time he played a little guitar, that was right and natural. Guy was the master, the last great bluesman standing. Mayer was his apprentice.
And we—we were partakers in a sacrament. Because as Guy seems to conceive it, what matters isn't Buddy Guy, but blues itself. He is its tireless exegete. Regulars say his sets change night to night, and though he was always an ace guitarist, his instrumental range and control keep growing. On the other side of his crooning, he's a brawnier singer now than 30 years ago too. If his records often fall just slightly short anyway—the best of his mature period, Sweet Tea, cashes in the repertoire trick of cherry-picking the underexploited Fat Possum songbook—it's because his vocal signature is more about the genre than the artist, whose personality is less distinct than King's or even Wells's. He personifies the generosity of artifice.
As it turns out, however, he isn't alone, because B.B. King himself remains the greatest bluesman sitting. You don't think anyone paid 42nd Street prices for Stacy Mitchhart, do you? Talking a lot and flaunting his seniority, King never got out of his chair. But he was too old to be subtle about proving himself—his voice was powerful, and his guitar flowed into harmonic estuaries he wouldn't have dared in his crowd-pleasing, legend-building prime. I predict no revival. But great genres aren't just for specialists.
Posted December 2nd, 2005 5:52 PM
'The Autobiography of Donovan' - Revisiting the 60's With One Who Knew (by Janet Maslin for The New York Times Book Review)
In his prime, the astral singer-songwriter Donovan appeared to take a serene view of show business and its cutthroat ways. Not anymore. Nowadays, Donovan would like you to know that he never received proper credit for Flower Power, World Music, New Age Music, the boxed-set album package, using LSD and the lyric "Love, Love, Love" before the Beatles did and playing folk-rock five months before Bob Dylan wielded an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
These claims - legitimate, by the way - do not emerge from total oblivion, but it's close. Donovan has spent decades hiding in plain sight. He never entirely stopped performing or recording, but he has not been part of the 1960's-nostalgia boom. Only now, with a memoir, a reissued collection of his music and a big hit ("Catch the Wind") used in a car commercial, has he come back into view.
Donovan once wrote a song called "Atlantis" that marveled at a lost world. His own re-emergence prompts similar emotion. "The Autobiography of Donovan" is a very strange book (what else?) that revisits the fertile, trippy 60's, the elaborately constructed aura of Donovan's beatitude, the wild incongruities of that era's popular culture (when the guest list for one Donovan party included Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante and the Doors) and the lingo that has become so quaint. "And, man, I was gratified when the fab chicks screamed," he writes in all seriousness about appearing on his first television show.
The overall language of this book is no less peculiar. It starts in the heavy Scottish dialect of his early years ("I used to sleep wi' ma mammy"). It can take a lofty, didactic tone, even when explicating the effects of marijuana ("Giggles and uncontrolled laughter are often signs of the natural relief that comes from letting go of the conditioning society forces on us"). It adopts the kinds of romantic euphemisms used in his song lyrics; "My Lady of the Lemon Tree" is Donovanese for hostile. And at times it even grasps for the hype that he once disdained. There's something desperate about a memoir that quotes ad copy about its subject's exciting talents.
Bumpy as it is, "The Autobiography of Donovan" is also touching, illuminating and frank. If the author wistfully idealizes his glory days, he can also bring a brass-tacks honesty to describing them. "Yes, I took myself too seriously at times," he writes. "As I say, this was when no one else would." He repeatedly rebuts the complaint that there was anything artificial about either his mien or his music. "I was not invented by a manager," he writes. "I created my own sound and image from the heart and from the start." As with Mr. Dylan's memoir, some of this book's most interesting insights explain the inspiration for extremely well-known music. Donovan writes of wanting to deliver what he calls a Bohemian Manifesto. He also describes the unusual combinations of jazz, classical music, Indian ragas, Caribbean percussion and even heavy metal (those are future members of Led Zeppelin jamming in the midst of "The Hurdy Gurdy Man") that his songs delivered so smoothly.
And he adds his version of what has turned out to be the Rashomon event of his era: the Indian idyll arranged by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. When he was introduced to the Maharishi, an aide used the phrase "like the Beatles" to describe Donovan. "Well," he writes wryly, "I was flattered to be compared to my friends."
Donovan has indicated that the "The Hurdy Gurdy Man" describes the Maharishi. So why is "The Hurdy Gurdy Man" the subtitle of this book? His autobiography is similarly cavalier about a number of things, not least of them spelling. "Jennifer Juniper," written to woo the sister-in-law of George Harrison, qualifies as one of the most successful musical seductions on record, but Donovan changes the spelling of his own song's title. Mr. Dylan becomes "Bobbie." But he also becomes "the Hebrew shaman with the Celtic name." And Donovan, in gloves-off mode, contends that while Mr. Dylan is the better lyricist, "musically I am more creative and influential."
"The Autobiography of Donovan" stops all too short at the end of the 1960's. But its defining event also occurs then. The book has been built around the author's search for his muse: Linda Lawrence, who met Donovan in 1965, was gun-shy about rock stars (after bearing a child and being abandoned by Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones) and inspired many surprisingly fizzy songs of amorous pursuit. ("Sunshine Superman" is the fizziest of them.) His happily-ever-after finale notes their wedding and progeny but continues to keep the last three-and-a-half decades under wraps.
However time has treated Donovan personally, it has been kind to his music. And the music now gets the jump-start it needs to be enjoyed and admired anew. This book, with legitimate frustration but without hubris, reinstates that music's seminal influence and the underlying seriousness that has always been easy to miss.
"The constant gibes in the British press about my love of beauty has long left a false impression of my work," he maintains. "I was mocked as a simpleton when I sang of birds and bees and flowers like a child." He was also mocked for being wild about saffron, but it turns out that he loves saffron monks' robes and saffron cake with raisins. In any case, this book is where the mockery ends. And the last laugh begins.
Posted November 28, 2005
sexta-feira, dezembro 16, 2005
This year, the Rolling Stones crushed all doubt as to their might and will to rock with A Bigger Bang, their best studio album since 1981's Tattoo You, and the start of a world tour already set to break the Stones' own previous box- office records. Mick Jagger upped the ante with "Sweet Neo Con," his Bigger Bang indictment of right-wing hypocrisy, set to a "Miss You"-style strut and packed with unrestrained invective ("You call yourself a Christian/I think that you're a hypocrite/You say you are a patriot/I think that you're a crock of shit"). Jagger denied that "Sweet Neo Con" was specifically about President Bush, but the song was still a daring leap into politics for a songwriter whose last topical masterpiece, 1968's "Street Fighting Man," was actually explosive resignation ("What can a poor boy do/Except sing for a rock & roll band?"). "That is a completely different song for a different moment, another time," Jagger says of the earlier hit, during tour rehearsals in the summer. "But this is another time, with other fears, other forebodings and very justifiable worries." Speaking recently on a day off between shows, Jagger looked back at the commotion he and the Stones created with "Sweet Neo Con" and the mess of blues that still remains.
After the heat you took for "Sweet Neo Con," do you feel vindicated by President Bush's dive in the polls and the infighting among conservatives?
"Vindicated" is not the right word. When I started writing it, I felt things were going to turn. There was too much wrong thinking and bad execution. In the movie The Fog of War, Robert McNamara says, "You never know what's going to happen." You can go in with the best plan, the best troops, the best intentions, and it can all go wrong. If you don't have the best plan, you have more going against you. Then you wonder, what would we have said if everyone in Iraq had covered the troops in flowers and the country had become this wonderful democracy? But it was always a chancy geopolitical adventure. Maybe in the long, long run, there will be benefits. There are always two sides to this. It's not going to be 100 percent bad. But you worry about the way it's going to end in the short term: in the next twelve months, two years.
Did you have security concerns because of the song? Two years ago, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder got death threats for wearing a Bush mask onstage.
There were a lot of people in our camp who were very nervous. They knew there would be a lot of criticism. But I kept saying, "This is a country that proclaims freedom of speech. You've got to be able to use that right. If you can't, what's it worth? Let's see what it's worth." In the end, people were not that critical [of "Sweet Neo Con"]. A lot of press people who talked about it hadn't even heard it. We've come to another place, where Eddie Vedder and the Dixie Chicks got it worse. We've moved on.
The Stones made a million-dollar donation to the New Orleans relief effort after Hurricane Katrina. Were you shocked that this country, and its government, could let the city drown?
We would have stepped up anyway. Part of America and Western culture is that you don't expect the government to do everything. Private money is a large percentage of relief. You don't expect some hired hand to sort out all your problems. Obviously, you do expect the government to do certain things -- military muscle and such. The connection between Iraq and Katrina came into focus for me while I was watching TV. There was this guy -- a regular guy with a small house, all destroyed -- and he said, "Our army is in Iraq, helping Iraqis, and they should be here." I thought, "Yes, there are only finite resources." Then I realized what he meant: the National Guard, which is a very local thing. They are your neighbors and relations. And if they hadn't been in Iraq, they could have come and pumped out his front room. I think that has convinced a lot of America that questioning the war is not about patriotism; it's about resources. When you have a crisis in your home, it comes starkly into focus. And I'm sure that was a guy who voted for Bush.
Are you disappointed by the sales of A Bigger Bang? The whole business of selling albums seems to be an endangered activity.
I don't think it's as serious as that. Has the album sold as many copies as I would like? No. You always want it to sell more. The way of selling albums has to be approached differently now. You need a lot of imagination. You also need a lot of money. But there's no doubt that rock music has a much smaller share of the CD market -- and the download and ring-tone markets.
What music has turned you on this year?
There are a lot of new records that I've bought, like the White Stripes, the Black Eyed Peas and Kanye West. I always listen to rock bands that are coming up, like the Arctic Monkeys. And I listen to a lot of Caribbean music. The calypso from Trinidad is very funny and political. They are not afraid to say what they think.
What are your hopes for 2006?
That we can extricate ourselves from the war in Iraq with dignity and some hope for Iraq itself. I'm sure that's on many people's minds, including George Bush's. Personally, I'm going to be doing a lot of miles. We're going to Asia and South America, which is a lot of miles for a few shows [laughs].
The Stones are playing the Super Bowl halftime show. Is it weird that you're considered more family entertainment than Janet Jackson's breast?
Of course, after Janet, you can't do or say anything outre. But I don't think the show is family entertainment. At the Super Bowl parties I used to go to, when I was living in New York, it was a lot of blokes getting completely pissed [laughs]. It seems the women and children are there to open the packets of crisps.
A cada nova passagem do Deep Purple pelo Brasil – e elas têm acontecido com uma regularidade que abre espaço na agenda até para aparições no “Casseta & Planeta” – fica-se imaginando por onde andarão seus ex-membros. Sobretudo o guitarrista Ritchie Blackmore, co-fundador da banda no longínquo 1968. O que foi feito dele? Morreu de superdose? Faz solos de meia hora em carreira solo? Cria ovelhas em Weston-super-Mare?
Nada disso, crianças. A resposta está em “Castles & Dreams”, DVD duplo que a brasileiríssima CID – fundada como uma fábrica de LPs no ainda mais longínquo 1958 – está lançando numa produção caprichada. Ritchie Blackmore hoje em dia faz música inspirada na Idade Média e na Renascença. Não exatamente rock inspirado nelas, embora, é claro, não se furte a tocar coisas do Purple ou a fazer solos comedidos e convincentes.
Depois do Deep Purple, que abandonou de vez em 1993 por causa da frustração artística com o álbum “The battle rages on...”, e do Rainbow, finado ainda antes, Blackmore toca há dez anos à frente de uma banda chamada Blackmore’s Night. Não exatamente “a Noite de Blackmore” e sim “a Night de Blackmore” mesmo. Candice Night. A loura modelo e cantora americana com quem o guitarrista juntou os trapinhos há quatorze anos.
Talvez o primeiro impulso do velho fã do Purple seja pensar: “Deus, o que não se faz por um belo rabo de saia?” Depois de se assistir às quase quatro horas de “Castles & Dreams”, porém, a pergunta muda para: “Blackmore não estará sendo mais honesto que seus ex-companheiros de banda?” Ele não os menciona, mas diz, num dos muitos extras do DVD duplo, se sentir mais honesto tocando música antiga do que antigas músicas.
Blackmore, ao menos, parece de fato feliz. Nos bastidores, ao lado de Candice, vinte e oito anos mais nova que ele, sessentão desde abril último. Nos palcos, ao lado dela e de uma trupe de músicos que atende por nomes como Bard David of Larchmont (teclados), Squire Malcolm of Lumley (bateria), Sir Robert of Normandie (baixo), Tudor Rose (rabeca e flautas) e as Sisters of the Moon, Lady Madeline e Lady Nancy, gêmeas vocalistas.
Na verdade, Blackmore prefere o termo menestréis a músicos. Sua trupe se apresenta em cidades medievais – os shows fundidos que ocupam quase todo o primeiro DVD foram gravados em Burg Veldenstein e em Burg Neuhaus, Alemanha, em 2004 – carregando nas costas toda a infra-estrutura: eletricidade, luz, som, palco, cenários etc. O conceito das excursões, portanto, também remete aos artistas itinerantes que se apresentavam em feiras.
O repertório é composto por originais de Blackmore (melodias) e Candice (letras), canções tradicionais e uma ou outra concessão aos fãs do Purple, como “Child in time” (inserida entre as duas partes de “Mond tanz”) e “Black night” (o momento mais hard rock do show). Os fãs do Blackmore’s Night comparecem às apresentações no espírito da coisa, trajados à moda da Idade Média e da Renascença. Todos parecem se divertir tanto quanto a trupe.
E o espectador brasileiro, longe dos castelos europeus e até dos seis CDs da Blackmore’s Night, inéditos aqui? Ele se diverte? Se desarmar o espírito roqueiro e entrar na onda da banda, sim. Afinal, o grande guitarrista não esqueceu como se toca. Apenas prefere tocar mais baixo. As músicas instrumentais, como “Queen for a day” ou “Minstrel hall”, são delicadas e evocativas. E as cantadas fluem bem, desde que não se preste atenção às letras.
Porque, até para manter-se fiel ao espírito da banda, Candice desenvolveu toda uma criação de fadas, luares e momentos mágicos. Mas, ei, alguém aí já parou para realmente prestar atenção às letras do Deep Purple?! Procedente mesmo talvez seja um certo incômodo com o seu sotaque: faz-se necessária uma certa “suspensão da descrença” para aceitar uma americana de Long Island cantando a Idade Média.
Quando ela canta algo de origem ou inspiração mais recente – como a versão renascentista para “The times they are a-changin’”, de seu compatriota Bob Dylan, que está entre os vídeos do DVD 2 – funciona melhor. Seja como for, o clima é de “Mike Oldfield encontra Enya”. A definição bem-humorada é do próprio Blackmore. Todavia, outra definição possível, mais amigável aos roqueiros, seria “Renaissance encontra Jethro Tull”.
“Castles & Dreams” é o registro de uma união feliz. Não apenas a de Blackmore e Candice, coisa lá deles. Também a do guitarrista com sua própria consciência. Quantos colegas não declararam que esperavam morrer antes de ficar velhos ou que não suportariam tocar “Satisfaction” aos 60 anos? O guitarrista envelheceu, mas não precisa mais tocar “Smoke in the water”, a não ser que queira e, suponho, num arranjo com bandolim.
Paul era melhor.
Não teve a sorte de morrer jovem e merecer todas as lágrimas que as televisões e jornais verteram semana passada pelos 25 anos dos funerais de John Lennon. É um dos vícios da Humanidade. Privilegiar os mortos, os perdedores, os esquisitões, os que sofrem, os que gritam socorro e ainda por cima encontraram um doido com a arma carregada para lhe arrematar a biografia de herói. John, que Deus o tenha entre as flores do seu campo de morangos, entrou para a História como o beatle que pôs o circo de pé. Não foi bem assim. Os especiais dos canais a cabo, as matérias de página inteira nos jornais disseram que o homem deu substância ao pop. Menos, senhores. John usava óculos, era meio gordinho, foi abandonado pela mãe. Essas coisas imprimem bacana numa camiseta de fundo preto e o seu dono só precisa entrar com o punho fechado mais o suor nas axilas. Dá mina aos montes. Nada disso, no entanto, compõe necessariamente uma música melhor.
Paul era o cara, é só ouvir o piano solando “Maybe I’m amazed” ao fundo dessas linhas. Desgraçadamente era um homem bonito, casado com uma loura milionária e tinha aquela mania de fazer delicadas canções solares, getting better all the time , enquanto o colega estava saudando as luzes da Lua. Não fica bem elogiar gente feliz, e os jornalistas sempre souberam sonegar aplausos a Paul. Viva a amargura e a depressão! Vamos dar uma chance à paz, vamos ajudar a Brigitte Bardot a salvar as baleias, vamos acabar com a fome no Brasil. John Lennon, com aquele papo de grito primal, aquela balada para a mamãe morta, os gritos para que o papai voltasse para casa, parece ter sido o sujeito mais complicado dos anos 60. Isso é música para as rotativas. Parem as máquinas porque Lennon largou tudo e convocou o grupo para puxar angústia com o Maharish, um dos maiores salafrários do século. No Brasil, ele seria petista de primeira hora. Cederia ao companheiro Lula os direitos da música que pede poder para o povo. E olhem que quem escreveu “O tolo na montanha” foi Paul.
Eu prefiro Paul McCartney. Respeitosamente como me é de estilo, deixei que as viúvas aliviassem todas as suas lágrimas nas lembranças da semana passada. Esperei que os críticos desovassem suas reflexões e fingissem que não foi Lennon quem compôs “Então é Natal”, essa musiquinha que se alia ao amigo-oculto, ao engarrafamento da árvore na Lagoa e dá vontade a todos de simplesmente pular dezembro.
Paul — se é possível dizer que o preto é superior ao branco, se o jornalismo tem entre suas graças abolir essas zonas de sombra e partir para o pau, eu vos digo — Paul foi quem deu o tom. Deu arte-final ao que era apenas descontrole da pélvis. Só agora, neste cantinho discreto, único lugar do mundo onde não está tocando “Imagine”, eu abro o jogo. O janota era quem fazia, good day sunshine , o sol civilizado brilhar na loucura. Sua franjinha podia ser a mais bem cortada, esse tipo de coisa arrumadinha que passa uma impressão muito ruim aos ativistas de esquerda. Mas foi ele quem colocou a orquestra sinfônica no estúdio e bolou a explosão de sons que instaurou a vanguarda no pop com “A day in the life”. Foi ele quem usou a paródia, a colagem e a metalinguagem, como exigiam as últimas notícias do tempo, e fez “Back in the USSR” curtindo com a cara dos vocais dos Beach Boys, o grupo que tanto invejava.
Lennon discursava. Afinal tinha passado todos os anos 60 casado com uma loura sem sal de Liverpool e isso dá nos nervos de qualquer um. Um agitador genial. Quando a barra doméstica pesava, a televisão na sala estava alta ou as crianças não queriam dormir, ele escapava nas primeiras drogas do rock. Engendrou textos psicodélicos que até hoje desafiam a paciência do planeta porque ninguém consegue atinar, caramba, o que o cara queria dizer com aquela história de que ele era a vaca marinha num verso e logo no outro que ele na verdade era o homem-ovo. Esquizofrenia é uma arma quente para se conseguir a posteridade artística. Dá, além de camiseta em Santa Teresa, radicalidade intelectual. Paul preferiu caprichar na música. Enquanto eu mudo de parágrafo deixo tocando como exemplo os metais de “Got to get you into my life”.
Eles eram Pelé e Coutinho. Na maioria das vezes, como nos filmes escuros dos 60 em que a dupla infernizava o time do Benfica, ficava difícil dizer quem dava o passe e quem marcava o gol. Ninguém faz “In my life” impunemente, como Lennon nos Beatles, a música ciclâmen que ora dedico à Irene e à Helena, do Jardim Botânico. Lennon escreveu a psicodelia de “Tomorrow never knows”, passou para Paul, que colocou os loops, deu uma mamada em Cage, e deixou a música na cara do gol, num jeitão que ainda hoje soa esquisito. Rolava uma química, a tal sinergia que tanto pede o meu chefe de RH. Quando eles se separaram, no entanto, e o John solo veio de “O herói da classe trabalhadora”, aí a coisa ficou clara.
O Pelé era Paul. Foi ele, o careta, quem percebeu sofisticação atrás da pancadaria adolescente e explodiu as espinhas do rock. Fez “Yesterday”, uma das três mais bonitas canções de amor do século passado — as outras duas estão em qualquer LP de Sinatra. Fez “Penny lane”, uma crônica suburbana como essas que de vez em quando aparecem aqui, onde havia um barbeiro mostrando fotos de todas as cabeças que ele teve o prazer de cortar. O rock deixou de ter cara de bandido. Lennon — cara de rapaz zangado, 68 em estado bruto, aquele que cantou ser um perdedor — faturou o pôster da rebeldia jovem. Eu posso até não ficar bem na foto do politicamente correto, mas junto a voz aos corações solitários da banda do sargento Pepper. John sozinho era pau. Prefiro Paul.
O idiota do Mark Chapman matou o beatle errado.
quinta-feira, dezembro 08, 2005
Ruy Castro passa a limpo a biografia turbulenta da maior estrela pop do Brasil no Século Vinte (por Álvaro Costa e Silva para o JB)
Com a sensação do dever cumprido e ainda lambendo a cria, Ruy Castro aguarda, “ansioso e inseguro como qualquer autor estreante”, a repercussão de seu mais ambicioso livro, simplesmente Carmem: uma biografia, o qual lhe consumiu cinco anos de trabalho e que já circula pelas livrarias. Ao entregar, menos de um mês atrás, os originais da obra à editora Companhia das Letras, o escritor e jornalista havia contatado mais de 170 pessoas, feito cerca de mil entrevistas, lido dezenas de livros, visto e revisto todos os 20 filmes da Brazilian Bombshell, ouvido inúmeras vezes as 313 gravações oficiais da Pequena Notável, e, ao fim e ao cabo, dado mais de 1,6 milhões de toques no seu computador até a última palavra do texto – resultando numa edição de quase 600 páginas, com direito a fotos de extasiar. Por isso, não duvidem quando ele afirma que Carmen Miranda, além de nossa maior e mais famosa estrela internacional, foi a mulher brasileira do século 20.
Como todo mundo está careca de saber, Carmen (ou Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha) nasceu em Portugal – em Várzea da Ovelha, uma aldeia perto do Porto, no dia 9 de fevereiro de 1909 – filha de barbeiro e lavadeira. Mas chegou ao Rio no dia 17 de dezembro do mesmo ano – e esta informação precisa é apenas a primeira a nos espantar ao longo do livro: como Ruy Castro conseguiu extrair tantos e tão formidáveis dados e informações inéditas da vida da sua biografada, a ponto de praticamente não deixar mais nada escondido ou secreto? Aqui o lugar-comum é inevitável: Carmen é uma biografia definitiva, até por desmentir lendas que, com o tempo e um pouco (ou muito) de má-fé, ganharam status de verdade. Aliás, essa é uma característica de Ruy Castro, o biógrafo, que já nos prestara o mesmo serviço ao narrar as trajetórias de Nelson Rodrigues, Garrincha, e as histórias da Bossa Nova e Ipanema.
A primeira “novidade” é que podemos considerar Carmen Miranda um fruto da Lapa. Ela morou lá dos 6 aos 16 anos, período da vida em que a pessoa descobre que o mundo é maior que a sua família. Este mundo durante o dia era família, abrigando um convento, um seminário e uma igreja, mas, à noite, abria-se para cabarés e casas de prostituição, onde, entre esplendores e misérias, ninguém mais era inocente.
Foi junto aos Arcos que Carmen aprendeu um farto repertório de gírias e palavrões (estes também ouvidos da boca do pai), de pronto incorporados ao seu linguajar e que se tornariam uma marca registrada. Uma pessoa, para ela, passou a ser dali para frente “velhinho”, “filhote” ou “meu nego”; dinheiro era “arame”; um grupo de amigos, “macacada”.
Algumas descobertas são até risíveis de tão óbvias – mas por que ninguém antes havia pensado nelas? A família nunca foi contra a carreira de Carmen, nem tampouco seu começo como cantora teve de ser às escondidas: – Desde janeiro de 1929, quando se apresentou pela primeira em público, Carmen ficou conhecida e, depois do estouro de “Taí”, se transformou num sucesso. Passou a gravar um disco atrás do outro, cantava na rádio e aparecia nas capas de revista. Como fazer tudo isso sem a família saber? A menos que houvesse uma conspiração do tipo Super-Homem e Clark Kent.
Revelação para valer é a de que jamais aconteceu “a vaia da Urca”, em 1940, quando Carmen teria voltado dos Estados Unidos “pouco autêntica” e “americanizada”. Quem estava em todas as mesas do cassino não era o seu público, e sim o poder civil e oficial do Estado Novo, que, naquele momento, assumira a política de ter a Alemanha como amiga e os EUA como vilões. Uma platéia fria e careta que sequer tinha capacidade para vaiar. O que houve foi um gelo.
Outro orgulho de Ruy é ter levantado que a Política de Boa Vizinhança – implementada pelo governo Roosevelt a partir de uma idéia de Nelson Rockefeller durante a Segunda Guerra – nada teve a ver com a ida de Carmen Miranda para os EUA. Em maio de 1939, quando ela foi contratada pelo empresário Lee Shubert para fazer uma ponta no espetáculo Streets of Paris na Broadway, a guerra ainda nem começara na Europa. Até em relação aos filmes produzidos em Hollywood com uma suposta temática latino-americana, a Política de Boa Vizinhança foi de atuação modestíssima – entre os grandes estúdios apenas a Fox embarcou na esparrela, e mesmo assim porque já era chegada a um cenário exótico. Como escreve Ruy Castro, com o sim a Shubert, “Carmem decidira por sua carreira. Não pela sua continuação, mas pelo recomeço dela – sozinha, entre estranhos, numa terra que não conhecia, e numa língua que dominava pouco mais que good bye, boy”. Ela estava deixando para trás uma carreira maravilhosa, a qual, em 10 anos, lhe permitira gravar 81 músicas (recorde entre as cantoras brasileiras), fazer dupla com Chico Alves, Mario Reis, Sylvio Caldas, Almirante e a irmã Aurora, gravar grandes compositores da Época de Ouro e, entre estes, descobrir e consagrar pelos menos três legendas: Assis Valente, Synval Silva e Dorival Caymmi. “Foi sorte que Carmen tivesse gravado em tal abundância durante sua carreira brasileira. E, boy, como nós, um dia, iríamos precisar desses discos”, completa o escritor.
Ao pisar no palco do Broadhurst, na Rua 44 Oeste, entre a Sétima e a Oitava Avenida, em 19 de junho de 1939, às 10 da noite, Carmen entrou à velocidade máxima, cantando com as mãos, os olhos, os quadris e os pés “Bambu, bambu”. Após um espanto de 10 segundos, as pessoas começaram a se remexer na cadeira. Três números depois, a brasileira conseguiu o que outros tinham levado uma eternidade para conseguir – quando conseguiam: conquistar, apenas com o talento e sem falar uma palavra de inglês, a sofisticada platéia de Nova York. Em pouco tempo indo para Hollywood, a menina da Lapa já ganhava uma fortuna, algo em torno de US$ 9 mil por mês – olha que isso foi na década de 40 e você deve multiplicar a grana por pelo menos 30 para ter uma idéia do seu valor em nossos dias.
Falsa baiana exótica de chapéu e plataforma, um tipo que se firmou falando um inglês tatibitati (embora tivesse aprendido a falá-lo bem) – Ruy concorda mas pondera:
– Ninguém escapou de fazer tipo no cinema clássico americano: Marylin Monroe e Frank Sinatra são exemplos. Que os críticos me perdoem, mas se a Carmen foi esteriotipada foi que viram nela um potencial para esteriótipo fabuloso, que é o que eles procuram. Qual o maior ator do cinema americano de todos os tempos? Spencer Tracy? Passou a vida interpretando Spencer Tracy. Só mudava de roupa. Ou de fantasia, que no caso dele não era de baiana.
No departamento homem, Carmen Miranda tinha seu gosto: preferia os tipos altos, morenos, fortes, que usassem boas roupas, rosto bonito e másculo, de preferência de cabelos pretos. Nesse diapasão, pegou seu primeiro namorado, o remador do Flamengo Mario Cunha, que a deflorou aos 16 anos, no banco de trás de uma baratinha, provavelmente no Joá.
Namorou o bom partido Carlos Alberto da Rocha Faria e, já em Hollywood, teve um tórrido caso com Carlinhos Niemeyer (leia-se Canal 100, que se notabilizou por queimar os filmes em que o Botafogo surrava seu amado Flamengo). A lista no cinema também é notável: John Payne, Arturo de Córdova, Dana Andrews e, não por último, o bissexual e caubói John Wayne, que, sem as botas, media 1,93. Ou seja, 41 centímetros mais alto que ela. Alguém aí pensou no cantor Mario Reis e no latin lover Cesar Romero? Pode esquecer: eram pouco viris para o paladar de Carmen.
Seu romance mais duradouro foi com Aloysio de Oliveira, líder do Bando da Lua, conjunto que a seguiu na aventura e na conquista dos EUA. Amante meio que manteúdo, Aloysio teve o mérito de não ser a vida inteira o Mr. Miranda, saindo na vida dela em 1943. Antes tiveram um filho, abortado. E deu a outra mulher o que Carmen esperava dele: casamento e filhos.
Em 1947, com más intenções, a procurou de novo, quando ela já estava casada com o caça-dotes Dave Sebastian, que se apresentava como, veja você, assistente de produtor associado. Esse picareta explorou-a ao máximo, ficou com todos os seus bens e jóias e deixou para a família os balagandãs e bricabraques.
Com forte devoção católica e já imersa em barbitúricos, Carmem nunca quis ouvir falar em divórcio. Ela queria casar e ter filhos. Pena que não conseguiu. Mas nos deu muito
Where did the idea of going down south to record Honeycomb come from?
Well, it was my idea to go to Nashville, but that was years ago and it was just to walk in the footsteps very loosely of Blonde On Blonde: you know, go to Nashville and record an album with a bunch of guys who don’t know who I am and a great record hopefully ensues. Jon Tiven and I talked about it for ten years and subsequently he actually moved to Nashville.
You first worked with Jon on an Otis Blackwell tribute album.
Yes, Brace Yourself. It had the worst album cover ever. Anyway, Jon’s the kind of guy who maintains his contacts. He’s got his little black book and calls once or twice a year to remind you he’s available to do the Black on Blonde project. And so finally we were able to do it. I didn’t worry about who he was going to ask. I knew he’d ask all stellar people, though I had no idea it was going to be guys like Steve Cropper. I think in a certain way they were glad to be asked, probably because they do a lot of straightforward country or pop stuff. And maybe Tiven talked me up to them.
Had they done anything like this?
I don’t know. They were challenged… well, more amused than challenged. I don’t think it was hard for them, but they had to think a little bit.
What did Reggie Young play on?
A bunch. Anything that’s like laid-back and smooth, that’s him. I didn’t know who he was. I know he’s famous, but I had no idea. I was so impressed that he played with Johnny Horton, who I love. He’s so smooth and soulful. When I listen to the record now, I’m thinking, “Those motherfuckers, they’re, like, commenting on my lyrics in the way they’re playing”. I didn’t necessarily notice at the time, but I can hear it now. If I’m saying something sexy, they play something sexy in response.
How was Spooner Oldham, the Harry Dean Stanton of deep soul? I saw him play on the Muscle Shoals night during the Barbican’s “It Came From Memphis” week in April.
He was great. Tiven complimented him on his restraint with some particular lick he played, and he just said, “Comes from many years of being in the recording business”.
And was Dan Penn just floating around in the background or what?
Yeah, just chewing his toothpick. And I knew he liked a particular song if he sang background vocals on it. He sang on ‘Dark End of the Street’ and it was just so smooth, man. He put down the lead vocal first, and I was like, “How can I sing it now?” But then he said, “I’m gonna go take a nap”, meaning I was free to sing it without him in the room and not feel weird about it. When Tiven said, “So, Charles, you wanna do ‘Dark End of the Street’”, I was like, “Oooh, I dunno, man”. And then those guys were suddenly out there doing it, and of course they all wanted me to do it. Someone like Dan Penn is no dummy. He figures, “I dunno who this kid is, but hey, I wanna get half the publishing on the song”. I’m being crass, of course. When he mixed it he goes, “Okay, Charles, I putcha voice nice’n’loud like one o’ them black guys”. I think he thought I was singing it like Aaron Neville or something, but really my reference wasn’t that, it was Gram Parsons and a whole other thing. It was also from listening to Freddy Fender records, which is a similarly high kind of fragile voice, light on its feet.
In a Tex-Mex connection, what made you choose Doug Sahm’s ‘Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day’ for the album?
Just fell in love with the song when I first heard it. Obsessed on it, drove my band the Catholics insane playing it over and over and over, recording it for like four different records but never getting it right. I just really love the song and the lyrics. “You’ll be king of what you survive”.
And then Elvis’ ‘Song of the Shrimp’ has southern connotations too.
That was prompted by Townes Van Zandt’s version on his last record. He just barely plays the song, he just hits a chord and sings a line and cracks up, hits another chord, makes a joke… it’s a really deconstructed but very entertaining version, and that was my reference point. I’ve still never even heard the Elvis version. It didn’t click until I hit a minor chord once instead of a major, and I was able to free myself to do an interpretation of the song instead of being so literal with it.
Did the musicians know anything about you or the Pixies?
David Hood has a son who plays in the Drive-By Truckers, so I think he knew something. And Cropper checked in with somebody and said, “Who is this guy?” If they’d known they probably wouldn’t have said anything. In a way it made me feel more confident that I had a Pixies tour to do, like I wasn’t just a kid and these guys had played with Elvis or whatever.
How come you decided to make the record on the eve of the reunion tour?
Well, ‘cause I called Tiven and said the Pixies tour wasn’t happening: “We’re all fightin’ and everything.” And then I had just finished the Catholics, and even if we didn’t say it was the last tour it sure felt like the fuckin’ last tour. We’d been playing together a long time, ten years of hard touring and loading our own gear and not making a lotta money out of it, and we’re hittin’ the mid-life crisis. And they’re all getting mad at me ‘cause I’m forcing them to record live to two-track for the umpteenth time. So it was like, “Alright, Tiven, I don’t know what I’m doing this year, I just got divorced, the Pixies tour ain’t happening, I’m ready to do Black on Blonde.” He called back the next day, got the band. I called back the next day and said the Pixies tour was back on but I had four or five days. And that’s one thing I like about Jon, he doesn’t ever bitch about restraints or anything. He just says, “Whatever you wanna do, you’re the artist”. He’s a can-do kinda guy.
Presumably you had to do a fair amount of rehearsal with the Pixies.
No, we got together for a total of three or four days, I think. And after two days it kinda sounded like the same, so we thought, “Okay, let’s go for it”.
Were all the songs on Honeycomb written specifically for it?
All of them, with the exception of “Selkie Bride”, were written in that time period of when I called Tiven in January, so right before the sessions. So I just sat in my little loft in Portland. I had not yet moved in with this woman I had met who lived in Oregon – she had two kids and I didn’t want to move in right away or even in the same town, which is Eugene. I sat in my loft and started writing the songs. I guess I had those guys in mind after Jon had told me what the band was. Well, I didn’t try to make my writing different, it inevitably just was. For one I was intimidated, so I knew it had to be good. Also I didn’t wanna do anything too quirky. And nor was I totally prepared. “My Life Is In Storage” I wrote in the hotel room in Nashville the night before we recorded it. So it was all very quick.
Is there a prevailing emotional mood to the record for you?
Well, you get the shit kicked out of you in a divorce. I don’t mean by my ex, either, it was very friendly, but just the whole thing was kinda gut-wrenching. We had been together for, like, sixteen years, so it’s kind of a heavy time. And I’d been going to a therapist. Started out as kind of a marriage counseling thing, not even to save our marriage coz we kinda knew what we were going to do, but just to talk about what we were gonna do so it was done the right way and we weren’t just cutting a gash in our soul. That whole debris, I sort of got into it and sort of enjoyed it, so I got into a whole lot more, like, personal therapy. So combining that with the act of moving to a different state after many years, and a new relationship, I just kind of gave up whatever I was neurotic or uptight about before, like “I don’t wanna be too personal”… all that stuff just didn’t matter anymore. It felt really good to be in pain. It was horrible, but it was nice to feel human. It was like, “Oh yeah, I am human”. And in a funny sort of way, those kinds of experiences, they give you authority to write with – conviction, as opposed to just writing from an imaginary place or a projecting kind of place. You’re writing from the place that you’re at. It’s nice to be able to feel, “Oh yeah, I went deep because I could, and I couldn’t before”.
And yet as deeply personal as it is, there’s something quite calm and considered about these songs. Songs like “Another Velvet Nightmare” have a very Leonard Cohen feel.
Yeah, I think that listening to some of his records in recent years, there’s a thing, an attitude that he has going on that I really, really like. He can be dark and down but it’s very humorous and it’s very smart and witty. He’s very cool. It’s almost like a Bryan Ferry stance, with the whole wrinkled suit and the cigarette. It’s a little bit like, “I can handle myself. Yes, I was destroyed, but let me tell you about it…” For a lot of people my age, I’m Your Man was the record that got you into Leonard Cohen. I heard that record round about 1989 on a Pixies tour and became obsessed with it. It all clicked and I got who he was. Now I can go back to his earlier records and listen to them, no problem. I think my mother’s in love with him. She’s got this Austin City Limits performance by him that we always watch together when I visit her.
After writing and recording these songs, was it at all strange to be plunged back into Pixie-world?
Yeah, but I didn’t have to do it, really. It’s funny, because when I play with those guys I sing different. In rehearsals it was like, “Oh, there’s that voice again”. It’s kind of effortless, because that band was kind of au naturel, real rough. That’s what we were. It was very uncontrived. Whatever was pretentious about it was… real! The tour was great, and we’re gonna continue to do it because we can’t really think of a reason not to.
What about a new album?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. We’d have to kind of reinvent ourselves or something if we were ever going to do that. And I don’t know if the demand is there, really. It has to be about more than commerce. To take a ten- or eleven- year sabbatical and it goes well, then it feels funny to go make a record to take advantage of this situation. Whatever box we were performing or writing within before, it’s really gotta break through all that and just be upside down. Kim has to be the lead vocalist or something, or Joey has to sing. Or it has to be all waltzes.
You’ve said that Honeycomb was the most moving experience you’ve had in your musical career. Would that come as some surprise to hardcore Pixies fans, do you think?
Yeah, but that’s because making the Pixies’ records was different. That was young guys and a gal, a lot more ego involved. It’s not that it wasn’t interesting or fun or exciting, but “moving” is not the way I would describe it. “Spiritual” is not the way I would describe it. Energetic, for sure, but not poignant or whatever. We were just too young. It’s poignant looking back at it, but that’s a different kind of experience. Playing with these guys in Nashville, they’ve done it all, played with everybody, been to hell and back. They’ve just lived so much more life.
Interview by Barney Hoskyns
Era inevitável – e justo – que a morte de Joe Strummer, quase três anos atrás, deflagrasse o relançamento de seus discos esquecidos. Ano passado, voltou ao mercado externo a trilha sonora de “Straight to hell”, do cineasta inglês Alex Cox, no qual o ex-líder do Clash colaborou como compositor e como ator. Este ano, ressurgiram, por enquanto também apenas lá fora, pela EMI/Astralwerks, “Elgin Avenue breakdown (Revisited)” e “Walker”.
O primeiro é o único álbum confiável da primeira banda de John Graham Mellor a fazer algum sucesso, os 101ers. Embora contenha gravações de 1975, só foi lançado em 1981. É a primeira vez que sai em CD. O segundo, de 1987, é outra trilha para um filme de Cox, esta toda de Mellor. Entre 1975 e 1987, como se sabe, muita coisa aconteceu na vida do guitarrista, a ponto de ele trocar seu nome artístico de Woody (homenagem ao trovador folk de esquerda Woody Guthrie) para Joe Strummer (algo como “dedilhador” em inglês).
Este “muita coisa” pode ser resumido numa palavra antecedida por um artigo: The Clash. O choque, a colisão, o desacordo. É o meu grupo favorito até hoje. Ativo entre 1976 e 1985, o quarteto/quinteto inglês sobreviveu galhardamente ao movimento punk graças tanto às bandeiras políticas quanto à sua imprevisível música, que, calcada no rock e no reggae, atingiu o soul, o gospel, o funk, a discoteca, o rockabilly, o jazz, o dub, a eletrônica.
Os 101ers tinham em seu nome o número da casa invadida e habitada por seus integrantes na Walterton Road, Oeste de Londres. Faziam pub rock: mistura de clássicos do rock e do rhythm’n’blues para entreter platéias encharcadas de cerveja. Com o tempo, conforme superaram uma inépcia técnica que antecipava a ideologia do-it-yourself do punk, foram, ou melhor, Strummer foi criando um repertório. Ele compôs sua primeira canção, a mediana “Keys to your heart”, no final de 1974. Entretanto, quando o compacto foi lançado, só em junho de 1976, Strummer já havia saído para o Clash havia uma semana.
Para se ter uma idéia do cartaz dos 101ers na cena pré-punk da capital inglesa, talvez baste saber que os Sex Pistols abriram para eles num pub chamado The Nashville Rooms. O título “Elgin Avenue breakdown” – cujo “(Revisited)” marca a expansão das originais 12 faixas do LP para as 20 da versão em CD – incorpora o endereço de outro pub importante na história da banda, The Elgin. O disco reúne duas versões de “Keys to your heart” a outras composições da banda, como as superiores “Sweet revenge” e “Motor boys motor”, e covers. “Out of time”, dos Stones, foi gravada ao vivo na prisão de Wandsworth.
O repertório segue um show dos 101ers: abre com a vertiginosa “Letsagetabitarockin’”, de Strummer, e fecha com a cacofonia de “Gloria”, de Van Morrison. A voz do guitarrista está ali, claro, imaculada em sua ruína, e o Clash até pode ser ouvido à distância. Falta, porém, a fagulha. Falta o trabalho coletivo, porque Strummer não era um gênio (e é isso que faz a sua glória, ser um homem comum lutando para se expressar). Faltam o gosto de Mick Jones pela dança, a cultura reggae de Paul Simonon, a energia batuqueira de Topper Headon.
Contudo, na época dos 101ers, Strummer já cultivava o gosto pela música latina, compartilhado com o baterista Richard “Snakehips” Dudanski e com convidados nos sopros e na percussão (não há registros destes nas faixas de “Elgin Avenue breakdown”). Desenvolvida no Clash, que, não custa lembrar, tem um álbum soberbo chamado “Sandinista!”, essa paixão floresce em “Walker”. Cox faz uma biografia maluca de William Walker, mercenário americano que se torna o “dono” da Nicarágua em meados do século XIX. O tal é muitíssimo bem interpretado por Ed Harris. Há uma cena impagável em que ele “fala” usando sinais de surdos-mudos com a mulher morta (Marlee Matlin).
Para o libertário Strummer, “Walker” juntava a fome à vontade de comer: criticava o imperialismo americano e dava-lhe a chance de fazer música instrumental alatinada, além de uma ponta como ator. Uma declaração reproduzida na capa do CD dá o tom da coisa. “É tudo acústico”, disse o cantor. “Eu pensei, vamos ser 1850, nada plugado.” No álbum, ele comanda uma orquestra que mistura muita música latina (“Filibustero”, “Nica libre”, “Tropic of Pico”), algum folk (“Smash everything”) e claras influências dos scores spaghetti de Ennio Morricone (“Sandstorm”). Strummer canta apenas em três faixas (“The unknown immortal”, “Tennessee rain” e “Tropic of no return”) e outras três que não constavam do LP são acrescentadas (inclusive um remix para “Filibustero”).
Se o verde CD dos 101ers foi superado pelos fatos, ainda bem, aliás, o de “Walker” soa atemporal, preservado, justamente porque amadurecido na experiência com o Clash. Ademais, antecipa a obsessão latina na obra solo posterior de Joe Strummer, cujas bandas de apoio chamaram-se The Latino Rockabilly War e The Mescaleros. Por isso, os dois relançamentos são tão importantes: flagram o antes e o depois do Big Bang.
Beatlemaníacos em geral tendem a romancear a história dos Beatles. Esquecem que a banda tinha negócios atrapalhados, relações estranhas com sua gravadora, seus empresários e –mais importante de tudo– não sabia lidar direito com o ‘big business’ dos anos 60. Então, na hora de tentar analisar o porquê dos Beatles terem encerrado as atividades em 1970, esses beatlemaníacos sempre acabam buscando explicações em questões pessoais, colocando a culpa em Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman, Allen Klein ou em outros que faziam parte da corte dos rapazes.
Na verdade, os Beatles começaram a acabar em 6 de fevereiro de 1967, quando cometeram o maior erro comercial de suas carreiras, fechando um contrato que os manteve atrelados à EMI Records até 1976. Na época, parecia um bom negócio. Eles ganhariam direito a montar um selo próprio e poderiam administrar a carreira da banda como quisessem, com autonomia artística total. Então nasceu a Apple Records.
Os executivos escolhidos para a gravadora eram todos amigos pessoais dos quatro. Começaram a apostar em artistas novos – James Taylor, Jackie Lomax, Badfinger – e gastaram pequenas fortunas promovendo discos que renderam muito menos que o esperado. Foi quando a Apple começou a afundar em dívidas com a EMI, grupo ao qual os Beatles estavam atrelados, dando início a uma queda de braço complicada entre as duas empresas. E a Apple, claro, levou a pior. Faliu. Foi incorporada pela EMI. Daí por diante, o contrato de exclusividade assinado por eles em 1967 virou uma prisão.
O empresário Allen Klein entrou na história como negociador para tentar interceder a favor deles com a EMI. Mas não deu certo. Então os quatro resolveram investir contra a própria banda para tentar virar o jogo, obrigando a EMI a reavaliar o contrato. Começaram a plantar fofocas na imprensa dizendo que os Beatles estavam se dissolvendo. Curiosamente, a EMI não cedeu às pressões, deixou a banda morrer e ainda os obrigou a permanecer gravando discos solo para a Apple por mais seis anos.
Só em 1976 eles finalmente ganharam autonomia novamente. Paul McCartney assinou o contrato mais lucrativo da história na época, com a Capitol. George Harrison seguiu para a Warner Bros. Ringo Starr se acertou com a Atlantic, e John Lennon sumiu do mapa, saindo da cena musical sem dar maiores explicações para salvar seu casamento com Yoko Ono.
Nada disso desmerece o legado musical dos Beatles. Mas é importante resgatar essas histórias de bastidores para que todos entendam de uma vez por todas que os Beatles não acabaram apenas por razões conjugais e pessoais. O que matou os Beatles foi na verdade o grande sonho deles: a Apple Records.
E então, quando John Lennon declarou para o mundo que “o sonho acabou” – e isso foi entendido como uma metáfora para a mudança dos tempos –, tenham certeza que essa afirmação era bem mais concreta e pessoal do que parecia naquele momento de decepção coletiva.
quarta-feira, dezembro 07, 2005
01 Bloc Party - "Silent Alarm"
02 Arcade Fire - "Funeral"
03 Franz Ferdinand - "You Could Have It So Much Better"
04 Antony & The Johnsons - "I Am a Bird Now"
05 Kaiser Chiefs - "Employment"
06 The White Stripes - "Get Behind Me Satan"
07 Sufjan Stevens - "Illinoise"
08 Kanye West - "Late Registration"
09 Babyshambles - "Down In Albion"
10 Gorillaz - "Demon Days"
11 The Cribs - "The New Fellas"
12 Devendra Banhart - "Cripple Crow"
13 The Rakes - "Capture/Release"
14 Dungen - "Ta Det Lungt"
15 Maximo Park - "A Certain Trigger"
16 British Sea Power - "Open Season"
17 The Magic Numbers - "The Magic Numbers"
18 Art Brut - "Bang, Bang Rock'n'Roll"
19 Coldplay - "X&Y"
20 Editors - "The Back Room"
21 LCD Soundsystem - "LCD Soundsystem"
22 Raveonettes - "Pretty In Black"
23 Hard-Fi - "Stars of CCTV"
24 Oasis - "Don't Believe The Truth"
25 MIA - "Arular"
26 Super Furry Animals - "Love Kraft"
27 Kate Bush - "Aerial"
28 Absentee - "Donkey Stock"
29 Madonna - "Confessions on A Dance Floor"
30 Doves - "Some Cities"
31 Bright Eyes - "I'm Wide Awake It's Morning"
32 Queens Of The Stone Age - "Lullabies To Paralyze"
33 We Are Scientists - "With Love and Squalor"
34 Rufus Wainwright - "Want Two"
35 Elbow - "Leaders Of The Free World"
36 The Bravery - "The Bravery"
37 Circulus - "Lick On The Tip Of An Envelope"
38 Autolux - "Future Perfect"
39 Vitalic - "OK Cowboy"
40 The Brakes - "The Brakes"
41 Nine Black Alps - "Everything Is"
42 Sigur Ros - "Takk"
43 The Engineers - "The Engineers"
44 Field Music - "Field Music"
45 Shout Out Louds - "Howl Howl Gaff Gaff"
46 The Duke Spirit - "Cuts Across The Land"
47 Sleater-Kinney - "The Woods"
48 Ladytron - "The Witching Hour"
49 Dead Meadow - "Feathers"
50 Test Icicles - "For Screening Purposes Only"
Wilco's lineup has rarely stayed the same for very long over the past decade, but frontman Jeff Tweedy says the group's current six-piece incarnation is making him happier than he's ever been. It's this version of Wilco that is on display on "Kicking Television: Live in Chicago," released last week via Nonesuch.
The double-disc set stitches together 23 tracks from four May performances at the Vic Theatre in the group's hometown, marking the first official release of live material from the lineup of Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche and multi-instrumentalist Mikael Jorgensen, plus newest members Nels Cline (guitar) and Pat Sansone (keyboards).
"Kicking Television" focuses on material from the group's acclaimed 2004 album, "A Ghost Is Born," including "Company in My Back," "Muzzle of Bees," "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," "Handshake Drugs," "Hell Is Chrome" and "At Least That's What You Said."
The band also reaches back for such oldies as "Misunderstood" and "Via Chicago," the "A Ghost Is Born" rarity from which the album takes its name and "One by One" and "Airline to Heaven" from its collaborative albums with Billy Bragg.
Just before he set off on a brief solo tour, Tweedy took time to fill in Billboard.com about what's new and exciting in the Wilco camp.
I have to tell you, I think this record is excellent. To me, it's the best you've ever sounded.
Well, thank you very much! I agree. It's the happiest I've ever been with how we sound on stage, so it has been really great.
Talk about what you were looking for when the Wilco lineup changed again after "A Ghost Is Born." Why did you choose who you chose?
The reason the lineup change happened is because [multi-instrumentalist] Leroy Bach had made the decision after we finished "A Ghost Is Born" that he wanted to move on and do something else. We had a little bit of time to decide what it is that we wanted to do.
The more I thought about it, one of the things that seemed to be uncomfortable about the band in terms of how it felt to be on stage playing was that everybody seemed to be really multi-tasking -- doing a lot of different things and playing a lot of different instruments. Triggering samples on the floor. Everybody had their hands full creating the textures on "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," which was predominantly the record giving us the most trouble. Actually, "Summerteeth" is probably the hardest to play live, but that's beside the point.
It seemed obvious we'd need another keyboard player before anything. Pat was in a family of people we knew and were comfortable with, because he plays in a band with [bassist] John [Stirratt]. We knew he was a great musician, so it was a pretty easy decision to make. He was aboard pretty quickly. Around the same time, I couldn't get out of my head that this was the opportunity to ask someone whose playing I'd loved for a long time to be a part of the band, that being Nels.
The decision to ask both of them was just kind of like, well, that makes sense. Then, everybody will be able to do their thing and not have to worry about doing some things they're not as comfortable doing [laughs].
So, what has been the best part about playing with this new lineup? What can this one do that other versions couldn't?
Well, I don't really know. The first thing that comes to mind sounds really arrogant [laughs], but there's a sense in the band that there's a limitless to what we're able to pursue. That's a really exciting place to be.
But the thing that always strikes me that people maybe don't get is that I feel this band is able to do the earlier records more accurately or in the same spirit that they were recorded in. The textures feel the most comfortable to me, more than any lineup of the band, including the lineups that recorded them [laughs]. It really hasn't been a sacrifice of the years of accumulating a catalog and working together and making a body of music we're proud of. It has actually enhanced that. When we go back and even spend just an afternoon on a song that was always difficult for us to play, say, "In a Future Age," which we don't play very often, but when we do, it really feels like the recording. It takes me to a place that feels right.
I think people might take that for granted and just assume that Wilco should always be able to play every one of its songs.
Right. A lot of the changes in the band haven't really gotten noticed a whole lot, like [multi-instrumentalist] Max [Johnston] and [guitarist] Bob [Egan]. Max was part of Uncle Tupelo and he is on "A.M." and "Being There." When he left the band, there were definitely a lot of things that were never going to be part of the band again. String textures, like mandolin and dobro. Well, Nels is this avant-garde free jazz improv guy, but the fact is, he can play dobro really well [laughs]. And lap steel. He has an electric mandolin, so all these textures are coming back in a really rich way, and that has been really exciting.
Besides the hometown element, what made these particular shows the favorite for release as a live album?
Well, it was planned in advance to record some shows onto 24-track and be able to have a little bit more control over mixing. It's a crazy proposition in a lot of ways, because Wilco is very aware that almost every show we play is available to people. But we wanted a chance to really hear what we sounded like. We filmed the shows, and there was an idea toward releasing a DVD and making these things happen all at once.
I guess we picked Chicago because we wanted to be really comfortable. In hindsight, in spite of the fact that the record turned out really well and the excitement of the audience is a huge part of it, one of the things I realized was that we'd played a lot of these songs for these people like 7,000 times. How am I going to make this exciting? Luckily it didn't end up being a problem. But in hindsight, maybe it would have been a good idea to record our first show in Tulsa or something [laughs].
Well, there are some oddities on here, like the title track. What is the origin of that?
It's a studio outtake that we started playing even before we made "A Ghost Is Born." It was definitely something considered to be a really important part of "A Ghost Is Born" at one point. The versions we got in the studio never seemed to quite cut the mustard. Cut mustard? That phrase just struck me as being really weird. They did cut the cheese but not the mustard [laughs]. The live versions always seemed to be much more energetic and exciting and keeping with what the song is about.
So, it must be nice that now it has new life.
Yeah, it ended up being the most rocking thing we ever recorded, so that's one of the reasons it's the name of the live album. A rock concert is "kicking television." If you're out of the house and with a bunch of people enjoying something together, that's kicking television to me. I don't think very many people, myself included, will ever kick television cold turkey, but I certainly think more people should be aware of what it's doing to them [laughs]!
Why isn't the live DVD being released?
That's another thing: once we decided not to use the visual element, "Kicking Television" became a very obvious title. When we'd listen to the recordings by themselves, we'd all get really excited about the project. When we'd work on the DVD and try to watch rough cuts or edits, the energy would get completely sapped out of it. It felt really claustrophobic.
Ironically, the crowd seemed to be much less a part of it. It felt a lot less live. It's hard to explain. I once said there weren't enough shots of the audience. Now people are confused and saying, why didn't they film the audience? No. The audience was filmed, but somehow the way it was being edited made it hard to make it feel like a concert.
We're all kids of the '70s in this band. I grew up at a time when you were f***ing privileged to see two songs by your favorite band on "Midnight Special." The visual element is so much more a part of our culture today, but for me, music is... I don't know. One of the things I responded to listening to the tracks was that it reminded me of listening to a record. That's what I really like. I don't like anything more than records.
What is percolating in terms of new Wilco material? Do you have any plans for the next few months?
Well, there's no schedule in terms of when something might come out. We all have high hopes we'll be able to get something out next year, and sooner than later. We've worked on about 13 songs already in the studio. We did some recording before we went to Europe. There's an enormous amount of excitement in the band about the recording. We have time scheduled in December and throughout the winter.
Are Nels and Pat playing on these sessions?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. What we've done already is basically record in our own studio. We set up without headphones in a circle and roll tape based on us trying to get ourselves balanced as much as possible, without using the mixing console.
Have any of the new songs been played live?
We've played two songs live that were part of the initial sessions. One we play pretty consistently. Lyrically, it's about as straightforward and as dumb as anything I've ever written, but musically it's really exciting and fun to play. It's called "I'm Talking to Myself About You." Both of them are works in progress lyrically. Musically, the second one sounds a bit more like something we've done in last couple of records. That is tentatively titled "On and On and On and On."
When a record is being made, what is your preferred way to communicate your ideas? Do you bring in full demos, or would you rather just hash everything out with everybody else?
Well, you know, I've never done demos. Well, that's not true. I've done a lot of demos, but I've generally never done them in a way I'd want anyone else to have to listen to them and learn a song from them. I think I've always felt best about presenting songs in an environment where people feel like it's happening right at that moment.
In other words, we sit around and don't talk about it that much. I'll start playing something, or start showing people where a chord progression or melody might go, and we just jump in. One of the great things about this lineup and me getting more confident with this style over the years is that we really feel like we're writing songs in real time as a group, as opposed to just one guy. In other words, there are songs I can play on an acoustic guitar at home and sing, and somehow we get into an environment in the studio psychologically to where I've actually forgotten that I've written the song already [laughs]. It feels for me like it's just happened out of the blue.
You couldn't ask for better than that!
No. I don't know. I guess I get superstitious sometimes and don't want to jinx it. I don't really know if it's something I have that much control over. The sessions have just been really wonderful. Everybody plays such a big part in making it work like that. There's so much patience. Anything that ever gets suggested at least gets... nobody is dismissing any ideas. People will listen even if they think it's not going to work.
This is a six-piece band, so it makes the communication that much more complex, but it really feels like we're communicating better than duo situations I've been in [laughs].
Tom Petty just laughs and shakes his head when he looks at the 26-year-old smirking back at him from the cover of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' 1976 self-titled debut.
They "were just boys," he says. "It was just too much fun."
And, thankfully, he adds, it still is.
Since then, Petty has racked up worldwide sales of more than 50 million albums, with the Heartbreakers and as a solo artist. He has won four Grammy Awards; been part of the Traveling Wilburys with his heroes George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison; and journeyed on too many sold-out tours to count.
For those accomplishments and more, Petty is this year's recipient of the Billboard Century Award. The honor acknowledges the creative achievements of an artist whose musical contributions are ongoing.
And for all this, we have Elvis to thank. As an 11-year-old growing up in Gainesville, Fla., Petty briefly met the King in an encounter that changed his life.
"Everything became pretty clear at that moment," Petty says. Being a rock star "looked like a great job."
He subsequently traded his beloved Wham-O slingshot for a box of Presley singles and never looked back.
Petty formed his first band, the Sundowners, by the time he was 14. He landed a record deal with a subsequent group, Mudcrutch, in the early 1970s.
After that group disbanded, he and fellow Mudcrutchers Benmont Tench (keyboards) and Mike Campbell (guitar) formed the Heartbreakers, along with Stan Lynch (drums) and Ron Blair (bass).
From the start, the group offered an appealing blend of lean rock'n'roll laden with influences from '50s rockers and '60s British Invasion groups—all wrapped up in three-minute nuggets.
"You get in there, you get the job done and you get the hell out," Petty says of his songwriting style.
While the core of Petty/Campbell/Tench has remained in the Heartbreakers' 30-year history, other players have come and gone. Blair left in 1982 and was replaced with Howie Epstein. Lynch left in 1994 and was replaced with Steve Ferrone. When Epstein died of a drug overdose in 2003, Blair returned.
In a world saturated with manufactured pop stars, Petty is the real deal. His refusal to compromise has led to public feuds with his labels -- and a few legal bumps. Musically, he has also insisted on doing it his way. He laughs out loud at the thought of an A&R exec coming into the studio to give feedback.
"The Heartbreakers are not that kind of people where you could come in and tell them what to do. [That] would just be a joke to us," he says. In fact, Tony Dimitriades, who has managed him for 29 years, is even barred from entry: "We told Tony we'd fire him if he ever came to a session."
During the last few years, Petty has expanded his résumé to include actor, DJ and author. He is the voice of Lucky on the animated TV series "King of the Hill," a recurring character who lives on disability payments after slipping on urine in Costco.
He is in his second season of hosting "Tom Petty's Buried Treasure," a weekly, 60-minute show on XM Satellite Radio that combines classic songs, obscure cuts and live tracks.
Additionally, Omnibus Press has just released "Conversations With Tom Petty," a career-spanning tome by Paul Zollo. (An excerpt of "Conversations..." is available in the Bookshelf section of Billboard.com.)
In an interview in his home studio in the Los Angeles beachfront community of Malibu, Petty is a low-key, gracious host. Accompanied by a steady stream of cigarettes and coffee, he recounts his career with humor, grace and a few flashes of regret.
At 55, he is young enough to still rock'n'roll, but old enough to know he is one of the lucky ones. At times, he seems still unable to believe that fate, hard work and magic have brought him to this point.
Petty's third solo album, "Highway Companion," is slated for release this spring. Although there has been speculation that he is leaving Warner Bros. Records, his home since 1994, at press time he is still signed to the label.
Petty will receive the Century Award Dec. 6 at the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas.
The Century Award joins a number of other honors: In 1999, Petty and the Heartbreakers received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 2002, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The inaugural Century Award was given in 1992 and was named for the imminent 100th anniversary of Billboard in 1994. Then-editor in chief Timothy White, who died in 2002, created the award in conjunction with then-publisher Howard Lander.
Q: You met Elvis [Presley] on the set of "Follow That Dream" when you were 11. It sounds like he changed your life.
A: He certainly did. [laughs] You weren't prepared to have your life changed in a minute. It really had that sort of impact. It wasn't like meeting Jesus, but it was close.
Q: How did seeing the Beatles on TV for the first time affect you?
A: That was when the world turned to color from black and white. All of a sudden Technicolor. I was 13 or 14, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life, no question. It still baffles me a little bit as to why the lightning bolt hit me, but it did.
Q: Your first band, the Sundowners, started playing gigs when you were 14. What was it like the first time you played in front of an audience?
A: It was an incredible high, and it still is. My mom was flabbergasted at the money I was making. I mean, honestly, when I think back on it, there were probably times in my teenage years when I was making as much as my dad. That was probably real insulting.
Q: In the Paul Zollo book, you tell a story about how Mudcrutch played the Gainesville club Dub's six nights a week, five sets a night. Your dad snuck in to see you, but did not tell you until two days later.
A: Yeah. He was like that. He had a front about this was the wrong thing to do, but he would be seduced by the music. When he saw us do it, he was sort of proud, and it would melt his exterior a little bit. To throw down and come right up front would have been too much for him. He had to be cool, so he snuck in and watched.
Q: With that experience under your belt, you headed to Los Angeles and got a record deal right away. Did you feel like the streets were lined with gold?
A: In those days, you could go down Sunset Boulevard, and they were right up front -- MGM, RCA. Capitol was down the road, and A&M. I remember going into MGM Records. They wanted to make a deal for a single. The same day we went to London Records, they wanted to make an album.
Q: How did you end up on Shelter, which was run by the famous British producer Denny Cordell?
A: We left a tape there with a girl named Andrea Starr. She thought we were cute. By the time we got back [to Gainesville], Denny called and said, "I'd really like to sign the band." I said, "We've already kind of given our word to London." He said, "If you're going to drive from Florida to L.A., it wouldn't be far out of your way to stop in Tulsa, Okla. I have a studio there, and let's meet each other and see how it feels." We really fell in love with him. We played for a little while, and he said, "That's it, I want the band." And then he threw down some cash: "Here, here's a couple thousand bucks, you're going to need a place to stay."
So we were like, "OK, we're in." We drove the rest of the way to L.A. and drove right up to Shelter Records, right off the freeway, covered in dust, and it's really kind of fairy tale stuff. They really nurtured us along for a good year or so before he even let us make a record.
Q: But it was an extremely one-sided deal in Shelter's favor. A few years later, you had to fight to get out of it.
A: We didn't think it was bad, because we all got new amplifiers and we had a house with a pool and somebody paying the bills. It wasn't a bad deal until we started to sell a lot of records. So it was really kind of the price of an education. You know, some days it really pisses me off, but it's probably fair in the long run. Because he really did save our lives in a lot of respects. Had we made a record the minute we hit town, it probably would have come and gone, and we would have been back playing clubs in Gainesville.
Q: After one single for Shelter, you left Mudcrutch and started a solo album. But ultimately, the Heartbreakers formed. How did that happen?
A: Benmont was trying to get a record deal, and he had gotten some studio time. He really handpicked the Heartbreakers. They were all Gainesville guys who had moved out to L.A., so I was invited to play the harmonica. I went by the Village Recorder in Santa Monica, and I was like, "What a band!" And being the cunning businessman that I am, I said, "You know, backing up Benmont's fine, but there's no reason you couldn't have me in the band and I have a record deal, so you could circumvent the whole try-to-make-it thing and go in with me," and we were off.
Q: Early singles, like "Breakdown" and "I Need to Know," set the tone for your career. Why didn't you put more of your really beautiful love songs and ballads out as singles?
A: Something that irritated me later on was that [my labels] always went with something that was uptempo and had an electric guitar on [it]. In the last days of FM before it just died, it used to drive me nuts; if there wasn't a guitar solo, they didn't want it. So something like "Angel Dream," which has got to be one of my 10 best songs ever, was completely overlooked. But, you know, this is life in the big city, what can you do?
I don't think we had a hit ballad ever until "Free Fallin'." And I remember with that, there was some question. I went on "Saturday Night Live," and the single at the time was "I Won't Back Down," and I played "Free Fallin'," and MCA was just furious at me. But my thinking was, "'I Won't Back Down' is already a hit, let's play something they don't expect." I'm sure it helped the record later. Sometimes you just gotta do what you think is right.
Q: Do you see your songwriting ability as a gift?
A: Yes, absolutely. It has to be a gift, because why would I be able to write a song instead of someone else? After a while, you come to realize, "I've really been blessed. I can write these things and it makes me happy, and it makes millions of people happy." It's an obligation, it's bigger than you. It's the only true magic I know. It's not pulling a rabbit out of a hat; it's real. It's your soul floating out to theirs.
Q: When "Damn the Torpedoes" hit, it catapulted you to another level of exposure. Did you want the fame?
A: Sure. I think everybody who does this wants the fame no matter what they say. I would have been very disappointed if I wasn't famous after all that work.
Q: With your next album, "Hard Promises," MCA decided to raise the price to $9.98, up $1 from the standard price. You refused to release it at the higher price, leading to a very public battle with the label. Why did you take that stand?
A: I did it because it was going to be the first $9.98 record, and I was going to be the guy through the door who raised the whole thing, and I thought, "You're not doing it to me, do it to Olivia Newton-John or somebody... but you're not going to do it to me." [laughs] And then it became a bigger crusade than that, and the press got interested in it and so, you know, we saw it through and got our way eventually.
The music has to be affordable. It's the common man that keeps it going, and if you price it out of his realm, it becomes a thing of the elite.
Q: Did you worry about losing your career?
A: I didn't worry about my career ending, but there were days where I felt pretty beat up by it all and just pretty tired, because they didn't make it easy for me. And coming right off the last lawsuit, it was the last thing I wanted to get involved in. When it was over, we didn't really celebrate, we were just exhausted. I lost all interest in the record business and never wanted to do anything except hand in a record again. To this day, I don't have any interest in it.
Q: "Long After Dark," which came out in 1982, coincided with the birth of MTV. How did the video channel change things for you?
A: In those days MTV was so hungry for product, you could have three or four videos an album. Suddenly, we had a lot of stuff on TV, and then your recognition factor goes up on the street. Instead of being on once a year, you're on all day long. People are seeing you all the time, so we tried to use it to our advantage, and it was so much fun.
Q: That segues perfectly into 1985's "Southern Accents." It is impossible to think of "Don't Come Around Here No More" without thinking of the video and "Alice in Wonderland." What was the band's response to the song?
A: Mike didn't like it, I think. The label hated it, [it] was like, "What the hell is this?" [laughs] It was one of the only times that I went, "OK, we're going to make a single." So it was a real satisfying thing to see it work. The video played a huge part in making it work, and it is a damn good video.
Q: You are coming off one of your top tours this year, and you seemed to be playing with such verve and zest. Were there times when it has not been fun for you to be onstage?
A: It's always been great to be onstage. In 30 years you go through periods that maybe you remember some more fondly than others, and maybe there's times when you feel more beat up than others. When Ron Blair came back, something clicked. Ron, without him even knowing it, brought something really needed back into the band. He clicked with [Steve] Ferrone in a way that Howie hadn't. It's really effortless up there. It's not a lot of work.
Q: You have always stressed that you really like being in a band as opposed to being a solo artist.
A: Oh, yeah. I probably wouldn't do it if I wasn't in the Heartbreakers. Not at this point in my life. Maybe it sounds egotistical, but they are one of the best rock'n'roll bands that ever played the music.
Q: While you were in limbo with MCA over "Full Moon Fever," you went and worked on the Traveling Wilburys' first album, which came out in 1988. Were those two Wilbury albums as much fun to make as they seemed to be?
A: They absolutely were. That was a really good, good place for me to be at that time in my life. I really kind of felt like friends took me in.
The nicest thing about the Wilburys for all of us was that not any one of us had to carry the load. I think it freed us all a great deal. George had wanted a band for a long time; he hated being a solo artist. It was George's dream. And I'm just glad it got to come true for him. We were proud being Wilburys and it was a lot of fun, but the greatest thing to me was there were some really long-lasting friendships made, and that's a kind of gift that you just don't get all the time.
Q: You keep your record and ticket prices down. You do not accept corporate sponsorship or let your songs be in commercials. Does it seem odd that some people consider you heroic when you are just doing what you think is right?
A: It's not heroic. Like you said, I'm just doing what seems right. I've never consciously done it. I'm certainly not a Robin Hood, I'm not that way. I just do what seems like the logical thing to do.
Like with the tickets, you know, it's been brought to our attention again and again and again: "You could be making twice the money you're making." We turn it down, I don't think with an eye toward being Robin Hood, I just think with an eye of, I want this trip to go on. I don't want to come through, burn everybody for $200 a ticket and then they can't afford to come see me again. Plus, I just don't think it's right. I don't think we need that much money.
Q: Why don't you let your songs be used in commercials?
A: Because I didn't write them to be orange juice commercials. Sometimes I feel like maybe it's a dumb move because I don't know if anyone cares, but I care immensely. I don't like it. I think it made [rock music] common and irrelevant. I think I'd get hives if I turned [the TV] on and saw my music playing behind the Gap. That would probably put me over the top.
Q: Your buddy Bob Dylan is doing it.
A: That's his business, you know. I have a lot of friends who do it. They're comfortable with it. That's fine if they see it that way. But I don't see it that way, so I just can't do it.
Q: And no tour sponsorships either. Same principle?
A: It's our band, you know. We started it from nothing and we own it, and I want people to trust it. It's not for sale.
Q: Rick Rubin, who produced [your second solo album, 1994's] "Wildflowers," brought you in to play on Johnny Cash's record. You must have been like a kid in the candy store.
A: I was. That album, "Unchained," just blows my mind. I think it's some of the best playing the Heartbreakers ever did... it would be on somebody else's record. But we really gave him everything we could give him. We would have died for him. I'm real proud of that record, even when I hear it in the commercials. [Sings] "I've been everywhere, man..."
Q: What [else] do you want to do?
A: I'm more interested in what I'm going to leave behind me now than in making a big hit record. I've refined what I do for a long time. If getting better at it means it goes over the heads of those who only wanted to party, then so be it.
Q: What can we expect from your next solo album, "Highway Companion," when it comes out next year?
A: It has a lot to say about time and the passage of time. It's not so much love songs, it's not going to be what anybody expects from me, I'm sure of that. But it's good music, it's really good music.
Q: Do you see a day where you do not make music anymore?
A: My wife will tell you I'm not any happier anywhere than when I'm in the studio. I'm over the moon about it. It keeps me young, it keeps me feeling like I have some purpose. There's some reason this stuff is coming through me. So I don't intend to quit.
Q: Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the first Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album. Are you surprised your run has lasted this long?
A: I specifically remember thinking if we had a five-year run, we'd look back on this and think that was a good run. Then it got to, "If we get 10 years out of this, it would be really something," so 30 years, incredible. I never thought we would do it this long. But you go back to '76, there weren't a lot of 50-year-old rock singers. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were the only people that I was aware of who had gotten old in rock'n'roll; everyone else had died or faded out. I just feel really pleased to be here.