Monday, December 29, 2008

don't it feel like something from a dream

At the risk of losing what few cool points I might have, I'm gonna own up to long-time like of Tom Petty. As such I was able to sit through twice the 2007 documentary Runnin' Down a Dream, directed by Peter Bogdonavich (short clip below).

One big thing that comes out in the film is the sincerity and decency of Petty and his band. They come across as genuinely nice people who are trying to do nothing but make good music while keeping their souls in a business that can eat people up (something I know from direct experience). And that's something that's always (for me, anyway) come through in his songs. His songs by-and-large aren't complex on the surface, but he's always had a great sense of melody (which makes sense given that he notes that Elvis, The Beatles, The Byrds (listen to the riff from "The Waiting"), The Kinks and the Stones are major influences). But there are more than a few songs where the lyrics have much more going on than is first evident. I've always admired his ability to say the simple things without making them sound trite or cliche. Even better is that the Heartbreakers are an excellent band. Mike Campbell is in particular an unsung rock guitar hero, something that is acknowledged by Petty and others on camera.

Among the things I didn't know before but makes sense when it's presented in the film is that when they broke, in the late 1970s. they were lumped in with new wave artists because what they were doing - stripped-down rock, shorter songs with a bit of an edge - actually does fit in with songwriters like Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and others. His thing, though, was much more American and southern and bluesy so it's not that obvious how his early records fit in there at the time. And coming to know of later it's easy to see him pegged as nothing more than an FM-radio-ready artist, mainly because as producer Jimmy Iovine says in the movie, every song from Damn the Torpedoes sounds great on the radio. And that's not a bad thing.

What I'm realizing now is that the only thing separating him from Aussie songwriter Paul Kelly is the fact that one's from Gainesville, FL and one's from Adelaide, NSW Australia. Both are excellent songwriters who make the simple seem profound and have always surrounded themselves with crack musicians who've made the songs that much better. It's also remarkable the range of artists who like Petty...everyone from Johnny Cash (who were supported by the Heartbreakers on his Unchained album and who later recorded a version of "I Won't Back Down" that Petty thought was better than his on version) to Stevie Nicks (who apparently lobbied intensely to join the band circa "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around") and Dave Grohl (who sat in on drums on SNL right after original drummer Stan Lynch left) to Johnny Depp (who appeared in the "Into the Great Wide Open" video).

It's really remarkable that Petty's kept the core of the band together for so long. One thing that seems to have helped (despite the occasional tensions) is when they started branching out and playing with other people like Dylan, Jeff Lynne and others. Kind of like a married couple who see other people for a spell and come back energized about the relationship. There's actually a quote from Mike Campbell where he mentioned that the band were "quite bored with each other". Clearly that's a dicier thing to do in a romantic relationship (I wouldn't do it), but it certainly makes musical sense if there's a commitment (as there clearly is between Petty and the band) to keep the thing running for as long as possible.

It's also a very music-focused film - there's next to nothing about the personal lives of the band. I don't think Petty's first wife has any more than a cursory few mentions - his second wife has more screen time. Besides Howie Epstein's drug issues, substance-abuse issues are barely touched on and only Petty gets under the relationship microscope for a segment that covers his divorce.

Some other things I didn't know...

* They broke big in England well before the US, in part because people associated them with he new music scene more than the tired, bloated music of the time.

* No surprise that Petty's first record deal was a bad one, where he got next to no royalties and not knowing any better signed away his publishing. He fought that (and later the almost anti-trust-like concerted rise in LP prices that the record companies tried to foist on the people back in the early 1980s) with a real ballsy attitude, taking on the record companies

* Howie Epstein's had a bad drug problem that ended his life.

One thing I do know that was notably not mentioned was how Petty got some well-deserved flak for stealing the "rebel without a clue" line (from "Into the Great Wide Open") from the Replacements' song "I'll Be You".

The most striking scene in the film is a bit shot in the studio when Petty was working on a record by Roger McGuinn and shot down a song submitted for the record by the company A&R people, calling the song for the crap is evidently was, and saying on camera (in the interview shot for the film) of how the A&R guys had no idea of the depth of the artist (McGuinn) with whom they were working.

It's almost four hours in length, but it's well worth seeing. In particular, the early footage is interesting, and you really see how they were essentially earnest punk rockers who just happened to be from the south and as such seemed more cracker than punk. But really they were flying in the face of what was going on at the time, and were happy to spit in the eye of the business and go about doing their own thing in their own way.

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