Sunday , June 16 2024
A new series about discovering new and old music and rediscovering the great music sitting on my shelf starting with Tom Petty's Wildflowers

Confessions of a Fanboy 001: Tom Petty – Wildflowers

I. Preamble
Writing about music is what made me to want to write for Blogcritics in the first place. I love doing my podcast. I love doing BCRadio. Music is a big part of both of those programs. This column is just another way for me participate in my passion for music.

Some critics write about music with their knives sharpened and minds closed, prepared to hate whatever floats into their ears. It is understandable. Bad music makes me angry. I feel assaulted when I hear bad music and bad music is not in short supply. There is a staggering amount of putrid, vapid shit being pressed on to disc and this is not a new development. It is an inescapable truth that has existed since the first works of art were created. That truth makes it easy to be jaded. It makes it convenient to be jaded. If you assume the worst you will rarely be disappointed. If you can convince yourself nothing worthwhile is being made you can hide yourself from the fountain of shit polluting the musical landscape.

I understand that. I just cannot bring myself to live like that. The truth is I want to discover another new artist. I want to hear another classic album filled with songs that have life-changing powers. I want to like things. I am addicted to the feeling of buying another new CD. I am a fanboy. No matter how many CDs I buy I can always think of one more I want. No matter how many artists I have launched into my pantheon I am always on the lookout for one more. I choose to navigate the rubbish-filled ocean in search of something great.

Finding something great is not an easy task. The Good-to-Shit ratio is discouraging. There is an appalling amount of awful music in circulation. The journey has been worthwhile because the power of the good and the great far exceeds that of the awful. The payoff of finding something magical is worth the risk of being caught in a music store when a John Mayer song is being played. Besides, mocking the bad is a hell of a lot of fun and almost makes the bad shit tolerable.

I sometimes change my mind about an artist. I fall for the slick packaging or think one good song on the radio might be indicative of an album full of even better songs. I have fallen for a fad or a trend or tried to convince myself I liked something that I did not just to have something to buy and to buy into. Sometimes I get caught up in the moment and get hooked on an artist only to find out they have the staying power of a 15-year old boy with a Playboy magazine.

It also works in the opposite direction. There are plenty of artists I love now that I once despised or I realize a particular artist never would have fit in my musical universe at one time in my life. This first “Confessions” is an example of that.

There are music reviews and there are music revisits. Music reviews are almost always time-sensitive. I get to write a number of reviews for Blogcritics for current releases (I just wrote this review of Joe Satriani’s Super Colossal). I enjoy that. It is a lot of fun to talk about music in the present tense and there is a lot of great present tense music being made. I am going to continue to write those reviews

There are, however, dozens more albums I have come to love years after their initial release. There are a lot of artists I discovered who were dead before I was born. Reviewing those seems pointless now. Do we really need another review of Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band? The word has gotten out and their place in music history is secure.

That does not mean there is nothing left to say about those records. People are still buying and listening to them for the first time even decades after their release. New generations discover those albums every day and are inspired. They are still worth discussing even if there is nothing new under the sun to say about them. Great music is worth revisiting.

There are 12,443 songs on my iPod as I write this inaugural “Confession.” I have found pieces of musical salvation despite the best efforts of Scott Stapp and Mariah Carey. I refused to let Emerson, Lake, & Palmer ruin The Allman Brothers Band for me. I fight the good fight and I want to write about it.

II. Wildflowers by Tom Petty.

I think of Wildflowers in terms of “then” (when I first bought the album) and “now.” I do not remember the day I bought it but it was around the time of its 1994 release. I was living in Washington state and I bought it at Bubbles (a local retailer in Kent although if the store still exists it might have been annexed into Covington). At least that is how I remember it.

Tom Petty was having a career renaissance. “I Won’t Back Down” and especially “Free Fallin'” were huge hit singles for his Full Moon Fever album. His video for “Into the Great Wide Open” with Johnny Depp playing the lead character was a mainstay on MTV. “Last Dance With Mary Jane” was a surprise hit single taken from his first greatest hits package. At the time of the release of Wildflowers I was in the last throes of my hair metal obsession and in the early stages of my alternative rock fascination. Tom Petty was not really on the radar for me although I did like “Last Dance with Mary Jane” enough to buy Greatest Hits. The seeds had been planted. I bought the album mostly because of “It’s Good to Be King.” I liked the video and loved the music.

I did not listen deeply to the album when I first bought it. I skipped right to “It’s Good to Be King” and put the song on repeat. This is probably not the best way to listen to an album but it is not uncommon for me. The advantage to doing it this way is over the next several years I would discover ‘new’ songs and find more reasons to love an album. It is all about value. I felt like I have bought this album four or five times because over a period of years I continued to discover new things about it and find new songs to like and appreciate.

I remember reading an interview Petty gave when his 1999 album Echo was released. I looked for a link to it somewhere but could not find it. He was asked if Echo was his divorce album. His answer indicated he was aware some of that residue was apparent on the disc but that he thought of Wildflowers as more of his divorce album (I swear he said it but I searched for it on Google and cannot find it).

I was amazed by that. I had been listening to the album for years and it never dawned on me how many of the songs were about troubled relationships. That caused me to want to go back and listen to the album again to see what I had missed. When I bought the album in 1994 I was very inexperienced in relationships. That probably explains why so much of the meaning missed me. I enjoyed the album on a purely musical level. I liked the songs even if I did not understand them. Over the next several years I had a couple of relationships crash around me. These songs began to resonate in new and deeper ways. Now when I listen to these songs and read the lyrics I cannot believe I did not put it together on my own. Even this morning I heard things I had not previously pieced together.

What to Listen For:
Here are a few of the things I like about this album. If you own it, go back and listen for them. If you do not own it, skim these musings. You might be curious enough to give the album a chance. Allow this to be your listening guide.

“It’s Good to Be King”: This was my first favorite song on the CD and it still might be my favorite. The best part of this song has to be the late Michael Kamen’s gorgeous string arrangement. The song would be pleasant without the orchestration but positively soars because of it. Benmont Tench’s piano is mixed prominently and melancholy rings in each note. One of the other things I have always loved about the music in this one is the sound of Steve Ferrone’s cymbals. That might seem silly but I have always loved it. There is something very musical about them, particularly during the guitar solo in the middle of the song and during the beautiful instrumental passage at the end.

If “It’s Good to Be King” why does the music sound so somber? It was not until today I started to put some of the lyrical pieces together.

Excuse me if I have some place in my mind where I go time to time

Tom is only king when he retreats from the outside world to one of his own making. Now the contrast of the song title and the music starts to make sense.

Can I help it if I still dream time to time?
Yeah, I’ll be king when dogs have wings

The verses of the songs tell us all the things kings can have and what they can do. It is interesting that what Petty envies in the life of a king is not the bling. He sings of the “feeling of peace at the end of the day” and pets and companionship with “winners.” It sounds like a great life. It is good to be king. Only one problem: he is not the king. Not in the real world, anyway.

If you thought that attempt at song interpretation was bootstrapping just wait… Why would a person retreat from the real world to be king of the one in their mind? Could it be because the real world is not treating them so well? Could it be because the marriage of nearly two decades is disintegrating? Let’s go to the lyrics:

It’s good to be king and have your own world
It helps to make friends, it’s good to meet girls
A sweet little queen, who can’t run away
It’s good to be king, whatever it pays

A wife can leave a husband. It happens all the time. Marriages fall apart. Bonds are broken and the pain feels unbearable. Why would a queen run away? A king and a queen will be happily ever after. No pain, no bitterness, no anger. That is worth the price of admission. Who cares about the gold?

“Crawling Back to You”: If “It’s Good to be King” has been supplanted as my favorite song from this album, “Crawling Back to You” is the one that has taken its place. I quote song lyrics the way some people quote scripture. This song has one of my favorite lyrics ever. I could probably spend the 2,000 words already composed writing just about this passage of this song:

I’m so tired of being tired
Sure as night will follow day
Most things I worry about
Never happen anyway

That is Confucius and the “I Have a Dream” speech all rolled into one. Read that and tell me you do not want to go find somebody to slap. That is “slap somebody” good.

How many times do you ask someone how they are doing and get a response with the word “tired?” It happens all the time to me. I say it all the time. There are so many different kinds of tired and we all feel them and we all feel them often. Sometimes we feel them because we are surrounded by people who are feeling them. Do you ever get tired of feeling tired? Happens to me all the time. “I’m so tired of being tired.” You fucking bet.

Now to the gospel.

Most things I worry about
Never happen anyway

How many years of our lives have we spent worrying about one damn thing or another? How many times did the thing we spent so much time so afraid of never even come to pass? How much damage have we done to ourselves with worry? How much damage have we done to ourselves trying to alleviate the fear and panic and anxiety? Then the trigger of all this negativity does not materialize and you find yourself an emotional wreck for nothing. No matter how many times we learn this lesson we instinctively find ourselves needing a refresher course.

Of course there is another side to that. Think of all the times you worried yourself into some awful state and the thing you were so afraid of did happen. You are still alive today. Did all the pre-event worrying help you at all? How much could it have helped? Worrying about it did not stop it from happening. You probably made everything worse because in addition to whatever the thing was that fucked you up you got yourself into an awful state waiting for that shoe to drop. All you managed to do was put yourself through hellish torment in anticipation of the thing and still had to deal with the fallout.

There is so much truth in 20 words spread over four little lines. The song is aided by some terrific instrumental play between Tench’s piano, Mike Campbell’s electric guitar, and Ferrone’s slick drumming. The instruments sound great on this album. Rick Rubin did a fantastic job producing this set. I did not take note of this song until many years after having bought it. Now I quote it to friends, family, and strangers.

“Don’t Fade on Me”: I did not pick up on this song right away but have liked for awhile. The music is two acoustic guitars: one played by Campbell and one by Petty. The acoustic workout at the end is pretty fancy. The twin acoustic guitars and Petty’s tired vocal tell you everything you need to know without reading the words.

What I like about the lyrics is the sense of empathy I get from them. He is pleading perhaps for the other person not to fade on him while at the same time having some level of understanding why they might want to do just that. There are legions of songs that put the blame for a failed or failing relationship on the other person. There are nearly as many where the songwriter blames himself or herself. Rare is the song that tries to reach a middle ground. “Don’t Fade on Me” finds the singer hoping to hold onto the relationship while acknowledging the prognosis is not good. At least that is my reading of it.

“You Wreck Me”: Don’t be fooled in to thinking this is a dour record of self-pity with some old guy whining about how his baby done him wrong (thanks, Duke!). “Don’t Wreck Me” is a good, solid rock song with sing-along apeal. The harmony vocals and the way the voices are recorded give the chorus a nice punch.

“Time to Move On”: A sense of hope and optimism rings through the song despite the expressions of uncertainty and the reality that a change is coming.

15 songs. 62 minutes. 1,700 words later and I still feel like I have more to say about Wildflowers. That is why I still revisit it.

Album Vitals: Wildflowers was released in 1994. It is the second “solo” album by Tom Petty.

It is tough to call it a solo album as members of The Heartbreakers play on each of the album’s tracks. The exception is drummer Stan Lynch. It either just prior to the release of Wildflowers or soon after that Lynch left The Heartbreakers for good. His replacement, Steve Ferrone, plays most of the album. Ringo Starr drums on one track.

The set was produced by Rick Rubin and strings were arranged by Michael Kamen.

Wildflowers has sold more than three million copies.

About Josh Hathaway

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