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Tom Petty, 1950–2017

Despite the vagaries of fortune and fashion, Tom Petty entertained and inspired, year after year and decade upon decade

✎  Wayne K. Spear | October 3, 2017 | waynekspear.com

When Tom Petty arrived forty years ago I was ready. I first got into music during that delicious interval when British rock was still king but when its chief rivals—punk, post-punk, and new wave—were charging the palace gate. It was the 1970s and Rock-n-Roll having crossed the Atlantic over a decade before was now crossing back. Early Tom Petty was punk around the edges but you could discern the influence of rock, blues, and country. He had Joe Strummer’s breadth of musical vocabulary and the on-stage confidence of an overnight sensation ten years in the making.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1977. His “Flying V” guitar is featured in the band’s logo.

American Girl wasn’t a song, it was a drug, and no normal teenager could resist it. When you heard that opening D-major open chord you had to know Who is this? Simple and infectious, it showed Petty’s genius for pop hooks and story-telling. Breakdown and American Girl were followed by the 1978 hit I Need to Know, but it wasn’t until Damn the Torpedoes that Petty’s song-writing talents were fully materialized. The album is even more impressive when you consider its circumstances. Recorded while Petty was at war with his record label over publishing rights, the reel-to-reel tapes of Damn the Torpedoes were secretly shuttled by engineers into the recording sessions and then shuttled out at end-of-day to avoid seizure. The Tom Petty who recorded Refugee knew from personal experience that “everybody has to fight to be free.” He had bankrupted himself and risked everything to do so.

Tom Petty’s victory over MCA would be repeated with the next album, Hard Promises. MCA wanted it to retail for $9.98 but Petty was adamant that it should sell at the standard price, which at the time was $8.98. He refused to give the label Hard Promises just as he had refused to give it Damn the Torpedoes. When I rode my bicycle the 30 kilometres to Niagara Falls to buy the new record, I paid the Tom Petty price. Throughout the 1980s Petty released hit after hit, closing out the decade with another simple and infectious tune based on a jangly D-major open chord, Free Fallin. He played an early version of this song at Bob Dylan’s studio, where he had been spending time with Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne. Eventually this association would lead to the short-lived project, Traveling Wilburys.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers traversed genres and generations. The Beatles convinced Petty that “I could do this, too” and Petty likewise inspired younger generations. My friends aged, their lives and circumstances evolved, and in many instances we drifted apart. Despite the vagaries of fortune and fashion, Tom Petty entertained and inspired, year after year and decade upon decade. For me the early years will always be the best, but Tom Petty was a reliable stage and studio artist from the late 1970s until the end. With so much else having drifted to the curb, my friends and I loved his music Back in the Day and we love it now. There isn’t a covers band that doesn’t play at least one Tom Petty song. (The band I saw this past weekend at Bloor and Jane played American Girl.) I don’t know a human being who professes dislike of Tom Petty’s music. If such a person exists, that person is taste challenged. As for the rest of us, we will always love the music of Tom Petty, and we will miss him.

Sonny Daze Meets the Orange Menace

The two August Leaders, one the President of America and the other the President of that country somewhere in the vicinity of America, clashed in a fierce battle of handshake. The Orange Menace grimaced, jerking the arm of his rival. Sonny Daze stood his ground, dreamily smiling, his core muscles taut with alacrity. The Orange Menace worked the resolute limb, twisting and yanking as if extirpating a root. Yet the mighty tree could not be felled. The Orange Menace has met his match: he who spends an hour each morning at his hair now contends with he who also spends an hour each morning at his hair. One lives for the camera, the other for the camera lives. Each adoration craves. The Orange Menace applies brutal force in service of dominance, while Sonny Daze has charmed his way to this mountaintop.

– I am King of this Mountain, says the Orange Menace.

Sonny Daze does not speak. He adopts a Yoga pose and gazes dreamily into the cameras.

– I have done more in 100 days of being President than any President in the history of the world of Presidents.

Sonny Daze says nothing. He puts on a fringed buckskin jacket and portages to the river, dropping his canoe into the water. He paddles his vessel toward the cameras.

– Look upon my tremendous works! says the Orange Menace.

Sonny removes his buckskin jacket and rends his shirt. Bare-chested, he dashes four miles westward to a couple busied at their nuptials. Henceforth and forevermore shall he be immortalized on the mantelpiece photo where this day will be eternally commemorated.

A jealous and enraged Orange Menace takes to Twitter in an effort to regain the world’s attention. Sonny Daze puts on a faux Indian headdress. It is the War of The Manchildren, a force of personality against the force of personality, a clash of surfaces, a contest of brands, a struggle of perception against perception. They are different and yet the same. They are what you want them to be. They are yours and you must love them, if for no reason other than they are created for you and in your image.

Who will emerge victorious in this battle of the vanities?

– Look upon my mighty works, says the Orange Menace.
– Strong Together We Middle Class Better We Good We, says Sonny Daze.
– I will smite America’s enemies! says the Orange Menace.
– Love We Middle Class Together Good Together Canada Strong, says Sonny Daze.

They take their places. The battle proper has begun. Now we will see and judge them by their works.

The sky darkens as the Orange Menace lifts his adamantium scimitar heavenward. The mighty instrument draws an electric stream from the firmament. Energy ripples from the Orange Menace like an angry stone thrown into water. He shouts a primal scream

– Yyyyaaaaaaawwwwwwwwaaaaaaoooooooorrrrrrrraaaaaaaaggggggggaaaaa!

The Orange Menace points his scimitar to the West. He issues a tremendous bolt of energy with a roar that splits the Earth. The bolt in an instant strikes the ground at 719 Church Street, in Nashville, Tennessee, 666 miles distant. When the smoke dissipates, the Orange Menace gestures with pride toward the awe-inspiring deed.

– Look upon this hole, which by my own hand I now designate the future Fred D. Thompson Federal Building and United States Courthouse!

With a nice and supple hand, Sonny Daze takes up the Unicorn-feathered holly wand, gifted to his father by a once-Potentate of the Levant. He raises the wand to a swell of birdsong. Of a sudden, the air is redolent of neroli and mandarin. Across the world the humble pause momentarily their toil to hold the hand of a neighbor. The cameras chatter. Sonny Daze points his wand north to the Langevin Building of Ottawa, Canada, 565 miles away. A stream of glowing pixie dust issues from his magical tool, crossing Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and the US-Canada border into Ontario at the eastern edge of the Great Lake. Up goes the pixie dust, along Highways 401 and 416, turning east at Highway 417 where it exits at Bronson Avenue to travel north toward Wellington via Queen.

When the pixie dust arrives to its destination of Parliament Hill, Sonny Daze tucks the Instrument of Dreamy Wonder in an inner pocket of his suit jacket, designed specially for this purpose. He pauses dramatically, before saying

– I hereby re-name the Langevin Building “The Building Where Governmenty People Do Governmenties Stuff.”

The people cheer. Look at his eyes, he is so dreamy, they say.

Not to be outdone, the Orange Menace next names the Department of Veterans Affairs community-based outpatient clinic, in Pago Pago, American Samoa, the Faleomavaega Eni Fa’aua’a Hunkin VA Clinic.

Not to be outdone outdone, Sonny Daze renames National Aboriginal Day “National Indigenous Day.”

Not to be outdone outdone outdone, the Orange Menace renames the Department of Veterans Affairs health care center, in Center Township, Butler County, Pennsylvania, the “Abie Abraham VA Clinic.”

Sonny Daze renames the ten dollar bill the “Indigenous People Are Wonderful Bill.”

The Orange Menace re-renames French Fries “Freedom Fries.”

This goes on for hours and then days, with no clear victor emerging. Incapable, or perhaps unwilling, of anything of substance, they lock themselves into a shambolic war of pandering gesture. Their tribes applaud them, as the cameras record every word and facial expression. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, life goes on.

Introducing Ken Detective

Ken Detective takes the last of the bourbon. He of broad shoulders, square chin, chaws chaws the glass to tabletop, until a waitress arrives on a circuit that will soon return her bearing another.

Ken Detective eyes the courtyard. Birds fall from the clouds to walk the earth. The birds tell men secrets of sky-gods. The birds whisper to the sky-gods tales of human disappointment: the corn that does not grow, the infertile wife, the idiot President. The gods are bored but also indifferent. They do not listen. They have witnessed the efforts of men, Icarus on his waxy feathers, Neil Armstrong tumbling through space in a bucket. Long ago they decided that mankind is absurd. The birds return to earth, where the impotent men take note of their flight or eviscerate them, spilling the entrails for divination.

Today the birds reveal nothing to Ken Detective. The only thing certain is that the President, Mr Crusher, is a dangerous idiot. Detective takes the last of the bourbon, chaw chaws on the table, awaits his blessed comet of booze. The bar is dark, and if not for him it would be empty also, an ebony nothingness where no comet would bother to go. A good thing that he likes the darkness, likes to hunt it down, to invigilate it for intel. His best work, the real and true art of his occupation, happens in back alleys and taverns. Ken Detective has no use for the bright nonsense of men and their lucent delusions, or for people in general, unless they have information to spill. Then, by all means, find a dark place to slice em open. Shed some light on a shady subject.
*
The President is a shady character, a narcissistic con artist with a lot of low friends in high places. Russian mafia, Chinese crooks., pimps, hustlers, dirty operatives. The kind of people your mother told you to steer clear of when you were a child. You know the type: grubby and snotty-nosed lowlife bastards who pulled to the curb and offered you candy. Hucksters and shysters, perverts, liars, and creeps. All the President’s men. I haven’t nailed him yet, but jesus I will I swear, on whatever you got in those pockets of yours. I’ll get the bugger, if it’s the last act and the curtain is hitting me in the face. Shit on my corpse and never speak of me again if I don’t.

The thing about being a detective is you care about the facts like you care about oxygen and the kind attentions of a pretty woman. It’s in me like the piss and vinegar is in me, like the bourbon is in me, and although it burns and sometimes makes me go mad, I keep coming back for more. If I have to crack a head for my facts, by god I’ll crack a head. It’s only business. I get to the bottom, and sometimes, my friend, the bottom is a long way down. Not many men have the iron for it, I’ll tell you that. Look at the folks who went punch drunk mad building the Brooklyn bridge, diving and surfacing, diving and re-surfacing, until their brains turned to mush. But I ain’t like that, somehow. I keep on going, I push, I go to the bottom. And I come up and do it again, and then again some more, because the drive is in me. If there’s anything I hate it’s an up-to-no-good liar, covering his lying ass with a sack of lies. I want to kick that ass clear all the way to damn hell. So because I have it in me that’s the thing I’m going to do, so help me god.
*
Ken Detective takes the last of the bourbon and rises, dropping a bill on the table. He has an appointment in a dark place, with a fellow whose head just might need some cracking.