Every now and again, something bubbles up out of the depths of my trusty iPod that I haven’t thought about in a very long time, and I’ll remember how much I used to like that song, and — with any luck — how much I still like it. The most recent example of this phenomenon is “Kids in America” by Kim Wilde (who, despite the title of her signature tune, is English, not American).
“Kids in America” was released in the U.S. in 1982 (it had already been out for about a year in Europe at that point), whereupon it became a solid but not a tremendous hit in the States, peaking at number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100. However, the song’s accompanying video got a fair amount of airplay on MTV, and I’d daresay the song became something like a theme for a certain slice of Generation X. The idea that that particular cohort is closing in on the half-century mark — and that Wilde herself is now 57 — is difficult to wrap my head around. Because in my heart, we’re still the Kids in America, searching for the beat in this dirty town. I imagine we’ll still be searching when we’re in our nursing homes.
Anyhow, that’s it. No special occasion, no particular associations… just I song I remember liking back in the day. And as it happens, I still like it. Hope you enjoy it too, as we head into the weekend…
I honestly can’t remember how many times I’ve seen Rick Springfield in concert.
What started off as a lark — “Hey, let’s go see that guy I loved as a kid and find out if he can still sing!” — and then evolved into something of a running gag — “Hey, let’s go see Rick again!” — has finally become a comfortable, reliably entertaining event that Anne and I look forward to more or less annually. Which isn’t to suggest that a Rick Springfield concert is the same old thing, year after year. While there are a lot of ’80s nostalgia acts who do essentially the same show every time — I’m thinking of Def Leppard in particular; they’re good, but if you’ve seen them once, you’ve seen them — I’ve personally had a wide range of experiences with Rick, everything from an arena-style state-fair show to a Las Vegas stage spectacular to an intimate performance in a small rehearsal space. We’re going to see him again tonight, this time performing under the stars with the Utah Symphony Orchestra. So that ought to be interesting.
I’d love to take all my Loyal Readers along with me, but since that’s not possible, I’ll leave you with a video instead.
“Voodoo House” is the second single from Rick’s latest album The Snake King, and the blues influence is even more obvious on this one than in the first release, “In the Land of the Blind.” Filmed on location in the bayous around New Orleans, an authentically grimy road house, and in the historic Dew Drop Jazz and Social Hall — reportedly the oldest rural jazz hall in the country — the video is dripping with humid atmosphere, redolent of sweat, sex, and the dark ancient forces that whisper to men and women alike when the sun drops low in the west. It’s cool stuff. Hope you dig it as much as I do.
Huey Lewis himself may have mocked the idea in the song “Hip to Be Square,” but for a couple years in the mid-1980s, he really was cool. I always thought so, at least. He and his band, The News, had a style and attitude that was entirely their own. They weren’t fey preppies like so many of the New Wave guys, or trying to look dangerous like the rockers. They didn’t have weird hair or an aggressive “screw it all” attitude like the punks. They just were who they were, without pretense. And to an insecure kid like me, that air of self-assuredness seemed, well, pretty damn cool. Cool enough that The News is one of the few music acts that was allowed to take up valuable real estate on my bedroom walls when I was a teen (my taste in cheap posters from Spencer’s ran more toward pin-up girls than rock bands). In fact, this is the very poster that hung over my bed:
Tell me that red suit isn’t cool. Seriously, I’ve never been a suit-wearer — I’ve always tended to dress more like Johnny Colla, the shorter guy to Huey’s right — but I’d totally rock that red-suit-black-t-shirt combination.
Anyhow, these days, it seems like the only Huey songs that still get much air play are the cutesy pop tunes “Stuck with You” and “If This Is It,” and of course the Back to the Future theme, “The Power of Love.” However, my favorite News tunes were always the rowdier, more rock-oriented pieces — naturally — and The News never rocked harder than it did with “I Want a New Drug,” the second single from the band’s breakthrough album, Sports. Here’s the video:
“I Want a New Drug” was released in January 1984 and went to number six on the Billboard chart. A dance remix hit number one in April, while the original single finished out the year in 55th place overall, so the song was pretty much inescapable throughout the year. Bizarrely, it became the center of a lawsuit when Lewis claimed that Ray Parker Jr. ripped off the melody for his 1984 hit, “Ghostbusters,” which Lewis had supposedly been approached about writing for Columbia Pictures but had to turn down because of his involvement with Back to the Future. The suit was settled out of court. Meanwhile, the video stands as a classic of the early MTV era and is one of my favorites. I love the bit where Huey plunges his hungover face into a sink filled with ice water, a gag I’m pretty sure he stole from Paul Newman. (Newman did the ice-water trick in at least two movies that I know of, a 1966 detective film called Harper and in The Sting, from 1973.) In a fun bit of continuity, the blond girl in this video — a model named Signy Coleman — was also seen in Huey’s previous video, “Heart and Soul”; there’s a fun interview with her here, which includes a more recent photo, if anyone is curious. And of course, the video features that infamous red suit. I still wouldn’t mind owning one of those.
I suspect I’m babbling a bit more than usual in this entry, for which I apologize. I’m reeling a bit from this afternoon’s announcement that Huey Lewis has had to cancel all his scheduled 2018 concert performances, including a date here in Salt Lake that was just announced a couple days ago, because he has suffered a sudden, catastrophic hearing loss. His statement on the band’s Facebook page is hopeful, but from the sound of it — forgive the pun — this may be a permanent condition. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Huey and the News three times over the years, once back in ’86 or thereabouts, and twice more in the past decade. Even though I wasn’t planning to see him this summer, it’s shocking and depressing to think that maybe I won’t ever have the opportunity again. I can only imagine it’s even more depressing for him; if this is the end of his career, what a sad and abrupt brick wall at the end of a long ride.
Lately, it seems like more and more of my heroes are coming to the end of their rides in one way or another, and I really haven’t figured out how to cope with that yet.
Here is Huey’s statement:
Huey Lewis and The News cancel all 2018 performances
Two and a half months ago, just before a show in Dallas, I lost most of my hearing. Although I can still hear a little, one on one, and on the phone, I can’t hear music well enough to sing. The lower frequencies distort violently making it impossible to ﬁnd pitch. I’ve been to the House Ear Institute, the Stanford Ear Institute, and the Mayo Clinic, hoping to ﬁnd an answer. The doctors believe I have Meniere’s disease and have agreed that I can’t perform until I improve. Therefore the only prudent thing to do is to cancel all future shows. Needless to say, I feel horrible about this, and wish to sincerely apologize to all the fans who’ve already bought tickets and were planning to come see us. I’m going to concentrate on getting better, and hope that one day soon I’ll be able to perform again.
If there was ever a song that seems custom-tailored for my basic preoccupations, it would have to be “Glory Days,” the fifth of seven hit singles from Bruce Springsteen’s smash album Born in the USA. Like so many Springsteen tunes, I liked this one back in the day simply because I liked its sound: the aggressive guitar opener, the calliope tone of the synth, the rise and fall and rise again into a big climax and a definitive ending instead of the more usual fadeout. But as I’ve grown older, nearing and then surpassing the age Springsteen actually was when he recorded it — he was 34 in 1984, and I’m 48 now — the song has come to have real resonance for me. Not merely because it reminds me of the time when it was popular, but because I now relate to the lyrics. Time really does pass in the wink of a young girl’s eye, and when you settle into that middle-age rut of commuting and working for The Man, it’s very hard not to look back at your youth and wonder if your best days are behind you. Well, it’s hard for me, anyhow. Your mileage may vary.
The great thing about “Glory Days,” though, is that it’s not a maudlin or depressing song. It approaches its subject with a sense of humor and an upbeat tone. It doesn’t say, “Life is over and doesn’t that suck?” It’s more like a gentle nudge in the ribs as a friend says, “Hey, remember all that stupid shit we used to do? Good times, huh?” There’s a hint of melancholy under there, but it’s quickly washed away with a swig of beer and a good laugh. This song makes me feel good about knowing what Bruce is singing about.
“Glory Days” was a sizable hit in the summer of 1985, when I was 15-going-on-16. It peaked at number 5 on the Billboard Top 100, becoming the second highest-charting single from Born in the USA (“Dancing in the Dark” was the highest; it reached number 2). Oh, and one more bit of trivia for those who are interested: the video was directed by John Sayles, the writer and director of well-regarded indie films like The Return of the Secaucus 7, Matewan, Passion Fish, and Eight Men Out, about the notorious Black Sox baseball scandal of 1919. No wonder he seemed to latch onto the verse about playing baseball for the video’s concept…
And now I’m going to drift out into my Friday night. This morning’s rain showers have blown over, and out my office window I can see blue skies and puffy white clouds… happy weekend, everybody!
If you haven’t heard, my main man Rick Springfield dropped a new album recently. It’s called The Snake King, and while it isn’t exactly the blues record I’ve long hoped he would someday do — you won’t find any covers of Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters here — the DNA of rock’s mother genre is threaded all through this collection of 13 tracks. The album’s thematic preoccupation with God, the devil, and sex is, of course, primal blues territory, and the blues sound rises and falls from song to song, meshing surprisingly well with Rick’s pop-rock sensibilities. It’s a far more natural fit for him than his flirtation with country on his previous album. Not that Rocket Science was a bad album; it’s just that…. this is better. Rick’s playing and songwriting both feel invigorated in a way that they haven’t for a while. In short, The Snake King is a great listen, probably my favorite release of his since shock/denial/anger/acceptance way back in 2004.
Rick evidently thinks so too, because he’s been doing quite a lot of publicity for it, making the rounds of various TV talk shows and giving a lot of interviews. And he’s even done a conceptual music video (as opposed to a performance clip), which is, as far as I know, his first such video since he was fighting to liberate humanity from its alien overlords with the help of a young David Fincher. [Edit: Turns out I’m wrong about that; he did a video for the song “Down” from his last album in 2016, I just missed that one somehow.] Without further ado, here’s “In the Land of the Blind,” which happens to be one of my favorite cuts from The Snake King and a really nice sound to start your weekend…
Incidentally, Anne and I attended the launch party for The Snake King out in Los Angeles and even spent a couple minutes chatting with my main man… but that’s a story for another time…
Man, if you’d told me 20 years ago that I’d someday be nostalgic for the 1990s… well, let’s just say I would’ve found that highly improbable. But then, the idea that the ’90s were 20 years ago seems pretty damn improbable to me as well.
I was in my twenties during that decade and, at the time, things didn’t seem to be going so well for Mrs. Bennion’s golden child. I’d graduated from college without the slightest idea of what to do next. I didn’t know how to search for quote-unquote grown-up jobs, or even what sort of job I wanted, and so I spent more years than I should have working low-paying, demoralizing temp gigs. While my friends were out there beginning careers and starting their lives, I was feeling stuck and beginning to have my first real battles with depression. In addition, I was feeling increasingly alienated from the one thing by which I’d always defined myself, popular culture. I’d also become politically aware just in time for our politics to begin their devolution into nasty, scorched-earth-style partisanship. And my love life was a source of never-ending angst, naturally. Basically, my twenties were pretty shitty. At least… they seemed that way at the time.
But time is a tricksy devil. It has a way of knocking off the rough edges and sanding the surface smooth. When I look back now on the decade of my twenties and the crazy era they occupied, I don’t see all the anxiety and self-loathing. Well, not much of it, anyhow. What I see now is a moment I wish I could recapture, honestly. I see a lot less responsibility and a lot more free time than I have now. I see energy and possibilities in quantities I wish I still had. I see the excitement of new love and of early travels, the joy of discovering things — discovering everything, really — and the confidence that comes from not yet knowing how hard the world can really be. I see a world that was curiously naive compared to the morass that surrounds us now. I see golden-hour sunlight and open roads, and I feel soft breezes in my face that are rarely so balmy now. Mostly, I just see myself young, more handsome than I believed myself to be and stronger than I knew.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that era the past few days, so here’s a song from back then that I liked. No particular reason, no specific associations. I just liked this one. I still do.
“Can’t Cry Anymore” was the sixth single from Sheryl Crow’s smash debut album, Tuesday Night Music Club, which was one of my favorites back in the day. The song was released in May of 1995, nearly a year after the album itself, and although it only rose to number 36 on the Billboard Hot 100, it was Crow’s third top-40 hit.
I’ve built quite a persona for myself over the years as a musical curmudgeon: defender all things ’80s, grunge heretic, “Mr. Classic Rock.” If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know the drill. But while I can’t deny that I found less and less of the new music coming out during the 1990s to my liking, it is untrue that I didn’t like any of it. There were songs in that era that managed to catch my fancy.
Two of those were early hits by an Irish band called The Cranberries, although I honestly couldn’t have told you who performed them prior to this week. I know the band’s name now, of course, because of the sad, untimely death on Monday of their lead singer Dolores O’Riordan. As of this writing, there still hasn’t been any official cause of death released to the public. All we really know is that she died in a London hotel room at the age of 46.
It’s funny… I haven’t thought about either “Linger” or “Dreams” in years, but I’ve had both of them on constant repeat all week. They both summon up a kind of sense memory of my young adulthood… no specific associations, but rather just the way it felt to be in my early twenties in the early ’90s. “Linger” was the bigger hit, but somehow it’s “Dreams” that resonates the most strongly for me. The song was the band’s first single, originally released to little attention in 1992, only to become a top-15 hit in 1994 after “Linger” cleared the way. Listening to it today, I can recall how my body felt before all the hinges started to squeak, and in O’Riordan’s clear, girlish voice I hear all the yearning and hope and certainty that used to live in my own heart. Maybe that’s why the death of a woman whose face and name I didn’t know has shaken me so hard… well, that and her age, just two years younger than myself. The same age as my lovely Anne. And the fact that, as far as the public knows she simply dropped dead. She was on the eve of recording new music, a mother of three, reportedly feeling good about her life and with a lot.of living yet to go… and then she’s gone.
I’ve reached the age where you just never know. And I am as haunted by that as I’ve ever been by hazy nostalgia. Coming from me, that’s saying something.
Here’s a little something for the season, from the man whose name is synonymous with Halloween — Halloween the movie, that is — film writer and director John Carpenter.
Carpenter is essentially retired from movie-making these days, but he’s been keeping himself plenty busy with musical pursuits. Working with his son Cody (whose mother is the actress Adrienne Barbeau) and godson Daniel Davies, he’s recorded two albums in recent years, Lost Themes and Lost Themes II, both of which sound like the throbbing synthesizer soundtracks he used to create for his films. (That’s a good thing, in my book.) He’s even done a few live performances, like a bona fide rock star. (I’ve not been fortunate enough to see him… yet. But I’m hopeful.)
Now, however, he’s stepped back behind the camera and behind the wheel of a familiar old friend to promote his latest release, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998. For an old-school Carpenter fan like myself, the result is pretty close to sublime:
I don’t know about you, but the hair on my arms rises when those tires start to squeal…
Anthology, a collection of Carpenter’s iconic movie music re-recorded using modern equipment and updated arrangements, came out last month and is available in all the usual formats, from all the usual venues.
And remember, kids, when you’re out trick-or-treating tonight… if a strange old man driving a red ’57 Plymouth rolls up and offers you a ride… don’t be scared. It’s only Halloween…
Just between you and me, the sudden, shocking death of Tom Petty earlier this week sent me into a deep funk.
I’m sure it didn’t help that I was already upset about the bloodbath in Las Vegas the night before the news about Petty broke. But even so, seeing the initial report that he’d been found in full cardiac arrest a mere week after the triumphant finish of what he’d been saying would be his final tour… it hit me like a piledriver to the solar plexus and I’m still trying to find my breath.
What surprises me about my reaction is that I’ve only ever thought of myself as a casual, “greatest-hits” level fan. Hell, for a long time, I didn’t even have a clear idea of who Tom Petty was, other than the skinny blond dude in that really messed-up “Alice in Wonderland”-themed MTV video. But then came The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1, the collaborative project he did with Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne. I adored the Wilburys. Then came Full Moon Fever, his first solo album without his usual band, the Heartbreakers, and I adored that, too. And then I heard “American Girl” in the film The Silence of the Lambs, of all places, and decided I needed to check out this guy’s back catalog, whereupon I realized that I really did know quite a lot of Tom Petty’s work after all, and I liked what I’d heard. Like Springsteen and Mellencamp, he had a knack for capturing a particular flavor of everyday American life that I strongly related to. For whatever reason, though, I’ve just never explored his oeuvre beyond the radio hits. Hence, my feeling of being a casual fan at best.
Nevertheless, there are two Tom Petty songs that are very important to me, both of which just happened to come along right when I most needed to hear them, and I think it’s because of the personal meaning attached to those two songs that I’m feeling his death so keenly.
The first was “Free Fallin’,” the third single from Full Moon Fever and one of Tom’s biggest hits. It was released in the fall of 1989 and peaked on the charts in January of ’90. As fate would have it, I was experiencing my first big heartbreak during that period, and while there were many songs that spoke to me around that time, it’s “Free Fallin'” that I remember playing over and over. Its mood, if not its actual lyrics, reflected my emotional state almost perfectly: a melancholy stew of loss, regret, guilt, and most of all, the gnawing, inescapable truth that there wasn’t a damn thing I could have done to prevent any of it. You might think that listening to a song that reminded me of all that would be masochistic under the circumstances, and I suppose it was, to a degree. But weirdly, it also brought me some comfort to know that I wasn’t the only person who’d ever experienced these feelings. Without being too dramatic about it, I credit this song with keeping me sane during that time.
A year and a half later, I was still trying to pick up the emotional pieces — hey, what can I say, I’ve always been slow to get over stuff — when Tom Petty got back together with the Heartbreakers for the album Into the Great Wide Open. The first single from that one was “Learning to Fly.” And again, somehow, improbably if not impossibly, this tune by a guy 20 years my senior managed to capture exactly what I was going through. I hear in it the weary but hopeful voice of someone who’s been in a tailspin but is now beginning to pull out of it and face the world again, just like I was in the summer of 1991. I still like “Free Fallin’,” but it no longer resonates with me so much. “Learning to Fly” does, because that’s how I still feel at any given time. Like a battered survivor who’s still trying to sort things out. I think maybe I feel that way more now at the age of 48 than I ever have. And so of course that’s the one I must post this week, in honor of a fallen troubadour who meant a lot more to me than I ever realized while he was still here.
I was going to post the official video, but then I spotted this clip, recorded at a concert 12 years ago. It’s the perfect farewell, in so many ways. The slower, more meditative pacing, the audience calling back to him in one of those moments of transcendence you sometimes experience at concerts with your long-time heroes… and yes, that is my beloved rock goddess Stevie Nicks singing backup. She and Petty were friends and occasional collaborators for 40 years. She’s even said she almost joined the Heartbreakers when Fleetwood Mac started going south; instead, she forged a solo career with Tom frequently lending his talents on songs like “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” I can only imagine what she’s been going through this week… and thinking of it makes me all the more sad.
One final thought: Tom Petty was one of the last remaining names on my wishlist of artists I’d like to see in concert. I never got the chance, and I’m going to regret that for a long time. Even worse, though, Tom’s passing is a reminder that my rock-and-roll imaginary friends are getting old. Realistically they’re not going to be out there on the road for very much longer, and then some time after that, they’re not going to be out there at all. And once they’ve all gone… how old will I feel myself? What happens when you outlive the heroes of your youth?
My lovely Anne took the afternoon off work to spend part of my birthday with me, and after driving up to Salt Lake for an early dinner followed by some shopping and dessert at a French bakery we like, we came home along State Street, the broad thoroughfare that runs the length of the Salt Lake Valley. Generations of young people used to “cruise State” on Friday and Saturday nights, looking for company or trouble, back before the authorities decided there was too much of the latter going on and put a stop to it all. My parents actually met while cruising State, just like something out of American Graffiti, and Anne and I cruised it too when we were young. We still enjoy driving this route when we have the time and don’t want to deal with the white-knuckle pedal-to-the-medal madness of the freeway.
It was a beautiful evening tonight, the skies having been scoured clean by the rain earlier in the day, the golden-hour light as lovely and burnished as I’ve ever seen it. My favorite time of day during my favorite time of year (birthday blues notwithstanding). I didn’t know what could’ve made the moment better. But then suddenly, the satellite radio channel we were listening to dredged up a song I’ve not heard… well, probably since Anne and I used to cruise State: “Athena” by the Who.
The song was the lead single from a 1982 album called It’s Hard, but it didn’t go over very well. It reached only as far as 28 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and it did slightly worse in the U.K. Sadly, it was the last hit record for the venerable band, whose history stretches all the way back to the British Invasion. Curiously, the band itself has never seemed to be terribly fond of it; it’s an interesting bit of trivia that they only played it ten times during their ’82 tour, and they haven’t played it live since. Personally, I’ve always liked it. It’s one of those songs whose energy simply and magically makes me happy when I hear it. And listening to it tonight as we rolled down State in the golden-hour light, it sparked off a very specific happy memory:
My old Galaxie came equipped with only an AM radio, so when I was in the mood to listen to something other than static-filled oldies, I’d plant a boombox on the driveline hump right behind the front seats. It wasn’t the most ass-kicking sound, but it worked. I used to hear “Athena” on the radio from time to time in those days, and when there wasn’t any other traffic around and Pete Townsend’s rhythmic guitar was getting to me, I’d start to swerve the big old beast of a car back and forth in time with the song. The power steering was responsive enough I could steer with a single finger on the wheel, and I’d throw back my head and sing along, and it was as if my car was dancing with me. Back when I was young and carefree and happy just to be behind the wheel of my beloved Cruising Vessel on a late-summer evening.
For the record, my birthday this year did not suck.
FYI, there was never an official video made for “Athena.” The visual part of this clip comes from a 1982 concert at Shea Stadium, but somebody has switched out the original sound for the album recording of the song. If you’re curious about the live version, it’s here.