Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Pulitzer Prize and Kendrick Lamar

What will those zany members of the Pulitzer Prize committee come up with next?  First it was the Nobel Peace Prize committee awarding Bob Dylan for "literature.”  (He’s not a poet, unless you own a copy of Tarantula, and if you do, you’re stouter than I.  Chronicles, a partial autobiography, is a rambling mess: a fun read, especially for fans, but not Pulitzer material.)  Now the Pulitzer committee is giving the prize for music to Kendrick Lamar, as opposed to some respected-but-obscure jazz or classical musician.

Let me check off the names I’m familiar with in the list of past winners: Aaron Copeland, Wynton Marsalis, Ornette Colman, Steve Reich and in 2015, Julia Wolfe for Anthracite Fields.  I actually went out and bought this, based on the similar Pennsylvania Coal Region background.  (Unfortunately, it didn’t register with me.  I like the fourth movement, "Flowers," but there's a lot of modal choir patterns in the longer pieces that felt repetitious.)

I want to listen to more classical and jazz music, particularly more modern pieces.  I do, as I go along.  I’m a provincial in these areas, but a well-meaning one who wants to learn more.  As opposed to hiphop which, along with the rest of society, I’ve been bludgeoned with since the mid-90s or so, when the majority of a cool genre devolved into gangsta rap and overbearing clich├ęs.  It’s been a major industry since that time, like any other, like rock or country before it.  Much as with rock or country, things get strange and hollow when they become industry and dominate the culture.  It would be nice to walk past a jeep with blacked-out windows and hear bass-heavy Mozart blasting from the speakers, but come on now.

I hadn’t realized the monetary reward for the Pulitzer was $15,000 … which Lamar could spend in one night in the VIP section of a trendy L.A. night club.  That sort of money can probably make a huge difference for a classical or jazz musician struggling to make ends meet.  I’m sure the cultural exposure puts a few more asses in seats, which is what it’s all about for performing artists.

The whole endeavor feels hollow and self-congratulatory, like any other prize, be they Oscars or Nobel Peace Prizes.  It feels like it’s given more to prove how wonderful, insightful and all-encompassing the august group of people giving the award are, as opposed to the artists themselves or their work.  A look at the Pulitzer Board reads like an Upper West Side wine-and-cheese fund raiser for Bernie Sanders.  Shamefully, a majority are New Yorkers.  Gail Collins?  Do you really picture her listening to Kendrick Lamar?  And do you picture her or any of these women being OK with being called “bitch” as a matter of course (as is the case in Lamar’s lyrics)?  I’m certain their explanations would be the usual condescending “different cultural qualifiers” tripe that subtly creates lowered expectations for off-white people and holds white people who don’t agree with them to irrational standards.  (You would be taking your life in your hands to call any of countless number of women I’ve worked with in NYC “bitch." This is abhorrent behavior in our every-day lives, particularly at work.  Why is it OK in this instance?)

The comments sections of publications and message boards have been the predictable shootouts between older, white rock fans and younger, white hiphop fans.  Or even worse, this type of person.  I was writing about indie rock snobs in that piece, but college-educated hiphop snobs fall roughly into the same category.  (All those 90s kids wearing sideways baseball hats are now around 40.)  With the caveat that they’re “of the people” because they’re championing a genre that’s selling in the overall culture.  But not omniscient in that old way we were raised to believe in with 60s and 70s rock.  Those days are gone.  I’m certain that I’m oblivious of the Top 10 hiphop acts of the past few years.  Most people are.  If I’m aware of them, it’s because they’re being hyped ad nauseum via reality shows or social-media fanned negative press coverage.  Like most sane people, I don’t pay attention to things that don’t appeal to me.

I’ve seen more than a few incidents where the offended hiphop fan, having his unquestionable taste called into question, quotes direct lyrics, often for the entire track.  Supposedly for the lyrics they consider the best Lamar has to offer.  I actually found a few sites that let the fans state their favorites.

Maybe it’s like comedy?  When someone describes it to you, the humor somehow disappears?  I’m reading those lyrics, and all I’m seeing is the blustery, violent posturing that decades in NYC has taught me is adolescent male insecurity, half-assed political statements that sound like someone drunk spouting off, and shallow self-aggrandizing that has always annoyed me with hiphop.  And the occasional good one-liners and rhymes!  I’m reading a lot of emptiness, a lot of lines that sound like they're trying to impart something important but are actually saying nothing important.  Let’s not forget the silly cultural references to products, movies and TV shows … which a lot of people seem to mistake for brilliance.  It just means the dude had the TV on when he wrote the lyrics.

And that’s fine.  Most lyrics do not stand alone when separated from the music.  (The music I've sampled on youtube is OK, the usual repetitious riffs that hiphop employs that are boring more often than not, but sometimes pretty cool and inventive. Lack of melody or memorable choruses are what turn off most rock fans.  Cool production touches and smart musical references are two of the few things I like about most hiphop.)  People like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen wrote far better lyrics than this, but even with them, you read their lyrics on the printed page, they’re not anywhere near as meaningful without the music.  Lyrics are not poetry.  They’re not meant to be.  If Lamar’s lyrics read like gibberish to me?  Well, so do David Bowie’s lyrics, although I find Bowie’s music far more compelling that anything in the history of hiphop.  Little Richard sounds like a mental patient in his lyrics.  His music changed the world.

So, I can accept that and expect the usual defensiveness you get with fans of any genre when someone points out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.  All emperors stand naked to anyone who simply doesn’t subscribe to what the emperors put forth as common wisdom.  Millions of people get this?  That’s true.  Millions of people got Arrested Development and De La Soul, too.  For however many of millions got it, there are far more people who didn’t get it.  Or who got it, and time marched on.  (The great lesson most rock fans learn as they age: yes, time even marches on your favorite artists you thought would last forever.  Very few do.)

That's taken me decades to wrap my mind around as a rock fan.  Not everyone gets it.  Not everyone is on your wavelength.  Especially with music, which tends to intertwine itself with pop culture of given time periods and specific age groups of the fans.  It might stand the test of time in your life, but most lives, it won’t.  Very little does.  The problem with hiphop tends to be the avalanche of words in each track … there’s often nothing solid to grab onto over the course of time.  That’s the key to people listening to something decades later: something identifiable in a piece of music, something that really stands out, grabs the listener.  In the case of music, it’s usually a melody or a riff, a memorable chorus, something that makes sense to people beyond the immediate fans.  There’s very little of that in hiphop, which is why older artists tend to get ploughed over.  Maybe it says something about me, but the most memorable thing about Public Enemy to me is that screeching sound in “Don’t Believe the Hype.”  Believe me, when I was new in NYC, living in the Bronx, the summer of 1988, all you could hear blasting from cars was that sound!

At that time, I was a lot more amenable to exploring that sound.  Decades on, I’ve done the same dance too many times, with the overall culture, with critics, with white hiphop fans acting like they need to educate me, when I spent close to a decade living in a neighborhood they would never set foot in.  I recall Chuck D. stating that hiphop was CNN for black America.  It seemed more like The Cartoon Network, or at least became that in a hurry.  I was living there and didn’t need him, much less an army of white suburban shitheads, to define my experience.  All I was seeing was poor black and hispanic people in much the same boat as the poor white people I had left behind in rural Pennsylvania.  And they were being encouraged to ignore and hate each other with horseshit like hiphop fanhood and divisive politics, rather than recognize they had much more in common.  It goes on today, maybe even worse given Trump’s berserk victory.  (If the working and under classes of America ever get on the same page culturally and politically, look out.  But that won't happen any time soon.  I don't see too many white liberals with any understanding of the white working class, nor non-white people who are politically engaged but can't seem to recognize this important bridge that needs to be crossed.)

On one hand, it feels like an empty gesture for the Pulitzer Prize committee to give a music award to a hiphop artist.  Much as with the Nobel Peace Prize in literature for Bob Dylan.  They’re trying to generate hype for their prize, and it seems as though they’ve shied away from hype over the course of decades.  Why now?  Maybe there’s a younger wave of voters on the committees, and they feel a need to make a point, to “move with the times”?  I’d say it would be just as intriguing to pull the same stunt with a country act, but tip of the hat to Kendrick Lamar and hiphop in general, there is nobody on a mass level in country doing anything remotely interesting these days (nobody in rock either).  Plenty of cool stuff going on in alt. country, but I don’t want to come off sounding like one of those white hiphop-fan jackasses preaching about “underground hiphop” and how much better it is.

On the other hand, yeah, this is pretty interesting, not a bad move. I don’t particularly like the guy’s work, it sounds false to me, then again, a lot of hiphop does, and has since the mid-90s.  It’s all right to recognize a lot of kids and young adults do get this guy on some important level that makes no sense to me.  It’s fruitless to say I don’t get everything.  It’s obvious.  When you really understand music, the depth of it, how many hundreds of genres there are, how many decades and centuries of history there are with some genres, how many artists have come and gone in the history of the world … I’m OK with accepting that I “get” maybe a dozen genres and a number of artists somewhere in the high hundreds.  And I’m someone who pays far more attention to music than your average fan of any genre.  The more you learn, the less you know.  I suspect understanding how dumb you are probably prevents one from being nominated to join organizations like Pulitzer Prize committees!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Blue Mountain and a Bucket or Rocks

Well, get ready for the anti-rural Pennsylvania pile-on.  I just read the story about the school superintendent at Blue Mountain High School suggesting that having each classroom equipped with a bucket of “river stones” to throw at potential school shooters is somehow a valid defense against this ongoing wave of semi-automatic, schoolhouse genocide.

The really strange part of this for me?  You need to be from there to gather this (and I am from Schuylkill County).  Blue Mountain is, by far, the best school district for miles around, in county or out.  I didn’t go there.  In fact, I often disliked kids from Blue Mountain when I ran into them my two years at the Penn State branch campus in Schuylkill Haven.  (Blue Mountain is to Schuylkill Haven as Cinderella is to her sisters.)  There might have been Catholic schools that rivaled Blue Mountain for academic excellence, but this was a public school.  They were always the best high school in the county, and they still are now.

Those kids would carry around a sense of entitlement on campus, and it was irritating.  Actually, the Pottsville kids, too.  (Pottsville is the county seat, and I would guess the largest school in the county.)  It was that “south of the mountain” smugness.  (Schuylkill County is divided in half by the Broad Mountain, with the general concept that the north half is a bunch of factory-working rednecks, and the south side the more refined “upper class” of the working-class county.  There really is no comparable community or school on the north side to Blue Mountain.  Then again, there are south-side towns like Minersville, St. Clair and Pine Grove, among others, that are virtually identical to “north of the mountain” towns.  It’s possible the dichotomy exists because of the infamy of Shenandoah, the north-side town permanently known for its well-earned, rough-and-tumble image. Call it the antidote to Blue Mountain.  That ‘Chendo toughness embellishes the entire “north of the mountain” image.)

Some of the Blue Mountain kids would carry themselves around with that “Big Man on Campus” vibe.  They were from the best school district, and the Penn State branch campus was in their backyard, on the edge of Schuylkill Haven, just down the road on Route 61 from their tasteful country homes, usually helmed by two college-educated parents.  The thing is, when I got out of high school, I was hoping to ditch that vibe, anything to do with one bunch of kids seeing themselves as superior to all others, a malady that made high school such a shit endeavor.

I recall one English class, reading some forgotten passage out loud, and two kids from Blue Mountain snickering at me for my Coal Region accent.  I would later befriend these guys, but they came off like James Spader in an 80s teen flick when I first met them.  Never mind that I left that place with a 3.9 grade average, one of those guys flunked out and the other muddled through on the six-year party plan.  In their minds, I was a redneck because of the accent and where it indicated I was from.  (As it turned out, my eclectic taste in music, particularly all those great 80s indie bands, cemented our friendship.)

In my book, I get into being on the golf team, and how we always got out asses horrendously whipped when we played at the prestigious, much-harder golf course at the Schuylkill Country Club.  This was Blue Mountain, and those kids were raised playing that course.  Us playing there was like the scene in Caddyshack where the caddies take over the country-club swimming pool for the afternoon.  We didn’t belong there, in more ways than one!

Moving on to the main Penn State campus, then the world in general, then New York City … I look back now on that whole north/south of the mountain divide and laugh.  It is laughable in the overall scheme of the world, but I’m sure, is still a very real thing for the people who live there.  It might be a matter of degrees, but it matters.  That’s why I was mildly surprised to see Blue Mountain in this news story about the “bucket of rocks vs. AR-15 assault rifle” insanity.  If the story had said Tamaqua, Schuylkill Haven, Shenandoah or any other town around there?  Yeah, that would have made more sense in my mind.  But Blue Mountain?  The gem of the county?  I suspect people not from there think that school superintendent is some Li’l Abner caricature, running around in bib overalls and a jug with XXX on it.  Not realizing that’s an extremely smart individual running a highly competent school district.  How this bucket of rocks thing entered his mind, I don’t have a clue!

It’s not fair to say I hate it when people dump on rural Pennsylvania.  I do it myself sometimes.  And I think about it all the time.  The people in cities who dump on places like this, who aren’t from there, I can see, these people often don’t know shit about life.  They think they do, but this vast blind spot concerning working-class white people, when they are white, too, tells me so much more about them than anything else that will come out of their mouths.  It bothers me much more when people who are from there, who know that environment, dump on it, unapologetically, all the time, no looking back, fuck that place, fuck those people, I’m in a much better place, thank you very much, look at me now, so much better than all those dumb hillbillies.

No.  Just no.  You can’t reject your roots: know who you are.  I probably entertained those kinds of thoughts straight out of college, in my mid-20s, but I quickly came to realize, there’s just as many bad, shitty aspects of life you run into no matter where you live, particularly cities, with their own special brands of darkness and stupidity.  We’d all be wise to erase this upper-middle-class, suburban world view from our lives.  It’s sterile and reeks of all the false values I’ve come to reject in my adult life.  It’s permanent high school and the rigid caste system that ragged, immature way of life implies.  (Of course, I recognize this is America now and will go on being this way for a long time.)

As for guns and Pennsylvania – guns and any rural area in America – don’t get me started.  I’m all for anyone in America having hunting rifles, antique guns, even hand guns or a shotgun for home protection.  Let’s make another constitutional amendment to protect every American’s right to always own this level of weaponry if he so chooses.  But let’s get rid of everything else.  If you’re worried about “the government” breaking down your door and taking you prisoner all because you’re not toting semi-automatic weapons and semi’s converted to machine guns, you don’t need to find yourself another country.  You need to find yourself another fucking planet.  If the “end times” come, the survivalists are right, and these armed-to-the-teeth militants are the only ones surviving in their bunkers?  Ask yourself if you want to live with these folks.  I’d rather go down fighting hand-to-hand with the killer cyborg robots, winged skulls and nuclear mutants.

The last few years when I’ve visited Pennsylvania, I’ve noticed something alarming.  In terms of gun ownership, I’m not crazy about one man owning dozens of guns.  It suggests a level of fear and constant state of paranoia that seems debilitating.  But I can surely live with that.  I have to – it’s the way things are in America for a lot of frightened, deeply intimidated men.  (This is the greatest ruse, something I learned boxing: self defense is fear.  Maybe fear that is entirely justified.  But fear nonetheless.  When you can admit that to yourself, that’s when the lightbulb goes on over your head.  It’s all right to be afraid.)  I can live with the outrageous levels of gun ownership, but I’m having a hard time living with the open-carry law.

I wouldn’t mind this so much if the few times I saw people carrying guns in public they were staunch, dependable, John Wayne types.  But that hasn’t been the case.  The first time, my brother and I were getting ice and hot coffee for the road at a Sheetz in Cressona, PA.  Somebody called out my brother’s name, we turned to see a chunky dude in a camo hooded sweatshirt and pajama pants approaching him … with a .38 special holstered on his hip.  Apparently, this was one of my brother’s former coworkers.  He had been fired for exceeding his absence level at work (which takes some doing), was known as a bit of nut.  I really needed no background on this.  I could see in his eyes, no one was home, much less hearing him speak and realizing this guy had mental problems, surely not enough to be institutionalized, but enough for daily meds.  And he’s openly carrying a hand gun in public?

The handful of times I’ve seen this since then, while I didn’t have this level of direct contact with the person, I wasn’t overly enthused to see some hard-edged, scowling, middle-aged dude sporting a holstered hand-gun on his hip … in the St. Clair Walmart parking lot … walking down the main street of Ashland … coming out of a Dunkin Donuts in Shamokin, etc.  Like we were in the Old West, and this guy was going to have to draw on a cigarillo-smoking desperado in black.  You can read me off all the statistics you want.  This is way out of bounds and totally unnecessary.  I’ve lived in New York since 1987 and lived in a crack-ridded neighborhood in the Bronx from ’87 to ’97.  If I put myself in the mindset of these dudes openly carrying guns in a comparatively safe rural area, I would have been walking around with a flamethrower those 10 years.  It wasn’t unusual to hear gunshots in the distance at night in that neighborhood, and there were a few notorious murders in my neighborhood.  You learned fast what to do and what not to do to avoid trouble.  Your mind was your greatest weapon, developing the traits and abilities to avoid meaningless, violent confrontation.  Not a gun.  (Granted, there are situations, urban or rural, where a gun could save your life, but they’re surely not an every-day aspect of existence, and something I’ve thankfully yet to encounter.)

So, think about the superintendent and the bucket of rocks in Blue Mountain.  If anything, this is the antithesis of our gun-crazy culture, albeit more than a bit nuts.  Biblical in a sense, like Davey slinging rocks at Goliath?  Only in this case, I’d rather not go up against some deranged 15-year-old with an AR-15 assault rifle … with a bucket of rocks.  I don’t like those odds!  Nor do I like the concept of arming teachers.  Teachers don’t strive to obtain their degrees and dedicate their lives to broadening the possibilities for children with the thought of one day gunning them down in a crisis situation.  The concept of armed teachers is the antithesis of education: it’s more like prison.  And the few teachers I knew in high school that would have been comfortable handling guns in school were people who scared me nearly as much as the thought of some unhinged kid on a shooting spree.

Then again, there’s a lot I no longer understand about high school and this horrible, dark strain of shootings that has somehow become normal in our society.  We used to have fire drills.  The bigger end of the baby-boom generation, those kids would have nuclear-attack drills, hiding under their desks when the alarm went off, waiting for Russian warheads to rain down on them.  Kids are doing the same thing now, only they’re hiding under their desks when the alarm goes off, waiting for a psychotic American teenager with a semi-automatic weapon to kill them.

A few years back, when we were staging our 20th high-school reunion, I went back to the high school for an informal tour.  (The concept was to gather as many people as possible the Friday before a Fourth of July weekend, but I was the only person who turned up!)  I hadn’t set foot in the high school since graduating.  Approaching the front door, I was shocked to realize it was locked down (even in July).  There was a camera on the far wall overlooking the far-left door, which appeared to have a buzzer/intercom set-up.  I pressed it, announced who I was and why I was there.  The woman at the front desk in the office buzzed me in, then escorted me to wait for the principal.

The tour went fine.  It was amazing to walk through that place again and have the teacher guiding me grasp that not a lot had changed culturally there in the past 20 years.  But that front-door buzzer stuck with me.  Back in the 70s and early 80s, you just walked right in or out.  There was no need for lock downs, shooter drills or armed guards.  Then again, at that point in history, there were relatively few, if any, school shootings on record, and only a handful of mass shootings serving as templates for what would become societal norms decades later.  Is there something wrong in our society that horrible scenarios are now the norm?  Obviously.  And the concept of dozens of people, particularly kids, being murdered, would be a lot harder to envision without semi-automatic weapons.  (Imagine what Charles Whitman would have done in that tower in Austin in 1966 if he had one instead of a hunting rifle.  Then again, you don’t have to, as Stephen Paddock did just the same in 2017 in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and wounding 422 others.)  A bucket of rocks doesn’t seem any more or less sane against those kind of numbers.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Meet the Beatles

Of course, I never actually met them.  I was born when they broke big in America, a toddler for their entire existence, and a large McCartney/Wings fan through the 70s.

It seemed like getting into music as a kid in the 70s, the one hallmark all serious fans of that time held: going through the Beatles phase.  That initial blast where it became clear to the young listener: my God, this stuff is over a decade old and sounds as alive and interesting as anything going on now.

I’ve had that similar music experience many times over with other bands and kinds of music.  A real surprise as an adult has been hearing live blues and jazz albums from the 50s and 60s, knowing they were recorded in the most rudimentary ways possible, and the music sounds so immediate that you feel like you’re in the audience.  Compare and contrast with your average Rolling Stones live album that sounds like a fuzz machine echoing through a stadium.

I had brushes with The Beatles as a small child.  As noted in the book, “Hey Jude” became a childhood staple at neighbor Bubba’s house, plundering his older brother’s collection while he was fighting in Vietnam.  And the pool parties where some kid would lay the needle down on the portable record player at the start of that 45’s flipside, “Revolution,” and we’d time our jumps into the pool with Lennon’s opening scream.

The first real blast of Beatledom came with Brother J and me pining over the recently-released Blue and Red compilation albums in 1975.  They came out in 1973, but it wasn’t until then that both of us were thinking, “Man, we should own these things.”  We didn’t know where to start with The Beatles in terms of albums.  Their 70s revisionist era was just beginning, where their songs would be repackaged in all sorts of bizarre ways.  I recall their “rock and roll” songs being packaged as a collection. Their “love songs” as another.  The “Hollywood Bowl” recordings.  Almost immediately issued in the shitbins was “The Beatles at the Star Club” – a recording of their rowdy Hamburg shows pre-stardom.  (Brother J made the mistake of buying that in the late 70s … it was the worst pile of shit we’d ever heard.  I’ve since seen some revisionist history on this bootleg … they’re wrong.  It’s recorded and sounds like shit.)

The Blue and Red albums kept looking us in the face every tie we went into Woolworth’s.  Double albums.  I can’t recall the pricing, but it was reasonable, around $10.00 for each.  So, we kept mowing lawns, saved up, and eventually made those albums ours, probably in the spring of 1975.

I was immediately struck by how much more I liked the Blue album (1967 onward).  This sounded like the music I was listening to in real time.  Their influence was so strong that mainstream music would go on sounding like their varied takes on pop music for well over a decade, surely into the early 80s.  (And that’s just in terms of cultural dominance … there have always been melodic pop/rock bands since then, if not dominating the charts.)  “I Am the Walrus” and “A Day in the Life” were far more out there than most music I was hearing on 70s AOR radio.  Nearly every track had a timeless feel to it.

The Red album didn’t register nearly as well, probably because the recordings were more basic and raw, and only started to evolve production-wise leaning into 1966 (Rubber Soul leading into Revolver).  I’ve since come to realize those two albums are the apex for me and The Beatles, where they were all on the same page, still seeing themselves as one band, creatively intertwined, putting out pop music that would be influential decades later, without any hazy psychedelic shadings, a few leaps beyond the early boy/girl stuff.  In 1974 I was thinking, meh, whatever.  I didn’t realize that “In My Life” was Lennon’s direct take on Smokey Robinson and demonstrated his growth as a lyricist.  “Eleanor Rigby”?  Yeah, cool.  I didn’t realize that no one in the rock world was doing this, putting out a track with only vocals and classical backing.  Orchestras had crept into rock music in the late 50s, with The Drifters and Phil Spector working them into arrangements.  But not like this.  I’m shocked listening to “Eleanor Rigby” now – this was groundbreaking material at the time.

Of course, the early boy/girl material left me cold at the time, just sounded silly.  I still feel that way, although to a much lesser extent.  You could hear them breaking ground almost immediately – the fuzz guitar in “I Feel Fine,” Lennon’s lyrical genius in “Help” – but I don’t think they shifted into creative overdrive until after the Help album, later in 1965, where they really started learning their strengths and how to use the studio with George Martin.

This was the perfect musical schooling for an 11-year-old boy just getting into music.  Other kids were doing it, too, and I was always tuned into when that was happening.  Those kids were either musicians themselves, or smart kids who understood that Styx, Boston and REO Speedwagon weren’t created in a vacuum.  Old friend Tony was a budding guitarist, way into heavy metal, but he knew, The Beatles were a band he needed to hear.  And it wasn’t like we were in a Beatles-only musical world.  We were surrounded by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd in their 70s prime, The Who, Kinks and Stones still putting out reasonably good material.  Dozens of bands putting out good-to-great material.  Bands like Fleetwood Mac and Supertramp were putting out top-shelf pop albums that many considered Top 40 fluff because it was such a normal occurrence back then.  While 70s AOR radio was becoming dull in terms of repetitively playing the same tracks over and over (it took me decades to appreciate Jethro Tull again), there was a time, up through the late 70s, where you could still hear an amazingly large variety of 60s/70s pop rock being played routinely.  It became a teenage/young adult culture unto itself that many of us still identify with strongly.

But in terms of The Beatles, for my first few years as a rock fan, those two albums were it.  If a song wasn’t on those two albums, chances are we weren’t hearing it on the radio.  As we didn’t have the full albums, there was a vast sea of Beatles material we knew little to nothing about.

I still remember hearing “We Can Work It Out” on the radio one day and thinking it was a new McCartney song, not realizing it was a decade old, and that was clearly Lennon on the harmony vocal.  Ditto, “If I Fell,” which wasn’t on the Red Album, but should have been.  A wonderful pop song that blew my mind the first time I heard it.  I knew it was The Beatles, but I didn’t know where it was coming from!

The first non-Blue/Red album bought was based solely on economics.  The Let It Be album was in the shit bins for much of the early/mid 70s, at least at Woolworth’s.  I’ve since seen conjecture that this was because bootleggers were pumping out thousands of fake copies to record distributors, more than stores could handle, so they’d dump the album into the bargain bins at the front of every record store or section.

I don’t know about that.  The copy Brother J bought for $0.99 at Woolworth’s looked like a legitimate Apple release.  What I do remember is that rock fans at that time looked down on the album because it sounded half-assed and unfinished compared to the last album they released in the fall of 1969, Abbey Road.  Let It Be came out in early 1970, although it had been recorded a year earlier and then shelved because no one quite knew how to salvage the project (their attempt to “get back” to a more basic sound … although you can surely hear the same desire on many songs on The White Album).  I suspect record stores dumped it into the cheap bin, bootleg or not, because of that reputation among the fans.

Imagine my surprise to drop the needle on “Two of Us” and hear what would become one of my favorite Beatles track.  I can’t say that for the entire album, although I’ve grown to love it.  What really grabbed me was George’s guitar solo on “Let It Be,” sounding so much more raw and alive than the thick/bouncy, Leslie-speaker version on the Blue album.

But that album let me know: if all I knew was the Red and Blue albums, there was a truckload of material with the Beatles that I didn’t have a clue on.

It wasn’t until 1980 or so, when Brother J came back home one weekend from his junior year at Penn State, that I finally heard Abbey Road.   I knew the hits that appeared on the Blue album.  (I even knew one-offs like “Old Brown Shoe” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”)  But I’d never heard “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” “Oh! Darling,” “Because” or any of the medley tracks.  This was the second time I was absolutely floored by a Beatles album.  My head split open, and doves flew out.  I couldn’t believe how good this album was.  I remember coming downstairs after listening to it for the first time on headphones and telling J, “That’s the best album I’m ever going to hear.”

And it could be, despite horseshit like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Octopus Garden” appearing on it.  (Sidenote: I can see why George Harrison was glad to leave the band.  I can picture him offering “All Things Must Pass,” “My Sweet Lord” and “Isn’t It a Pity” to the band, and Paul responding, “I don’t know, mate, I think we should do about 300 takes of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and use that instead. We already spotted you ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ – isn’t that enough?”)

I should mention J had already bought Sgt. Pepper’s by that point, which didn’t blow my mind nearly as much (although I recognized I was supposed to view it on a higher level at that time).  I’ve never thought much of tracks like “Fixing a Hole,” “Getting Better,” or “Lovely Rita.” Among others.  Half that album is filler.  Of course, the other half is mind-bending.  But, again, I was shitting my diapers in 1967 … I can recognize now, especially given the overall vibe of the summer of that year, that this album changed the world.  Ditto, Magical Mystery Tour.  (This would lead into J buying the Yellow Submarine album, and being mad as hell to realize side two was bullshit orchestrations from the terrible animated movie that put us to sleep.  Still, we came away with “Hey Bulldog,” which was worth it.)

I should note, after the Blue and Red albums, J was buying these albums with his own money.  He really picked up the flag with The Beatles, not to mention getting the ball rolling with Hot Rocks and Phased Cookies from The Rolling Stones.  The problems with all these compilations were they left out so much great material, legendary album tracks, that it would take us a few years to mine out for ourselves being born slightly too late to assimilate these albums in real time.

J did the same with The White Album shortly thereafter, and that was another mind-opening experience, despite the sprawl of that collection.  I hadn’t heard “Dear Prudence” until the late 70s … why weren’t they playing this on the radio?  I had no idea.  AOR radio would never play tracks like “Julia” or “I Will” – songs that now strike me as real gems.  About the only track I remember radio playing routinely was “Birthday” as background music to rock-star birthday announcements followed by four-song “super sets” or “rock blocks” as they were often called.

It seems strange to me now that I wasn’t immediately gobbling up these albums in the mid-70s after that Blue/Red introduction, but those were different times.  It took time to save up money for albums, and back then, we didn’t know what we were buying.  (We were also buying a ton of great albums in real time.)  If songs weren’t being played on the radio, or if a friend hadn’t bought the album on eight track or vinyl, we didn’t hear them.  Ever.  If the internet existed back then (especially as it existed in the downloading bonanza days of the early 00s)?  I would have downloaded the Beatles entire catalog in one afternoon and tried to absorb it all in a few weeks.

I can see now how insane a method of music appreciation this is, how crazy our world has become, an embarrassment of riches, so much wealth that we just don’t’ have the time, patience or right frames of mind to understand and slowly develop an appreciation for it.  It took me weeks to absorb one Beatles album, years to get a grasp of what the band meant.  That sort of slow, careful nurturing fans would develop with a band or recording artists seems like a thing of the past now.  It’s not an age thing either.  I find myself doing the same now with bands I stumble over, loving a track, sampling the album, buying the album, realizing the band has a five-album back catalog, and knocking those off in very short order.  It’s too hard not to do this when it’s there for the taking!

(Don’t get me started on streaming music in this context.  Yes, you can pull up a band’s entire catalog in seconds and listen to the whole thing in hours.  You love it?  Like nothing else you’ve ever heard?  Great.  You’re renting this music.  If for any reason that music is dropped form your streaming service, it’s gone from your life.  Never mind going further and finding bootlegs and live shows: not on there.  That’s one of the larger issues I have with the media format, and not the only one.  It surely fills the needs of casual fans, and that’s what I have to realize.  Most fans are casual, the real problem of the music industry: trying to develop lasting, passionate music fans when so much of their income is dependent on casual fans and then their waning senses of nostalgia.)

As it was, we pieced together the Beatles entire catalog, probably over the course of a decade from the mid-70s to the mid-80s.  The last to fall, of course, were those early albums we shunned, and those tended to be cursory experiences, not the revelations of their post-1967 career.  There were moments with each.  Hearing “And Your Bird Can Sing” and loving George’s guitar work.  Lennon doing his thing for the first time on “I’m a Loser.”  The genuine energy from both Paul's and John's vocals on "Twist and Shout."

We were buying solo Beatles material every step of the way.  Especially McCartney.  After Band on the Run came out, he took over the 70s.  That album was as great in its own way as any Beatles album: the essence of McCartney perfectly captured in one album.  You can say the same for Plastic Ono Band – a stunning piece of work that would not have been possible as a Beatles album.  A lot of people are now saying All Things Must Pass is the best Beatles solo album.  But they’re wrong.  Still, it would have made an incredible single album.  (One of the great 70s blowoffs for J and me was to play that awful third record of All Things Must Pass with those interminable, senseless jams.  Say the words “I Remember Jeep” and both of us smile at the memory of this ludicrously bad material.)  I should also note here that the best post-Beatles single for me was “Photograph” by Ringo Starr, but written with George.  Every now and then, Ringo go it right, but clearly not on the same level as the others.

It’s strange to think that I had probably only known the song “Dear Prudence” for a year or two before Lennon was shot in December 1980.  That was probably the last album J and I went halfway on, Double Fantasy.  Of course, the Yoko material on that album left us cold.  And not all of Lennon’s songs blew us away.  But “Starting Over,” “I’m Losing You” and “Watching the Wheels” were prime Lennon for us, and enough to keep the album, especially when phony “fans” were offering to buy the album for $20 and up when it became impossible to buy the album in the weeks following his death.  (When Milk and Honey was issued a few years later, it burned us that he had shelved tracks like “Stepping Out,” “Nobody Told Me” and “Grow Old with Me” – he had enough material in 1980 to make one hell of a solo comeback album.  But that wasn’t what he wanted to do.)

After that, it was a matter of changing media types.  I eventually bought CD’s for all their studio albums through the early 90s, even found a cheap used copy of The Blue Album, and the Past Masters which actually were very good collections.  I was pretty happy with that but when the mono and stereo remasters were announced in 2012?  I didn’t rush out and buy them, but maybe should have.  As it was, I pulled a massive trade with an old friend who was a big music collector, too, but only for the MP3 files burned at 320 kbps.  I feel weird now that I listen to only the stereo tracks.  The Beatles albums up to Sgt. Pepper’s were released in mono.  (A lot of folks go on record as stating that and The White Album in mono are the way to go.)  Honestly?  I wasn’t around back then as a fan, and this stuff all sounds perfectly good to me in stereo.  I suspect mono and original Beatles fans would be outraged, but I’m fine with this.

Stuff like the 1 compilation album?  I have no need for it.  I made the mistake of buying a few of the more recent remasters.  They were really nothing new, although I did like the McCartney-approved version of Let It Be, with the more stripped-down/original production values maintained on his tracks.  The Anthology collections were a lot of fun for serious fans, but I'd still find myself tracking down bootleg studio material before and after they came out.  Frankly, I’m just glad there’s enough public interest from new and old fans to support these kind of projects.

Maybe I’m noting all this because I suspect whenever Paul and Ringo go (they’re both in their mid-to-late 70s now), there’s bound to be another reappraisal of what The Beatles meant, and the wheel will keep turning for their music.  In all honesty, I don’t listen to it as much as I used to, will go through certain periods where I’ll get a yen and run through their playlist on the iPod for a week, but it passes.  I was raised in the 70s and grew up with the likes of Elton John, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Queen, ELO, and all sort of punk and new wave pushing me through those years.  The Beatles were the first time I looked back and realized there was much to learn from the past.  That’s something that any true music fan realizes: understanding the past is just as important as grasping the future.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Learning Curve

The last few weeks have been interesting since I put the book out in early November. As I learned at that time, being your own copy editor isn't a good idea.  (I’ve revised the manuscript five times since publication, finding small grammatical glitches each time I re-read chapters. I probably still don’t have them all, but I took care of roughly two dozen.)  Everything involved with putting out your own book is rough work!

What have I learned?  Let me put it this way: I couldn’t possibly envision Hemingway, Steinbeck or Kerouac on Twitter or Facebook hyping themselves.  Well, I could imagine Hemingway on Twitter, but no one would grasp what he was doing.  In the modern world, you’re supposed to hype yourself, shamelessly, endlessly, chase after popularity, page views, re-tweets, “likes” in double- or triple-digit numbers, “friends” galore, touting these digital triumphs, building your online self-mythology, regardless of depth or sincerity, for the whole world to gaze upon in envy.

I can embrace that to a certain extent – anyone putting a book out must endorse his own cult of personality – but not to the level where I’m going to use social media to sell this book.  I’m convinced that unless you’re well-versed in a given social-media platform, already using it for personal reasons and comfortable with the time commitment and lack of privacy, it’s pretty much a waste of time hyping a creative endeavor you’ve undertaken, be it a book, album, paintings, etc.  People aren’t going to flock to your social-media site from the pure power of your creative work, or your personality.  Like anything else, social-media identities are carefully constructed and nurtured, over time, generally on the premise of feeling a sense of self-actualization.  Some people are great at that, and I surely don’t hold it against them.

People create works of art for the same reason.  I recognize social media as a separate structure from what I’ve done with the book, where I’ve put a lot more time, space, effort and consideration into creating something that will last, as opposed to the constantly-running meter of social media. I want this thing to stand, next week, next year, decades from now. Whether 50 people read it or 50,000.  Sure, putting it out there and selling it is a popularity contest of sorts.  But not why I wrote it.  I wrote it to define a time and place in my life that not many people have done, that part of Pennsylvania, rural America by extension, in the 1970s.  That’s not fully accurate.  I already had about 80% of the book written and simply recognized this.  So, I compiled those pieces, revised a few, ordered them chronologically, and added about six more pieces that added to the whole.

It helps to go back to the first post I wrote here back in 2006.  It surprises me now how much of that post rings true and applies to what I just did in terms of putting out a book.  It’s simply what I do.  Back then, my father’s death two years earlier had blown my mind to the extent that I felt no urge or need to write.  In my mind, I created a half-assed tribute to him in terms of seeing the world with his stark clarity, i.e., seeing right through any sort of creative ambitions.  I hadn’t made it big by then … be practical … why go on?

But I’m not my father.  As much as I’ve adopted from him over the years, especially in terms of temperament and personality, this urge to write is something that existed way outside his frame of reference, Mom’s, too.  I remember the one time I got under his skin as a writer, when a story I had published in the college newspaper, a satirical piece on how I was raised in the Coal Region, was picked up by a local paper, re-published verbatim with a sidebar editorial positing the piece as a non-satirical insult to where I was raised.  It was far from the truth, but the sort of thing a bad editor would exploit.  Dad fielded a few nasty phone calls from outraged friends who didn’t “get it” – which was fine by me, the whole point of satire is for a lot of people not to get it.

Not fine by Dad.  He was pissed at first.  I made it clear to him: I’m your son. These jackasses calling you on the phone, threatening me with physical violence, aren’t well-versed enough to know they’re being played by a small-town newspaper editor.  You don’t need to like what I wrote or even take my side.  But you either need to hang up on these jackasses or tell them to go fuck themselves, because no friend of yours would ever do something like that.  I could understand Dad being angry that idiots were calling the house and assuming he was somehow responsible for this, but if I had a son, and you physically threatened him in my presence?

He got it, fairly fast.  I made it clear to him it was irrelevant to me whether he got it or not: this was happening, and I wasn’t backing down.  He should have known from the way his mother raised him and he raised me: I was not going to be intimidated.  From that point forward, he had no grasp of what I was doing as a writer, which was fine, so long as he respected my choice.  I’ve learned, don’t expect family to treat you like a rock star, or something special.  They know me so much better than that!  It’s reassuring to have people see you for exactly who you are, good and bad.

When you leave the working class, which is exactly what I was doing by going to college and writing, you head into a world that makes very little sense outside that context.  I learned how to work in offices, get used to the corporate mindset and understand the value so many people place on money as a source of self-respect.  In terms of the “writing” world, I’ve only existed on the fringes of that, which suits me fine now.  Seemed like failure at some points, but if you’re reading me now, or have ever read my stuff, and I’ve communicated something worthwhile and memorable to you, there is no failure, whether money has been part of that exchange or not.

In Dad’s mind, anything that existed above and beyond the working class was nirvana, paved with gold, the promised land, where he thought he should have gone with his life, where he wanted his kids to go, as that way of life would be “better” by one very clear, quantifiable measure: more money.  Boy, he didn’t have a clue!  The white-collar ways of life I’ve encountered would have blown his mind in terms of pressure, arrogance and the bizarre lack of self-worth that I’ve seen drive so many “successful” people.  He was over-joyed that I was making good money in non-working class settings.  And in his practical mind, if writing pays you next to nothing or nothing, you shouldn’t bother with it.

That was my only real rebellion against him.  That incident I noted above was the only time it ever got discussed.  I understood he didn’t place much value in that aspiration of mine.  I wasn’t hurt at all.  I could see in his mind that whatever I did, preferably for more money than he made, in a place that wasn’t clanking machinery, grease and dirt, was fine by him.  Whether it was getting paid for writing or punching an office clock.  Mom?  I don’t think she ever got that part of me either, but god damn, just like the picture on the back of the book (if you buy it!), she was teaching me how to write when I barely knew how to walk.

That piece I wrote back in 2006 was before Facebook and Twitter were ways of life.  Facebook was around a year or two; Twitter was just getting started.  Smart phones didn’t exist; people were painstakingly clicking miniature QWERTY-style keyboards on Blackberries.  All social media did was underline the tenets I put forth in that piece.  Self-promotion may have been more the domain of artists trying to hype their work back then, but social media made it acceptable for everyone, an addiction for many.

I do want to hype and promote my writing. But not like that, not in ways I’m not comfortable with, that I’ve always found questionable, full of empty promises and false values.  Just by poking around the Amazon message boards for publishing, I’ve seen so many people desperate for that level of financial success and acceptance as writers.  I think that even if they’re lucky enough to find these things, they won’t be as fulfilling as the illusion.  When I read all these missives and hard-wrought wisdom (generally from people who have sold 2,000 books at $0.99 per book about dog grooming) aimed at “first-time authors” … I guess they mean people in their 20s who’ve never published anything?  Sure, this is my first book, but far from my first brush with publishing or minor fame, or thousands of pages into a life of writing that, in this case, culminated in a book.  I worked through that mindfuck by 2004 and walked away from any vestige of it for two years.

Some people are going to get what you do.  Some are going to hate what you do.  Most aren’t going to know or care, one way or the other.  The goal seems to be tapping into the “get what you do” group and exploiting it for all it’s worth, whether that means dozens of sales or hundreds of thousands.  I can see now, after jiggering ads on Amazon for enticing keywords to pull potential readers in, trying to reach as many as possible … even when you do reach them by the tens of thousands, 350 will click on the book to actually look at it, maybe read the first few chapters online … maybe 10 will go ahead and buy it. Thus, you keep re-thinking the next set of ads and throwing the net out again.

Social media would be much the same concept, save there’s usually a meter on the site to let everyone know how well or poorly you’re doing.  And that’s where me and social media part.  No one has to know that but me.  There’s something so abrasive and empty about social media in terms of quantifying every morsel of communication, every relationship, however deeply personal or completely meaningless, that passes through it, visible to everyone, so you can judge for yourself by their kangaroo court of internet popularity.  Tell it to Van Gogh or The Velvet Underground, who would have had about 26 followers a piece on Twitter during the course of their greatness!

Beyond that, I can see that the only reason to put out a book through a publishing company is to have their marketing department work for you, hopefully have you tapped into a good agent, both of whom can arrange promotional tie-ins, appearances, reviews in major media outlets, etc.  And that’s nothing to scoff at.  While these things won’t make or break a book, they could go a long way in terms of influencing thousands of potential readers.

But even then, I can see, that’s not it.  I’ve had friends put out books with publishers, major and minor.  Good books, too, well worth reading.  And even with all the marketing and promotional muscle behind them … no big commercial breakthrough happens.  Successful books, especially today, are like lightning in a bottle.  So many different forces need to converge at roughly the same time to push the visibility level so much higher than before, as there so much more out there now.  You can launch an all-out assault on social media, arrange appearances on talk shows and reviews in major worldwide newspapers, even with a great book … and if the stars don’t align, it won’t happen. The way I’ve done it, if my book under-performs, all I have is a bruised ego. You do the same with a publishing company, you get the heave-ho, generally after being made to feel like a failure by people whose livelihoods depend on selling as many books as possible.

Is that solace? Hardly.  But it helps that I’ve been around long enough to see these varying levels of success and failure occur, even see a few people I know break through and make some kind of living as writers, however tenuous and insecure that job position tends to be.  In the end, you just do what you can, what you were put here to do.  That’s where I began, and it will be where I end.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Skipping Through the Graveyard in My Puke-Stained Suit

The day has arrived: Skipping Through the Graveyard in My Puke-Stained Suit: Growing Up in 1970s Rural Pennsylvania is now available on Amazon, in Kindle and Paperback versions.

The past two months have been insane. The key thing I’ve learned: proofreading your own book is like representing yourself in a court of law. You may think you’re smart. You may see yourself as empathetic. But when push comes to shove, there’s a ton of tiny details about yourself that you’re just not seeing.

I read this thing through so many times now that I’m simply exhausted. If there is a next time, I need to pay someone to have a go at this. It’s amazing how many minute details there were that took forever to detect, and I’m not sure I caught them all. Forget about comma usage … I’m all over the map with that stuff. But I have a propensity for dropping verbs and key words like “the” or “an” to make a sentence read as though a caveman wrote it. Mentally, these mistakes should be glaring, but time and time again, I missed details like this. If you do pick up a copy, feel free to let me know about minor glitches like this. Amazon allows me to edit the manuscript at any time, even after publication.

Overall, I’m excited about the finished product. In my mind, it’s a Frankenstein monster of bits and pieces I’ve written since about 1985 through last week. In the last two months, I added six new pieces that would have easily made posts on this site. One memory lead to another, and there were things I just had to include. Even now, there are bits and pieces floating around my head, but I just had to let this hen out. Whether it makes sense to anyone else, or has any appeal beyond people from that part of Pennsylvania recognizing their own lives in my words, time will tell.

You know how when you read a book, there’s an Acknowledgements portion in the end that recognizes what seems like a cast of dozens of people surrounding the author as he raises his new literary work and unfurls it like a flag?

For the life of me … I did this shit on my own! Sitting here where I am now, in my leather chair in my basement studio in Astoria, cranking this shit out, much as I cranked it out in my bedroom back home in spiral notebooks back in the 70s. The only assistance I had was Angie Jordan’s husband, Scott Sullivan, helping out with the cover design, taking a photo of the actual cemetery in question and applying a more professional touch to the image. Are these writers really living like this, surrounded by a swarm of people supporting them and picking them up every step of the way? That wasn’t my experience at all. I always feel like a dick when I read those Acknowledgement sections. More precisely, the word “Bull … Shit” appears in my mind. Don’t let anyone fool you. An undertaking like this, as Glenn Frey once sang, you’re all alone in the center ring.

So, please, if you’ve been reading along here for any amount of time, follow the link, buy a copy in your chosen format, you won’t be let down. If you like it, spread the word, get on any given social media outlet you may imbibe in, pass along a recommendation. I suspect that sort of informal “word of mouth” publicity is how things work now, much more than the old machinery clanking away at the publishing house. It’s been an interesting learning experience seeing just how fast and self-reliant a method of publishing this is. Of course, every crank with a book idea these days is doing the same thing. I like to think I’m a higher class of crank. You be the judge.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Tom Petty's Inferno

Scene: A tastefully understated bathroom in a Malibu beach house. The Pacific Ocean is visible through a bay window over a vintage cast-iron tub. On the toilet sits an elderly bearded man: Tom Petty. He’s smoking a cigarette and reading a book about The Shroud of Turin. Suddenly, a bolt of pain shoots up his left arm, paralyzing that side of his body. Petty stands, drops the book in the toilet, kneels to the marble floor and loses consciousness.

He wakes up on a bathroom floor, but not the one he passed out on. This is a non-descript, clean bathroom of the sort found in doctor’s offices. Outside the door, he can hear voices, feet shuffling, a lot of activity. He gets up, pulls his pants back on, brushes himself off and looks in the mirror: the same person. The book is gone, but all else remains the same.  Huh, Petty thinks, that was a cigarette I was smoking, there’s no logic behind this. Having been along for the ride on many similar drug experiences, he knows to roll with whatever’s happening.

He opens the door onto a bustling backstage area of what he recognizes as a TV studio: cables, the backs of klieg lights, stage curtains, fold-out director’s chairs, assistants hustling to and fro. Petty thinks this vision will require him to perform live since that’s the only reason he’d be at a TV studio.

Monty Hall: Wrong, Tom. You’re not here to perform.

The voice comes from behind him, and it sounds vaguely familiar, as most game-show host voices do. He turns to see Monty Hall approaching him in a green plaid leisure suit, as he was in the early 1970s, smiling broadly.  The only difference, Petty notices, is that he has two small horns sticking out of his temples, and the slight smell of sulfur accompanies his presence.

Tom: Monty Hall! Didn’t you just die a few days ago?

Monty Hall: Monty surely did. He’s with us now.

Tom: What? No. You’re Monty Hall.

Satan: No, Tom, I’m not Monty Hall. I’m Satan. I’m using Monty Hall’s visage to create your vision of hell.

Tom: Wait a minute. You’re telling me I’m dead? Man, I’m not even 70!

Satan: No one saw it coming, Tom, not even me! Keith Richards walks the earth, yet here you are!

Tom: What did I die of?

Satan: Massive heart attack while reading a Jesus book on the can. Just like your idol.

Tom: And now I’m in hell?

Satan: Literally, no. We’re at the gates of hell, figuratively speaking. We’re here to play a little game.

Satan: Bingo!

Tom: Are you sure my name is on your list?

Satan: It sure is! There’s no waiting in line for Tom Petty!

Tom: Look. I could be an asshole. Most rock stars are. You don’t get that far for that long without doing some damage.

Satan: Oh, you did. You were no picnic. The usual rock-star stuff. Drugs. Debauchery. Neglect. Pride. The shit that went on with Stan Lynch was pretty lousy.

Tom: Sure, Satan, but he was being a prick, too.

Satan: Undoubtedly so. But you should understand one of our circles down here features a Jimmy Iovine clone in a recording studio control room making drummers hit the same snare roll, over and over, for eternity, while constantly barking “again, again” and “I have Jim Keltner’s number on my rolodex, why don’t you take a break.” For eternity. That place is for aspiring drummers who come here, thinking they’re going to realize their lifelong dreams of being rock stars, only to find themselves locked in a recording studio with an irritating twat in a baseball hat calling them “asshole” for playing the same beat, over and over, and never getting it right.

Tom: That does sound like what happened.

Satan: You should be honored. You and Iovine served as inspiration for one of my better burns.

Tom: But so many people loved my music.

Satan: Me, too. Obviously, the long string of early hits, but when you later got into stuff like “Echo” and “Room at the Top” … I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve sat here in my lair, ruminating on the nature of mankind, and those two songs perfectly define how I feel. You had a real knack for writing lyrics that were deceptively simple, but suggested more profound meaning.

Tom: Thanks, I guess. But come on, now, there’s more going on here than me giving Stan Lynch the hard time he deserved.

Satan: Oh, there is. I’d call it vanity, more than anything. For centuries, this had been the domain of kings, rich men and heads of state. But in the past 50 years, musicians and actors tend to suffer the same consequence. Your talent endears you to millions of people who, on one hand love and respect you for your warmth and immediacy. But on the other, encourage you to see yourself as super human, special beyond comprehension. Thus, the one-night stands on the road. The brusque behavior with record-company and hotel staffs, assistants and band members. The purposeful distance with loved ones who knew you before you were famous.

Tom: That’s enough for hell?

Satan: It’s the gateway to hell. Remember all the times you were doing things that you recognized as wrong, stupid and abusive, there was that voice in your head, reminding you that this was wrong?

Tom: Sure, my conscience.
Satan: No. That was me. It's always me. That's one of the jobs God gave me, along with running hell. To give people fair warning of bad, potentially damnable behavior. I am your better angel. God gave you free will, so I have no control over your life. It's human nature to be sinful. That part of my job is easy; I literally do nothing. The hard part of my job is trying to subtly convince people that they should change their ways, and thus never lay eyes on me. I do this with the understanding that most people never listen to me.

Tom: OK. So I screwed around, like any other musician on the road. I got cross with people. I got moody and abusive sometimes. I didn't kill anyone. Start any wars. If anything, my music helped people keep their heads on straight and avoid going off the rails like this.

Satan: All good points. But the key to your vanity is that it will strip you of the self-awareness required to overcome it. That’s what I’m not getting about rock stars. You pride yourselves on connecting to the common man, of relating to every-day humanity and emotions. Yet, your personal lives are virtually no different from those of influential men from the past who lived like angry gods, as opposed to decent human beings. According to your songs, you’re only human. But the adulation heaped on you led you to believe otherwise. To the point where you accepted this illusion of superiority as universal truth. I think that’s the crux of why you’re here.

Tom: Other rock stars are down here?

Satan: (laughing) Sure! Far more than are in heaven! Pretty soon, we’ll have a Traveling Wilburys reunion! Jeff Lynne will be the last. We’ll get him more for the drum sound he created in the 80s than anything else.

Tom: So why am I here? Not hell. This TV studio.

Satan: Well, as you can see, I’m Monty Hall, and I’ll be hosting hell’s version of Let’s Make a Deal, featuring Tom Petty as the first contestant.

Tom: The band and I used to get high in the morning and watch game shows all the time. If I recall, Let’s Make a Deal made the contestants dress up like it was Halloween.

Satan: Correct.

Tom: So what will I be dressed as?

Satan: The Crypt Keeper. You really don’t have to change a thing.

Tom: Ha-Ha. Do you know how many times I’ve heard that one?

Satan: Probably about as many times as guys told you they once dated a girl in high school who looked just like you.

Tom: Yeah, a certain kind of guy always had that one girl.

Satan: I don’t think they were being complimentary.

Tom: No. They meant the girl was plain, sort of homely, and had droopy eyes from getting stoned. How do I know this? Because I dated a girl who looked like me in high school!

Satan: Well, if it’s any solace, you did look OK up through the mid-80s.

Tom: My greatest revenge in life was knowing I was an un-layable dude who, thanks to his musical talent, had sex with dozens of beautiful women who otherwise wouldn’t have looked at him twice.

Satan: Well played, sir, well played. A fitting epitaph. That’s why guitars were invented. But that was then, this is now, let’s go!

Satan claps his hands, and he and Tom Petty immediately materialize in the cheering studio audience, Tom standing among a group of people dressed as sailors, witches, soldiers, cheerleaders. He’s standing next to Satan who is holding a thin microphone and laughing heartily.

Satan: So, Tom Petty, where are you from?

Tom: Originally from Gainesville, Florida, but I lived in Los Angeles.

Satan: Are you ready to make a deal?

Tom: Do I have a choice?

Satan laughs his bellowing, game-show host laugh again. A beautiful woman in a gown rolls out a deluxe Kenmore refrigerator to center stage. The audience gasps in amazement.

Satan: Jay, tell us about this wonderful prize.

Jay (a disembodied television announcer voice, speaking very fast): Monty, we have a Kenmore 50023 25 cubic foot, Side-by-Side, Stainless Steel Refrigerator. Fit more fresh food and delicious leftovers in this spacious Kenmore 50023 Stainless Steel Side-by-Side Fridge. Top-to-bottom storage space gives you plenty of room to stash away snacks, produce, leftovers, pre-made meals and household staples with room to spare. Gallon door bins means you won’t have to find a place to cram the milk, juice or wine while the tight-sealing doors help keep foods fresher, longer. Adjustable shelving and door bins let you organize the fridge just the way you like so everything, even the leftover lasagna, has a place in the fridge. Suggested retail price, $1,213.96.

The audience continues to sigh in amazement.

Satan: Tom, that’s a lot of space to store alcoholic beverages and scoobie snacks for the munchies.

Tom: That’s right, Monty. And my collection of human heads that I keep in mason jars, too.

Satan doubles over in laughter, as does an audience member dressed like the “devil” version of Satan. Tom stares in amazement as he realizes the audience member is Jeffrey Dahmer.

Satan: Tom, that dark sense of humor is going to serve you well here. But seriously, you know how the deal works.  You can have this wonderful Kenmore refrigerator, free and clear, or … we have other options waiting for you … behind doors 2 and 3.

The beautiful woman onstage strolls to her left. Tom looks more closely and realizes the woman is Marilyn Monroe. She raises her left arm, while waving her right arm up and down to showcase the doors that have appeared on each side of her.

Tom: Well, you know, Monty, the refrigerator is tempting. But since I’m in hell and have nothing to lose, why not chose one of the doors instead.

Satan: Always the gambler, always the risk taker, living by his wits, Tom Petty, which will it be Door 2, or Door 3?

Tom takes a moment to ponder his choice.  He looks at the audience and realizes Adolf Hitler is dressed as Charlie Chaplin, and John F. Kennedy as a rodeo clown.

Tom: Is that Adolf Hitler dressed as Charlie Chaplin?

Satan: Tom, this is hell, not Burbank, California.  Of course, that’s Adolf Hitler. Adolf, are you enjoying yourself?

Adolf: Ja, sehr gut, sehr gut. Much better than dragging dead Jews into mass graves you had me doing yesterday, danke, Herr Satan, danke.

Satan: Good, good. Tom, I should tell you, things work differently when you make a deal in hell. We’re going to show you what’s behind both doors, the full implications of each choice, and let you decide rather than have you feel terrible for making a bad choice.

Tom: That’s awful nice of you.

Satan: Well, let’s see what’s behind the doors before you make that assumption. Marilyn, if you will, please show us what’s behind Door #2.

Marilyn waves her left arm with a flourish as she walks in front of the dissolving face of Door #2. The sound of the French National Anthem plays … but it’s not. It’s the introduction to The Beatles’ song, “All You Need Is Love.” The scene that materializes from behind the door is the studio session that was filmed for worldwide broadcast on June 25, 1967. Petty remembers it like it was yesterday, as any time The Beatles or Stones were to appear on TV, he was on it. Something strange though.  There appeared to be a fifth member of The Beatles playing dual lead guitar, seated next to George Harrison. A skinny, young guy, blonde, shoulder-length hair … son of a bitch, Petty thinks, that’s me!

Satan: Jay, tell us more about Door #2.

Jay: Certainly, Monty. This prize is a membership in The Beatles for eternity. History will be revised just for you, Tom Petty, so that it will show when The Beatles fired Pete Best for Ringo Starr in 1962, they also hired a young American guitarist they had met playing night clubs in Hamburg, a certain Tom Petty from Gainesville, Florida who played in Gene Vincent’s touring band. Unlike George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney will include you in their songwriting process so that you can share in the making of such hits as “She Loves You,” “Ticket to Ride” and “A Day in the Life.” They will consider you an equal creative partner and, in fact, you will serve as an important bridge between Paul and John when they start drifting apart as friends and songwriters in 1966. Suggested retail price is beyond comprehension for a music fan like you, Tom Petty.

Tom: Now, wait a minute. This is hell. There must be some catch, like in the movie Bedazzled. Everything I choose, no matter how rewarding and attractive, will be revealed as having a dark side that I didn’t anticipate.

Satan: Thank you, Tom, for noting one of my favorite movies that depicts me correctly. But, no, there is no catch or hidden agenda. You will become part of The Beatles and spend the rest of your after-life living that dream. Of course, the downside will be there too: pissing off Ringo so badly during the recording of The White Album that he quits. Lennon’s heroin abuse. McCartney’s ego. The fist fight between John and George during the making of Let It Be when John finally snaps over one of George’s throwaway insults about Yoko. As with any band, as you well know, shit happens. But you will also be a full participant in the creation of songs that will be remembered centuries from now. How about it, Tom, does Door #2 strike your fancy?

Tom: Satan, you’re like a lawyer, asking questions you already know the answers to.

Satan: (laughing) Well, funny you should say that Tom, everyone who has ever received a law degree from the start of time is hellbound, no matter what he does in his lifetime. Perhaps the only more certain bet on going to hell than being a celebrity! But no matter, before you decide, let’s see what’s behind Door #3. Marilyn?

(Marilyn Monroe sweeps back in from stage right, winking and curtseying before strolling in front of Door #3 as the door dissolves to show a wood-paneled family room circa 1965 in a middle-class American home. A thin, gaunt, bespectacled man in his 30s with a crew-cut and face similar to Tom Petty’s, but harder, stands glowering over a gawky teenage boy sprawled on the carpet watching an episode of the TV series, F Troop. I thought I told you to mow the lawn, the man snaps at the boy. Yeah, I will in half an hour, the boy replies listlessly, F Troop is on, Dad. The man grabs the boy by the legs, yanks him to his feet, and pulls back his right hand, where the scene freezes.)

Satan: Jay, tell us more about Door #3.

Jay: Certainly, Monty. Tom, should you choose, Door #3, your after-life will be to be spend a very long time in hell with your father, locked into a five-year period between 1963 and 1967. As you recall, Tom, this was when he was at his most angry and abusive, lashing out at you and your brother for no reason, irrational outburst of rage. You may also recall, your driving emotion at the time wasn’t reciprocating anger and fear, but the desire to find out why your father was this way. You will have a lifetime in hell to try to find out why your father was mentally and  physically abusing your family, then make him stop.

Satan: Well, Tom, what say you?

Tom: (still shaken from being transported directly to one of his more harrowing childhood memories) What do you mean, what say I? You’re telling me to choose between heaven and hell.

Satan: Tom, do you remember how Let’s Make A Deal worked? Particularly when we had a contestant win, let’s say, a set of Samsonite luggage?

Tom: Sure. That was a trick prize. The contestant would clap along gamely, thinking, oh well, I won some luggage. And then you’d say something like, “Well, now wait a minute, you’re going to need some place to take that luggage” and the door behind the luggage would slide open to reveal an all-expense-paid trip to Brussels, Belgium.

Satan: That’s right, good memory. Jay, tell us where Tom can take his emotional baggage behind Door #3.

Jay: Certainly, Monty. Tom, if you choose Door #3, it will take you a very long time to convince your Dad he’s wrong, as you knew that stubborn Southern rebel streak well and possessed some of it yourself. There is no sense of time as you understand it in hell, but in human terms, it may take you decades of repeated abuse before you can break through and convince him that he’s wrong. But when you do, you will magically be transported to heaven, where you will spend the rest of your days hanging out, smoking pot, making love to blonde bombshells, playing your guitar and watching as many episodes of F Troop as you please.

Tom: So, you’re saying I get to be myself again.

Satan: That’s right, Tom. You get the rock-star lifestyle all over again, as does everyone in heaven.

Tom: Monty, one key question.

Satan: Shoot, Tom, shoot.

Tom: Where is my mother? I know Dad is in hell.  That makes perfect sense. But where’ my Mom?

The audience sighs knowingly, nodding their heads. General Custer, dressed as an astronaut, wipes a tear away from his cheek.

Satan: You can’t get anything past this perceptive young man! Yes, Tom, what you’re thinking is true. Your Mom, bless her heart, is in heaven. She was a no brainer for taking all that shit your father dished out, never once losing her composure and sacrificing herself so that her kids could be raised with some semblances of love and dignity.

Tom: So, you’re pretty much saying I can live out a lifelong dream for an eternity in hell. Or take decades, maybe even centuries, of abuse from my old man so I can see my Mom again.

Satan: That’s right. This is how we roll in hell. Door #2 with The Beatles will be indecipherable from how many people spend an eternity in heaven.

Tom: Monty, did you ever see the movie, Cool Hand Luke?

Satan: (laughing) Oh, I can see where this is going. The scene where they roll Luke’s mama up to the prison in the back of the jalopy for one last visit, with the understanding that she’s going to die while he’s in jail?

Tom: Exactly. I never mentioned this in interviews, but that moment had a far deeper impact on me than even seeing Elvis in person or The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. All the more so thanks to Dad beating the shit out of me and my brother all those years. You see, instead of being in prison, I was a rock star, which was no prison at all. But it kept me on the road and wrapped up in my own affairs from the moment I left Gainesville for Los Angeles. When I saw Mom on her death bed days before she died, figuring I was going to be on the road or in the studio when her time came, I made a vow that I would do whatever it takes to see her again, this world or the next.

Satan: This is the next world, Tom, and that’s a long road ahead of you, should you choose it. Do you seek the redemption you never found in life?

Tom: I have no choice, Monty, I made a promise. I choose Door #3.

Instantaneously, Tom disappears from the studio audience and is transferred to his childhood self in the scene from Door #3. The action unfreezes, and his father’s open hand slaps Tom directly on the face, dropping him to the living-room carpet. His father expects him to start crying. Instead, Tom rolls over and smirks, the very same smirk displayed on his first album cover. He winks at the studio audience, who starts to fade from his view, with Satan leading a standing ovation. The last person in the studio audience Tom sees is George Harrison, smiling broadly and waving to Tom, dressed as The Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.