Tom Petty’s Legacy

Yesterday, when everyone thought Tom Petty was dead, hours before he actually did ascend to Rock and Roll Heaven, WTOP interviewed Bob Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. The newscaster repeatedly asked Thompson to discuss Petty’s “influence.” Each time, Thompson nimbly sidestepped the question to discuss Petty’s significance.

Tom Petty was not influential.

This in no way diminishes the man or his music, or even his large role in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. But Petty was not an originator, or even a trendsetter. Instead, he was traditionalist who proudly cited (and sometimes covered) those who influenced him: Elvis, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Byrds:

He earned his place among his idols, the legends Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne in the Traveling Wilburys, . . .

. . . toured with Dylan and recently co-produced former-Byrd Chris Hillman’s upcoming album, Bidin’ My Time.

At a time when most of those who still played rock in a new pop age treated it as a museum piece to be “revived,” either meticulously recreating the details while losing the soul or “curating” the quaint old music with a hipster wink, Tom Petty kept “real” rock ‘n’ roll alive and vital. And that is a pretty significant accomplishment.

But even if he had little influence in the sense of birthing a generation of “new Pettys,” as there were once so many “new Dylans,” although a case could be made for Haim, whose “Little of Your Love” hints they’ve listened to Petty’s “Don’t Do Me Like That” more than a few times, . . .

. . . it does not mean that Tom Petty has not been and will not continue to be hugely inspiring:

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Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

Primarily known as an actor (Bloodline, Mud, Cold in JulyDays of HeavenThe Right Stuff, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for his embodiment of test pilot cool) and playwright (True WestBuried Child, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, Fool for Love, for which he won one of his many Obie Awards), Sam Shepard had a long relationship with rock ‘n’ roll. He sometimes played drums and/or percussion for the lower east side 1960s New York psychedelic folk band Holy Modal Rounders, here featured in Easy Rider:

In the early ’70s, he collaborated with Patti Smith on the play Cowboy Mouth. Their relationship is featured prominently in her National Book Award winning memoir Just Kids.

Nominally, the playwright co-wrote the largely improvised film Renaldo and Clara shot by Bob Dylan during his 1975-1976 Rolling Thunder Revue. Shepard also published The Rolling Thunder Logbook chronicling his  experience of the tour. A decade later, Shepard co-wrote a song with Dylan:

In 2007, Shepard again collaborated with Patti Smith, playing banjo on her cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:

Writing Their Own Epitaphs

The opening narration of Episode 9 of Falling Water ends with the statement: “In the end, none of us write our own epitaph. Except maybe Bob Dylan.”

I’m not sure what Bob Dylan might have written as his epitaph (though I can certainly think of a number of his lines that would fit), and I hope it will be a very long time before I find out, but I do know at least two artists this year who seem to have consciously composed their own last words.

Blackstar stands as David Bowie’s valedictory album. As Rolling Stone reported:

[Producer Tony] Visconti noticed the tone of some of the lyrics and told him, ‘You canny bastard. You’re writing a farewell album.’ Bowie simply laughed in response.”

It became hard to read the songs any other way when Bowie died on January 10, just two days after the album’s release.

Shortly before Mariann Ihlen died on July 29, Leonard Cohen wrote to his onetime muse:

Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

So it came as no surprise that You Want It Darker, released on October 21, sounded like farewell.

Just over two weeks later, on November 7, Cohen reached out and again grasped Marianne’s hand.

A Hard Rain Falling in Stockholm

A clearly awe-struck and occasionally stumbling, but all the more affecting for it, Patti Smith performed “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in her best nasal, twangy imitation of its writer during the ceremony honoring Bob Dylan‘s being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature:

In his acceptance speech, literally sent in and read at the later banquet by the United States ambassador to Sweden, Azita Raji, the ever elusive Dylan addressed, but ultimately nimbly sidestepped the question of whether his songs, his lyrics, qualify as literature:

Good evening, everyone. I extend my warmest greetings to the members of the Swedish Academy and to all of the other distinguished guests in attendance tonight.

I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I’ve been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: Kipling, Shaw, Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck, Albert Camus, Hemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.

I don’t know if these men and women ever thought of the Nobel honor for themselves, but I suppose that anyone writing a book, or a poem, or a play anywhere in the world might harbor that secret dream deep down inside. It’s probably buried so deep that they don’t even know it’s there.

If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon. In fact, during the year I was born and for a few years after, there wasn’t anyone in the world who was considered good enough to win this Nobel Prize. So, I recognize that I am in very rare company, to say the least.

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.

Well, I’ve been doing what I set out to do for a long time, now. I’ve made dozens of records and played thousands of concerts all around the world. But it’s my songs that are at the vital center of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that.

But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried. The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

My best wishes to you all,

Bob Dylan

ps — What the hell were those wrinkled pink blobs on top of the four columns in front of the orchestra? They looked like the brains of former Nobel laureates — are smarter brains more tasty to zombies?

* Thanks to Vicky, Tracy and Thom for all sending me links to Smith’s performance to make sure I had not missed it.

Dylan’s Nobel Prize: Lyrics Are Not Poems (and Poems Are Not Lyrics)

Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of Bob Dylan’s. His lyrics taught me that pop songs can have depth and be thought provoking. If there were a Nobel Prize for Music, absolutely, give it to Dylan, but literature?

While often poetic, his lyrics are not poems. In that light, it’s interesting to note that 1973’s Writings and Drawings . . .

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. . . was re-titled Lyrics when it was updated 12 years later . . .

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. . . and has retained that title through all of its later editions. I defy anyone to read those lyrics without hearing the tune that accompanies them in their head.

Dylan has written a bit of literature. There are some poems scattered through the above volumes and in 1971 he published Tarantula, but I’ve never known anyone who made it all of the way through that novel? Prose poem? I’m really not sure what to call it.

On the other hand, Chronicles: Volume One fully deserved its 2004 nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography (it lost to Mark Stevens’s and Annalyn Swan’s De Kooning: An American Master), but that was just one book and it was published over 12 years ago (speaking of which, are we ever going to see the other two promised volumes?). This is hardly a corpus of work deserving of a Nobel. Especially when there are writers like Don DeLillo who are still being overlooked.

So while I admit to a momentary knee-jerk thrill when I first learned that the “voice of my generation” (a label he has always rejected) had won a Nobel, that voice is heard as music, not read as literature.