Friday, July 22, 2005

Ode to the Great Tom Petty

I saw Tom Petty live in Des Moines Monday night and left just as inspired as the last time I saw him, in Devore CA three years ago.

His self-awareness, business acumen and leadership coupled with his ability to write true and distinctive rock radio hits have made possible his thorough enjoyment of rock-stardom.

He's been a viable commercial force on the rock scene -- both among serious afficionados and casual radio listeners -- for over three decades.

He's recorded and toured with largely the same musicians his entire career (including his keyboardist, the Great Benmont Tench, who came with him to L.A. when they were both teenagers and who took a 15 minute concert-grand piano solo Monday on a brand new song and garnered a two minute standing ovation.)

He's kept an open marriage with the Heartbreakers, he recorded with everyone from Stevie Nicks to the pinacle of rock aristocracy (the travelling Wilburys) while they (especially Tench) have been free to develop their careers. Yet he kept the Heartbreaker's homefires burning enough to keep them all around when he needed them.

He showed how much emotion and poignancy can be effortlessly conveyed in three guitar chords in the pop masterpiece "Free-fallin." Not since Rossini has a composer done so much so simply.

His hits span three decades, yet all of them could have been written yesterday or in 1970; none of them sound dated or particularly modern.

He kept a $20 million record contract with Warner Brothers secret for four years while quietly and professionally fulfilling his contract with MCA.

Before he was a rich man, he organized a fan protest and threatened to withhold the album "Damn the Torpedos" because MCA wanted to charge $9.98 for it instead of the standard $8.98. MCA relented. If more artists did that, perhaps there would not have been a Napster revolt among music fans tired of paying too much for albums with one good song.

The strength and steadiness he displayed throughout his career is best expressed in his songs. He "won't back down," he trusts the people he loves to "listen to (their) hearts," and he's willing to wait for things while noting that it's "the hardest part." He's also able to be inspired by the social dynamics of the sterile San Fernando Valley ("Free-fallin" again) and give a gentle yet unflinching look at the particularized teen male angst of that area. (at least I think that's what he's doing, I don't particularly care what he meant; I know what it means to me, a displaced Californian). He's the kind of guy you can depend on. He knows what he wants and is clear about it. He's not a baroque pop music genius like Brian Wilson or a spiritualist too good for rock and roll like George Harrison. He's not an out-of-control prima donna who revels in his destructive edges like every rock star cliche. Fame and fortune were not too much for him, he enjoys them as only a strong-willed person can.

He's a radio rockstar, who loves what he does and will be touring and recording as long as health and finances permit. While as a Christian, I can only take this so far; in my artistic/professional life I will always ask "what would Petty do."

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Jon Stewart Part III: He's Worse than Ever!

After watching tonight's show, I realize that yesterday's entry was wishful thinking. The new format has only reinforced Stewart's blowhard tendencies. Today he had Bernard Goldberg on -- in a guest segment that took up half the show -- just so he could ridicule his book "100 People Who Are Destroying America." As his ditto-head (that's right, he echoes Rush Limbaugh) audience cheered his every line, Jon-Jon refused to let his guest even finish a sentence. It was worse than rude, it was pathological. Here is a man addicted to approbation for his most banal thoughts. He mocked his guest for suggesting that, perhaps, television was getting too coarse for families. I probably wouldn't like Goldberg's book, but I instantly took his side as Jon repeatedly cut him off to preach his trite sermons: "well maybe there are more bad words on TV, but segregation, racial inequality: those are the real bad things," (wild audience applause) as if one brain can't simultaneously believe that segregation was wrong AND that television is coarsening. As if one has to be pro-segregation to long for the cleaner movies and TV shows of the 1950s. As if Desparate Housewives is a necessary consequence of Brown v. Board of Education.
My wife has already sworn off the Daily Show after Jon's childish display, and I may follow suit. I won't promise anything though. I just hope SNL or MAD gets the stones to make fun of Jon soon.

Jon Stewart II: What a Difference a Set Makes

Well, I wasn't as strong as I thought I'd be; I ended up watching the Daily Show again as soon as it came back on (after moving into its new studio) and I have to say the great Jon and his producer have made the necessary adjustments to keep the show viable. I get it now: you don't want to be Andy Kaufman, you want to be Mort Sahl/Charlie Rose.

Somehow, the new set delivered the message better than any segment could have: Jon is embracing his political importance. There is no couch anymore; only a gigantic desk (of the Swedish minimalist "Ikea" school) at which Jon and guest both sit in swivel office chairs. My wife commented that this would not work for movie starlets wanting to show off their pretty dresses, but I don't think Jon plans to have too many more starlets on: the line-up, at least for this week, is all authors of important non-fiction books.

What's more, Jon is less sweaty in the interviews. He still plays for laughs, but he makes more convincing attempts to pretend he's read the books; and he lets the guests talk more. Moreover, the tone of the segments is unabashedly political and Jon now seems free to deliver his punchlines without a nervous giggle or a self-deprecating glance. He realizes now he is not playing to stoned college kids, but the New York Times op ed board and he seems at piece with that, now.

I may not wet my pants with helpless laughter with this new format, but I will keep watching. For one thing, there's nothing else on. For another, a show of pure political satire -- as opposed to an annoying hybrid -- is worth watching.