It’s a clusterfuck. Where the nobodies take the dress code seriously and show up in monkey suits and the somebodies might wear sneakers like George Drakoulias and if you’re an insider it resembles nothing so much as a summer camp reunion, where you see everyone you know and catch up and the only problem is the cocktail party is too short.
And then the show begins.
There’s a painful auction. Inane introductions. And endless covers of the honoree’s songs. And on paper it all looks good, but in reality it usually falls flat. Because although the backup band is stellar, the performers are oftentimes underrehearsed and reading from an obvious teleprompter at the back of the room and for an evening that is selling magic, there’s very little of it.
If I had to pick the highlight of the program, I’d go with George Strait singing “You Wreck Me.” This should not have worked whatsoever, but George hit a line drive over the fence and if you knew who he was you were grinning from ear to ear. But, as one of his promoters, John Meglen, remarked, nobody there had any idea they were in the presence of superstardom. That’d have to be the CMAs, and Musicares is a positively west coast enterprise. George is standing there in his cowboy hat, the man with the voice who does not write, and you’d have sworn those were his words and that he’d gone to the Whisky to see Tom way back when.
Which I did. Back in ’77. When KROQ was still a free-format station and “Breakdown” was starting to get some traction and the press wasn’t sure whether Tom Petty was a punk.
And I’ve seen TP many times since and wondered if I ever needed to see him again and…
Neil Portnow gave a long, drawn-out intro to Tom for the award, they should have gotten a musician, and then Tom strode up to the mic.
And seemed genuinely chuffed. And let’s be clear, this is just about raising money, for a good cause, but that’s why they honor someone.
And Tom’s rambling as a good Southerner should. And you know he waxes and wanes between friendliness and edginess and you’re not quite sure where he’s going but then he points out Mo in the crowd and talks about playing “Free Fallin'” with George and Jeff at his house, just as the Wilburys were coming together, and Lenny Waronker exclaims it’s a hit, which it certainly became, but Tom said his label refused to put it out.
Which was true.
But then Tom started talking about Leon Russell, one of the majordomos of his initial label, Shelter. Tom goes over to his house and when he emerges into the night with a group of household names Tom puts on his shades. And Leon chides him, tells him he’s got to EARN that right. That Lou Adler didn’t don them until AFTER the Mamas & the Papas and when Jack Nicholson was making genre pictures he didn’t wear them and Tom said at this point he thought he’d earned them, and after telling that story he pulled his dark glasses out of his pocket and put them on and the crowd roared!
And after talking about how Johnny Cash told him he was a good man to go down the river with, Tom strapped on his guitar, strode to the middle of the stage, looked at the Heartbreakers and started to play.
You’ve got to understand. We grew up in a different era. Where the radio was our Facebook and the musicians were our Steve Jobs’s. Today’s players, and they rarely do, are just vessels for stardom, there’s rarely any there there. And Tom Petty is positively second generation, he didn’t hit until the seventies. But so many baby boomers weren’t born until the fifties, and the band fires up and…
You’re taken right back to what once was. You’re in the pocket. You remember when it wasn’t about texting on your cellphone at the show, but pushing up to the stage, needing to get closer.
And Tom implored everybody to do this. And all the overdressed people surged up from the back and surrounded the stage and after playing a relative obscurity, “Waiting For Tonight,” he went into his eighties hit, “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
It was all over MTV. When a hit was ubiquitous. And with backup vocals from the Bangles it was like hearing our national anthem, it was like Washington, D.C. and the shenanigans didn’t exist. The band locked into a groove and we were magnetized to it. You just stared at the stage in wonderment and recalled why you were there. Because we were all in thrall to the music, we were in service to the music, and it felt so good and it felt so good last night.
And when Stevie Nicks emerged to sing “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” I was jetted right back to 1981, when you had to buy the album. Stevie was famous for Fleetwood Mac, you had no choice but to go to the store and buy the LP without hearing it first. And sure, “Edge Of Seventeen” was all over the radio, but then came…
Baby you’ll come knocking on my front door
Same old line you used before
No one even knocks on your front door anymore! You ping them on your device, there’s not the same anticipation of magic or loss and…
The guitars are singing, we’re on the aural adventure, and then…
So you’ve had a little trouble in town
Now you’re keeping some demons down
Stop draggin’ my
Stop draggin’ my
STOP DRAGGIN’ MY HEART AROUND!
I’m thrusting my arm in the air, singing at the top of my lungs, because that’s what I did and still do when I’m moved by the music, you can’t hear me over the band, over the record player, but I need to involuntarily join in, because this is my religion.
And then Jeff Lynne implored us not to back down and when that was done there was that indelible riff…
It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was drivin’
Again, again and again. We got our license and took off down the highway with the tunes cranked. There were no selfies, but if there were you’d have seen our long hair blown back and shiteating grins on our face.
Trees flew by, me and Del were singin’ little ‘Runaway’
I was flyin’
Kinda like Harry Chapin in his taxi. Our feet were not touching the earth, and last night they weren’t either. How could Tom and his band be so much better than everybody else? It’s the same instruments, they wrote all the songs, but when the Heartbreakers were firing on all cylinders they levitated the whole building and we were all on the same page, eagerly nodding our heads in service to the songs.
We’ve got a sense of history. We heard Del Shannon on the radio, all the progenitors. And then we picked up guitars and some never put them down and came to Los Angeles and played the game and now we all know their names.
But rather than whore himself out to the Fortune 500, TP remains on his own journey, all in service to the music, money is a byproduct.
I felt so good like anything was possible
Hit cruise control and rubbed my eyes
We’ve been on cruise control for far too long. Boomers are all about lifestyle, they gave up moving forward years ago, but then they go to the show and they return to who they once were. Matrons are singing every word, men with lumpy bodies are dancing, that’s the power of music to inspire and change your life, you’re runnin’ down a dream one more time.
We believed anything was possible. As long as the music was playing. And it was, on the radio, on the stereo, it was not portable but it was everywhere.
And it felt so good.
And it still does.
Last night Tom Petty and his band of merrymakers proved they belong in the pantheon, where very few other bands reside. Because instead of worrying about hits played by the last deejay they’re all about getting in a room and making that sound.
And last night we were in the room with them and…
I tingle just thinking about it.
We were workin’ on a mystery, and it led us to a life of incredible fulfillment, and when we hear these songs played live we don’t even think of backing down, we recover from our breakdowns, we’ve got to come around there…
Again and again and again.
Music, when done right, makes magic moments.
AND LAST NIGHT WAS ONE OF THEM!