Johnny – Spotify
Johnny – YouTube

I heard this on the Spotify Americana playlist.

I’m getting sick of the news podcasts. The big outlets are neutral when more emotion is necessary. And the ball never really moves.

So I decided to listen to music. I pulled up my Discover Weekly, and surprisingly, every track was up my alley, but only two resonated, David Bromberg’s “Sharon” and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Swingin’.”

She called her mother-in-law
And said ‘I need a little money
I know I can count on you
After that night in Vegas
And the hell we went through

This stuck out. Funny how you can hear a track a zillion times yet still learn new things, how it can hit you in new ways. She didn’t call her mother, but her MOTHER-IN-LAW! My ex asked for money from my father just before she moved out. Funny, aren’t the parents of your spouse supposed to be the enemy, especially your mother-in-law? But when you’re down and out who can you count on? Only those related to you by blood and law.

I never thought of “Swingin'” as a major track. It was not laden with changes, more of a riff and a sound if nothing else, a workout, noise when you’re angry, but judged against the rest of the stuff in the playlist this Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers cut loomed large, illustrating that you can know how to play, can know how to write, can know how to sing, but still not be transcendent, there’s an alchemy of those skills that makes musicians and their work memorable, Petty sings like he means it, as if he’s got an important story to tell, albeit with attitude, and the rest of the band plays exquisitely, but this was already in the era when MTV had gone pop/hip-hop and now if you’re an ancient rock band and you release new material the tree has definitely fallen in the forest, but almost no one hears it. Many people make music today, but few deserve attention, we need focus on those who do, but then there are poseurs not quite up to snuff, have you been hit by the Phoebe Bridgers hype, have you listened to the album, when you’ve got a story in the “New Yorker” in advance of release I’m suspicious, when something is jammed down my throat, I’m suspicious, it’s only when I hear about something from friends that I pay attention, it’s not that Ms. Bridgers’s work is bad, it’s just that based on the endless hype you’d expect it to be spectacular, and it’s far from it.

She went down swingin’
Like Glenn Miller
Yeah, she went down swingin’
Like Tommy Dorsey
Yeah, she went down swingin’
Like Sammy Davis
She went down swingin’
Like Sonny Liston

Humor. Irony. Petty sings these lyrics straight, but the deeper meaning cracks you up. The image portrayed earlier in the song is of someone who is struggling, not someone who is dancing, but music is a long continuum, and if you know your history you know that the mentioned musicians did, swing that is, but so did Sonny Liston, so the song ends with that pugilistic legend. “Swingin'” never hit me this hard before, it was rewarding, but once again it was so much better than everything else in the playlist, but it was minor Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, then again in the sixties and the seventies the best and the brightest went into music, whether they were educated or not, and the music was enough, we never did get Tom Petty jewelry, never mind cologne.

I found my Release Radar playlist much less rewarding, too much that was not actually new, and the final cut was “Mother of Muses” by Bob Dylan and once again, I respect the new album on paper, it’s just that it’s not that listenable.

So what next?

The Discover Weekly playlist had been so rewarding. And so many of the genre playlists are not. There was a lot of country in my Discover Weekly, but there are too many skips on the country playlists.

So I went to the Americana one. Which was not extremely rewarding until I got to Sarah Jarosz’s “Johnny.”

Sarah gets credit right out of the box, for not changing her name, compromising her authenticity. John Legend? His real last name is “Stephens,” what’s so wrong with that? Even worse, “Legend” is too self-important, and the truth is this guy is reasonable, especially in attitude/statements, but his moniker undercuts his image, same deal with Alicia Keys, whose real last name is “Cook,” but that was not good enough for Clive Davis, calling yourself “Keys,” would Arthur Rubenstein call himself “Artur Keys”? Once again, it’s self-congratulatory and undercuts any gravitas she might evidence.

Johnny’s on the back porch drinking red wine


Now that the barrier to entry is so low, not only do people with substandard voices make music, they surround themselves with amateurs across the board, even though these players and producers believe they’re superstars when the truth is there are journeyman professionals who are superior and available, but it does take some cash.

How could a boy from a little bay town
Grow up to be a man, fly the whole world round
Then end back up on the same damn ground he started

The sound, the playing, and the GROOVE! I immediately locked on to it, was nodding my head, felt good. In other words, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you know it when you hear it.

But the chorus was not up to the standard of the verse.

Nor was the bridge, but at least there was a bridge!

But I had to play “Johnny” again, and again, to sustain the mood, that’s what music delivers that is absent from not only the news, but movies, television, even books, that’s music’s magic.

Lately he’s been thinking ’bout the meaning of time
The small amount we’re given must be sort of crime
Yet the little we have feels like too much most of the time

Well put. Especially in this Covid-19 era, where we’ve got so much time but so much we don’t want to do, we could hoover up the classics, movies, books, but somehow nothing feels right as the clock keeps ticking, and the older you get the more it bothers you, you can see the end, but then there are so many of my generation who’ve surrendered, retired, in thrall to the Grim Reaper long before their time.

He takes another sip of that blood red wine
Just waiting on the stars that will never align
A little luck, a little love, a little light and he’ll be doing just fine

We’re not looking for that much, but it’s amazing how elusive it is.

Sarah Jarosz has been around forever, she first released music at 19 and now she’s only 29. But it took her this long to get seasoned, to have some perspective, despite being nominated and winning a few Grammys, showing how irrelevant those awards are, how come in film and TV there are so few categories and in music there are nearly a hundred, cheapening the already worthless awards, not to mention the imprimatur of victory killing careers, let’s see how Billie Eilish follows up “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” I’ll tell you where there is to go, down, that’s the only direction from the pinnacle, Michael Jackson spent the rest of his life trying to equal “Thriller,” and he never did, despite labeling himself the “King of Pop,” he became a caricature of himself, the music has to make you feel good, not the statuette.

Unfortunately, “Johnny” is not good enough to cross over. It won’t go from the swamp of Americana to the country playlist, never mind Top Forty, but if it were just a tad better, if the chorus and bridge were as good as the verses it would be undeniable, the kind of thing you’d play for everybody you knew, unable to get out of your head, but too many settle for good enough, don’t push themselves to excellence, because it’s hard, it’s easier to stay in the backwater as opposed to going for the brass ring, which you might not even reach. But that’s art, it’s a competition with yourself and the closer you get to the goal the more anxious you become, the harder it is to get to the peak, and as soon as you’re self-conscious, you’re screwed, which is why it’s so hard to do to begin with, those who blaze trails are to be respected, to follow in footsteps is relatively simple.

Yes, I’m employing absolute scale. In an era where the history of recorded music is at everybody’s fingertips and you can only listen to one thing at one time, I like “Johnny” more than all the rest of the new stuff I’ve heard recently, but that just makes me want more, I don’t want Sarah Jarosz to rest on her laurels, I want her to PUSH IT, like Tom Petty, who continued to reach peaks long after his initial heights, who was never satisfied.

“Swingin'” – Spotify
“Swingin'”  – YouTube

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