Saturday, August 1, 2009

Lb4Lb#7: Wildflowers Are Petty Things

You probably don't think much about wildflowers. They're really just weeds, after all, and unless they're blooming, they don't have much to offer. But when they bloom...

In 1994, I already knew who Tom Petty was. The Traveling Wilburys and Full Moon Feverhad cemented him in a favored place near my tape deck, and even his Greatest Hitsalbum had impressed me. But I figured the Greatest Hits was an admission that he was done; Mr. Petty had decided to sit back on his laurels and take a well deserved basking.

Fast forward 15 years. I'm in the car with the iPod shuffling through my own greatest hits. I'm almost at the saturation point with most of the 600 or so songs on there. I've heard my recent favorites a million times, and the stuff I haven't heard before isn't making an impression as it floats by. I'm thinking, "It's time to wipe this thing and throw on something different."

Then I hear a simple strumming pattern. It's like the first drops of rain on a dusty windshield, when you're driving over to see your girlfriend at the end of a long week. It's like the first slug of beer after spending the day spreading gravel in Arizona. It's like seeing wildflowers blooming next to a field of scorched, brown grass.

You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
Sail away, kill off the hours
You belong somewhere you feel free
Petty has never been the strongest vocalist, or the deepest song-writer. He's not the "rockin-est" rocker, nor is he a very flashy guitarist. He's just that guy you know who breaks out the guitar at parties, and makes everyone feel good. He's that guy that girls don't think about dating because he's "just a good friend", but when they actually give him a chance, he turns out to be genuine and caring.

Wildflowers is built on that vibe. The title track is all about letting someone go where they want, while still hoping that means they'll want to go where you are. There's no pressure, but he lets you know what he wants out of the relationship. He wants to keep it simple, real, and easy.

Doing that, there's always the chance that she'll take you up on the offer and leave, but... why borrow trouble? Why worry that much? You only hurt yourself, after all.

I know your weakness, you've seen my dark side
The end of the rainbow is always a long ride
But don't be afraid anymore
It's only a broken heart
Only a Broken Heart
Yeah, he knows the risks. And he's not immune to that urge to control, either. This could have been an album full of passive-aggressive manipulation. Tom certainly knows the temptation.

It's good to be king and have your own world
It helps to make friends, its good to meet girls
A sweet little queen, who can't run away
It's good to be king, whatever it pays
It's Good to Be King
So we'll sit back, break out the guitar, and sing together. We'll hang out, and make ourselves easy to be around. Sometimes, you can't be king enough to shape those things that are larger than you, so you have to give in. Be easy. And do what you have to do.

And hey, now baby, what can I do?
What am I goin' to do but trust you?
The rest of my nights, the rest of my days
What can I do but love you?
House in the Woods
In 1994, the music scene turned on its head. All of the over-the-top extremes of the 80's metal bands and the effete and introspective self-loathing of the bubbling "alternative" scene collided, and the resulting cloud of ash that we called grunge erupted. It was cathartic, it was redemptive, it was purgative... but it was harsh and unflinching. The music, like the lyrics, explored the dark corners we had all been ignoring, and it changed the way we wrote and heard music.

Everything was about how angry and hurt everyone was. Grunge gave depth to punk, and balls to alternative; it pissed on shallowness of metal, and gave advanced music theory lessons to folk. It was a force of its own, all about denying anyone the opportunity to get close to you, because you knew they just wanted to rip you off.

It affected everything; lyrics, song-writing, form, production, sales, advertising. The flames swept through the music business, and the ashes settled on every genre. No one could sell a record without something "grunge" related - a flannel shirt, a curled fist, an angry riff.

In the midst of all of that, one quiet album pushed something beautiful up through the ashes, and those of us who noticed felt a little lighter for the experience.

Its time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead I have no way of knowing
But under my feet, baby, grass is growing
Its time to move on, it s time to get going
Time To Move On
You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here. Petty knows his limits, and he knows not to expect too much. This makes his album a masterpiece of understatement, as well as an achievement. Not many people can pull off both.

Not many people can craft songs that still bring a smile to your face and joy to your heart when you recognize that simple strumming pattern. Especially not after hearing them for 15 years.