I may get more than a little emotional in this review, but fuck it.
I mentioned in my review of Long After Dark that I was drawn to Tom Petty after moving to France because he reminded me of home. Whenever I miss my life in the USA, I play the music of three people: Louis Armstrong, Eddie Cochran and Tom Petty. Louis Armstrong represents both the genius of America and the optimism that can overcome even the cruelest obstacles. Eddie Cochran represents the rebel, the guy who continued to dish out great rock ‘n’ roll during a period when those in the know had relegated rock to the status of the hula hoop, a 50’s teenage music fad that had died with Buddy Holly.
Tom Petty represents both the continuing faith in rock ‘n’ roll and a certain set of values that America seems to have lost. As I wrote in the Long After Dark review:
To my ears, he sounds more sincere than the others; he sounds like he’s playing the music he wants to play and has a good time doing it. I admire the hell out of him for standing up to MCA and getting them to reverse on their fan-unfriendly pricing strategy for Hard Promises, and for keeping ticket prices down for his concerts so the folks living from paycheck to paycheck might be able to save up a few bucks each week for a special night on the town. I think part of the reason Hypnotic Eye opened at #1 on the Billboard charts in 2014 is because most of the music coming out today feels astonishingly insincere, and you can always rely on Tom Petty to give you honest music and his best effort. In ancient American lingo, he’s on the up and up, the genuine article, a real swell guy.
He gives the people what they want and it happens to be what he wants, too. Nothin’ wrong with that.
Tom Petty was the Joe DiMaggio of rock ‘n’ roll. When they asked DiMag why he hustled on meaningless plays in a long-lost game, he said, “Because there’s always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.” Like Joe, Tom Petty was amazingly consistent and always gave his best in a career that spanned parts of five decades.
Full Moon Fever was a liberation experience for Tom, his first solo effort. People who complain that it’s not really a solo effort because most of the Heartbreakers made contributions miss the point. This was his chance to go out on his own and take the risk of having his name and only his name associated with his art. It also allowed him to approach his music from a different point of view, an advantage strengthened by his concurrent work with The Traveling Wilburys and the decision to have Jeff Lynne serve as producer. The choice of Lynne (who also co-wrote several of the songs) partially explains the “British” tone of the record, but Tom had been a fan of British rock since he saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan with millions of other kids. He told Rolling Stone, “I’ve always loved the British rock and pop of the Sixties, and Jeff feels the same way. Within the Heartbreakers, I represent some portion of that sound, but they have so many other influences. If you take me away from them, this is what you get.” Recorded mainly in Mike Campbell’s garage studio (they literally had to move the cars out of the way to begin recording each day), Tom would describe Full Moon Fever as “the most enjoyable record I’ve ever worked on.”
And highly enjoyable to the listener.
Full Moon Fever opens with “Free Fallin’,” a dramatic monologue where Tom takes the anti-heroic character of your average L. A. male slob, a “bad guy” who dumped a “good girl” from Reseda, a Latino-dominated piece of the San Fernando Valley. The opening passage of clean, stereo acoustic guitars establishes a reflective mood that inspires immediate curiosity as to where the song might lead. Still free of rhythmic accompaniment, Tom sings the first verse in a tone of guilty regret, applying distinctly American values and imagery to accentuate the innocence of our anti-hero’s victim:
She’s a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too
“And her boyfriend, too” is a brilliant exposure of the self-pity that underlies the anti-hero’s story and brings into question the sincerity of his guilt. The rock-solid rhythm section enters now, giving our anti-hero a few moments to luxuriate in the glorious act of feeling sorry for himself. He completes his reverie with more self-admission, exposing his true, uglier feelings:
It’s a long day, livin’ in Reseda
There’s a freeway runnin’ through the yard
And I’m a bad boy, ’cause I don’t even miss her
I’m a bad boy for breakin’ her heart
Now I’m free—free fallin’
Now I’m free—free fallin’
Essentially, he manipulated the girl’s naïveté for a few good fucks before re-claiming his uniquely male freedom to sow his oats. Fuck this guy! And hey, if your freedom isn’t all that it was cracked up to be, grow the fuck up and deal with it!
Instead of dealing with it, he heads west to Ventura Boulevard, where the users and hoods who have learned that life in L. A. is an endless cycle of using and getting used hold court:
All the vampires, walkin’ through the valley
Move west down Ventura Blvd
And all the bad boys are standing in the shadows
And the good girls are home with broken hearts
In the next rendition of the chorus, Tom’s voice expresses deeper anguish, communicating more sincere regret than what we heard in the opening verses. The experience of “falling” now begins to outweigh the benefits of “freedom.” A brief instrumental-background vocal passage follows, with Jeff Lynne’s voice coming through loud and clear. Tom then steps in for what we hope is the resolution of the story, but all we’re left with is a ridiculous fantasy that’s somehow going to make everything all right. It doesn’t:
I wanna glide down over Mulholland
I wanna write her name in the sky
I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’
Gonna leave this world for awhile
The last line sounds like more self-pity than suicidal ideation, though it could also mean he’s thinking of doing what every American tends to do when things don’t work out—hit the road for sunnier climes. Of course, he’ll wind up in Florida or wherever and pull the same old shit on another unsuspecting broad. You can’t run away from your problems when you are the problem.
“Free Fallin'” is a lyrical, musical masterpiece on many levels. I read that Tom had been working with Randy Newman on a few recordings around this time and the one thing he learned from the experience was to “say more with less.” I’m a huge fan of poetic economy, and “Free Fallin'” is definitive proof that Tom learned his lesson. How such a sad but insightful song was turned into an anthem is a mystery to me, and Tom found that transformation equally disappointing.
A friend in the U. S. sent me a link to the video featuring Jason Aldean’s SNL performance of “I Won’t Back Down,” and I have to confess I started crying like a baby when I recognized the remarkably faithful rendition of the opening passage. I don’t know shit about Jason Aldean, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful tribute in my life. The inspired decision to connect two traumatic events that cut deep into the American soul—the insanity of the Las Vegas massacre with the death of one of American’s greatest musical artists—allowed us to grieve for the people we lost while rekindling a spirit of defiance in the face of evil and misfortune. It was only fitting that the song Jason Aldean chose also had its roots in a traumatic experience.
I still can’t believe this really happened: somebody tried to kill Tom Petty, his family and his housekeeper by setting fire to his house. Badly shaken, he spent the next three months driving his family between hotel rooms and a rental house, using the driving time to deal with the crisis by writing songs in his head.
One of those songs was “I Won’t Back Down,” but he was reluctant to record it. In an interview with Harp, he said:
That song frightened me when I wrote it. I didn’t embrace it at all. It’s so obvious. I thought it wasn’t that good because it was so naked. So I had a lot of second thoughts about recording that song. But everyone around me liked the song and said it was really good and it turns out everyone was right – more people connect to that song than anything I ever wrote. I’ve had so many people tell me that it helped them through this or it helped them through that. I’m still continually amazed about the power a little 3-minute song has.
“I Won’t Back Down” is a testament to the remarkable healing power of music. For Tom Petty, it was a way of channeling a stew of emotions into poetry that helped him deal with a very traumatic experience.
The recording of “I Won’t Back Down” is marked by a strong, insistent beat, reflecting a determined refusal to surrender one’s spirit to the forces of fear and hatred. Tom’s voice remains calm and confident throughout most of the song, an attitude intensified by the dominant metrical pattern of three stressed syllables (WON’T BACK DOWN, STAND MY GROUND). The most powerful variation in the pattern comes in the bridge, where the band nails a rhythmic kick, Jeff and George Harrison step in with superb background vocals and Tom lets his voice soar as he sings of the freedom that comes with the acceptance of reality (“Hey, baby, there ain’t no easy way out.”) To me, that is the most important line of the song, because regardless of how much fame and money one has, we are all vulnerable human beings, and no amount of wealth and privilege can protect a person from the ugly side of humanity. We are all at risk from one form of evil or another, but the only way we can deal with it is to move forward, remain true to who we are and hope for the best:
Well I know what’s right
I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground
Tightly played and full of powerful dynamic variations, “I Won’t Back Down” is a song you can always rely on for a spiritual boost.
Co-written with Mike Campbell, “Love Is a Long Road” opens with an engaging synthesized pattern reminiscent of passages in The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” before shifting to a more muscular display of the rhythmic power of rock. The strong, simple beat that drives this song is frigging irresistible, underscoring the passionate intensity of lyrics focused on the complexities of coupling:
There was a girl I knew
She said she cared about me
She tried to make my world
The way she thought it should be
There it is again—the age-old problem of trying to make one’s love interest into something that they’re not. KNOCK IT OFF, PEOPLE! If you can’t love a person for who they are, that should tell you it’s time to move the fuck on! Jeez maneez, will you ever learn? Although the problem is as old as Methuselah, Tom Petty’s anguished sincerity makes this one of the better songs about relational entrapment.
Tom eases up on the throttle a bit with “A Face in the Crowd,” a lovely piece about the seemingly magical transformation that takes place when someone emerges from the faceless masses to become the most important person in our lives. I’ve always wondered about the invisible threads that connect people—how two people with completely different life narratives wind up at the same place and same time to solidify the link. Tom doesn’t explain how it works as much as he marvels at the experience, which is good enough for me. I love the guitars in this piece—subtle, clean, and brilliantly arranged.
Speaking of mysteries and fabulous guitars, “Runnin’ Down a Dream” supplies both with the power quotient ramped up to the nth degree. The opening riff defines the word “smokin,” a rough, high-speed phrase that raises the heartbeat in anticipation. That anticipation leads to five minutes of non-stop excitement, facilitated by well-executed variations in dynamics and superb fills that keep this sucker moving at top speed (the high-speed accoustic guitar fills in the chorus are an ass-shaking delight). Phil Jones’ drum work is outfuckingstanding and Mike Campbell’s extended solo in the fade is what rock ‘n’ roll is all about—let it fucking rip all night long, baby!
“Runnin’ Down a Dream” certainly deals with the modern adaptation of the American dream—the freedom to get in your car, hit the highway, jack up the volume on the radio and search for something different. What I love about “Runnin’ Down the Dream” is the clear emphasis on two essential elements of the experience:
- You ain’t gonna find no dream sittin’ on your fat ass and watchin’ it on TV: Runnin’ down a dream/That would never come to me.
- Ya gotta believe. There’s somethin’ good waitin’ down this road/I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine.
And although we tend to romanticize the experience of leaving it all behind for a new life (I’m still wondering what happened to the kids who were abandoned by their parents in Fastball’s “The Way”), a trip down the open road isn’t a trip through Disneyland. There’s some pretty scary shit out there (just ask the guys in Easy Rider), and you must have the willpower to ride through the rough patches:
The last three days the rain was unstoppable
It was always cold, no sunshine . . .
I rolled on as the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time
And while you’re giving it the gas, it sure helps to have Del Shannon blasting out of the radio! There’s something about rock ‘n’ roll that bucks you up, strengthens your backbone and imbues you with the ability to face anything, and “Runnin’ Down the Dream” is one sterling example of the energizing power of great rock ‘n’ roll.
How nice it was of Tom Petty to think of cassette listeners who lacked a two-sided play feature to pause the recording before moving to Side Two! Actually, I think it was a great idea to give everyone a break after the fury of “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and let people shift their asses to a more comfortable position to better appreciate one of the great covers of all time—Tom Petty’s rendition of Gene Clark’s “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.” Tom’s version is intensely faithful to the original, with only a few minor variations—and that’s a good thing! Why mess with a great song with a great arrangement, particularly one that captures the Rickenbacker-driven sound of 1960’s American folk-rock so perfectly? What allows the cover to stand up to the original is a combination of Tom Petty’s deep respect for the song and the higher quality production that provides the listener with cleaner, richer guitar and more rhythmic oomph. I can imagine a hundred different ways this song could have been ruined by less respectful people (a disco version! a progressive rock version! a rap version!), so we can be very thankful that Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne were at the helm.
“Yer So Bad” follows, a humor-spiced piece about an upside-down world where “bad” means “good” and relationships are driven by greed, manipulation and mindless sexuality:
My sister got lucky, married a yuppie
Took him for all he was worth
Now she’s a swinger dating a singer
I can’t decide which is worse
I think “I can’t decide which is worse” says it all, and is one of Tom Petty’s best punch lines. The acoustic-heavy arrangement would have fit nicely on the Wilburys album, but its placement here gives us more insight into Tom Petty’s personal values—more than appropriate for a solo effort. I also love the reiteration of the theme of relationships as a sanctuary (and I’d much rather listen to that theme as presented here than Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe”).
The bouncy “Depending on You” follows, its bounciness contrasting significantly with the story of a very tenuous relationship. The background vocals here are excellent, adding a nice bit of variation to the arrangement . . . but I have a hard time reconciling the upbeat feel of the song with the downbeat lyrics. “The Apartment Song” has the same issue—a hard-driving rocker about loneliness—but the band rocks so hard on this one (especially during the paradiddle drum passage tribute to Buddy Holly) that I couldn’t care less about the lyrics.
There is no disconnection at all in the perfectly lovely “Alright For Now.” The expression of deep appreciation for a partner that fully supports your right to pursue your life goals is sincere and deeply moving. In contrast to the poisonous relationship described in “Love Is a Long Road,” this song describes the essence of true love—the willingness to allow your partner be who they are, even if it means lengthy periods of separation. The verse I find most touching fully captures the need for freedom within the context of a relationship, and the heartfelt appreciation of that rare gift:
I’ve spent my life travelin’
Spent my life free
I could not repay all you’ve done for me
The arpeggiated guitar duet is sumptuous, and the touches of vocal harmony make you want to snuggle up next to your honey right now.
We shift from soft and sweet to Bo Diddley with the all-out rocker, “A Mind with a Heart of Its Own.” The lyrics are absurdist in the extreme, but some of the lines give me the giggles:
Well I been to Brooker and I been to Micanopy
I been to St. Louis too, I been all around the world
I’ve been over to your house
And you’ve been over sometimes to my house
I’ve slept in your tree house
My middle name is Earl
I have no idea why that last couplet cracks me up . . . perhaps it’s the experience of listening to someone’s unconscious thoughts streaming out in a massive mental dump. For whatever reason—the intense rhythm, Tom’s sneering vocals or the joy of gobbledygook–“A Mind with a Heart of Its Own” is one of my favorite songs on the album.
Full Moon Fever ends with an attempt at satire that landed with a thud. As in “Free Fallin’,” Tom was playing a part in “Zombie Zoo”—in this case, an ignorant redneck (Tom was thinking Jed Clampett) who doesn’t understand why the ravers and punks distort their god-given appearances and refuse to follow accepted social norms. Unfortunately, he didn’t leave enough vocal or lyrical cues for people to grasp the satire—the lyrics focus too much on the allegedly irrational behavior of youth and not enough on the desiccated, old fart brain of the narrator. Astonished at the negative reaction to the song, Tom apologized for having offended anyone, showing he had more class than Donald Trump ever will.
Full Moon Fever is many things, but best of all it’s a great rock ‘n’ roll record. The intentional nods to Del Shannon, Buddy Holly and Bo Diddley emphasize the continuity and staying power of rock ‘n’ roll while reminding us of its long tradition. Three of the songs have earned anthemic status, a piece of good news/bad news. “I Won’t Back Down” has been used by several political campaigns, and only one—the Bush II campaign in 2000—earned a cease-and-desist letter from Tom’s attorney (Tom supported Al Gore). People will always take a song with a memorable message and either twist the original meaning into knots or use it to try to sell shit. I’m not sure what Jason Aldean was thinking when he sang “I Won’t Back Down,” but after listening intently to the Tom Petty original, I know what he meant—and that’s what really matters. Tom was on his game during this period in his life, bouncing back from the trauma of the fire to produce one of his greatest and most lasting contributions to music. He did NOT back down.
Earlier this year, I delayed publication of two reviews of The Allman Brothers because of Duane Allman’s passing. Full Moon Fever was on my schedule for January 2018 and my first reaction after Tom’s death was confirmed was to leave it right there. While having dinner with my parents this past Sunday, my dad (a huge Tom Petty fan) asked me if I was going to do a review to honor his memory. I told him I was uncomfortable with that idea.
“Because I don’t want to be seen as capitalizing on someone’s death. It’s ghoulish.”
He gave me a long, hard stare and then burst out laughing.
“Capitalizing? Capitalizing? You’ve been writing reviews for almost six years. How much money have you made?”
“Correction—think about all the music you’ve bought, the time you’ve spent and the cost of running a website. You’ve lost money. Then how in the fuck can you capitalize? Where’s the gain? Where’s the profit?”
Then my mother popped in with the line that always shatters my occasional bursts of irrational stubbornness. “You’re being silly.”
“Honor the man with an honest review,” said dad, putting an end to the debate.
So, let me be honest—this was hard to write, but the experience of immersing myself in Tom Petty’s music was both cleansing and uplifting. Full Moon Fever is a wonderful listening experience, a well-produced, exceptionally performed record with some of Tom Petty’s greatest songs and several of his finest lyrical efforts. I remain devastated by his loss, but I’m comforted by one thought above all: we may not have Tom anymore, but he left us his music.
What a marvelous gift to leave behind!
The original title was Like Flies on Shit. Most of the recordings were made on flaky equipment by musicians in varying degrees of drunkenness. Vocals are mumbled, lyrics often unintelligible. On some songs it feels like Alex Chilton asked himself, “What are the most abrasive and obnoxious noises I can come up with?” and then made absolutely sure he captured those annoying sounds on tape. The producer filled in as guitarist because Alex thought he was a terrible guitar player. All the tracks contain multiple fuck-ups like missed cues, false starts, accidental noises and background chatter. The name of the frozen confection that replaced the word “shit” in the title is misspelled, but the title still evokes an image of something totally disgusting. And though the final mix took a year to complete, Like Flies on Sherbert was universally condemned on release for its poor sound quality, terrible balance and utter lack of professionalism.
Goddamn, I love the fuck out of this record.
Alex Chilton had hoped to turn his success as lead singer of The Box Tops into a more satisfying and successful career as songwriter and creative force behind Big Star, but ran into a series of obstacles from the get-go. The first was that despite a series of chart-toppers with The Box Tops, his name was curiously unfamiliar to the listening audience. My Big Star fan father explained it this way: “The Box Tops were a white soul pop band who weren’t taken all that seriously, so there wasn’t a lot of background chatter about them in comparison to the heavies of the era. People knew Jagger, Daltrey and Robert Plant. I didn’t know who Alex Chilton was until I discovered Big Star. And even then I couldn’t believe that was the same guy on ‘The Letter’ and ‘Cry Like a Baby.'” That delightfully gruff voice, a product of sore throat and plenty of Camels, gave way to a mid-to-high range voice with greater emotive capability.
The second problem Chilton ran into is that his melodic rock—the precursor of power pop—was yesterday’s news. “Rock had gotten a lot heavier, and Big Star sounded like something out of the mid-sixties,” dad commented. “If they’d released some of those songs in ’66, people would still be singing them today.” The failure of Big Star to catch on—certainly aggravated by indifferent promotion and distribution by Stax and Columbia—led to an unstable lineup and uncertain direction. Their last release—attributed to Big Star only for marketing purposes—was pretty much an Alex Chilton solo effort. Like all the Big Star releases, Third/Sister Lovers was critically acclaimed and commercially ignored. “I was and I think I still am the only Big Star fan I know,” claims my dear father, extraordinarily proud of his early discovery of a band that became quite influential over the years.
Commercial failure, over-the-top substance abuse and tenuous mental health resulted in the darker songs that pop up about halfway through Third/Sister Lovers. Those songs revealed a depth and complexity missing from his previous work, and one could have easily imagined Alex moving in a more contemplative direction in the future, accompanied by piano and strings rather than guitar and drums. Instead, we have Like Flies on Sherbert, which AllMusic critic Stephen Erlewine called “a front-runner for the worst album ever made.”
Other critics jump through hoops trying to connect the darker songs on Third/Sister Lovers to what they perceive as its disastrous follow-up. The narrative goes something like this—failure led to substance abuse, depression and mental instability, and Alex Chilton brought all that into the studio, providing irrefutable, recorded evidence that he was well on his way to self-destruction. The man was suffering and he chose to dump all his psychic shit into our unsuspecting ears.
But was he really suffering on Like Flies on Sherbert?
I don’t buy that explanation for a second. First, it sounds like Alex had a helluva good time! Like Flies on Sherbert is loaded with humor, sometimes black, sometimes Pythonesque, often beautifully accidental. The “mistakes” are a hoot because everyone knows they’re mistakes and none of them detract from the feel of the music. “So, you fucked up. Who gives a shit? Welcome to the human race.” In several cases, the mistakes improve the song, a paradox that challenges our sacred beliefs regarding professionalism. “Then why should any musician bother to get the song right?” you ask. “Exactly!” I reply. Like Flies on Sherbert is not so much a musical experience as an experience that demands an attitudinal adjustment on the part of the listener.
The attitudinal adjustment you need to appreciate Like Flies on Sherbert sprang from an attitude shift on the part of one Alex Chilton. That shift began with blown expectations, a common feature of all journeys that turn out to be worth the trip. Alex’s original plan for the album—an intimate recording session with producer Jim Dickinson and “one or two other people”—was blasted to bits when he showed up to find Dickinson had brought his entire band. Alex’s reaction to it all was the classic response of the improviser—say “YES!”
I thought . . . “hmmm, well, this isn’t what I had in mind really!” . . . but I didn’t say anything. I just thought we should try it an’ see how it goes.
George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 215). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I think what happened next is that Alex began to reconnect with his teenage self. In the period leading up to the recording sessions, he had been taking in the emerging punk scene in New York and was trying to introduce punk to the hometown crowd in Memphis. Although Like Flies on Sherbert does not embrace the model of three-chord rock played at lightning speed, the attitude is pure fuck-it-all punk—and Young Alex was a guy with attitude. His thirteen-year-old girlfriend described him thusly: “He was funny and good-looking. He had a swagger and held a Camel like no other.” Young Alex was James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, smirking, smoking, setting off firecrackers—a part of himself that he’d revealed in late-period Big Star shows but very rarely on record. Shedding the expectations that had followed him since the days of The Box Tops, Alex reconnected with his rock essence, with his inner James Dean . . . though the consummate professional musician still had his doubts:
We started recordin’ an’ I thought, ‘Man, these guys don’t know the songs . . .’ an’ I was trying to teach them, and they’d go, ‘Yeah, we know the songs,’ and then just go and play the first thing they thought of. So we were rollin’ the tape and we were doin’ all this outrageous soundin’ stuff. . . . An’ I thought ‘Man that must sound terrible.’ But when I went in and heard what we’d been doin’, man, it was just this incredible soundin’ stuff.
George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 215). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The second reason I think critics have gone too far to dismiss Like Flies on Sherbert as evidence of instability comes from Alex’s own testimony:
“My life was on the skids, and Like Flies on Sherbert was a summation of that period,” he later reflected. “I like that record a lot. It’s crazy but it’s a positive statement about a period in my life that wasn’t positive.”
George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 239). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The history of the artist in every branch of art is riddled with fragile sanity, drugs and alcohol, as if an artist is a person doomed to exist in a purgatory where one door leads to creation and the other to self-destruction. After all, an artist is a person who chooses to differentiate him or herself from the status quo, and the status quo always informs our definition of sanity. It’s no wonder that “mental instability” is a common thread in art—we wouldn’t have art if artists were always “mentally stable.” Therefore, it’s not at all surprising that Alex Chilton would do some of his best work while suffering and searching for the thing inside that he needed to express. It sounds to me like the recording sessions to Like Flies on Sherbert were actually a healing experience for him, a temporary respite from the downs and a reconnection with the reason he wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll in the first place:
Good rock & roll started from the rockabilly singers of the fifties. It has always been wild and out of control, and you had a real chaotic sense, and the punk thing has brought that back pretty strongly. To me, it’s just good rock & roll. Rock & roll is supposed to be out of control, and it’s crazy and it’s supposed to drive you crazy.
George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 223). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
And if there’s one album that epitomizes wild, out-of-control chaos, it’s Like Flies on Sherbert.
There are three different versions of Like Flies on Sherbert. My dad has the Aura version (British), so that’s what you’re going to get. Though I don’t target music consumers on this blog, let me give you a heads-up: you can get the vinyl version on Amazon for about two hundred bucks.
Thank my lucky stars for a father with a great vinyl collection!
The Aura version opens with “Boogie Shoes,” a B-side from K. C. and the Sunshine Band. Like all of K. C.’s offerings, the original is slick, sexless and thoroughly overproduced. Alex Chilton’s version is messy, hot as yours truly on a Saturday night and as for production, well . . . Alex misses his cue and starts his vocal too early, the bass player takes a few measures to get in sync with the drummer and the fills feature an electric guitar with treble knobs on both guitar and amp set to the max, in shocking contrast to the bass-heavy bottom. I guarantee that when you listen to the album on headphones the first time, you will yank them off your head when the guitar comes in. Jim Dickinson turns into an absolute madman on the piano, taking over the groove and driving the forward movement. About two-thirds of the way through the song, the electric guitar overloads one channel, destroying everything in its wake for a few seconds. Somehow the band manages to pull itself out of the precipice to put together a pretty hot guitar duet, leading to the rather anticlimactic ending with Alex mumbling his way half-heartedly through the closing line. As a statement to Big Star fans expecting lovely harmonies, professional production and further development of Alex Chilton’s songwriting skills, “Boogie Shoes” is one stiff middle finger; as a statement of returning to the essence of rock ‘n’ roll and its inherent amateurism, it is a goddamn masterpiece—an absolutely gorgeous, sloppy mess of opener.
Next up is “My Rival,” our first Alex Chilton original. The buzz around this song focuses on its “darkness,” to which I respond, “Is there a music critic in the house with a fucking sense of humor?” Alex Chilton takes on the ever-present cave man mentality of insecure American men raised on the silly belief that women are property that other men can steal from you. Alex—who had recently been cast aside by a girl for a drummer, no less—fits nicely into the role of the cuckolded loser who blames his loss of pussy on his rival, the evil shadowy figure who “has muscles and is a deceitful person,” and “stole my girl away.” Feeling safe enough to dish out the trash talk when alone in his bed, he takes his bitterness to the logical conclusion:
And I haven’t got nothing
And I’m dropping off to sleep
And I had rather be a killer
I’m gonna shore my confidence up
My rival I’m gonna stab him on arrival
Shoot him dead, my rival
Exposing one’s worst thoughts through verbalization is a fairly effective way to show you how silly you are, so my take on the song is Alex is telling himself, “What the fuck were you thinking, man?”
The “arrangement” for “My Rival” is really no arrangement at all—it sounds like you’ve stepped into the garage and the band is about to take a shot at this new song they wrote. You hear Alex on distorted guitar playing the intro riff, but no one else in the band is quite ready, so you get some test runs on the Mini Moog before bass and drums step in—probably after looking at each other with the “Am I supposed to come in now?” face common in jam sessions. It takes a few bars for the drummer to take control of the rhythm, but once he does, the song settles into a dark and sexy groove. Meanwhile, Jim Dickinson is “just turning knobs” on the Mini Moog, adding a patina of general weirdness to the mix. “My Rival” doesn’t end so much as it collapses, with no one stopping at the same time and Alex commenting, “Sounds pretty hot.” I echo that sentiment—for all it’s sloppiness, “My Rival” is a great rock ‘n’ roll song—sexy, quirky and definitely anti-establishment. And as for Alex’s madness and its influence on Like Flies on Sherbert, lo and behold, there was a method after all:
At the same time Alex focused on playing distorted guitar, looking for new ways to attack the instrument. “Alex was at a juncture,” Sid Selvidge recalled. “He’d had a real bad experience with the Big Star stuff and was trying to distance himself from his acceptable past, I felt, because what he would do at the Procape would chase people off. They didn’t understand it. His whole concept was, If I were a thirteen-year-old right now, and I were just learning my instrument, how would I play guitar? People don’t realize what an accomplished guitar player Alex is, his versatility. He’s a consummate guitarist. So from that level of sophistication, he was trying to play without knowing all that he knows. He was trying to play note for note what somebody who doesn’t play the guitar would play like. That’s a pretty convoluted concept, but that was his idea. And it fits perfectly into rock & roll. This was popular music to him— from where he came at it and got his hits in the first place.”
George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 188). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Keeping it as hot as my girlfriend in a studded leather bra, “Hey! Little Child” comes next, and though it takes about twenty seconds for the band to achieve the tightness this song requires, they do get there, grooving to the straightforward beat and nailing the repetition of the word “Hey!” that serves as the chorus. The beat drives the song, but the guitar fills are a delight, uncovering more melodic possibilities in the simple chord structure. The only oddity in the song is the use of a toy piano (or a horribly recorded real piano), but somehow it manages to lighten the overall sound without weakening it. The little child in the song is a Catholic teen girl in her school uniform, the ultimate symbol of superficially repressed but ready-to-rock sexuality. The stiff and steady beat reflects both her faux formality and the observer’s scarcely disguised desire to slip his stiff one in between her skirt, missionary style. With its disciplined simplicity and strong forward movement, “Hey! Little Child” is the most obvious evidence of Alex Chilton’s time in the New York punk scene.
By contrast, “Hook or Crook” has the breeziness of early Stones records with a touch of country, featuring a series of hot guitar licks to remind the listening audience, that yes, Alex Chilton knew how to play. Easily the most mistake-free song on the album, “Hook or Crook” turns out to be the least interesting track. “Bring back the fuck-ups!” I shout with brimming impatience, and the band responds with a cover version of The Bell Notes’ 1959 hit, “I’ve Had It.” Jim Dickinson takes the lead vocal on this one, making a game attempt to try to find the right key during the intro. He finally sort of gets there, delivering a performance that falls somewhere between bad karaoke and last-drunk-at-the-party. Alex sings in the second-fiddle position to give the vocal some depth, throwing in a little falsetto here and there that’s also a little off. The piano tends to stray from the percussion role from time to time with block chords that bear little or no relation to the theme. The ending is executed with no precision whatsoever, and I’m as happy as a slut with hard ones in all three available orifices.
And I’m even happier (if that’s possible—three at once would be an awesome experience!) with “Rock Hard,” a song that Alex re-jiggered during the mixing process. Even with the rewrites and overdubs, the feel remains loose and underproduced, and Alex sings this song like his penis is ready to explode. The lyrics essentially riff on the multiple connotations of the phrase “rock hard,” forming what is in essence a sexual meditation:
Have a party
Way on down
Alex does attend to the penis later in the song, thrillingly connecting a rock hard member to BDSM tendencies (fuck yeah!):
Nice and mean
Is really sweet
It’s gettin’ hard
Like a shot
The low-fi Duane Eddy-like riff is pure classic rock, and Alex’s solos (one repeating a single, twangy note) stick to the beautiful basics. I would have liked the piano to sound a bit more Fats Domino, but as it is, “Rock Hard” is one seriously hot number.
We now get three cover songs in a row, each from different genres. “Girl After Girl” is a fairly faithful rendition (vocally speaking) of Troy Shondell’s (real name Gary Wayne Shelton) hit that earned him the completely deserved status of a one-hit wonder. The song is bloody awful, and because Troy Shondell, re-named after early 60’s matinee idol Troy Donahue, tried with all his might to sound like Elvis, we get an Elvis impersonator’s version of an Elvis impersonator. After asking “What song is this?” Alex dives with great intensity into what proves to be a false start. When the band gets going, they manage to pull off a decent reproduction of bad surf music. It’s okay, but probably the weakest track on the album.
In the mid 1960’s, “Waltz Across Texas” was a big hit for Ernest Tubb, the Texas Troubadour. The contrast between Tubb’s strong, confident vocal and Alex’s sloshy mess couldn’t be greater. It’s like you walked into the worst honky-tonk bar in the world at 1 a. m. and, because it’s a slow night, the bartender-owner decided to let the busboy pull out his gee-tar and play for the two or three drunks propped up against the bar. Unfortunately, the bus boy can’t sing worth shit and has the habit of spitting out the word “Texas” like he’s spitting out bloody teeth. Alex finally goes fucking mad towards the end, clearly identifying the piece as satire.
The best of the three in this clump of covers is “Alligator Man,” where Alex delivers his vocal in his natural voice with genuine enthusiasm over the thumps, labored guitar and general uncertainty of his fellow band members. The song was sort of a novelty hit for Jimmy C. Newman, a guy who spent his career wobbling between country and cajun. Alex plays and sings with gusto, clearly carrying the band, who really don’t sound all that sure about this cajun stuff.
The title track closes the album, a perfect end to our journey into chaos, a song both grand and ridiculous, a performance so dysfunctional yet so perfect. The grandiosity of the piece comes from the synthesized theme, the big booming drums resembling timpani and the introduction of choral voices as the song builds to the finale. The ridiculous dysfunction comes from the fact that the synthesizer sounds like crap and the choral voices are the voices of rank amateurs. The lyrics are almost completely unintelligible, with “It’s . . . so fine” serving as the only clearly understandable line in a word salad consisting of German and perhaps another language (or English in a generic imitation of a foreign accent). The progression of the song is defined by the character of Alex Chilton’s voice, which moves from Beach Boy-quality falsetto to the screams of the first guy out the door when the inmates take over the asylum. I can’t give you a musical or technical explanation as to why this song works, I have no idea why I get happy when it comes up and I am completely unable to identify the part of my personality that causes me to sing along to a song whose words I CAN’T FUCKING UNDERSTAND . . . but to me, “Like Flies on Sherbert” is a hoot, a grand send-up of the pomposity of album closers that present themselves as serious, meaningful reflections on life but are as empty as the vacuum of space.
And once again, it sounds like Alex is having the time of his life, shedding years of frustration and a whole slew of expectations. Various accounts from those in the studio during the Sherbert sessions describe Alex Chilton as moody, prone to extremes and an absolute prick at times. The booze, coke and crystal meth probably didn’t do much to foster a sunny disposition, and there is little doubt that he was a man in need of professional assistance. Still, there are many moments on Like Flies on Sherbert when he sounds as happy as a teenage punk scoping out the chicks with a cigarette dangling from his lips, fully wired to the energy source that drives rock ‘n’ roll—the sweet spirit of defiance, the glorious rejection of taboos, the lightness of the freed soul.
And that’s the Alex Chilton I choose to remember.