Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

So long, Tom Petty

My earliest memory of Tom Petty is watching the Heartbreakers perform “Change of Heart” on Saturday Night Live in 1983. The anger of this song spoke to me. Even as a 15 year-old, I sensed that the ladies didn’t exactly dig me, and a lyric that said – in essence – “Screw you, I’ll be fine without you” felt might satisfying to a brooding teenager, not to mention that as an aspiring keyboardist I dug the sounds of Benmont Tench, always tasteful, never overplaying.

Two years later, while washing dishes at Seigo’s Japanese Steakhouse in Brookfield, Wisconsin, a strange song with a sitar, synth drums, and the inimitable twang of Tom Petty came on the radio, as the band had switched gears with “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” A few months later my buddy Jim and I attended his show at Alpine Valley (with Til Tuesday opening) and yes, the Southern Accents tour featured a horn section and a huge Confederate Flag that seem incomprehensible and tasteless in hindsight, but for an ignorant 17 year-old the power of the show hit home. “Hey, hey, hey. I was born a rebel.” Fuck, yeah. I left the concert feeling empowered and emboldened…and then I got my first speeding ticket from the Wisconsin’s finest on the way home and learned that I was anything but.

Flash forward two years, and Petty was back at Alpine Valley (I believe with the BoDeans opening, my buddy Kurt in attendance with me), and the satisfying vitriol was back with my favorite Petty song of all time – “Jammin’ Me.” Yeah, man. “Give ‘em all someplace to go.” Few words were more satisfying to my young-adult self. 

I didn’t see Petty perform again until 2003 at the intimate setting of the Vic Theatre in Chicago. Petty had aged and mellowed somewhat and I had aged and mellowed somewhat, now a father of three. Allow me illustrate by sharing my two most vivid memories of that show:

1)      Petty saying something like, “This one’s for those who are no longer with us,” before playing “Handle With Care.” By then, Roy Orbison and George Harrison were gone, and just a few months earlier bassist Howie Epstein had died as well. It was a somber moment.

2)     Me wishing to God that the encore would end because my feet were killing me after standing for about four hours on a concrete floor.

Yep, the vitriol was gone, and now all I wanted was some Advil and a good night’s sleep.

I’d lost track of most of Petty’s releases over the past few decades. I paid modest attention to Wildflowers and never got back on the bus, but there’s no denying the fact that the Heartbreakers fed the soul of my youth.

So long, Tom. Rest in peace.

And to music fans everywhere: brace yourselves. Petty, Bowie, Prince, Emerson, Lake, Michael...these are only the beginning. It’s going to be a rough, rough ride.

The 2017 Brewers

With the Brewers finishing just a game behind playoff contention, it’s tempting to play the what-if game. Even Brewer manager Craig Counsell admitted as much: "We'll always look back and want more," Counsell said. "We played so many close games that it's an easy season to play 'what if' a little bit. But we were on the other end of those games, too.”

Indeed. The Crew played more close games than any other team in the MLB this season, and overall the results were good, but it’s hard not to look back on some of those early games and ask what if. What if Counsell hadn’t stuck so long with original closer Neftali Feliz? Or second baseman Jonathan Villar? Or centerfielder Keon Broxton? Or starter Matt Garza? Or set-up man Jacob Barnes?

Or a bigger what-if question: what if general manager David Stearns hadn’t inexplicably let second-baseman Scooter Gennett go before the start of the season for nothing in return? This one had me scratching my head last April and now it’s more of a head-slapper, as Gennett went on to hit .295 with 27 home runs and 96 RBIs for the last-place Reds. Avoiding that blunder alone would likely have pushed the Brewers to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Or another transaction that I believe will bite the Brewers in the ass if it hasn’t already: the trade of first-baseman Garrett Cooper for reliver Tyler Webb, who lasted all of two games before returning to the minors. Eric Thames, after performing at a blistering pace in April, proved to be just another Chris Carter: lots of strike outs and a fair number of home runs, but overall a liability (I would rather have seen Jesus Agular get more playing time) and the question of a reliable first-baseman – something Milwaukee has lacked since Prince Fielder in 2011 - remains. Is Thames really the guy you want to go with for the next several years? And are you now reconsidering whether you should have traded a good minor-league first baseman for a lousy reliever?

But let’s face it. If someone had told me at the start of the season that the Crew was going to win 86 games, I would have been thrilled, and the truth is the Brewers showed enormous resiliency, bouncing back from losing streaks and avoiding total collapse in spite of losing not one, not two, but THREE starting pitchers on the basepaths, all three of whom were considered the Brewers’ number one starter at the time: Junior Guerra on opening day, Chase Anderson in June and – the final nail in the coffin – Jimmy Nelson in September. You have to hand it to the coaching staff on this one. Somehow the Brewers managed to have the 9th best ERA in 2017, and even though I really, really, really wanted the Brewers to make it to the playoffs, the reality is they didn’t have enough left in the tank to go any further. They were running on fumes ever since Nelson went down. Had Guerra, Peralta, Taylor Jungmann, Garza or someone else proved to be as effective a starter things might have been different, but such is baseball in the National League. Though the game itself is a lot more entertaining in the NL, sometimes pitchers hurt themselves at the plate or on the basepaths, and this year the Brewers suffered more than their fair share of injuries.

I wrote a blog back at the all-star break about the Brewers who were then 5 ½ games out in front, and I predicted then that the Crew would win somewhere between 81 and 87 wins but fall short of the playoffs. I was right. Just after the break, the Crew went on a predictable 5-11 run that pushed them out of first place, never to return. But although the Brewers only finished one game over .500 after the All-star break, given the history of this franchise and the horrific weeks following the break, the team remained surprisingly resilient. Credit Counsell and his coaching staff, and credit Stearns with some good July acquisitions, including Neil Walker and Anthony Swarzak, not to mention the promotion of reliever Josh Hader, who looks to be a potential pitching stud in years to come.

So what to expect next year? I’m optimistic despite the team setting (yet again) a new record for strikeouts. I can’t say the Brewers will be favorites to win the NL Central, but I would be surprised if Milwaukee ended the season under .500. Yes, that’s very much a modest sort of Midwestern optimism where mediocrity is considered a blessing, but just expecting your team to finish above .500 is a nice change for a team that’s done so poorly for so long minus a few seasons. With outfielders Brett Phillips and Lewis Brinson expected to make an impact next year, and with Garza off the books – leaving room for off-season acquisitions – things could get interesting. The big question marks to me are second base (the Crew will likely lose both Walker and Sogard to free agency, and who knows what’ll happen to Villar after a terrible season) and first base (I am not at all convinced that Thames is the answer there, though I suspect Stearns disagrees). And then of course is the massaging of the pitching staff, but there’s some reason for optimism there, too. Brent Suter and Aaron Wilkerson proved to be a potential winning MLB pitchers, and Taylor Jungmann – despite having a terrible time in the Major Leagues – had a tremendous year at Triple A. Perhaps he’s ready now to make an impact at the Big-League level. And even though Counsell loved using Josh Hader as a setup man down the stretch, he’d have to be high not to at least consider him as a starting pitcher for next year. Add to that Zach Davies, Chase Anderson and eventually Jimmy Nelson, once he recovers from surgery, and perhaps the Crew may end up with a decent pitching staff. The relievers lost a lot of games this year – a LOT – but bullpens are something general managers are often able to fix in the off-season.

We shall see. At the very least, 2017 proved to a be an entertaining year for Brewers fans. 2018 will attract higher expectations, but at this point there’s no reason to think the Brewers can’t meet them. It should be fun.

Now let’s just hope the Cubs lay a big old turd in the playoffs.

Ben Folds in Los Angeles

When I first heard Ben Folds Five while driving in 1995 I nearly crashed my car in excitement. I’d never heard anything like it before. A funny, smart, musical piano-based trio sang “Underground” on the radio, a week later I overpaid for the album at CD World, a few years later I sang their songs to my twin daughters, and in 2012 the brainwashing culminated in a Ben Folds Five reunion performance with all three of my children in attendance.

At the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles on Sunday night, my daughter and I took in a solo Ben Folds show of his “Paper Airplane Request Tour” and enjoyed an impressive and somewhat unpredictable performance, as Folds took audience recommendations for the last half of the evening (via paper airplanes thrown onto the stage). My other daughter had attended his Louisville performance last April and was somewhat disappointed with the song selection, as Folds leaned too heavily on familiar territory. The paper airplane tour has helped to alleviate this tendency, and a quick glance at the shows thus far confirms that the second halves of have been completely different, and the loose nature of the programs have also allowed Ben to improv songs on the spot for comedic effect. At Sunday’s concert he performed two ad-libbed songs – one for a man in the audience who was being a dick and another for the theater where he was performing – and both were hilarious.

Folds is an exceptional piano player, something I don’t think I fully realized until this performance. When I watched Folds and Rufus Wainwright perform back in 2004 at Ravinia in Chicago the latter’s piano skills stood out to me, but Folds is right up there, exhibiting not only his own unique style and sound (something very difficult to achieve on the piano) but also very technical runs and hand independence that far surpass anything Elton John or Billy Joel are capable of at the piano. Because of this, an entire evening of piano never got old; Folds has enough tricks up his sleeve to make the last song sound as engaging as the first.

Aside from skipping the repertoire of the last Ben Folds Five release and his collaboration with Nick Hornby, each of his albums were well represented on Sunday, including his most recent effort, So There, whose songs were much more vibrant and effective as a solo performance than on the album that highlighted an accompanying sextet.

Like James Taylor, Folds is able to introduce a song as if it’s the first time he’s ever done so, with an engagingly dry wit and timing. The most compelling may have been his prelude to “Not a Fan,” during which he recounted a moment after a Cincinnati concert when a boyfriend of a fan pulled a knife on him. Apparently some people can really get worked up over music.

The last song of the first set included a short drum duet and piano duet with singer Josh Groban (who knew?) and then the airplanes flew and littered the stage, resulting in some deep cuts that had Folds slightly stumped. “Redneck Past” required a cheat sheet and Folds stumbled in the middle section of “Kyle from Connecticut,” but the rest of set was more familiar.  A 17 year-old aspiring actress who sat in front of me went crazy when Folds began “Emaline,” and my daughter and I high-fived during “Cologne,” an example of one of the singer’s biggest talents – composing beautifully heart-wrenching songs. That fans actually threw airplanes onstage to request “The Luckiest” and “Gracie” was a disappointment (that’s what you wanted him to play out of his entire repertoire?) but “Narcolepsy” and “Where’s Summer B.” helped redeem that audience in my eyes.

Prior to this performance I admit that Folds had grown a little stale in my eyes. His past four albums haven’t excited me nearly as much as his past efforts (the last one to grab me was Way to Normal), but this performance convinced me that he’s still a force to be reckoned with. A more motivated version of me would spend the next year dissecting his songs and piano playing to really get a better handle on his craft. For now, I’ll have to settle for recording my own piano-based trio sometime this winter for my next album, hopefully with a unique result, but undoubtedly owing a great deal to the man that paved the way.

Spicy: 8 Band in 4 Weeks

If variety is the spice of life the last month was particularly spicy for me. 

A few years ago I played with a drummer who performed very similar setlists between two different bands, adding the difficulty of having to recall the slight variations between the two, be it tempos, endings, extended solos, etc. In the past four weeks I’ve played with eight different bands, but I had the luxury (and also the curse) of having virtually no crossover between the various acts. That didn’t keep me from making countless mistakes, but at least the endings were unique!

August 19: my regular gig with Second Time Around.

August 19: a 50 minute setlist of a makeshift funk band playing tunes from The Commodores, Stevie Wonder, Patti Labelle, KC and the Sunshine Band, Kool and the Gang, etc.

August 20: a two hour rehearsal of Genesis tribute music that didn’t lead to a live performance but did require something close to twenty hours of preparation. I can tell you that Tony Banks continues to be my musical hero, as not only do his composition skills never fair to impress, but the keyboard part to “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” kicked me in the ass.

August 25: a gig with The Ripleys, a classic rock band that usually plays as a power trio but added keyboards for this particular performance.  Great time, and it forced me to learn how to play “Tempted” by Squeeze, a pop song with surprisingly complex chord changes.

August 27: my regular church gig at Elmhust Prebyterian.

Sept 1: my regular gig with Block 37.

Sept 2: a duo performance with Ken Slauf playing mostly light rock such as Van Morison, Elton John, Marc Cohn, The Beatles, etc.

September 16: for the third year in a row, a reunion gig with my old high school band, I ON U, playing mostly 80s rock tunes.

During these four weeks I performed something close to 150 distinct songs. In a few months I'll probably be hard-pressed to remember how to play any of them, but for a brief month I had a monster repertoire! It was great fun.

Now it’s back to normal during the non-summer months as my various acts struggle to find a gig here and there, but given my recent schedule I think I’m okay with that.  Sometimes after a run of spicy meals, a bland one isn’t so bad.

Two Albums I Missed

I must have been preoccupied in 2004 and 2005 – something to do with three kids under the age of eight I suppose – because aside from Rufus Wainwright’s Want Two, I can’t recall any new album that I purchased during that timeframe. Flash forward thirteen years or so and I’m filling in a few gaps, and I’ve found two gems from the mid 2000s that I missed the first time around: Paul McCartney’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard and William Shatner’s (yes, that William Shatner) Has Been. Both are fantastic, and dare I say, McCartney’s album from 2004 may be among his top five albums of his entire post-Beatles career.

McCartney is one of those artists who I want to like more than I actually do, and therefore often overrate an album in retrospect. People often refer to his 1989 release Flowers in the Dirt as a great ablum, but listen to it again sometime and you may conclude that it’s a pretty good album. Sure, he makes a bold statement with Elvis Costello’s co-written opening track, and the album chugs along nicely for a while, but it falls off the rails completely by the end (and track two – “Rough Ride” – blows). But when compared it to his prior efforts, Press to Play and Pipes of Peace, its high marks are exaggerated.

Chaos is something different. With the help of producer Nigel Godric and a supporting cast of musicians mostly named Paul McCartney, the former Beatle recorded what is undoubtedly his best in the past twenty-five years and probably his best since Back to the Egg. (I had previously considered Tug of War great but realized that I conveniently overlooked ”Dress me up as a Robber” and “Ebony and Ivory.”) Unlike so many McCartney albums, there isn’t one track on Chaos that leads me to reach for the “next track” button, and many of the songs are downright stellar.

McCartney proves he can still deliver a deftly-crafted pop song in “A Fine Line” and can make a gentle nod to his Beatles past with tracks like “Jenny Wren” and “English Tea,” but for me the standouts are songs that offer an unexpected darker side. My favorite albums moments are:

  • The 2:05 mark of “How Kind of You” as the drums and electric guitar kick in. The tune is lyrically hopeful but juxtaposed nicely against a rather melancholy harmonic progression that’s only enhanced by the drone of a harmonium.
  • The opening of “At the Mercy,” a particularly complex song both melodically and harmonically, deliciously dark by McCartney’s standards with a universal lyric.
  • The entire track of “Riding to Vanity Fair.” This gets my vote for the best song on the album, a gem that lifts the veil from Paul’s sunny disposition and wades in the waters of resentment.

While listening to this album for the first time I had assumed that it was about his breakup with Heather Mills, but alas, they didn’t divorce until 2008. Still, Chaos exudes uneasiness, reminding me of Ben Folds’s Songs for Silverman in that it may have captured the beginning of a downfall that didn't come to fruition until a few years later.

All in all, Chaos is a beautifully rich and complex album.  I’ve listened to it more in the past six months than any other album I own.

And now to William Shatner. When I saw him perform “Common People” on The Tonight Show with Ben Folds and Joe Jackson, both of whom are among my favorite musicians, the song peeked my interest back in 2004. And then I awoke the next morning to get the kids ready for school and forgot all about it.

Fast forward eleven years later, when – in an effort to prove to my friend Kevin that 1995 was in fact a terrific year for rock music and not its nadir – I purchased the album Different Class by the band Pulp, and the fantastic third track “Common People” suddenly reminded me of the Shatner performance. I finally took the plunge and purchased Has Been earlier this year on the advice of a musician friend of mine, and lo and behold, the former Captain Kirk – with the help of producer and co-writer Ben Folds – pulls off a brilliant combination of wit, vulnerability, frustration and hilarity.

Shatner can’t sing. He knows he can’t sing, and when I mean he can’t sing, I don’t mean he can’t sing well, I mean he CAN NOT SING. It’s okay. Instead, he executes something close to beat poetry behind a backdrop of Folds musical compositions, and the results are often mesmerizing.  My favorite tracks from the album:

  • “It Hasn’t Happened Yet.” After the entertaining cover of “Common People,” Shatner lets the listener know that the album isn’t going to be one big joke, that lyrically he can match the uneasiness and regret of a good Jackson Browne song. Wonderfully evocative.
  • “You’ll Have Time.” Sure, it goes on a bit long, but it’s an excellent example of how a performance can raise the ante. Reading the lyrics to this song and one might think, “meh,” but hear the lyrics out of Shatner’s mouth, and it’s comedic perfection.
  • Nothing wins me over more than an artist who doesn’t take himself too seriously (and there have been plenty of times in Shatner’s career when he seemed to take himself WAY too seriously), and in “I Can’t Get Behind That” he and Henry Rollins recite a litany of things that make their blood boil. And then Shatner says, “I can’t get behind so-called singers that can’t carry a tune, get paid for talking. How easy is that?”  I’m sold!

So there you are. Two of undoubtedly dozens of great albums I missed in the mid 2000s. If you’ve got a few more suggestions, send them my way. It seems there’s always time to make up for lost time.

Copyright, 2015, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved