Albums A to Z: The Last DJ

“If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

I reencountered this advice earlier this week while reading A.J. Jacobs’ book about trying to spend a year taking the Bible’s commandments as literally as possible. At multiple points during the first half of his Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs is struck by how much less he talks: “I feel I have to clam up. It’s the best way to battle the overwhelming urge to spew biblically banned negative language” (p. 157). Among other bans, both Testaments take a dim view of gossip, condemning it over twenty times. But, Jacobs laments, “if you really want to be biblically safe, you should go much further [than avoiding gossip]. You should avoid almost all negative speech whatsoever” (p. 99).

I’m going to post about Jacobs’ book when I finish it, but this particular theme happens to coincide with my Albums A to Z series landing at the letter ‘L.” To this point, I’ve made a point of writing about albums that, if not necessarily my favorites by each artist, are at least enjoyable and largely praiseworthy. And the “L” section in my collection is a strong one. Alas, “L” also tempts me to turn what Scripture calls “evil tongue” against my least favorite album by one of my favorite musicians.

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, The Last DJ

The Last DJJacobs quotes one of the many Bible commentaries he reads as defining “evil tongue” thusly: ‘This refers to any derogatory or damaging statement against an individual—even when the slanderous or defaming remarks are true—which if publicized to others would cause the subject physical or monetary damage, anguish, or fear’ (p. 99).

All of which means that I should bite my (evil) tongue when it comes to the subject of Tom Petty’s 2002 concept album, The Last DJ, though I doubt that Mr. Petty or any of the Heartbreakers will read this — or, given the number of page views for this series, that “publicized to others” is a grave concern.

For context… I’m kind of a completist when it comes to buying music: rather than buying ten albums by ten different artists and stretching my tastes, I’ll buy all ten albums that one of those singers or bands released. So having long since committed myself to consuming the Petty/Heartbreaker catalog (I even got the Mudcrutch reunion album that came out in 2008!), I dutifully purchased The Last DJ when it came out… then sold it back to a used music store a few months later.

I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so disappointed in an album. No, that’s not strong enough… “upset with an album.”

This was back in my amateur songwriting days; the experience of listening to The Last DJ even inspired me to write a tune that included a quotation from a much older TP track:

Somebody once said, “Nothing good ever lasts
And life’s just a drag when you’re living in the past”
So I don’t want to hear about some CEO
Shut your mouth and play rock ‘n’ roll!

I just didn’t know what to do with a songwriter who seemed to think that capitalism and popular culture have only recently started to intermingle in the early 21st century, who viewed freeform DJ-ing as the epitome of human flourishing: “And there goes your freedom of choice / There goes the last human voice / There goes the last DJ” (from the opening, title track).

At its best, it’s naive (or archaic, since iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, and other post-2002 innovations make it hard to argue that individual listeners are prevented from finding music other than what Clear Channel and other heartless corporations permit on the airwaves). At its worst, it’s boring, didactic, and hypocritical. (The Metacritic aggregator actually gives “generally favorable” reviews to The Last DJ, but check out the album summary: “The latest from Tom Petty is a concept album (or diatribe, if you will) about/against the domination of popular music by large, greedy corporations. It was released on October 8, 2002 by a large, greedy corporation.”)

But in the spirit of learning to employ less negative and more positive language… I’ll take a shot at listening to the album on Spotify and give each track some praise:

“The Last DJ”

Nothing to say about the lyrics (which set up a concept that’s utterly uncompelling to me).

Musically, songs don’t start or end any better than with the (twelve-string?) guitar figures played here by Mike Campbell. And overall, the song sounds kind of like “Two Gunslingers,” which is at least the sixth best track on an album that’s perhaps underappreciated.

“Money Becomes King”

Oh boy, this is already getting hard. “If you reach back in your memory / A little bell might ring / ‘Bout a time that once existed / When money wasn’t king”? Really??

<deep breath> Is it okay to pull out a second Into the Great Wide Open comparison just two songs in and say that “Money Becomes King” would make an interesting medley with the title track to ITGWO, since the two seem to exist in the same universe?

“Dreamville”

This is more like it. It still sounds a lot like an earlier album in the catalog, but this time it’s the great Wildflowers. And while the story is still about the loss of a mythic past, singing about Lillian’s Music Store selling “black diamond” guitar strings or about “Ridin’ with my momma / To Glen Springs Pool” makes Petty’s yearned-for past sound like it might actually have occupied time and space.

“Joe”

Alas, now we come to the song about the CEO that inspired my own lame attempt at writing a biting lyric, quoted above. I really can’t say anything good about “Joe,” but since I don’t want to indulge in negativity…

I’ll let another blogger speak for me: “…the worst of all, a portrait of a music exec who sees his artists as nothing but disposable commodities. The lyrics have no subtlety or wit and neither does the music.”

(I should note… Listening to the album on Spotify, “Dreamville” and “Joe” were separated by a commercial. Which probably kinda affirms some of what Petty is sayin’…)

“When a Kid Goes Bad”

It’s not a highlight in the TP catalog, but I found this track refreshing on multiple counts. First, it marks the point at which the album’s references to the music industry become increasingly oblique, if not disappearing altogether. Second, the song actually achieves the bluesy groove that’s so lacking in the plodding performance that precedes it. Third, “You built for innocence / You built for joy / Suddenly evil’s all that / You enjoy” makes me think that there’s a tiny chance that Tom Petty might actually have read St. Augustine at some point…

“Like a Diamond”

“Saints all sin / And good things / Must all end”? Has he read Luther too? “You have to pray to the unknown / And hope it’s real,” Petty concludes…

Normally, I don’t like slower ballads from rock songwriters, but this one has the twin virtues of inviting reflection on somewhat impressionistic lyrics and appreciation for Mike Campbell’s solo, which abruptly breaks up the piano-tinkling.

“Lost Children”

A song framed as a prayer? (“Please shine some light down / On those who wander / Filled with hunger and pain.”) Maybe this Augustine comparison isn’t so crazy…

More than most tracks on here, “Lost Children” lets The Heartbreakers stretch out, shifting from style to style and letting Campbell and keyboardist extraordinaire Benmont Tench show off, while the rhythm section is rock solid: still-feels-new drummer Steve Ferrone and old-new bassist Ron Blair, brought back in the wake of Howie Epstein’s sad decline to rejoin the group and play on this and one other track.

“Blue Sunday”

More and more, I’ve grown to enjoy when Petty lets his Southern roots show. Oddly, I still haven’t listened to all of Southern Accents, but I imagine it sounds a lot like this track, which features some nice lap steel guitar and harmony vocals from Scott Thurston. Like on “Dreamville,” the lyric works because it evokes a Florida summer that probably isn’t all in Petty’s imagining or wishing, full of seemingly tossed-off details (the opening meeting in a 7-11 parking lot; the road trip during which “Every now and then she’d laugh out loud for no reason / I pretended not to hear / And rolled my jacket up under my head”).

“You and Me”

Okay, it’s slight. But winsome. And maybe it helped lead Petty onto the road for 2006’s Highway Companion, the stripped-down solo album that found him shedding the pretensions that derailed the one that preceded it.

“The Man Who Loves Women”

Again, nothing groundbreaking. But listening to the McCartney-like bounce of the music, the mock-grandiose backing vocals from the perfectly cast Lindsey Buckingham, and lines like “When he sees a señorita / It’s a sure thing that he’ll meet her,” I think I can believe again that Tom Petty has a sense of humor.

“Have Love, Will Travel”

And now we’re to the one indisputably great song on the album (Petty seems to agree: in the YouTube clip embedded below, he calls it one of his favorites), and I’m almost thinking that this would be a pretty good album if you delete songs 1, 2, and 4. Sure, “Have Love…” calls back to the character at the center of the album’s concept (“The lonely DJ’s / diggin’ a ditch / trying to keep the flames / from the temple”), and the opening of the third verse (“How about a cheer for all those bad girls / and all the boys / that play that rock and roll”) seems like a transparent move to get applause in concert. (It works! Check out the version of the song that graces the fourth disc of The Live Anthology.)

But the first verse and chorus are among the best lyrics Petty had written since Wildflowers. I don’t know if the “you” here is a lover, or music itself, but the wistfulness feels earned, and the simpleminded critique of the first two tracks has given way to “You never had a chance / did you, baby?” and “And you say / you can’t remember / when the lines you drew began to blur.” Then the high harmony vocal from Thurston (filling the other role so well played by Epstein) embellishes the lovely blessing that serves as chorus:

Yeah, when all of this is over
Should I lose you in the smoke
I want you to know
You were the one
And may my love travel
With you everywhere
Baby, may my love travel
With you always

“Can’t Stop the Sun”

At this point, you’ve either bought into Petty’s critique or not. If you have and think that DJs like Jim Ladd were actually figures of major cultural-historical importance, you’ll be cheering along with the quiet defiance of the first verse (“Well, you may take my money / You may turn off my microphone / But you can’t steal / What you can’t feel”) and the vaguely psychedelic bridge’s advice to “Mr. Businessman” (“Be sure to wash your hands / Be careful where you stand”). If not, just skip ahead to 2:40 and enjoy hearing The Heartbreakers jam for a couple minutes.

Release Date: 2002

Three Favorite Tracks: “Have Love, Will Travel”; “Dreamville”; “Blue Sunday”

Other Nominees: Derek and the Dominoes, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs; Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin I and IV; The Beatles, Let It Be; The Replacements, Let It Be; Talking Heads, Little Creatures; The Little Willies, The Little Willies; Hole, Live Through This; The Clash, London Calling; Mindy Smith, Long Island Shores; Bob Dylan, Love & Theft; John Coltrane, A Love Supreme; Lucinda Williams, Lucinda Williams.

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