Dwight Twilley is haunted.
On his excellent and moving new album, “Soundtrack”, Dwight Twilley reveals himself to be a man hounded by ghosts; particularly the poignant memories of his departed partners, Phil Seymour and Bill Pitcock IV, and perhaps even more so by the bittersweet taste of youthful dreams not quite realized.
To those who are fans, the ups and downs of the Twilley saga are well-known. In the mid-seventies, Dwight Twilley was the young rocker who seemed to have it all; the tunes, the talent, the look, the rave reviews in “Crawdaddy” and a Top 20 hit right out of the gate with 1975’s shimmering pop-rocker “I’m on Fire”. But the release of his 1st album was delayed, and once “Sincerely” was out, somehow its brilliant evocation of early-Beatles era pop rock didn’t quite connect with radio dj’s enamored of “Saturday Night Fever” & FM radio playlists saturated with endless rotations of “Stairway to Heaven”.* But “Sincerely” was stuffed with enough impossibly innocent tunes like “You Were So Warm” and “Losing You”, great Byrds-like guitar from Bill Pitcock IV, exquisite harmonies from Dwight and Phil and impeccably smart arrangements replete with handclaps, tambourines and the organ of the great Leon Russell, to become an instant power-pop classic; a dream record with far-reaching influence, touching every indie rocker of the era from Tom Petty to R.E.M. and beyond.
Somehow though, the timing was off-and while Twilley concocted one great pop record after another,(“Looking for the Magic”, “Tryin’ to Find My Baby,” “Twilley Don’t Mind”, “Chance to Get Away”) the follow-up hit that shoulda’ been never happened. By 1980, partner Phil Seymour had gone out on his own. Subsequently, Phil had a great big hit record; “Precious to Me“, which itself could’ve been an out-take from the “Twilley Don’t Mind” sessions.
Phil’s solo success must’ve been a bittersweet pill for Dwight; surely he was happy for his former partner, but he must’ve felt a little twinge in the back of his throat; it had been the “Dwight Twilley” band after all. Still, Dwight Twilley’s eponymous third record (and first solo album) was his best effort yet–a full, mature sound; songs riddled with introspection as well as riffs–and the depth of its quality only served to highlight the lightweight nature of Phil’s top 40 hit.
|“Twilley”‘s first 5 songs are among the best power-pop tunes ever &”Alone in My Room” is a masterpiece”|
It wouldn’t be long though, before Dwight answered Phil’s hit with his own. Nearly ten years after “I’m on Fire“, Dwight Twilley was back on the charts with the hook-laden “Girls”, abetted by Tom Petty on backing vocals. (Petty, friend and one time stable-mate at Shelter records, had gone on to have his own huge success-and while many have noticed the similarity in Twilley’s sound and that of the Heartbreakers, it was Twilley’s sound first.)
After “Girls“ though, it was all over for Dwight Twilley. There wasn’t a follow-up, but there was an improbable string of bad luck and before long, Twilley was without a label. And in the meantime, Phil Seymour was diagnosed with lymphoma, became ill and passed away in 1993. Twilley’s recording career seemingly at a dead end, he returned to Tulsa, Oklahoma, his hometown; the place where he and Phil met and developed their classic sound; to recoup, to live life, to move onto the next phase.
Not an easy thing– to surrender the dream your life’s work has been built upon, to face up to the limitations imposed upon you by fate, by circumstance, by fortune-good or bad. Twilley had been the embodiment of one kind 1960’s-70’s teen-pop rock dream; very much like Eric Carmen and The Raspberries, or Alex Chilton of Big Star; and his own star succumbed to the death of that dream. He wasn’t going to be Elvis. Or even Ricky Nelson.
That “surrender” is all over “Soundtrack”, mentioned in any number of songs.
“….ran away from Tulsa Town–just to be a circus clown, the golden ring was lost and found…”–Tulsa Town
The blunt acknowledgement of a perceivedfailure to live up to one’s promise and the inability to overcome the obstacles life has stacked before your dream; imbues the album with an overwhelming sense of sadness and resignation.
(“….God didn’t kill your record career, God didn’t make your fame disappear…” God Didn’t Do It)
But “Soundtrack” never succumbs to self-pity, and Twilley doesn’t look for scapegoats. Twilley’s triumph on “Soundtrack” is that at the album’s core he reaches self-acceptance, and perseveres.
(….God didn’t do it….we did it to each other….)
How do you go on when you wake to the fallacy of the dream you’d built your life upon? You live life.
You get up every day, hug your wife- and make another record.
(“….We’ve all been down the drain, it’s only stupid fame….” Out in the Rain)
The wonderful irony is that Dwight Twilley has not only survived–but thrived. After a period out in the wilderness, he’s recording perhaps the best work of his career; indeed, “Soundtrack” may be his most accomplished collection of songs to date. “Soundtrack” is classic Dwight Twilley; melodic pop-rock filled with ringing guitars, Beatlesque flourishes and John-Paul-George style harmonies amidst the lush Spector-like wall of sound that’s dominated his records since his third album.
The album opens with a string of four killer tracks in a row, tunes that set the tone of autobiography, but resist an easy chronology. “Soundtrack” isn’t a Broadway musical. “You Close Your Eyes” and “Skeleton Man” are both “Petty in Byrds-mode” rockers that confront the shadow of death with eyes wide open, if you will, while “Bus Ticket” and “Tulsa Town” are more directly autobiographical; the former is a classic Twilley rockabilly number, the latter a harmonica and piano driven mid-tempo tune that calls to mind similar forays by both John Cougar Mellencamp and Springsteen without ever sounding derivative.
There are no dogs here, every cut is prime Twilley; the power and anger of “God Didn’t Do It”, the bittersweet “Out in the Rain”, the jubilant Memphis/Stax-Volt sound of “Cards Will Fall” and the grand pop sweep of “The Lonely One” which so smartly quotes Ringo’s hit “Photograph” in its opening chords (“‘all I’ve got is a photograph and I know you won’t be coming back anymore…”Ringo Starr/George Harrison)
“stories yes I’ve got a few, but no one’s there to tell them too-the jester’s left to learn the blues–I am the Lonely One….”
For me, the centerpiece of the album is the ballad for Phil Seymour, “Good Things Come Hard”. For anyone who was a fan of the gorgeous records Twilley and Seymour made together in the mid-seventies and the youthful hope and innocence those records embodied, this song, built upon a gorgeous melody and poignant harmonies recalling Twilley & Seymour at their “Sincerely” best, will break your heart with its tale of “two little boys… with little guitars… went for a walk that went around the world…”
“Good Things Come Hard” describes the arc of Twilley’s career, and while he sings of “little antiques…. left to themselves” and “leaving the stage”, he also reveals that the pain of his past hasn’t left him entirely without optimism or hope.
“…the ghost of a dream still hides in your heart, good things come hard…”
For those of us who revere the memory of those early Twilley albums and the promise of youth, our own as much as Twilley’s, the last verse is a moment of absolute crushing directness…
“two little boys, they went their own ways, one’s still around and one’s in the grave….”
What’s to say after that? Twilley could’ve ended it there and no one would’ve blamed him, or he could have sentimentalized the sense of loss further—but the tenderness of his music belies an underlying tough-mindedness that rears itself in the last cut; “The Last Time Around”, a tough rocker driven by chunky– power chords and the electro-shock keyboards of Talyor Hanson.
“when the hero’s found with a broken crown– it’s a shame–you better get it right-cause it might be the last time around-
You better get it right….You better get it right…because it may be the last time around…”
On “Soundtrack”, Twilley gets it right.
This album is better every time I play it—and just as I recognized my teenage self and the ups and downs of my first high school romance in “Sincerely” so long ago; I recognize myself in “Soundtrack” today. It’s Twilley’s life, but he’s telling our story.
The world is so mean…
Success is how you define it. Some measure it by money, some by power, some by fame.
The machinery of the pop world is pretty narrow in its definition, but even so, Twilley had more success in his time than most. But still, that doesn’t do justice to the level of his continuing achievement as a musician and an artist. When he could’ve simply disappeared into a quiet life in Tulsa town, Dwight Twilley decided to keep going, to keep making great records. With “Soundtrack“, Dwight Twilley delivers.
*(seventies power pop, for all of its influence on later generations of DIY bands, never sold all that well. The Raspberries, Big Star, even Badfinger, weren’t as big as their sound suggested they should be–but that’s another story)