Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Running Down a Dream

I had Tom Petty wrong for a long time. With the early Tom Petty records, what I mostly heard and liked was a certain kind of hooky rock party music (with the groove in "Don't Do Me Like That" introduced into evidence as exhibit A), and guitar-driven FM radio hits with anthemic choruses (let's go ahead and call the opening riff of "Breakdown" and the chorus of "Refugee" exhibits B And C. I was right that that's mostly what he was doing, and doing very well, at that time, and I'd have said I was a fan. But not a huge fan, just yeah, I like him. For sure. Good stuff. But I was WAY wrong on his range and his depth as a writer.

I didn't even realize until well into college how much the album cuts from Damn the Torpedoes, which came out while I was still in high school, had been seeping into my deep consciousness. Was it from the radio, as deeper album cuts started to get airplay? Whatever the reason, I was playing that album--back when we used to play albums--a lot more a few years after it came out than I ever did when it was first popular. It sank in. By then, early 80s songs like "The Waiting" started me noticing and admiring the man's writing. And I liked "You Got Lucky." Still, Damn the Torpedoes was the main jam.  "Louisiana Rain," became one of my go-to songs, a card up my sleeve, for a certain kind of slightly-unexpected-but-always-glad-to-hear-it moment that would show up about halfway through side A, if I was making a mix tape. And "Here Comes My Girl" was a jukebox staple in my Chapel Hill years, and I began to notice how cool the band dynamic was on that one, how rough the sound is when Tom is talking through the verses about life as struggle, but then how pretty, how smooth and uplifting the guitar arpeggios and Tom's vocals are when it moves to the chorus, how the music matches the lyrical theme, that love can lift us out of struggle for a time, and can make us strong enough to step back into that struggle for another day. It's one of Tom's best vocal performances, pretty much showing off the whole sonic and emotional range of what his voice can do, and the band rises to the occasion as well as I can imagine. So, yeah, early Petty hits, and especially the Damn the Torpedoes, I was an early casual fan with a slowly-emerging sense that, oh, this guy, and This Band, are maybe something special.

When Southern Accents hit, I loved it, the yearning title track, the wtf sitar and Lewis Carroll-based video for "Don't Come Around Here No More," and, in my not-really-very-humble opinion, Tom's most under-rated song: "Dogs on the Run."

And then later, I liked his work with the Wilburies a lot, loved the Dylan backup band phase, and appreciated the Jeff Lynn-produced stuff, especially instant favorite "Running Down a Dream."

The takeaway here is that my fandom of Tom Petty started lukewarm--yeah, he's good, at about the level of a bunch of other good stuff--then warmed up to much more enthusiastic fandom--oh, yeah, I *really* like that band, great stuff!

Wildflowers came out in the mid-90s, but it was years later that I got stuck on it, listened a zillion times--every song excellent, and like five of them are all time faves of mine--and by then Tom was in my top ten, moving past Neil Young, even nudging his way up there with the Beatles

And he has just stayed in rotation all these years. Never got tired of it. Always more good stuff coming out. Always cool songs I forgot about, ready to be rediscovered.

"Here Comes My Girl" was Tonie's and my first dance as a married couple. "You Wreck Me" was the first song we listened to--first line "Tonight we ride, right or wrong"--on an amazing road trip we went on, just the two of us. We saw Tom play a show with one of my longtime favorites, Jackson Browne, and we then spent a week in the mountains of NC. That trip was definitely a game-changer for our relationship. Tom's "Have love, Will Travel" became a big song in our bubble.
And happenstance matters with music. When we sat up with our dying cat Ringo, on the night he passed on, the song "Wildflowers" was playing on the playlist when the last moment came. One time when I was crazy-stressed, hoping for a job offer, seriously worrying about the future, "the Waiting" came on the radio, like a hand on my shoulder saying, damn, man, try to be at least SLIGHTLY cool, okay? And a zillion things like that.

And the writer becomes your friend, who's been there with you for Some  Stuff. That's a lot of why it brings a tear to the eye when we are all singing along on "Learning to Fly" ... because we all started out on a dirty road, for god knows where, guess we'll know, when we get there, and there's that connection ... that for all of us, this band and these songs kept us company for that.

And what songs! The depth is amazing; so many great songs, even ones that are relatively unknown. 

Check out "Square One," from Highway Companion--as good a song as you'll find about rebuilding after hard stuff happens in your life (about which, btw, it has or it will, or both), about coming out of that scorched earth and taking a breath, looking ahead again. Check out "Fault Lines," from Hypnotic Eye-- a Yardbirds-sounding 60s groove with vivid lyrics about how we are all of us kinda patched together, not as whole as we want to appear, and what a balancing act life can sometimes be. And sure, plenty of lighter fare, but I like the writers who can talk in real (meaning layered) ways about life's ups and downs.

So, anyhow, tonight I'll go see Tom, going with one of my best friends, along with my youngest son and one of his best friends, and we'll holler and clap and sing along, gonna be be working on that mystery, going wherever it leads.



Thursday, July 28, 2016


My first Ebook is now available through Amazon, and I've cracked the top 500 in the Short Reads/Romance categories, which is awesome! 

Also, I am really grateful for this blurb from best-selling author Ernest Cline:

"Jeff Knight is one of my favorite writers. Like its author, Lunchbox Love Letters is ridiculously romantic and funny as hell. This book perfectly captures the life of a long relationship, telling a story that will ring true to anyone who's ever traveled down that road."

Ernest Cline, best-selling author of Ready Player One and Armada

Lunchbox Love Letters

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Three Lessons from my Mother the Teacher

Remember the stories-about-mothers show I did this past May? It's called Listen to your Mother, and it's a very cool organization that does these shows in cities around the country each year. This year, the show also donated to SafePlace, which does fantastic work for survivors of domestic abuse.

Stories from the 2016 show are now available on the LTYM YouTube channel. The Austin cast was so freaking good, and I encourage you to check out the whole bunch of us.

For starters, here's my piece, titled "Three Lessons from my Mother the Teacher."





Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Busking with Harrison Part One

This’ll be a short blog post, because the video is itself kind of a vlog entry (hey, trying new things), but I can tell you that (a) this is the before (starting the project, putting it in context, preparing for the main event), and (b) we’ll do a post-busking video as well  after we’ve done the actual busking.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

American Stories One: The Luck of Roaring Camp

So, I’m a 53-year-old rookie. Very recently, I’ve released the first-ever audio track featuring my singing and playing. It’s posted for public consumption on my brand new youtube channel. I wrote the song years ago, based on Bret Harte’s story, “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” I first read the story in college, and it pulled me in with its pacing and won me over with its mix of sentimentality and darkness, and I was also taken with the tension between the narrator’s poetic language and the rough mining-camp dialogue. 

When I revisited it years later, it struck me as being even more dark, funny, and sweet than I’d remembered. Dark: it starts with a displaced Native American woman, whose circumstances have forced her into a life of prostitution, dying in childbirth at a mining camp, and gets darker later. Funny: the men at the camp are these hardscrabble anti-social types, and this results in a lot of fish-out-of-water humor as they set out to raise this orphaned baby. Sweet: they fall in love with the baby, the bunch of them, and find that there is a magic in being connected, and in taking care of someone. The rugged individualist way of thinking that has until now informed their lives gets some serious pushback by lived experience. 

Anyway, I like the mix of elements in the story. In its lyricism about a hard world, I hear some of what I like about Townes Van Zant. And I can see a just-emerging mix of themes and a storytelling style/voice  that I think informs Larry McMurtry’s writing (though McMurtry is a better writer). Harte was swinging for the fence here, hoping to become a famous writer back East while writing about the West. Mark Twain, a rival and friend before their falling out, was trying to do something similar at the same time, but “The Luck of Roaring Camp” put Harte way out in front for a while. 

Years ago, I’d gotten on a kick of writing songs drawn from famous short stories. I’ve got songs based on stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, and others, but this one’s my favorite of the batch. I had imagined the song as a short film, and at one point engaged Austin singer-songwriter Woody Russell to do a big, lush, widescreen version of my song, but I never did get the project together on the video side (see “time and money, lack thereof”). When I recorded the demo that Woody based his recording on, he nudged me to just play and sing the song myself. Even with his encouragement, though, I wasn’t quite there yet, in terms of feeling confident enough in my playing and singing. Since then, I’ve gained some ground on both skill and confidence. 

Anyway, with help from some talented friends, I finally made the recording I wanted, and now it’s the debut video on my youtube channel. If you enjoy it, please like, share, etc. I’m not trying to get rich or famous; John Prine has little to fear from me, but I am trying to slowly build up a small but appreciative audience/readership for my poems, songs, and stories. 

Check it out!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Time Travel Vision Quest Chapter Two

Time. It’s a tricky concept, huh? A moment ago I’d been standing at the edge of adventure, thinking about ritual, accomplishment, what our traditions mean, and, to be completely forthcoming, thinking about Lyric and if she might want to spend some time with me when we both got back. Now that moment—my very recent past—was  some unknown number of centuries in the future, and I was going to have to do some quick thinking about my situation. 

Step one was going to be to get to a safe place. Yeah, I know, pretty soon I was going to need water, food, some way to defend myself, all kinds of things, but it was almost dark, and the howls I had heard — oh crap, there they were again — told me that there was at least one species of deadly predator at large in the area. Everything but safety would have to wait. 

My first thought was to try to get a fire going, but I wasn’t very confident that I could make it happen under conditions this damp and this dark. So my next best bet was probably going to involve getting into a tree and moving high enough to get me out of range from these wolves. I found a small ash tree that was skinny enough for me to shimmy up a ways. I made it to a fairly sturdy branch, and moved out far enough to stretch up and out to reach a much sturdier branch on a bigger tree. Unless a bear or maybe a big cat came along, I was going to be okay. It was going to be a long night, but not a lethal one. Tomorrow I’d take a look around and see where and when I’d landed. Northern Europe? Canada? Had the American Revolution happened yet? Had the telephone been invented? The wheel? I wanted to know,  obviously, but it would have to wait. I got as comfortable as I could, pressed against the tree trunk, hoping I might drift a bit, maybe at least get some low-quality half-sleep before I had to face tomorrow.

And then I heard it. It was a voice. It was fairly close by and I was pretty certain that it belonged to a child. Therefore, that child was walking around at night in an area where I knew there were wolves prowling. Damn it! Remember a second or two ago when I was settling in for a luxurious night of shivering in a tree and trying to almost-sleep? That reality was gone. Time really is a tricky concept.

Making as little noise as possible, I eased down from the tree, and took a few tentative steps toward the voice I’d heard. I wasn’t hearing the wolves now, but that didn’t mean anything. The sky had cleared a little, and there was a three-quarter moon shining faintly through broken clouds, increasing my visibility some. Not much. Just ahead of me, I could hear footsteps, but the voice had stopped speaking.

Then the footsteps stopped. I could hear a rumbling growl just ahead, and was starting to imagine myself somehow saving the day and returning home in record time, having accomplished an amazing feat of straight-up heroism, when the seldom-heard-from practical voice in my head began to point out that I had no idea how to subdue a wolf or wolves in pursuit of an easy dinner. Just ahead, I could now see the silhouette of a boy, maybe ten or twelve years old.  I was about to speak, to shout out a warning, when I saw the wolf in a blur of motion, but not attacking the child. Nope. Sprinting directly towards me.




Sunday, June 7, 2015

Time Travel Vision Quest, Chapter One

The soon-to-be-graduates of the initiation class had gathered at the lodge. 

Back when he was still alive, my father had talked a lot about the day I’d be here. “Burke,” he’d say, “life is full of adventures. We don’t always understand that fact as we’re going through something, but then we look back, and think, WOW, what an adventure that was! The initiation won’t be like that. When you’re old enough, that’s an adventure you will not fail to recognize. It’s amazing. I can’t wait to see you off, when the time comes, and to talk to you when you return.” But he hadn’t been there to see me off, and he wouldn’t be talking to me on my return. He’d died two years ago. He’d been quite an adventurer himself, and had lost his footing on a climb, and had a bad fall. I missed him all the time, but today it was a sharper feeling.

It was spring. The dogwood trees were exploding in blossoms. While Elder Pine was talking to the group of us, my attention would slip sometimes for a moment, but I was trying to focus, just in case any of this would be important to know when I got to the past. Whenever and wherever that was going to be.

“This concept is as old as human culture,” he was saying. “When the boy reaches a certain age — the age has varied somewhat across time and place, but for us it is 16 — it is time to become a man. Of course, we progressed as a species, and this long ago quit being gender-specific. The point is to mark the transition when you’re moving out of childhood and into maturity, to do this with a ritual or accomplishment or experience. You break the frame that holds the picture of your life as a child, so that you can form a new picture, so you’ll own your own life, to think of yourselves as, and for others to accept you as, adults.” 

I didn’t know if I’d ever think of myself as an adult. I’m the boy who is always lost in dreams and imagination, not the most analytical thinker, not the strongest, not the fastest. I’m the likeliest to see things in a weird way, to not be able to explain what I mean. Voted most likely to let my sentences trail off and then lapse into an awkward silence. The critics have spoken.
A hand went up. It was Lyric. 

“Why was it just boys, in so many cultures, for so long?”

“Because the assumption for girls was that they’d be taken as wives and would have children. Having a baby was the ritual for them.”

There was some uncomfortable laughter. He continued. 

“It was true for centuries, in many places, that fighting in a war, particularly killing another warrior, could serve as the ritual. But it has varied. For the Peyote Church of the Navajo, it was what they called a spirit walk, experiencing the world under the influence of a powerful hallucinogen. For a French villager in the Renaissance, it might have meant starting an apprenticeship. For an upper-class Brit in the 1800s, it could mean boarding school. For a 20th century suburban American, it meant a test to earn a license that would then allow you to pollute the atmosphere with a huge and dangerous motorized vehicle. From warfare to childbirth to mind-altering substances to privileges and tests, the core is the same: you return from the experience as someone with what the ancient Greeks called “arête,” meaning skillfulness and, importantly, the commitment to becoming skilled. Skill at a craft, skill at athletics, scholastics, the arts, skill at managing what life will throw at you … the important thing is the commitment to learn, to take responsibility for acquiring your own excellence. That foundation shows us that the true goal of developing arête is to become skilled in the art of living.”

I thought hard about all he’d said. He turned to look at the time circle, which had been lasered into a huge piece of granite. The earth had eroded away around it, so that it looked like a small rock dome that had risen from below ground. Like everything else in our lives, the time circle was powered by the sun, but there the similarity ended. None of our other tech collected energy from the sun at this magnitude, nor could it harness or release that energy in such an intense burst. Every year, a handful of our village’s boys and girls turned 16, and every year they each left on a Time Travel Vision Quest. It was the only thing the time travel technology could ever be used for.  Every year, most of the boys and girls came back as men and women, having developed sufficient arête to return. But every year, one or two vanished, never to be heard from again. Maybe they liked it where they went, and decided to stay.

“This brings us to now, “ Elder Pine said. “I have assigned you each a time and place, which you will learn presently.” He smiled. “It will emerge. You will deduce. You have said your goodbyes. Moving on, then, the first traveler is … Burke.” They all looked at me. I nodded, and stepped onto the dome. Immediately, there was a flash of light and a silence more complete than I had ever experienced. I felt an urgent pressing on my chest, simultaneous to a lightness in my head, and  then I lost consciousness. 

When I woke, I was freezing cold, wearing only jeans, boots, and light shirt, in a forest I had never seen before. Dark was falling, as was sleet. The shadow of night enveloped all I could see. I could hear the howling of wolves not far away. I kept imagining that there were eyes watching me, and maybe there were. I didn’t know when or where I was. The ritual was underway. My Time Travel Vision Quest had begun.