STILL ON FIRE Dwight Twilley

 

With a new Twilley
studio album as well as an early-years anthology in stores, let’s tip our hat
once more to the pop maestro.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

In the summer of ’75 an inordinately handsome 24-year old
Okie with a joint Sun Records/Elvis and British Invasion/Beatles fixation
vaulted from out of nowhere into the Top 20 with the chiming/throbbing radio
anthem “I’m On Fire.” Credited to The Dwight Twilley Band, it was the
brainchild of Mrs. Twilley’s kid Dwight and his musical partner of nearly a
decade, Phil Seymour. And while up until that point no one outside a select
circle of Tulsa, Okla., musicians and Twilley and Seymour’s Shelter Records
label bosses, Leon Russell and Denny Cordell, had even heard of the upstart
songwriters, as the summer unfolded and the song blared from car radios
everywhere, it looked to be the start of a beautiful career for the duo.

 

At the time, though, neither Twilley nor Seymour seemed all
that concerned with how the music biz operated, to the extent that the band
rarely performed live, the pair preferring to hole up in the relative isolation
of their Tulsa
studio and craft the songs that would eventually grace their debut. They
presumed, in their youthful arrogance, that every song they recorded was a
potential hit followup to “I’m On Fire.”

 

“Oh, we were so naïve,” Twilley told me years later in a
2002 interview, laughing somewhat ruefully at the memories. “We thought we were
indestructible – and were proven wrong really quick.”

 

Indeed, much of Twilley’s subsequent activities fell prey to
bad timing (Sincerely, the album containing
the hit single, was delayed for a year, at which time Shelter was already in
the process of going under), bad business decisions (in ’86 Twilley signed with
a CBS affiliate for his sixth album, Wild
Dogs
, only to see the shady president of his label become embroiled in a
huge payola scandal, effectively killing the album upon its release) and just
plain bad breaks (forming his own Big Oak label in 2001 he released The Luck, a “lost” album from 1990, two
weeks prior to September 11 – just in time for the music press’ attention to be
redirected).

 

However, the Twilley story isn’t strictly a cautionary tale.
To the contrary: Twilley’s been luckier than most, and a lot of musicians would
kill to have the same level of respect and recognition that he’s amassed over
the years. Indeed, critics consistently vote Sincerely and its ’77 Arista follow-up Twilley Don’t Mind onto their All-Time Greatest Powerpop Albums
lists, and after he and Seymour dissolved the band in ’78 to pursue solo
careers (Seymour would die of lymphoma in ’93, but not without enjoying some
chart success of his own), Twilley tasted the major label fruits of first
Arista Records then EMI, the latter helping him notch a huge hit in ‘84 when
the quirky-but-sexy Porky’s-styled
video for “Girls,” from the album Jungle,
wound up in heavy MTV rotation.

 

“MTV definitely waved my flag high, and it said I wasn’t
gone,” he recalled, quickly adding, “but then again, once I stood up I got
knocked down again!” An ill-advised jump from EMI landed him at a CBS affiliate
just in time for his new label to become tangled up in the aforementioned
payola scandal. With Wild Dogs nowhere to be found in the racks and what Twilley described as “a ton of legal
problems bogging me down,” he took the rest of the decade off, and kept low on
the industry radar through much of the ‘90s as well. Not necessarily by choice:
“At that point [in the late ‘80s] in the music business it was starting to be
uncool if you’d had hits. I literally had A&R people say that they would sign
me if I wasn’t Dwight Twilley. I
spent several years with a chip on my shoulder, not believing that I didn’t
have a major label record deal. Yet today, I wouldn’t take one if you shoved it
in my face.”

 

Twilley uttered that last statement in the same tone of
voice as a politician decrying big-corporation campaign donations. But he
wasn’t on any sort of campaign trail. Rather, he was being realistic about his
place in the overall scheme of things, deeply proud of his contributions to the
pop lexicon, and fully intent upon protecting the niche he’d been building for
himself since returning full-time to recording and touring in the late ‘90s.

 

Even during his hiatus, he’d kept busy, writing and
recording songs, authoring a ’94  book on
parenting, Questions From Dad) and
overseeing a couple of rarities collections (The Great Lost Twilley Album and Between the Cracks) along with a career-spanning anthology (1996’s XXI, which included a pair of new
tunes). Then in 1999 he released a well-received comeback album, Tulsa, and promoted it with U.S. and
European tours. A couple of years later, after establishing Big Oak, he secured
the rights to issue the long-shelved The
Luck
, which had been held in limbo by its producer, the legendary Richie
Podolor, until a financial agreement could be hashed out. The ‘00s subsequently
proved an extraordinarily fruitful period for Twilley, who issued a slew of
records either through Big Oak or on various indie labels, including 2004’s Have a Twilley Christmas EP, 2005’s 47 Moons and the Walkin’ On Water EP, 2006’s Live:
All Access
, 2007’s Northbridge to
Tulsa: Best of 1997-2007
and 2009’s all-covers collections The Beatles and Out Of The Box (reviewed here at BLURT) not to mention a seven-volume, digital-only Rarities series.

 

Most recently there’s been Green Blimp, an all-new collection of studio material from Big Oak,
which BLURT’s own Rev. Keith Gordon, in his recent nine-star review of the
album
, described as a “wonderful collection of songs that [demonstrates]
Twilley still shares a special relationship with his individual muse, and
although “justice” as a concept seems to be woefully obsolete in
these cynical times, if indeed true justice did exist, then Dwight Twilley
would be recognized and rewarded for his contributions to rock ‘n’ roll. The
man deserves no more and no less than everything.”

 

Concurrently, Australia’s venerable Raven label just issued On Fire! The Best of 1975-84, an anthology that distills the Shelter, Arista and EMI years down to 24
bejeweled tracks, cherrypicking key tunes from Sincerely, Twilley Don’t Mind, Twilley, Scuba Divers and Jungle. From the timeless 1975 debut
“I’m On Fire,” the backwards guitar-powered psychedelic nugget “Sincerely” and the
shuddery Roy Orbison-meets-Big Star “Looking for the Magic” of the early years,
through anthemic ‘80s rockers like “I’m Back Again,” “Girls” and the
titular-instructive “I Found the Magic,” it’s a seamless selection guaranteed
to delight longtime fans and introduce novices alike. One song in particular, Twilley Don’t Mind‘s “That I Remember,”
with its heartbeat pulse, minor chord jangles and Beach Boys-worthy backing
harmonies, still has the capacity to bring me to my knees more than three
decades since I first heard it, and it’ll strike a chord within anyone who’s
ever felt a true love slip away. Sings Twilley, in a voice that’s equal parts regret,
resignation and remembrance,

 

“When you were younger

And not as cold and
angry

Girl in the summer

Livin’ the blues and
baby, that

That I remember…

Six o’clock in the
morning

Finished recording

Feeling alone and

No place is home, and
I remember, ooh

That I remember

I remember you…”

 

As a bonus, liner notesman Ian McFarlane ably details the
Twilley saga in a handsome 12-page booklet. “In much the same way that the names
Big Star, Badfinger and the Raspberries are synonymous with the term power
pop,” writes McFarlane, “Dwight Twilley is recognized as one of the originators
of the form [with] his keen grasp of the melodic principles of power pop and
unique blend of Beatlesque pop and Southern rockabilly.”

 

Truer words were never penned. So what better reason to
resurrect my earlier interview with Mr. Twilley? We talked on the phone one
afternoon in the summer of 2002, and the thing that came across the loudest was
that despite the myriad career vicissitudes, here was a guy who’s the very
definition of a survivor, willing and able to adapt to the changing times while
still remaining fiercely loyal to that muse Gordon mentioned – something he’s
continued to do in the ensuing eight years since our conversation.  “I definitely feel like I have my little spot,
and I’m proud of what I do,” Twilley insisted. “I think there will always be an
audience for song-oriented music and for the craftsmanship of a great pop
record.”

 

***

 

BLURT: When you and
Phil hit with “I’m On Fire,” did you have an awareness of being thrust into the
belly of the music industry beast, so to speak?

 

DWIGHT TWILLEY: Oh, we were so naïve, too naive to be aware
of anything like that. We thought we were indestructible. And we were proven
wrong really quick! We had so many problems right from the get-go. The album
didn’t even come out until a year after “I’m On Fire,” and it would have gone
gold if it had come out then. They believed in it so much they were going to
release two more singles before it came out. They released the second single
and then the company went under. That’s when Leon and Denny parted company. So
what do you do about that?

 

And you guys weren’t
really touring at first anyway. You were more of a studio outfit. Did you have
to play catch-up to get out there and tour?

 

Essentially, yeah. In a way. We could have been a stronger
live act. We were so strong in the studio that I don’t think we could match
what we did in the studio live.

 

How were you
marketed? By the time Sincerely came
out “new wave” was slowly becoming a buzzword… and then there was “power pop,”
which some artists seem to be ambivalent towards.

 

Oh, I’ve had all those titles! About 20 of them! I have no
problem with power pop. But would you really say “I’m On Fire” is a power pop
record? To me it’s a rock record. I do pop music, but I also do rock music. So
I dunno, that’s the kind of thing you leave to the writers and critics to
decide. I’ll float along with it…

 

What was going through
your head after Phil left the band and you started moving towards the MTV era?
Did you have a game plan? Because you actually shelved two albums.

 

Well, I had a ton of legal problems. I got bogged down for
several years and it really took a toll on me. I have people tell me I’d never
have another hit, and it was almost the same thing again – I was determined
that I would.

       Then MTV waved
my flag. It said I wasn’t gone. But then again, once I stood up I got knocked
down again by that payola scandal. I had my big followup album, which I thought
was a good album. But boy, after that payola scandal I was, pffft, really
almost blacklisted. A lot of fans didn’t even know it was out. Which is a
little bit like what’s happened with The
Luck
. It was released 2 weeks after 9/11, so a lot of our press for that
record was really blanketed. Not only were the press and everyone else walking
around like zombies at the time, but so were we. Nobody did anything for about
2 months and that really killed our momentum.

 

Prior to your
releasing Tulsa and The Luck, some folks seemed
to have you in the “whatever happened to…?” file…

 

Yeah – and no one would sign me.

 

It seems that a lot
of American pop artists dropped off the radar in the late ‘80s also. Was there
that much of a seachange in the business or in the public’s taste?

 

Well, I think there was that. And at that point in the music
business, that was when it was starting to be uncool if you’d had hits. And I
literally had people say that they would sign me if I wasn’t Dwight Twilley! It was kind of the A&R thing too: if you
signed Dwight Twilley and he had a hit, what a talented guy that Dwight Twilley
is, but if you were an A&R man who signed [some unknown artist] and he got
a hit, what a genius the A&R guy is. That was the syndrome.

 

Quite a Catch-22.

 

Yeah, it really was. And can you believe that things
actually got worse? I spent several years with a chip on my shoulder, not
believing that I didn’t have a major label record deal. Yet today, I wouldn’t
take one if you shoved it in my face.

 

People forget that a
number of these bands had good deals, reasonable backing, then all of a sudden
were persona non grata. We were moving into the flannel shirt era where notions
of “authenticity” took over from notions of “classic songwriting.”

 

And I heard for years that “pop is coming back.” [bitter laugh] You hear that every once
in awhile. And people would come to me and say, ‘We just need somebody to lead
it, and you should be the guy!’ No such thing ever happened! And if it came
back at all, I guess it came back in the form of the homogenized songs that all
these little girls and boy bands are doing. I don’t think there’s a venue for
it now – there’s hardly any stations that will play it, as much as I think
there’s good stuff on The Luck and Tulsa that would stand up next to anything they put on the radio.

 

Going all the way
back to “I’m On Fire,” though, you’ve plugged into a classic style and sound
that a lot of people can relate to.

 

And fortunately I’m still able to actually sing my hits! [laughs] And they come off pretty well
live. We always like to do “TV” [from Sincerely].
I revitalize the words every two or three years, so now when I do it there’s
lyrics about Pay-Per-View, VCRs, computer screens, that whole thing. It’s
always a fun song – it would have been great if Elvis could have covered that!
It was being talked about at one point before he died… With the new stuff, I
enjoy doing “Tulsa” live, and “The Luck,”
“Running,” “Way of the World” [all from Tulsa]. Actually,
on tour I’m playing at least one song from every record I’ve put out. Some of
the old stuff just sounds amazing, really authentic. It’s really fresh for us.
You won’t hear a tired, played-out thing that we’ve been doing forever.

 

You do better in Europe
than in America
these days?

 

Tulsa went over really big in Europe, and we didn’t expect that at all. I think the
Europeans just have a larger appreciation for good music. [At one festival]
thousands of people were there, and 2/3 of the audience was singing the words
to every song. Even things that weren’t out on CD – they really knew
everything. We were freaked out! I mean, if you forgot a lyric you could look
out and see the mouths, they were just right there.

       Here, the
attention spans [are too fragmented]. I wrote an article for magazine, for Tower Pulse, about how screwed-up the
music biz is. It was called, “What Happened?” I talked about how it was almost
a conspiracy, of all the things you’d have to do to destroy rock ‘n’ roll: for
example you divide it, because it used to be on the radio, you’d hear James
Brown then the Beach Boys, and now you gotta go to a different station for
anything, so to conquer something you divide it.

 

What do you think is
the appeal, the enduring strength of American pop music?

 

I think there will always be an audience for song-oriented
music. For people that really understand the craftsmanship of a great pop
record, great pop songs. Music and lyrics tied together.

 

Do you feel you slot
into that tradition? Ever feel like walking away from music altogether?

 

I dunno, I definitely feel like I have my little spot and
I’m proud of what I do. And you know, there was that long period where I wasn’t
doing anything, and then I put out Tulsa, and it
really took me by surprise how much people appreciate when I go and make a
record. So it really kind of made me want to make some more records. And I was
really fortunate. What happened to me was the North Ridge earthquake, 1994, and
I moved back to Oklahoma.
That really centered me, just getting out of that mess and coming back here.

 

The prodigal son
returns. There will be more, then?

 

That’s the plan.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Kelly
Kerr. View more of Kerr’s photos at Dwight Twilley’s Facebook page]

 

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