Tom and Lin-Manuel: An Appreciation/Jealous Rant
Every writer has a golden period – a chunk of time when her brain is ripest, when the veins he is tapping are the richest, when the ideas, big and small, spill out over the sides of the bucket instead of having to be patiently collected like drops of rain off a leaf. This is true for songwriters, playwrights, novelists, screenwriters, anyone who writes anything in any genre. Go look at John Hughes’s IMDb page and marvel at his golden period, which I would bookend as 1983-1990. It’s outrageous. He wrote Vacation, Mr. Mom, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Uncle Buck, and Home Alone in eight years. Eight years?! That’s absurd.
But then look at his next 20 years. You won’t find one movie that is better than the worst one he wrote in those seven years. The vein ran dry. It always does. That’s just the deal.
Tom Petty’s golden period never ended. Or, at least, the silver periods on either side of his golden period were seemingly infinite. No matter where you think he peaked – Full Moon Fever, or Wildflowers, or Damn the Torpedoes – the decades on either side were wonderful. He was great from the moment he released his first album in 1977 to the day he died last month. For forty years he wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and the songs he wrote were good or great or amazing.
Tom Petty wrote “Breakdown” and “American Girl” in 1977. He wrote “You Don’t Know How it Feels” seventeen years later, in 1994. He wrote “You Got Lucky” in 1982, “King’s Highway” in 1992, “The Last DJ” in 2002. He wrote “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” Free Fallin’,” “Love is a Long Road,” “A Face in the Crowd,” Yer So Bad,” and “The Apartment Song,” and “Depending on You,” all in 1989, and they were all on the same album, and that’s absurd.
He wrote “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” in 1981 and “Big Weekend” in 2006. He wrote every song on Wildflowers – and they are all great – in or around 1994. He wrote fifty other great songs I haven’t named yet, like “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “Jammin Me.” He wrote great songs you’ve heard a million times, and great songs you’ve maybe never heard, like “Billy the Kid” (1999) and “Walls” (1996) which was buried on the soundtrack to She’s the One. He took a break from the Heartbreakers and casually released “End of the Line” and “Handle With Care” and “She’s My Baby” with the Traveling Wilburys in 1989-90. He wrote “Refugee” in 1980 and “I Should Have Known It” in 2010. Is there any rock and roll songwriter alive who wrote two songs that good, 30 years apart? (Paul McCartney wrote “Hey Jude” in 1968, and only 12 years later he wrote “Wonderful Christmas Time,” which is so bad it nearly retroactively undid “Hey Jude.”)
He wrote about rock and roll things, like ’62 Cadillacs, getting out of this town, and dancing with Mary Jane. He wrote about love and loss and heartbreak. He wrote legitimately funny jokes, and moribund memories, and personal narratives, and imaginative flights of fancy. One of his characters calls his father his “old man” and it somehow isn’t cheesy. He was from Florida and California and wrote about both of them, and every time I’m on Ventura Boulevard I think of vampires, because the images he wrote are indelible.
Petty didn’t just write songs directed at women, like most rock stars. He wrote about women, and he wrote for women, and he wrote with women. He treated the women in his songs as lovingly and respectfully as he treated the men. He cared about them as much, he spent as much time thinking about them, and he liked them as much, and all of that is rare.
He wrote simply, but not boringly. He made his characters three-dimensional, somehow, in a matter of seconds. There’s a famous (probably apocryphal) story about Hemingway bragging he could write an entire novel in six words, then writing: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” I prefer the 18-word novel Petty wrote as the first verse to “Down South” –
Headed back down south
Gonna see my daddy’s mistress
Gonna buy back her forgiveness
Pay off every witness
When I was working on Parks and Recreation, whenever we needed a song to score an important moment in Leslie Knope’s life, we chose a Tom Petty song. It started with “American Girl,” when her biggest career project came to fruition. It was “Wildflowers” when she said goodbye to her best friend. It was “End of the Line” at the moment the show ended. For the seven seasons of our show, Tom Petty was the writer we trusted to explain how our main character was feeling, because he wrote so much, so well, for so long.
It seems like a joke, Hamilton – a joke in a TV show where one of the characters is a struggling New York actor, and is always dragging his friends to his terrible plays. Like Joey in Friends. There’s an episode of Friends where Joey is in a terrible musical called like Freud!, about Sigmund Freud, and you get to see some of it, and it’s predictably terrible. Freud! the musical is arguably a better idea than Hamilton the musical.
I’m far from the first person to say this – I’m probably somewhere around the millionth person to write about Hamilton, and the maybe 500,000th to make this particular point, but it needs to be said – a hip-hop Broadway musical about the founding fathers is an astoundingly terrible idea. Lin-Manuel Miranda should never have written it. As soon as he started to write it, he should’ve said to himself, “What the fuck am I doing?!” and stopped. And after he got halfway through, he should’ve junked it, gotten really drunk, and moved on with his life, and made his wife and friends swear to never mention the weird six months where he was trying to write a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton. I literally guarantee you that when Lin-Manuel Miranda first told his friends what he was writing, every one of them reacted with at best a frozen smile, and at worst a horrified recoiling. Some of them might have been outwardly encouraging – “sounds awesome bud! Go get ‘em!” But then later, alone, they would call each other and say What the fuck is he doing?
There is a moment, in Hamilton, when what you are watching overwhelms you. (It’s not the same moment for everyone, but most everyone has one, I suspect.) It’s the moment when the enormity, the complexity, the meaning of it, the entirety of it, overpowers you, and you realize that what you are experiencing is new – new both in your specific life, and new, like, on Earth. The first time I saw it, that moment was a line in the middle of “Yorktown.” Hamilton sang the line And so the American experiment begins / With my friends all scattered to the winds, and I burst into tears in a way I hadn’t since I was 10 and a baseball went through a guy’s legs in the World Series. Something about how casually he says that – And so the American experiment begins – just settled over me, like a collapsing tent, and this thing I was watching wasn’t in front of me, it was everywhere around me, and it was exhilarating and transformative.
(If I could put this part in a footnote, I would, but I don’t know how to, so: I should mention that I am very far from a musical theater aficionado. I have seen maybe eight musicals in my life. Not only did I not expect to cry, hard, during Hamilton, I did not expect to enjoy it. I saw it like a week after it opened on Broadway, kind of on a whim, knew nothing about it, and the last thing I said to my wife, as the lights went down, was: “We’ll leave at intermission.”)
The second time I saw it, that moment came much earlier (I knew what I was getting into, this time, so I was more ready to be subsumed). It came barely three minutes in, when the entire cast of the show, in a piece of choreography that can best be referred to as “badass,” all walk down to the very front of the stage and stand, shoulder to shoulder, and sing very loudly about how Alexander Hamilton never learned to take his time. The cast has, to this point, trickled on stage, slowly, one by one, telling you Hamilton’s origin story, and then suddenly there they all are, all of them – maybe 20? 50? It seems like 1000? – as close to the audience as they can get, and they are every size and ethnicity and gender, and their voices are loud, and I thought to myself, oh my God, this is a cast of people descended from every nation on Earth, all singing about the foundations of the American experience, and yes I “knew” that, intellectually, but holy shit, now that I see them all, I know it, like in my stomach, I understand it, and what a thing that is.
The third time I saw Hamilton, that moment was during “It’s Quiet Uptown,” when this enormous, sprawling, improbable, otherworldly, multi-ethnic, historical, art tornado presses pause on all of its historical-cultural-ethno-sociological-artistic investigations, and spends four and a half spare minutes with a couple who are grieving an unimaginable tragedy. Specifically, it was the lines
Can you imagine?
Can you imagine?
What a thing to do, for your characters – to give them four and a half minutes in the middle of an enormous, sprawling, historical swirl, to just be sad. What a piece of writing that is.
(Again, should be a footnote, but: as long as I’m talking about writers here, I should point out that if the late Harris Wittels were alive, he would, at this moment, text me and hit me with a “humblebrag” for writing about how I have seen Hamilton three times, and he would be right. Miss you Harris!)
In the hundreds of hours of my life I have spent thinking about Hamilton since I first saw it – far more hours than any other single piece of art I have ever experienced – I have revisited that same thought over and over: he never should’ve written it. It was an absurd thing to do. It took him a year to write the title song, then another year to write the second song, and how did he not give up when two years had gone by and he’d written two songs? He must’ve known in his heart it needed to be a 50-song, 2 ½-hour enterprise, and he had two songs after two years, and he kept going. How did he keep going? I’ve been trying to write this blog post about two writers I admire for different reasons since the week Tom Petty died, and I’ve almost given up five times.
At this point, the entire musical is that “moment” for me. It’s the whole thing, now – the thing that overwhelms me is the whole thing. The conception of it, the writing of it, the rewriting of it. The music and the motifs and the themes and the threads and the dramatic shape and the characters and their inner lives, and the eagle-eye writer’s view it took to keep all of that in his head, all of it, the whole time. The writing of it. The utterly impossible writing of it.