Finding the Magic (Again):
Dwight Twilley’s Strong as Oak
Why are some power-pop artists who originated in the ‘60s and ’70s now deemed cool by today’s wave of garage and punk, while others aren’t? Jeff Clark (the editor of the magazine you’re reading) posed the question when we were talking over the possibility of this story. That night, Marshall Crenshaw was due to play the Peachtree Tavern. Not exactly Atlanta’s hippest joint. Dwight Twilley, on the other hand, who’s of the same era and sound, had recently been announced as the Atlanta Mess-Around’s big headliner.
“You got me,” Twilley shrugs when I tell him about the discussion. “It’s a crazy business.”
In May, Twilley will also headline the Blackout Fest, HoZac Records’ recently revived (and already sold out) rock ‘n’ roll shindig in the label’s hometown of Chicago. The bills for both fests are rife with younger acts, and topped off by a couple of old-school heavy hitters.
Twilley’s 2010 record, Green Blimp, was released through Burger Records. When I asked how that came about, it was clear Twilley wasn’t making the same connections I had in mind.
“That was just a coincidence that they happened to be at SXSW when we were playing there last,” he says of the partnership. “We just met the guys and we always liked the idea of vinyl, and they were real eager to put the album out. And in fact that was on green vinyl, and you wouldn’t think that would be that big of a deal, but they just sold like hot cakes! They couldn’t keep ‘em!”
It’s hard to understand why Twilley and comrades like Big Star – or any other band who formed before the birth of those embracing it, really – piques the attention of a succeeding generation and other bands don’t. Whether the listeners are new or about his age, however, Twilley doesn’t seem to spend any time thinking about the reasons why.
“Things happen in strange ways. There’s two motion pictures that are going to have the song ‘Looking for the Magic’ recorded by the Dwight Twilley Band. One came out this year and there’s going to be another one in the fall, and both motion pictures features this song from 1977. And you wonder, what’s up with that? But for some reason people love the song,” he chuckles.
Twilley laughs often in conversation. His demeanor both times we spoke was underscored by a lighthearted, laissez-faire sort of vibe. For somebody with a history like Twilley’s, it’s a nice surprise to find his attitude never hardened. He’s endured an impressive amount of career almosts.
Though they landed with Leon Russell and Denny Cordell’s well-known Shelter Records, the Dwight Twilley Band never made it into the meat of the mainstream. A lot of bands similarly propped up by a big name don’t, of course, but Tom Petty, a Shelter label-mate early on, contributed to multiple DTB songs – and we all know where that guy ended up. Around the same time, Twilley missed another commercial cruise ship when “TV,” a cut from their debut LP Sincerely, attracted the interest of Elvis Presley.
“I was kind of excited for a few weeks that Elvis Presley was considering recording one of my songs. That’s kind of a little dream come true for a songwriter. And about two weeks later, he died!” Twilley exclaims, laughing. “So, you know, what are you gonna do about that? You don’t quit the business. But it happened, and that’s a success in itself.”
There’s plenty of other equally disappointing markers in Twilley’s chronology. The band scored the opening slot on a leg of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ’77 tour – the dates that were canceled after three band members died tragically in a plane crash, unfortunately.
The pace picked up during his solo career after “Girls” from Jungle became a big hit, but promotions for that album’s follow-up got tripped up in the the huge Joe Isgro payola scandal of 1986. Just a couple years after “Why You Wanna Break My Heart” appeared on the Wayne’s World soundtrack, Twilley would have been on Sonya Live on CNN in the ‘90s – if coverage of O.J. Simpson’s infamous televised car chase hadn’t happened.
The luck, right? He seemed to allude to his misfortunes by calling his 1994 album just that – The Luck.
“Well, yeah, of course you always want things to go the way you want,” he admits. “I guess a lot of people, and it’s flattering in a way, have been confused about how come Dwight Twilley didn’t become a superstar. That in itself is kind of a compliment.”
It’s like the carrot’s repeatedly dangled in front of, then snatched away from Twilley. He’s never gotten more than a nibble of that damn carrot.
His most recent release, 2011’s Soundtrack, was written as part of a documentary two guys were filming about him. It hasn’t materialized, and Twilley hasn’t heard any news about its release.
“One thing I have learned from some of my other friends that have documentaries is that they take years. We were kind of eager to get Soundtrack done just so it’d be ready… I don’t know, I did my job!” he laughs.
Could it still be in the works? Maybe. But the Internet has nothing to offer about it. All I could find was the directors’ YouTube channel, The Hero Factor, with a handful of videos of local Tulsa bands.
“That will probably be one of those legendary documentaries that no one ever sees,” Twilley jokes, then swaps to a less playful tone. “It was the inspiration for the last album Soundtrack. We are so proud of that record. It’s very much like a documentary, all the songs are autobiographical.”
Meanwhile, a documentary about Big Star was picked up by Magnolia Pictures last January, made the rounds at SXSW last year and is poised to eventually show in independent theaters nationwide. Big Star, to be fair, has a cult following a bit bigger than Twilley’s, and for various reasons.
But they’re both leaders in the same movement, albeit to varying degrees. Ken Stringfellow of the re-formed Big Star (and The Posies and R.E.M.) actually helped out on Soundtrack’s opener, “You Close Your Eyes.” The collaboration goes both ways, as Twilley says he’s also guesting on Stringfellow’s new album with the Orange Humble Band. (Side note: That’s exciting news!) They’re working together on Twilley’s next LP as well. So are Steve Allen and Ron Flynt of 20/20.
“It’s just cool because in their case, they’re Tulsans and they’re a lot like us. I think they kind of followed us out to California with the circus. I know that Phil Seymour worked with them two or three times and we’ve just seen each other along that crazy road we’re all on,” he laughs.
There haven’t been a lot of breaks in his journey. The longest lull came after Wild Dogs in 1986 and can somewhat be blamed on the payola ordeal. For about the last 10 years, however, he’s been moving at a steady trot. It’s likely a product of his home-based Big Oak Studio, which he operates with his wife Jan.
“It’s pretty damn convenient when you have your own recording studio and nobody gives you any rules. We can do whatever we want,” Twilley points out. “And when your wife can engineer the record – we’re a pretty self-contained little team. It’s a pretty nice little way to work. [My] wife is a great recording engineer and I write the songs and arrange it and put the whole thing together…There’s not too many people that can get in our way. It’s a nice little machine, it makes us happy with the work we do. We don’t really need much help from the outside world to make a good record.”
His Tulsa “Big Oak Ranch” is where that sturdy, entirely self-reliant situation was cultivated, and eventually the creation of Soundtrack and Green Blimp, which contain some of his best material in decades.
“For me the most rewarding thing…is that after all these years that I’ve been working, finally, in the press at least, people are actually starting to compare my new records with the first albums. Which, most artists can’t get around that. No matter what you do, they’re always going to say your first couple albums were the best. It’s that stigma that everybody thinks back to the old records and how exciting that was and nothing ever lives up to them. But now for the first time in all these years the new albums, particularly Soundtrack, are being compared to the quality of the Dwight Twilley Band’s first releases. That, to me, is something I’m very proud of.”
Such comparisons are completely appropriate. Green Blimp’s “Me and Melanie” has the feel of a dusted-off rarity from Twilley’s early trove. “It’s Never Coming Back” echoes the earnestness of Sincerely’s “You Were So Warm.” Soundtrack is oozing with the same level of confidence in his signature sound. He’s at a high point comparable only to his first few albums.
That’s not to say he ever wandered into unflattering territory, though.
“I enjoy what I do. I believe that’s…my craft and I just kind of polish it,” he says. “I’ve never really thought about branching off and going Jamaican or country-western or anything like that.”
The Twilley touch has largely prevailed over its environments. Jungle and Wild Dogs, for example, seceded only ever so slightly to the synth, flashiness and other motifs of the ‘80s.
“I once was the ‘Father of New Wave,’” he points out. “All those little titles just come and go. I just roll with it, I don’t care what they say.”
In retrospect, that designation seems unwarranted, almost silly. Power-pop is the one genre that’s always stuck around. And his fans’ perception of him as an icon of that genre is why he was sought out for two of the punk and garage scenes biggest fests this year.
In part, it’s because of Twilley’s genuineness as a songwriter, I think, that he’s so embraced by the current crop of garage and pop fans. He’s never tarnished his repertoire with a tropical foray into steel drums. Nobody talks about David Johansen’s transgressions as Buster Poindexter, so it is possible he’d be just as beloved anyway, I suppose. And sticking to the same sound wouldn’t help a bit if that sound were garbage to begin with. But Twilley truly hasn’t traded his dignity for profit – despite the financial letdown of so many near-misses.
“Like I said, it’s a tough business, and the trick of it is that you stay. There’s a lot of people who’ve had less problems and they disappear. A lot of times that’s kind of what the music business wants from you. They want you to go away,” he laughs. “Then they don’t have to worry about you. But the people that don’t go away, that are still here, that’s kind of part of the game right there. They want to defeat you and once they figure out that, hey, sorry, there’s another record whether you like it or not, it kind of gives you some staying power.”
Lately he performs regularly at one-off shows and festivals, but mainly it’s his Tulsa ranch where he spends most of his time, always with his wife, constantly writing, rehearsing and recording. And tending to the big oak tree his ranch and studio are named for.
“I like to go out in the Big Oak Ranch and pick up the leaves from the big oak tree. And I’m telling you, when I say big oak, I’m not kidding…I feel good about it when I get out of the studio and fight the leaves. You can’t always win in the music business, but I can win against the leaves. They will be mine. I will remove them,” he laughs.