The Dwight Twilley Band scored its biggest hit, "I'm on Fire," in 1975, and then struggled for years to achieve stardom that never arrived. Now the band's lead singer, Twilley, is back. Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews his new album, Green Blimp, which also features vocals by Susan Cowsill.
When Dwight Twilley staked his claim on pop stardom in 1975, he was already an anomaly. The Los Angeles to which he'd relocated from Tulsa, Okla., was about to go ga-ga over punk-pop from the likes of The Runaways. The Sex Pistols in England and The Ramones in New York were seeking to disrupt the pop mainstream Twilley held dear.
Like a pop version of John Fogerty, Twilley is his own kind of roots-rocker — for whom the continuum in guitar-based rock from the 1950s to the present remains seamless. His music is sometimes hermetic and sometimes sealed off from innovation, but when he hits a groove in a fast song or in "You Were Always There" — his version of a power ballad — Twilley digs deep and gets traction on a song's emotion.
The title song, "Green Blimp," is an airy metaphor for the state of blissful freedom from worry that the singer wishes to attain. With its sing-along chorus and mid-tempo harmonies, "Green Blimp" is Dwight Twilley's "Yellow Submarine."
Twilley has reached the age, in his late 50s, to have some regrets and some second guesses. There are times when he must look around at contemporaries such as Tom Petty, who sang background vocals on a few of Twilley's early recordings, and wonder: "Why couldn't I have gotten to where he did?" It didn't help that Twilley's key collaborator, Phil Seymour — also a first-rate pop-rock artist — split from The Dwight Twilley Band in 1978, and died in 1993.
There's a terrific song on the new album called "It Ends," which just builds and builds in intensity as it proceeds. Twilley invariably presents himself as a glass-half-full kind of guy. More importantly, for the health of his music, he's not a cranky nostalgic. For him, the past is the past, which serves as the theme of one of this album's best songs, "It's Never Coming Back," which features a beautifully hammered keyboard in the opening verse.
The current business model for pop music actually favors Dwight Twilley these days. Freed from the pressure of trying to get a major-label deal, he's released Green Blimp as a download or in as-needed CD batches. He uses Facebook to raise funds for financing the album and getting the word out.
Twilley has also reunited with original Dwight Twilley Band guitarist Bill Pitcock IV, and gets some vocal assistance from Susan Cowsill. But Green Blimp ultimately sounds most like Dwight Twilley sitting in his Tulsa home studio, hearing the history of rock 'n' roll in his head and doing what he's done for decades: shaping that history into hooks and riffs and passionately yelled vocals that convey the ceaseless thrill of feeling the freedom that remains the great promise of this kind of rock 'n' roll.