Power pop singer-songwriter Dwight Twilley has a new album, Green Blimp, out now on Big Oak Records. He sits down for PopMatters 20 Questions, reflecting on his influences, his lost guitars, and his long career in rock 'n' roll.
Tulsa native Dwight Twilley got his start in the early 1970s when he and his friend/partner, the late Phil Seymour, journeyed to the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis and soaked up the essence of rock 'n' roll from early Sun Records artist/producer Ray Harris.
Armed with that knowledge, the Dwight Twilley Band was formed and helped paved the way for late-'70s power-pop with their debut single, "I'm on Fire", a top 20 hit in 1975. The following LP, 1976's Sincerely, is considered a classic of the genre.
A documentary about his career, tentatively titled Why You Wanna Break My Heart: The Dwight Twilley Story, is currently in the works. His latest release, Green Blimp, was recorded at his Big Oak Studio in Tulsa, and features 12 new pop gems with special guests, including Bill Pitcock IV (of the original Twilley Band) and Susan Cowsill (!)
Being the good guy that he is, he was more than happy to sit down for 20 Questions.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
I once owned a videocassette copy of the film Mars Attacks. I never watched it and eventually threw it away. A few years ago, I stumbled across the film on cable and in a moment of boredom decided to watch it. The film is so genius and so funny it could bring Dick Cheney to tears. I'm confused why the film is so underrated.
With a star-studded cast, Ray Harryhausen-inspired effects, it’s like Airplane, only much higher quality. It's the kind of movie you could just be passing through a room, catch one scene and it's tear city. Just the visual of seeing the Martians’ heads explode, when exposed to the music of Slim Whitman, sums it all up.
2. The fictional character most like you?
I could easily compare myself with the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. It's well known that I like to sing. The metal guy wishes for a heart, I'm looking for the magic. I also like to dance; admittedly I can’t grind it like the Tinster, but I'm agile. This is evident in my “Girls” video. Some may remember the back flip toward the end of the clip. It's true, I'm not silver, but since I spend so much time in my dark studio, I'm practically fluorescent. There have been times during my career where I've felt like I was rusted and frozen in the forest. But... I always keep chopping.
3. The greatest album, ever?
When someone asks, “what’s the best album ever?” it's really not a fair question. There have been great artists like Elvis Presley that came before the time when an LP was considered a body of work. An album was usually a collection of filler songs to stack around your hit. That said, I would choose Revolver (US version) from the group that invented the album as we know it today. The Beatles made a number of discs that could arguably fill this slot. I picked this record because it had a cool cover.
It also had amazing performances from each member of the group. A Beatles LP had never kicked off with a George Harrison song, and "Taxman", was right on the money. John Lennon’s "Tomorrow Never Knows" showed us all what could be done with one chord. Ringo Starr was really the only one to convince you that he lived on a “Yellow Submarine.” Paul McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby" was simply a stunning masterpiece. And with George Martin behind the curtain? It's still not fair; Elvis was only one guy.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
I watched the old Star Trek TV show with Spock and Kirk when I was a kid. There were a couple of good episodes, but when you see it today it really doesn't stand up. The Shatner/Nimoy Trek movies, I thought were pretty good, especially The Voyage Home.
Saw the first couple of Star Wars films and quickly lost interest; special effects can only keep my attention for so long. After that, for me it's just cute little robots and fuzzy puppet-looking dudes. Star Trek: The Next Generation is my personal favorite, I still will watch some of the reruns. I think the stories are well written. Deanna Troi is hot and Picard plays a wicked flute. In Star Wars, I don't think the princess chick was that enticing but if Darth Vader would have picked up an accordion and started knockin' out some hot-smokin’ polka it might have been okay.
5. Your ideal brain food?
My wife and I call the place where we live the Big Oak Ranch (hence, the Big Oak Studio, Big Oak Records, etc.), and when we say "Big Oak" it's no brag, it's just fact. Yes, it's a more, more, more than huge, beautiful tree. Some people get the tree part but wonder what's up with the ranch deal; what kind of livestock do we have grazing around?
Our beloved tree is surrounded by a large brick bowl with monkey grass inside. When we first moved in, a little girl came to us with a box turtle she had found at the river and asked if it could live in the bowl. Over the years, more of these little guys found their way into the safety of this green island. We now have a hoard of turtles. This year we have three babies: Burger, Fries, and Tater Tot. During the warm months, I feed them everyday and during the winter I worry about them. Taking care of these precious little creatures adds a purpose and a peace to my mind.
6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?
My photo once appeared in an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. I thought that was pretty cool. I remember being flown onto an aircraft carrier to perform for the Desert Storm troops. I got to wear a weird helmet and even had shark repellent.
All that aside, I'm very proud of my holiday album Have a Twilley Christmas. I wrote all new songs of different genres. It was like being a different person. I was recording more for toddlers than my fans. It's great that a couple of the songs are starting to be played every year. It merits a chuckle to -- in a small way -- be in the same club as Gene Autry and Burl Ives.
7. You want to be remembered for ...?
I wrote a parenting book once, Questions from Dad, that garnered some acclaim and some of my graphic art has achieved some notoriety. But I suppose there's no way around being remembered as a person in music. That being the case, I hope I will be thought of as an artist who remained true to his craft and projected a message of peace and love in his songs.
8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?
Here is a short list of some of my lost heroes:
Edward G. Robinson -- Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet and Key Largo are two completely different films and two completely different characters, both superbly portrayed by a master.
Basil Rathbone -- he truly was the one and only Sherlock Homes.
John Wayne -- he made us all "listen and listen tight"; he spoke so few words but said so much.
John Lennon -- someone said he was the one in charge of our dreams. He was a teacher.
George Harrison -- he was called the quiet Beatle. It sure seemed like he made one thunderous, beautiful noise.
Elvis Presley -- he never left the building.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
"War is over, if you want it". I don't know if it was just John or John and Yoko, but I really wish I had come up with that line. It's not just a song lyric; it's a sobering statement, a billboard, a monument or a message to Mars if they had wars on Mars. The thing is, it's so stupidly true. Why didn't I think of that? Damn I didn't think of “Imagine” either.
10. Your hidden talents . . .?
I've tried to develop some other skills outside of music, but I haven't really been successful. I thought I might like to dabble with something like brain surgery. I even bought a couple of cans of spam and tried practicing, but I lost interest and got hungry. I've also toyed with basket weaving, television repair and growing earthworms for fun and profit. Unfortunately, I still haven't found the right niche. I'm thinking a Mr. Potato Head kit could be the answer.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
When Phil Seymour and I were just baby rock 'n’ rollers, we wanted to play our songs for someone at a real record company. So we drove my '58 Chevy station wagon to Memphis. It was the only place that we knew had record companies and that we could afford to drive to. Sure enough, we just drove down the streets 'til we found one and just walked in the door. We played our tape for some guy named Phillips and surprisingly he liked it. We didn't know there was any significance to the fact that the company was called Sun.
It was arranged for us to meet Ray Harris, an early Sun recording artist / producer who lived in Tupelo, Mississippi. When we started to work with Ray we had pretty little voices, pretty little harmonies and pretty little songs. We were frozen like a couple of bugs when it’s too late to see the semi’s windshield. Our eyes were dilated, when in his long, Southern drawl he screamed, "Y’all sing like pussies." He was right. He grumbled at me, Mr. Songwriter Boy, "Ya need some taters and gravy under your belt.” He was right. We worked with Ray Harris on and off for a couple of years, but when we finally left his nest... we didn’t sing like pussies anymore.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
In 1975, around the time we appeared on American Bandstand to perform "I'm on Fire," I bought two guitars -- a Fender Telecaster and a Gibson J-160E . The Fender was stolen, but I still have the Gibson. I remember when it was in pristine condition like a polished coffee table; now it bears the scars and marks that tell about the years with my six-stringed companion.
So much of my equipment and guitars were lost or stolen through the years. The Gibson 335 I used to write “Girls” was stolen. The gold guitar mentioned in the song “England” was stolen. The Twilley-signature guitar that was built for me to fit my hands was stolen. I'm so lucky, I still have my Gibson and I can leave it in its case for months, and when I pull it out it's virtually in tune. The instrument I held when I wrote songs like "Why You Wanna Break My Heart" and "47 Moons" was my Gibson. I have and have had a lot of guitars but the Gibson is my guitar.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . .?
I like to wear tights jeans. I like girls that wear tight jeans. On the album Sincerely, there's a song called "Just Like the Sun." It has a line that says, "I like your blue jeans tight”. I’m a skinny guy, so sometimes I have to have my jeans altered so I'm not baggy boy. You can find a good brand of jeans for a couple of years, then they start sucking and another brand is better. Right now, Wranglers rule... it's always a battle against baggy.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
This would require much planning and deception. First, I call the restaurant and offer flat-out bribes and heavy tips. I’d make sure our table has as a new, pristine white tablecloth. I request that the table is clean, not even a fork. When my guest arrives and before we order, I arrange to be summoned away from the table by multiple life and death emergency calls. Leaving my guest alone for lengthy periods with nothing in front of him but a new box of crayons as if left there by accident. My guest is Vincent Van Gogh. After Mr. Van Gogh dines and leaves, I keep the tablecloth.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
Hamburg, Germany, early '60s.
I would some get some black leather duds, slick back my hair and look around for a band from Liverpool. Hopefully I find them and talk them into letting me be in their combo. Talk about changing history. I could say, “Hey guys -- why don't you write a song with a title like ‘She Loves You’ or ‘I'm on Fire’?”
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Stress is bad, but in this world you just can't get away from it. However, I always think, "How would you know good if there weren't bad?" I don't think you can run away to a different place and expect that all will be better. If it takes a pill to make it better, then you’re the pill and it's not you.
I think people mainly stress about bad things. Well, the reality is bad things happen. Just remember without the bad you would never know the joy of the good. Work is good, so is sex. You could even look up at the stars; it can make you feel more tiny and the bad more tiny.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . .?
I smoke cigarettes; today most people would call that a terrible vice. But I'm like Sherlock Homes with his pipe. It stimulated him and it helped him think. So many of my friends and peers drank and cocaine’d themselves to death in the hurricane of rock ‘n’ roll life. I feel blessed I didn't walk down that road, but I enjoy having a cig when I feel like it. I don't keep it a secret; on the back cover of my new album Green Blimp, there I am with a smoke in hand. I must admit my grandfather was a life-long, heavy smoker and it my have caused his early death at the age of 82.
18. Environment of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
I'm so happy to live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Its rollin' hills and big oak trees, they seem to move together magically. If you were to throw a dart at a map of the US and if it happened to hit right in the center, the dart would likely be lodged smack dab on Tulsa. A place with four seasons, none of which are so very harsh. Halloweens with multi-colored leaves bluster in fall and there's a taste of winter snow for the holidays. Spring explodes into blinding green and the summer’s heat forces our females to discard unnecessary clothing. This is good.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Stop all our war stuff for a minute. I think if we were the guiding light of the free world, like we should be, we could attack with help instead of bombs. The people of the world that don't understand us would understand help. Evil and ignorance can never be controlled anyway, but finding support for, “Let’s attack those guys that are trying to help us,” would be less likely. This would be at a much lesser cost and with a lot fewer bags that hold our precious young. I'm not saying that there's never a time to kick some butt. I just don't like our country being thought of as the schoolyard bully.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
I'm multitasking, as usual, I'm busy promoting my new studio album Green Blimp. We're very proud of the record. It was recorded at our Big Oak Studio here in Tulsa. We were fortunate to have the original lead guitarist from the Dwight Twilley Band, Bill Pitcock IV on board. Guest vocalists, Rocky Burnette and Susan Cowsill booked passage on the song "Witches in the Sky".
It's always exciting when you release a new studio album, but we think this one is really special. We are releasing the LP on our own label Big Oak Records, and our friends at Burger Records are making it available on vinyl.
So, by day we’re running the label and promoting the Blimp and by night I'm finishing recording a soundtrack album for a documentary film being made about my career. The film is tentatively titled Why You Wanna Break My Heart: The Dwight Twilley Story. I have no involvement in the production of the film; I've just agreed to be interviewed and make available photos and video footage. It could be great or it might suck. I am, however, in control of the soundtrack and I feel pretty confident it won’t suck.