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Remembering power pop singer/songwriter Dwight Twilley

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has an appreciation of rock singer-songwriter Dwight Twilley, who died late last month at the age of 72. Over the course of a career that began in the 1970s, the Oklahoma native had only two top 20 hit singles but was widely considered a key figure in the subgenre of power pop. You may have heard his best-known song, "I'm On Fire," played in the most recent season of the TV show "Reservation Dogs." Ken has these thoughts about a rocker who never quite became a rock star.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M ON FIRE")

DWIGHT TWILLEY BAND: (Singing) Got your lady on the line. Got your name on the cover. Though your friends are 99, honey, you ain't got no lover. And you ain't, you ain't, you ain't got no lover. And you ain't, you ain't, you ain't got no other.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The Dwight Twilley Band released the song "I'm On Fire" in 1975. It was a small miracle - a great pop tune with not one but two hooks. The first came at the end of the verse - the you ain't, you ain't got no lover phrase that I played to start this review. The second hook comes up just a little later, right where you'd expect it, in a chorus that draws you in. You get singed by this guy who's on fire with love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M ON FIRE")

DWIGHT TWILLEY BAND: (Singing) I remember the feeling that I could be free. Now I know it could never, never be me 'cause I'm on fire, got myself on fire.

TUCKER: "I'm On Fire" seemed to come out of nowhere but had its origin in Tulsa, Okla., where Dwight Twilley had met Phil Seymour after a local screening of "A Hard Day's Night." Buzzed on Beatlemania, they formed a band and cut "I'm On Fire" at Shelter Records, the label co-founded by another Oklahoman, Leon Russell. Twilley had classic teen-idol looks - high cheekbones, deep-set eyes, a perfect shag. He was ready to set the world on fire. It never happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOKING FOR THE MAGIC")

DWIGHT TWILLEY BAND: (Singing) All my life, I'm looking for the magic. I've been looking for the magic. Fantasize on a silly little tragic. I've been looking for the magic in my eyes. Oh, oh, oh, I'm looking for the magic in my eyes, in my eyes, baby in my eyes.

TUCKER: The Dwight Twilley Band released their debut album, "Sincerely," in 1976, the same year, the debut album by The Ramones helped kick off punk rock. Between the abrasiveness of punk and the chart-topping soft rock of the Eagles, the sound Twilley was making - crisp but pretty, vehement but intimate - fell through the cracks. He was among the first of a subset of power-pop artists who made catchy, jangling guitar music that never caught on with the masses, such as Matthew Sweet, Big Star, Shoes and one of the bands Phil Seymour joined after he split from Twilley, The Plimsouls. Here's Twilley from that debut.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE PERSONS")

DWIGHT TWILLEY BAND: (Singing) Three persons is a thorn in a side of romance. Oh, baby. Oh, no, no, baby. Uh huh. Three persons who won't give nobody no chance. Oh, baby. Oh, no, no, baby. And when you're thinking of me, respect, respect my sensitivity. Love you, love you, love you. Three persons is a thorn in a side of romance. Oh, baby. Oh, no, no, baby.

TUCKER: I love that song, "Three Persons," for the utterly charming awkwardness of its opening line. Quote, "three persons is a thorn in a side of romance." Say what, Dwight? A bit later he sings plaintively, respect, respect my sensitivity. And that is the perfect boiled-down essence of all power-pop music. It's the genre that showcases mostly men singing about mostly women in moments of romantic agony. A guy's heart gets broken, and he doesn't get angry. He doesn't get bitter. He doesn't get revenge. He drops any macho pretense. He suffers and yearns and lays himself open to ridicule while begging, respect my sensitivity. And here's one reason Dwight Twilley never became a rock star. Respect and sensitivity aren't high on most people's list of sentiments to dance to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRLS")

DWIGHT TWILLEY: (Singing) Well, I've seen so many things. I've been all over the world. Well, I've had ups and downs. I've been over for a while. I thought I knew everything between the bad and the good. I guess I was wrong because I misunderstood about girls, girls. Well, when I was young, my daddy sat down with me. He said a good life is hard if you don't know what you need. Well, I guess he was right because the way that's it been, there's still one thing I just can't understand, and that's girls. They want you to tell them you love them.

TUCKER: When I saw on social media that Twilley had died, I discovered that I was friends with him on Facebook. I try to maintain a distance from artists whose work I might review, but I think in this case, with Twilley lacking a record deal or a PR company, I must have accepted his Facebook friend request as a way of making sure that I'd know when he put out new music. Twilley never lost the knack for dramatizing the pain of love rejected. If you're ever looking to find a soundtrack for that situation in your own life, I hope you'll seek out Dwight Twilley's rock 'n' roll sincerity.

MOSLEY: Rock critic Ken Tucker. Dwight Twilley died last month. He was 72. On tomorrow's show, Black Thought aka Tarik Trotter, the lead emcee for The Roots and house band for "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon." In his new memoir, Trotter shares for the first time how a series of tragedies, including accidentally burning down his family's home at 6, have served as a catalyst for creating the sound of the pioneering rap group. I hope you can join us. To keep up with what's on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RELEASE ME")

DWIGHT TWILLEY BAND: (Singing) Release me. I want to go. Darling, I know that you did everything that you could to make our love be good. So release me. I want to go. Don't need me. I want to know. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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