They Could Have Been Contenders: Robin Lane, Dwight Twilley, Bruce Cockburn and Nils Lofgren

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They Could Have Been Contenders: Robin Lane, Dwight Twilley, Bruce Cockburn and Nils Lofgren

During his concerts in the 1970s, Bruce Springsteen would often talk about Elvis Presley like this: “There have been a lotta tough guys. There have been pretenders. And there have been contenders. But there is only one king.”

Springsteen was not divulging a secret fondness for a monarchical form of government. He was merely casting one man’s vote for the G.O.A.T. I would probably depress the same lever in the voting booth.

But these days I’m less interested in into who’s standing on the mountaintop than in those who crossed the snowline without reaching the summit, all those rock’n’roll climbers who came a long way without reaching the thin air of fame and fortune, all those who did good work, who made music still worth hearing, who in many cases are still making worthy art, even if few ever hear it.

I’m not interested in Springsteen’s “tough guys” and “pretenders,” all those momentary flashes in the night that were nothing more than a cool pose or an inventive marketing campaign. I’m interested in the “contenders,” who had the talent and did the work, only to fall short of the big prize. I’m interested in the musicians who could echo Marlon Brando’s words in the 1954 film, On the Waterfront : “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”

Almost any musician who released a few major-label albums and went on a national tour without reaching the charmed circle has echoed Brando’s complaint at some point, but only a few of them have a legitimate gripe. For there is a difference between the pretenders and the contenders—though it’s not easy to tell which is which.

One thing I’ve learned after four decades in this business is there’s no real correlation between talent and success. The poptimists will tell you that popularity is the only true measure of talent—if you please the audience, you must be doing something right. I call this the Richard Nixon Theory of Music Criticism: if you can win an election in a landslide, you must be a great president.

The purists will tell you that no one can make great music and be mega-popular. If you’re that big a star, you’ve made too many compromises with philistine tastes and corporate machinery to do something honest and original. I call that the Ralph Nader Theory of Music Criticism.

I’m here to tell you that both the poptimists and the purists are wrong. Both brilliant and mediocre acts become famous; both brilliant and mediocre acts remain obscure. There’s no easy formula; you have to assess them on a case-by-case basis.

Today I want to focus on four rock ‘n’ roll figures from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s—the Springsteen Era, if you will—who “coulda been” contenders: Robin Lane, Dwight Twilley, Bruce Cockburn and Nils Lofgren. All of them made great records back then—and all of them are still fighting the good fight today.

We’ve all had the experience of discovering a new act whose music moves us, who seems like a major star in the making. We can’t help but feel disappointed when the rest of the world doesn’t agree with us, and our new favorite gets dropped by their label and disappears into the sinkhole of indie labels and regional live shows. It’s easy to doubt one’s original judgment, but it’s gratifying to go back and listen to the artist’s old records and new and realize that you had it right the first time.

Robin Lane, the daughter of Dean Martin pianist/songwriter Ken Lane, grew up in Southern California. She sang harmony on “Round and Round” from Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and married future Police guitarist Andy Summers. But it wasn’t until she moved to Boston and formed a band called the Chartbusters with the rhythm section of Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers that she found her own voice.

Robin Lane & the Chartbusters were signed by Jerry Wexler to Warner Bros. and released two albums plus a live EP. “With her blend of Sandy Denny folk-rock song craft and Chrissie Hynde hard-rock punch,” as I later wrote in the Washington Post, “Robin Lane was one of the best things about early-’80s American new wave.” I wasn’t the only critic who raved about her, but the charts went unbusted, and the label dropped her.

She wasn’t the first artist to have a major-label push and gushing reviews go unrewarded nor was she the last. Every musician in that spot has to confront the question of “What do I do next now that my shot at the big time has fallen flat?” Some give up; some go grasping for a new gimmick or a new angle to regain the fickle attention of the music biz.

Lane made a smarter choice: she fell back on her strengths as a singer and songwriter and continued to tour and make really good records, even if she was seldom heard outside New England. Recorded highlights include the live EP Heart Connection, the album Catbird Seat and the Chartbusters’ reunion album, Piece of Mind.

Lane released two albums during the pandemic. Instant Album was an “odds and sods” collection of 16 songs that had never found a home elsewhere. It displays her broad spectrum of musical interests: from pastoral Americana to jangly Beatlesque pop-rock to tough-edged garage-rock. Five of them were the product of the “Women’s Voice” songwriting workshop with female trauma victims that Lane has been leading for the past 11 years.

Two more of those workshop songs are on Dirt Road to Heaven, a new recording released last year. Most of the songs reflect on those of us who have survived a “Hard Life,” as the album’s best song puts it. Again and again, a stubborn optimism pushes forward in the form of melodic vocals trying to overcome the drag of minor chords and a long train of memories. Lane insists that she’s still headed for paradise, even if she has to take a dirt road to get there. “There’s dirt on my shoes,” she laments, “where once there was gold.” She started out on the highway, but the muddy track is the only route left.

Lane is a good example of why it’s good to search out those who “coulda been a contender.” For us listeners, what’s important is not the fame and fortune of the music-maker but the quality of the music when we stick in the ear buds, press play and hope for the best. And Lane has rewarded those hopes more consistently than most. That’s “All I’ll Ever Need,” as the disc’s buoyant bonus track proclaims.

Listen to Robin Lane & The Chartbreakers perform at Paradise in 1980 from our exclusive vault:

Dwight Twilley was twice able to bust the singles chart but was never able to bust the albums chart. As the Dwight Twilley Band, Twilley and his Tulsa best friend Phil Seymour had a top-20 single with their first release, “I’m on Fire” in 1975. But all that momentum had evaporated by the time the crisis-wracked Shelter Records managed to get the debut album out a year later.

Before long, Shelter fell apart, and so did the Twilley/Seymour partnership. Arista released one Twilley solo album and shelved another. Twilley had another top-20 single in 1982 with “Girls,” a duet with his pal Tom Petty. But EMI-American couldn’t capitalize on that, and the Jungle album stalled at #39. The final blow came when Twilley’s L.A. home and studio were destroyed in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. He went back home to Tulsa and gave up on the big time.

But he never stopped making music, and he never lost that blend of the Leon Russell/J.J. Cale Tulsa sound, Memphis rockabilly, British Invasion singles and the Byrds’ L.A. folk-rock that made his singles so irresistible. It was no accident that Petty volunteered to duet with Twilley. The latter kept writing and recording hundreds of songs in Oklahoma. He’d release them on his own label or other small labels.

Dwight Twilley (photo by Phil Clarkin, courtesy of Dwight Twilley)

The latest collection of that work, just out this summer, is The Best of Dwight Twilley: The Tulsa Years (1999-2016) Volume 1. This generous helping of 20 tracks (on one CD or two LPs) is irrefutable evidence that Twilley never lost his knack for crafting perfect pop-rock earworms in the tradition of Paul McCartney, Christine McVie, Ric Ocasek, Susannah Hoffs and Matthew Sweet. There’s something thrilling every time the lead-vocal melody, the beat, the guitar riff and the vocal harmonies lock into place like puzzle pieces, never fighting each other but sounding like an organic, rock ‘n’ roll whole.

The lyrics aren’t ambitious, but the hooks are sharp, the propulsion unstoppable and the feeling comes through. When he tells a depressed girlfriend to “Reach for the Sky,” the advice may be clichéd, but the rising melodic line and climbing harmonies are genuinely cheering. “It’s Hard To Be a Rebel” achieves a bittersweet look back at life thanks to the high vocal notes above the chunka-chunka groove. Psychedelic guitars give “Speed of Light” an otherworldly buzz, while “Runnin’,” “Better Watch Out” and “Get Up” are flat-out rockers.

Twilley sings two songs that were originally recorded by Seymour. His former backing singer Susan Cowsill returns to add some vocals. Most of these songs feature the Twilley Band’s original guitarist Bill Pitcock IV. He died in 2011, and the collection ends with Twilley’s stomping garage-rock tribute to “My Friend Billy.”

Listen to Dwight Twilley perform at Moon Shadow in 1984:

Like Australia’s Paul Kelly, Canada’s Bruce Cockburn has been a major artist—both critically and commercially—in his homeland without making much headway in the U.S. Cockburn did have a #21 single with “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” but he’s never had a top-40 album here. He made two albums with producer T Bone Burnett and has had his compositions covered by the Barenaked Ladies, Jimmy Buffett and Jerry Garcia. In its song, “God Part II,” U2 even quoted a Cockburn lyric. He coulda been a contender.

Like Richard Thompson, Cockburn is a dual threat: a virtuoso guitarist and a world-class songwriter. The Canadian’s songs are imbued with his left-wing version of Christianity. If the poor, the hungry, the peacemakers and the persecuted are blessed, his songs imply, we should protect and support them as a society as well as individuals. He makes this point not in sermons but in stories that are disarming in their sparkling guitar motifs and his tuneful but modest baritone vocals.

The 77-year-old Cockburn recently released his 35th album, O Sun O Moon, which doubles down on the notion that love and empathy blaze the only trail to communal and personal salvation. At this point in his career, Cockburn’s folk-rock approach is tilted more to the folk than the rock, and the folk draws from Latin and trad-jazz sources as much as Appalachian or Mississippian. He recorded the project in Nashville with producer Colin Linden and such Americana figures as Buddy Miller, Sarah Jarosz and Viktor Krauss.

The lyrics are more often spiritual meditations than actual narratives, but when he gets hold of a good metaphor (death bearing down on us like a wolf, spiritual resources as boundless as the ocean, each particular life like a thread on the loom), he knows how to make the most of it. “To Keep the World We Know” is that rare environmental anthem that is neither simplistic nor condescending, and “Orders” reminds us that loving all people includes the obnoxious and reactionary.

Watch Bruce Cockburn’s 2022 Paste session from Napa Valley:

Nils Lofgren never became a big star in his own right, but he’s perhaps the most successful sideman of all time. He has recorded and toured for multiple years with Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. Only Warren Haynes’ work with the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band can rival that resumé. But Grin, Lofgren’s first band in Maryland, had all the makings of a great rock ‘n’ roll act, and his solo albums have often shown the same potential. But it was not to be.

Lofgren recently talked to Paste’s Matt Mitchell, but he deserves a mention in this catalogue of contenders who came up short. Lofgren was able to pull off one of the hardest tricks in rock ‘n’ roll: combining the melodic hooks of Paul McCartney with the push-and-pull guitar riffs of Keith Richards. Lofgren paid tribute to the latter in one of his best songs, “Keith Don’t Go,” but it was the Beatlesque choruses that made Grin’s “White Lies” and Lofgren’s solo “I Came To Dance” should-have-been hits.

Lofgren appears on two recent albums. All Roads Lead Home is a peculiar project credited to four members of Crazy Horse—Lofgren, Young, Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot—even though they don’t play with one another. The three songs by Molina and the three by the Billy Talbot Band are competent but forgettable bar-band-rock, and Young’s solo-acoustic number, “Song of the Seasons,” is one of his epic folk-myth ballads, a first draft that offers more promise than cohesion.

It’s Lofgren’s three tracks, mostly recorded by himself at home in Arizona, that stand out. They boast chorus melodies you can remember and grooves that do more than just chug along or strum along.

Even better is Mountains, Lofgren’s best solo album of this century. It includes a worthy sequel to “Keith Don’t Go” in “Won’t Cry No More (For Charlie Watts),” and Lofgren’s latest Stonesy guitar riffs have full-bodied, sing-along choruses that justify the build-up. There are guest appearances by Young, Starr, David Crosby and jazz legend Ron Carter, but it’s the dance between Lofgren’s own ringing tenor and his fills on guitar or lap steel that make this collection so special. If he had achieved the stature he deserved, this would have been a late-career milestone. As it is, it’s a low-profile gem for those in the know—as are all these albums.

Listen to Nils Lofgren perform at Record Plant in 1975:

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