Photo by Joseph Quever
Jesse Malin Celebrates Tom Petty & L.A. Landmarks In His Cinematic "Crawling Back To You" Video
While watching Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Hollywood Bowl in the fall of 2017—which tragically turned out to be their final concert due to Petty's untimely death a week later—New York singer/songwriter Jesse Malin was struck by the lyrics "most things I worry about never happen anyway" as Petty sang "Crawling Back To You" (from his '94 classic Wildflowers). "I loved Wildflowers but I’d never focused on the words and the sentiment and the whole spirit of that song until I was at the Hollywood Bowl seeing them play," says Malin over the phone from his New York apartment where he’s been self-isolating for the last two months. "When he sang that line in the beautiful California night with all the stars out, I don’t know why but it just hit me and I got a little chill. Sometimes, with music, when people sing or say something that connects, it really lets you know you’re not alone and that you’re going to be all right."
It was the best Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performance Malin had ever seen. "They’d always been an insanely great band, but there was some kind of magic there," he says. "Ironically, it turned out horribly that, sadly, that was his last gig ever. When Tom died a week later, it was just such a shocker." With "Crawling Back To You" embedded in Malin’s spirit, it resurfaced when he played it at Petty Fest—an annual tribute concert to Tom Petty whose proceeds go to charity. From there, he added the song to his live sets before recording a slower, stripped-down and heartrending version earlier this year. Below, the Recording Academy has the exclusive premiere of the Malin's "Crawling Back To You" music video:
Malin’s plaintive and beautiful "Crawling Back To You," comprised of vocals, guitar and keys, illuminates the song's yearning for connection, making the ideal B-side complement to Malin's recently released upbeat rocker "Backstabbers," the first single for his forthcoming record (working title, Lust For Love) on Little Steven's Wicked Cool Records. "I like to put B-sides and extra songs on the singles that are things that I’m really inspired by."
"When I cover something, I always try to find a way to put some of myself into it or change it up a bit," says Malin. "I enjoy finding a way to break down a song. I like to take fast songs and slow them down. I tend to go for the sadder things. If there's a beautiful sad blue in a song, it just connects with me and I focus on that, and it came out naturally when I started strumming 'Crawling Back To You,'" he says. "When I started to play it at my shows, it kind of fell into that place and brought out a sadder thing. As much as I’m a positive mental attitude PMA guy, I always seem to connect with the underside and melancholy side of life but part of that is how you get to the bright side by embracing and facing the sadness. The song is a beaten down and been through all of this—but it’s going to be OK, and that's the kind of message that I definitely need right now."
Like everyone else, Malin says he’s had his share of ups and downs in self-isolation, but he says today is a good day. "The sun is shining and I'm getting a lot done. I woke up embracing this current situation instead of being in denial and resisting." Still, he misses New York's usual bustle. "These times have been trying because it’s great to reflect and you need the time to refuel and reflect, and part of the loneliness is great for output as a writer. But I like to be on the move. I’m a walker. I like energy. I like being around people and I walk to get inspired. I’ve been taking little walks but it’s not like connecting with people and the adrenaline of everything of life. I like walking down a crowded street with all kinds of cultures and people and all kinds of things happening. There are a few little things open and then by 8 p.m., it’s really like a dead man's society. The pulse is like just some kind of weird futuristic deadsville. It’s terrible. But there is an optimism in the air between the restlessness, the spring coming and with the numbers going down a bit and the closing up of some of the wards at the hospitals that were just packed."
"I played the last night in London like it was the last night of my life. I was like, 'I’m leaving blood on the stage.'"
If he had his way, Malin would still be overseas in support of his most recent record, 2019's Sunset Kids, which won three Independent Music Awards last month. Due to the rapidly spreading coronavirus, however, he was forced to return to New York much earlier than planned. "To have it all pulled back was heartbreaking," he says. "I’m happy we got half of the cycle of touring done which is better than nothing, but we were in the peak and shows were selling out and we were moving to bigger rooms and we were going to play two days at Glastonbury. It was the best situation I’d been in in a while, where the record was really connecting and selling more," he says. "I played the last night in London like it was the last night of my life. I was like, 'I’m leaving blood on the stage.'"
At the best of times, coming down after a tour can be tough. But the abrupt finish made it even harder, compounded by the shocking homecoming. "It was devastating. We didn’t know what we were walking into," says Malin. "New York was like a Mad Max ghost town...a lot of fear, a lot of death, and uncertainty, and there still is." Pausing for a moment, he says, "I could play the violin but there are millions of people going through this and worse. It’s one of these things that shows we’re all in this together as a race on this planet."
Malin co-produced Sunset Kids with Lucinda Williams and her husband Tom Overby. Having initially been a fan of Williams, the pair eventually became friends. In fact, it was Williams who’d invited Malin to the Hollywood Bowl that transformative night where she played an hourlong set opening for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The following evening, when Malin met Williams and Overby for dinner, they decided to make a record together. Referring to Williams, who lends vocals to Sunset Kids, as his "North Star" who "made me want to be the best I can," Malin says, "She made me put my A-game on 10. She’s so good and she has such a strong gut instinct for the groove and soul of rock and roll but also the details and the lyrics. She’d go through my lyrics and ask things and having her brain on it was great. She has an eye for how things can be loving and beautiful but also fucked up and cool and real, and the dirty side of things, the grit that makes rock and roll or art that has an edge to it."
Born in Queens, Malin's a quintessential New Yorker with the accent to boot, but recording Sunset Kids on the West Coast wasn’t new for the rocker; he'd recorded in Los Angeles before (parts of Malin's Glitter in the Gutter and Love it to Life records were recorded in the City of Angels). "I do have a real feeling for L.A.," he admits. "I’ve grown to really love it, being around people who are so happy to get up early and get stuff done, and the beauty of it. I can see the romance of the California atmosphere. There's always that thing in every East Coast person. It may or may not work out, but that thing of ‘Go West, young man,’ that you can go out there and things can maybe be better and healing and the warm weather and all of that."
When he returned to Los Angeles to play shows last January, he shot the video for "Crawling Back To You" with filmmaker/video director/photographer Joseph Quever with whom Malin's previously collaborated. Quever says before the song was recorded, he was already compelled by Malin's live performances of "Crawling Back To You." It was after a performance in San Diego last October when Quever noticed he wasn’t the only one who was humming the song’s melody long after the show ended. "I could hear Jesse’s crew humming the song. I mean, imagine how many times they’d heard that song and yet they’re still humming it after a show as they're packing up the van," says Quever. "And there I was doing the same thing because the song was also embedded in my head, and I just thought, ‘Oh my god, there’s something special here with this version. It’s just spectacular."
Shot over the course of several days with footage of late-night drives on sparsely populated Los Angeles freeways and winding roads high above the city lights, and flecked with passing glimpses of The Hollywood Bowl and Sunset Boulevard (not to mention isolated shots of Malin in a hotel room), the intimate and minimalist video exudes acute longing, which resonates even more poignantly during the pandemic.
"This particular video is one of my personal favorites that we’ve ever done. I’m really happy with the song and this video which captures the spirit of what I was feeling which is my interpretation of the Tom Petty song," says Malin. "'Crawling Back To You' has a longing to get somewhere and to make that connection whether it’s love, drugs, creation, family, whatever...crawling back to whatever it is for you."
Until he can return to the recording studio to finish his next record, Malin, who is equally high energy onstage and off, has been hosting two-hour livestreams from his apartment on Saturday afternoons called "The Fine Art of Self Distancing" (a play on the title of his first solo record, The Fine Art of Self Destruction), which Rolling Stone listed last month among its best-streamed performances of the stay-at-home era. Lively, funny, chatty and affable, Malin performs his own songs and covers, all while taking audience requests. He also recommends films (John Cassavettes: Five Films, The King of Comedy and documentary The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town) and books ("Conversations with Tom Petty," which he’s currently reading) and relays anecdotes from his life. Having played in bands since he was 12 years old, including his seminal New York punk band D Generation, before he embarked on his solo career almost 20 years ago, the 52-year-old Malin has plenty of rock and roll stories to share.
Beginning this weekend, Malin's moving his livestream out of his apartment and into Berlin, a downtown N.Y.C. venue he co-owns where he’ll broadcast every Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET on his YouTube channel. In the spirit of '70s "SNL," "Jools Holland" and early Howard Stern, "The Art of Self Distancing: Live from New York City" will include live performances from Malin along with his keyboardist Rob Clores, short comedic sketches and segments, and pre-taped Zoom interviews with high-profile guests including Lucinda Williams, Debbie Harry (Blondie), Alejandro Escovedo and Craig Finn. Audience members can make requests and dedications and chat live, and there will be an option to donate and buy merchandise with all proceeds going to Malin's band, production crew, downtown New York City bars and MusiCares.
While he's having fun hosting livestreams, Malin says nothing truly beats live concerts. "I'm having a great time doing these livestreams," he says. "I’m trying to take some lemons and to make lemonade to fire it up and throw a party and to keep a good sense of humor about things but there’s still something great about getting in a room and being with people, in the dark with strangers and loud music, feeling the air push through the speakers."
Ever the optimist, Malin remains hopeful. "We’ve got to get through each day and not look too far ahead as there’s so much uncertainty but I have faith and I know it will all be back at some point. Hopefully, not too long. People are going to need music and to have that heartbeat and to be around each other. As much as Amazon and Netflix like to keep everyone in the house, people are going to want to be live and not Memorex."