Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Last Thoughts On Tom Petty, 1950-2017.

Tom Petty, 1982. Loving Jesus & America, too.

1. American Girl.

I have been ridiculously fortunate in my concert-going life.

I've seen B.B. King strut out in a silver sequined jacket; Chuck Berry duckwalk across the stage; Jerry Lee Lewis kick over a piano stool; Bob Dylan smile at the crowd & say "thank you." I've seen Paul McCartney play "Eight Days A Week"; The Rolling Stones blast off with "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"; Bruce Springsteen take a request of "Incident On 57th Street"; Elliott Smith sing the gorgeous "Waltz #2 (XO)" just a few years before his own tragic death. I've seen R.E.M. & U2, Elton John & Billy Joel; Sonic Youth & Neil Young.

& yet, the greatest single concert-going moment of life came in the late '90s, when I saw Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers play "American Girl" for the first time live.

There is a difference between listening to a song & really hearing it, which I had never really considered up to that point in time. I knew "American Girl," of course; it began his 1993 Greatest Hits album that was ubiquitous in my home & car--& even if hadn't been, it was ubiquitous everywhere else, on classic rock radio, within friends' mix tapes, in The Silence Of The Lambs. I thought it was a good song, sure, but nothing any better than, say, "Breakdown" or "Refugee."

But there comes a time when you hear a song enough times that you begin to hear it in a new way, either through the song's sheer perseverance or the cosmic timing of when & where it is heard.

For me, "American Girl" came together at that concert.

Petty didn't open or close with it; he played it somewhere in the middle, with little attention or fanfare, just one more song in a long string of hits & favorites.

But when that drum kicked in as the guitars & bass rang out their parts on top of it, I finally really heard "American Girl." I was with a big group of friends with some lawn seats that were bought at the last minute & we danced in the light rain as the song filled our ears. The song's simple yet effective images--being raised on promises, acknowledging the great big world, standing alone on a balcony, creeping back into a memory, something so close but still so far--all crystalized as I looked to the girl next to me, who I had always had a crush on.

Like so many other Tom Petty songs, "American Girl" has a simple effectiveness that has convinced millions of fans that they are the American girl, or that they are the guy creeping back into a memory for one desperate moment there.

In a music where gods play for mere mortals, Tom Petty was--to lift a line from Leonard Cohen--almost human, a seemingly laid-back, approachable guy who just happened to write amazing music & could put on a live show that put virtually every else's to shame. His music was friendly. He was more like the guy who lived down your street & you saw at barbecues than someone who should be filling arenas.

It was because of his mortality that he was able to connect with his audience like he could--& it was this trait that ultimately made the music immortal.

2. Anything That's Rock & Roll.

But we were reminded just how mortal Tom Petty was last week when he passed away after heart failure at the age of 66.  So much rumor & speculation were being reported as fact that I cannot remember a more confusing demise of a rock star since Kurt Cobain took his own life in a then-regular series of relapses.

But Tom Petty was different. If he wasn't ripped from us in the prime of youth like Cobain, he also wasn't someone we were expecting to pass away anytime soon. In a world where many of rock's giants above him still walk the earth (McCartney, Dylan, Jagger, etc.), let alone the generation above them (Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Fats Domino, etc.), no one was figuring this was to come anytime soon. Petty was a contemporary of Bruce Springsteen & Elvis Costello; why would anyone expect his passing to occur before, say, Bob Dylan?

Petty had just come off of a sold-out 40th Anniversary tour, which many saw as a grand gesture of retirement, even though he maintained that he wasn't packing it in for good. One of the things that made Petty different from his peers is that when others would make records or stray singles to promote tours, he kept on making albums for albums' sake, with some of his best & highest-charting material coming in the past decade. In a music of fast burn-outs & gimmickry, Petty had always dug in for the long haul.

Though I cannot for the life of me find it now, I remember reading an interview with Rolling Stone when he was taking his band out for another tour in the early 00's. I don't believe there was a new album to promote or anything, so they asked why he was doing it. Petty said he felt like they had to because they were the last rock band left. Everyone else played punk or metal or indie or alternative, but no one played straight-up rock & roll. He spoke as though his music was a mantle that was inherited & needed to be shared with the world by its mere existence.

& in a way, he was right.

3. It's Good To Be King.

Tom Petty met Elvis Presley when Petty was 11 & Elvis was working on a film (appropriately) titled Follow That Dream in Petty's native Florida. From there, it seems he did not stop.

Meeting The King sparked an interest in rock music, which soon led to Petty devouring Elvis's music & getting his first guitar. But to a young teenager, Elvis seemed remote, powerful, & far removed from any kind of conceivable path to stardom.

When The Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show a few years later, it provided, as one Petty biographer aptly put it, the map of how to get to stardom like Elvis's. Petty would later call The Rolling Stones his version of punk rock (they were also punk rock's version of punk rock--just look at The New York Dolls), & like his contemporary Springsteen up the coast in New Jersey, Petty spent his formative years cobbling together various groups of varying quality & very limited success.

When he finally released the eponymous debut LP Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers in the year of America's Bicentennial, he arrived, on one level, fully-formed. The album married the jangle of folk-rock with the defiance of their time, like a post-punk reincarnation of The Byrds with more than just a hint of Bob Dylan thrown into the mix. They were initially labeled as punk, & then as new-wave, which tells us far more how catch-all these terms were than anything about The Heartbreakers' actual music. The thing is, it shouldn't have been so elusive--from the very start they were a rock band, plain & simple.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers featured two of the finest songs they would ever perform--"Breakdown" & "American Girl." (The latter was so instantly-classic that legend has it when former Byrd Roger McGuinn first heard it on the radio, he tried to convince himself that it was a cover of one of his own songs.) But again like Springsteen, Petty was lauded by rock critics but largely passed up by rock fans. It wasn't until Petty's third album--once again like Springsteen--that he finally broke through to a mainstream audience.

This occurred on 1979's Damn The Torpedoes, where The Heartbreakers' driving sound met their sonic match with Jimmy Iovine as producer. With its title deriving from Union Army Navy commander David Farragut's cry in the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864 ("Damn the torpedoes--full speed ahead!"), it seems to speak to Petty's America. Farragut was born in Tennessee & resided in Norfolk, VA, when the Civil War broke out, but he remained loyal to the Union. Similarly, Petty was born in Florida, but spent much of his career out west in California; he would later examine the South's inconsistencies in 1985's Southern Accents & strongly denounced his use of the Confederate Flag on that tour earlier this year.

But the title of Damn The Torpedoes referred to a more immediate civil war as well--the one Petty was waging with his label, MCA Records. When Petty's contract was sold to them without his consent, he declared the contract void, for which MCA sued him for breach of contract. Petty then declared bankruptcy to void the contract. Everything was worked out when he signed to a new label (& MCA subsidiary) Backstreet Records, but it gave Petty a distaste for the record business that would lead to a career fighting for artists' rights. (& also, with 1981's Hard Promises, where he protested his label marking the album up by a dollar, the rights of his listeners, too.)

All that said, Damn The Torpedoes worked because it played like a greatest hits--"Refugee," "Don't Do Me Like That," "Here Comes My Girl," "Even The Losers," all the rest. When I saw Petty play on the 20th Anniversary Tour for that record, he made it clear that he was going to play some deep cuts from that album, so I prepared myself for some unfamiliar tunes; it turned out I knew them all just by owning a radio. Fittingly, the album was a smash & spent seven weeks at #2 on Billboard, lodged behind Pink Floyd's The Wall.

With Damn The Torpedoes establishing Petty as a force in music, he followed with a string of albums that shifted in tones & textures, which largely served as a holding pattern for his music. & then, one day in 1988, George Harrison left a guitar at Petty's house, which ended up with Petty being invited to join Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, & ELO producer & mastermind Jeff Lynne to join a nascent supergroup that became The Traveling Wilburys. Fortune smiled on Petty, as he became one of the only people to say they were in a band with a Beatle, Bob Dylan, & a one-time Sun rockabilly star.

The only other person in the world who could say this--Jeff Lynne--soon struck up a friendship with Petty & helped shape his sound better than any producer had since Jimmy Iovine. Lynne had a bright, crisp sound that shaped the Wilburys' first album in 1988 & second album (labeled a third volume in tribute to Orbison, who had died) in 1990. (Just listen to the Wilburys' "Cool Dry Place"--easily Petty's funniest song--which Lynne absurdly punches up with funky horns like Petty was on Stax.) In between the two Wilburys albums, Lynne produced Petty's solo debut, Full Moon Fever, his finest album since Torpedoes. In Bob Dylan's Chronicles Volume One, he writes about being on tour with Petty when that album was new & remembers Petty being the big draw, not him. "Tom was at the top of his game & I was at the bottom of mine," Dylan wrote.

Full Moon Fever was Petty's commercial peak, with classics like "Free Fallin'," "I Won't Back Down," & "Runnin' Down A Dream" anchoring it. It set the stage for the double crowning of 1993's Greatest Hits album, his all-time best-selling album, & 1994's Wildflowers, his finest album. The latter was made by working with his third great producer/collaborator after Jimmy Iovine & Jeff Lynne, Rick Rubin. The one-time Def Records founder & Beastie Boys auteur-turned-Americana junkie was fresh off of single-handedly reviving Johnny Cash's career with the first American Recordings album. (Subsequent albums would feature Petty & The Heartbreakers themselves as the backing band with Cash even intoning Petty's "Southern Accents" & "I Won't Back Down.")

But just as Rubin was able to tap into the scope of Johnny Cash, so too was he able to do the same for Petty. Propelled by Rubin & backed by virtually all of The Heartbreakers (despite being a solo LP), Wildflowers saw the full range of Tom Petty's talents, from the folk simplicity of the title track to the storming "You Wreck Me" to the tender "Time To Move On" to the bluesy "Honey Bee." It played like a victory lap after all of his recent successes & remains his definitive artistic statement.

Petty would consistently release new albums in the decades following Wildflowers, but he increasingly made more money from selling concert tickets than selling albums. No longer at the pinnacle of his commercial or artistic success, Petty was largely content to live in his songs.

As the man once said, "It's good to be king of your own little town."

4. A One Story Town.

Tom Petty's songs are filled with tales that draw the line between the thrill of romance & the thrill of escape; temptation is a fact of day-to-day life & luck is often the only way to navigate through the twists & turns. The music becomes one long, long road--a king's highway, perhaps, or the very least a street named Kings Road--that pulls together the homes & people until they all blur into one. Who else but Tom Petty could pull off the image of a small-town front yard that somehow has a freeway running through it?

If this land has a motto, it might come from the song "Refugee": "Honey, it don't make no difference to me, everybody's had to fight to be free." In Petty's country, no one is an outsider because no one has to live like a refugee. & the flip-side of being a refugee is belonging to a community.

Like the song "Refugee," many of Petty's most famous songs--"Breakdown," "I Need To Know," "Here Comes My Girl"--don't even really start with singing in a traditional sense, but something closer to talking. The conversational style pulls you into the music until you're blindsided by the hook, as if Mark Twain was fronting Blondie.

All put together, the music seems to form a small town, not unlike that of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, a fellow southerner who knew his way around an archetype. Listening to the songs now, you can almost hear Dilsey leaving Church on Easter Sunday & proclaiming that she's seen the first & she's seen the last. & with The Heartbreakers playing backup, the sound is the fury.

Petty's songs seem to provide a setting for a never-ending cast of characters who are at once wholly new yet entirely familiar.

There's the good girl who's crazy about Elvis; the loser who gets lucky sometimes; the friend with the woman who hurt his pride; the drifter with the Louisiana rain in his shoes, the girl who might go solo; the musician searching for a cool, dry place; the A&R guy who doesn't hear a single; the old blues singer trying to lure his honey bee; the rebel born with one foot in the grave & one foot on the pedal; the sister who marries a yuppie; the old man who was born to rock; the phantom lover who darkens doors & tangles emotions; the zombies dancing at the zoo; the man who won't back down at the gates of hell; the sinner who follows an angel & can only thank God it was not too late.

A lot can happen in a Tom Petty song.

Cars speed by on the highway like waves crashing on the beach; teenagers reach for stardom; bad boys scorn good girls; old towns get lonesome; jukeboxes eat dollar bills like candy; Del Shannon's "Runaway" plays on the car radio; people smoke cigarettes & stare at the moon; ingenues write long letters on short pieces of paper; neighbors knock on the wall; landlords breathe down your neck; people dance to kill their pain; drunk tanks feel like motel rooms; people get high & come down; loners roll another joint; shady figures try to lure girls away with money & cocaine.

& sometimes nothing happens at all & people are just left waiting, which is the hardest part.

But to leave this town would be reckless & any notion of moving on feels like breaking up a dogfight turning into a deer in the headlights. It would cause you to lose your mind.

& on top of all this atmosphere, characters, & action, Petty is the master of simple directives. Just look at his song titles. Don't do me like that. I need to know. You wreck me. His songs are littered with these phrases that should be cliches but are not in his hands. This in part speaks to the brilliance of his craft. Just like how some people are quick to knock The Stooges' primal "I Wanna Be Your Dog" as something that anyone could do, then how come no one else has done it? The same could be said for Petty's phraseology.

Over time, Petty honed his craft until he was a master of the two-line couplet, spinning lyrics that might seem obvious to the point of stupidity, but remain some of the most perfect rock words ever penned. The height of these came in the mid-'90s, with his new single from his Greatest Hits album, "Mary Jane's Last Dance," & the first single from Wildflowers, "You Don't Know How It Feels." Both were studies in beat & rhythm, with words strung across them like non-sequitur Christmas lights.

Sometimes they find a small portrait of action & feeling, as in these lines from "Mary Jane's Last Dance":

It was too cold to cry when I woke up alone
I hit the last number; I walked to the road

Sometimes they just describe a feeling that is borne out by the music, like these words from "You Don't Know How It Feels":

There's someone I used to see
But she don't give a damn for me

By the time Petty got around to recording the criminally-underrated soundtrack to Ed Burns' romantic comedy She's The One, he could sing about a girl who's heart is so big it can crush a town. So seemingly stupid, but so effectively perfect.

His songs unfolded like a series of masks, family members & friends, strangers & lovers, winners & losers.

& he was all of them, at different times & in different ways.

5. Don't Fade On Me.

As many people have already noted, perhaps the most tragic aspect of Tom Petty's passing is that, while he retired from major tours, he was still planning to make music & was even working on a new album at the time of his death.

Like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young, it is impossible to imagine Tom Petty would ever stop making music, no matter what the sales were or old age he was at, waxing his simple wisdom that was too beautiful to be obvious, too true to ring false.

& re-listening to his music after this passing, no song rings more beautiful or true than the last verse of "Walls (No. 3)" from the She's The One Soundtrack:

Some things are over
Some things go on
Part of me you carry
Part of me is gone--

Even the strongest of walls can fall down.


  1. Very well written. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were the sound track of my life, starting at age 16 when I first heard Breakdown on the radio. Every album seemed to coincide with things going on in my life. He truly was an American treasure and I looked forward to every new release,eagerly waiting for the day it was on sale at the local record stores. R.I.P Tom Petty

  2. Very well written. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were the sound track of my life, starting at age 16 when I first heard Breakdown on the radio. Every album seemed to coincide with things going on in my life. He truly was an American treasure and I looked forward to every new release,eagerly waiting for the day it was on sale at the local record stores. R.I.P Tom Petty