“Rock & roll songs are just cheap shit – nothing deeper than that.”
– Tom Petty
As anybody reading this knows by now, Tom Petty died this week, on Monday, October 2. I’ve been a pretty big fan of Petty’s music for a while now. A few thoughts.
I got my license. I was 16. It was probably too young to be bombing around the streets of my hometown of Bangor, but man, did I love those rides. Like a lot of American teens, I drove to alleviate boredom. Often I’d pick up a friend or two and we’d see what sort of trouble we could get into – there were donuts, sure, but also that little hill on Palm Street that if you hit the crest of it going fast enough, the car (well, at least my mom’s little Renault) would leave the ground (my kid’s never getting a driver’s license, by the way!). Drive out to Glenburn, smoke a joint, tromp through some woods, drive back home in the afternoon sun.
More often than not, though, I’d end up driving around alone. Bored at home, homework finished, no practice that afternoon, whatever, and, “hey, mum, can I go for a drive?” “Sure, be back for dinner.” And I’m off, to wherever. Drive out route 15, see where you end up. Check to see if a friend’s home. Sneak past Michele’s house (just one last time, seriously).
But with friends or alone, always music in the car. I was into classic rock, so it was often a Zepplin or Doors tape, maybe the Police. But I’ve also always loved the radio. Yeah, commercial radio (although I hate the commercials) – top 40, oldies, classic rock, alternative. Whatever. I love the lack of choice of it – to an extent, I mean, you can always change the station, but the lack of control means a lack of predictability. Sure, on some stations, you have a good idea of what you’re likely to hear, but maybe you’re in the mood for some J. Geils or Cyndi Lauper, so top 40’s going to work for you. And then the dj’s like, “check out this new song,” and “Fight for your Right (to Party)” comes on and you’re, like, what in the hell is this? I’m turning this up!
The thing is, whatever station I might throw on back in ‘87, there was a good chance a Tom Petty song would come round eventually – top 40, indie, classic rock, hell, by that point Petty had songs that might slip onto one of Maine’s many country music stations. I knew who Petty was by then of course. “Refugee” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More” were MTV staples, unavoidable even on those after-school half-hour music video shows that local networks were throwing on in the mid-‘80s. And I knew a ton of Petty songs because they’d been ubiquitous on the radio for a decade. I just didn’t know that all those Petty songs were by the same guy (or, I should say, the same band because the Heartbreakers are a helluva band).
It was driving around in my car, lonely afternoons, bored, maybe on the way home from band practice or from an afternoon visit at a girlfriend’s house, that I started to notice, hey, another song that I really love is also by Tom Petty. I mean, yeah, there’s “Refugee,” but this guy also does “The Waiting?” I fucking love that song. And “Don’t Do Me Like That?” I mean, it doesn’t even sound like the same band, but in a weird way, it does.
I think that’s part of what I started loving about them. Yeah, sure, they’re just a rock band, playing the same ol’ country and blues based rock. But what the hell is up with that synth intro to “You Got Lucky?” (which, you’ve totally gotta check out the video). And then “Don’t Do Me Like That” has this RnB groove under its more modern post-punk sound. It’s no wonder that rock critics found it hard to categorize early Heartbreakers. In the UK – where the band actually broke before the US – they were lumped in with post-punk new wave music like Elvis Costello and even the Clash. Maybe because of stuff like this:
And also, though, you’re like, 16, 17, and trying to figure out whatever it is you’re trying to figure out – girls, the future, endless space, your algebra 2 homework – and you’re like, why does every one of these songs grab me? It might sound trite, but I think it’s because of how honest they are. Petty (or his narrator) rarely “wins” the song, but he’s almost never self-righteous about losing. Sad, yes, and on occasion bitter, but he never lets himself off when he loses. And even when he wins it’s hard earned. On top of that, there’s the surprising turns, the word play, the funky rhymes, and the kick-ass delivery (you try singing the verses to “Refugee” as cool as he does). And all those hooks! The Heartbreakers is just a stellar band, so whether it’s RnB, jangle rock, power pop, or something else, it sounds organic, and it sounds good.
By 1987 – two years before Full Moon Fever would send his career into the stratosphere – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had released seven albums. These are the songs you might hear on any random radio station that year: “American Girl,” “Breakdown,” “I Need to Know,” “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “The Waiting,” “A Woman in Love,” “You Got Lucky,” “Change of Heart,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Make it Better” (not a lot of love these days, but on the radio all the time in the mid-‘80s), and “Jammin Me.”
Short version. In the mid-‘80s I fell in love with Tom Petty in my car, driving around my town, feeling my teenage feelings.
In 1989 I graduated from high school (gulp). In 1989 Tom Petty released his first solo album, Full Moon Fever. “Free Fallin’” has become the mainstay (with a bit of “Won’t Back Down”), but maybe you remember how ubiquitous that whole album was. It was part of the soundtrack of the early ‘90s. Remember that “Hello CD listeners . . .” bit? Of course you do, because either you or somebody you knew had Full Moon Fever on CD, and played it a lot. At least I did. When I started college that fall, you might hear the Indigo Girls, NWA, Bob Marley, REM, etc. blasting out of any given dorm room. But stroll on in, and you’d find a copy of Full Moon Fever sitting on a desk, beer rings and shake coating its plastic cover.
It still sounds fantastic today, and I can’t say much more about the music than has already been said (except, if you’re one of them ones that still doesn’t appreciate Petty’s songwriting, please listen to “Yer So Bad” and revel in his Carveresque ability to create a whole story world, with ups and downs and twists, and humor and heart and sadness, in, like, 80 words).
But two things. One, the only time I saw Petty live was on this tour. Standing in line at the dining commons after swim practice in Feb ‘90, me and two friends saw a sign selling four tickets for a Heartbreaker show that night in Worcester, Mass. We got on the phone, got the tickets, found a fourth who could drive, and made in time to see Lenny Kravitz open. When Petty and the boys came on, I couldn’t believe it – I knew almost every goddamned song they played, and they ones I didn’t know, I wanted to know. “Listen to Her Heart.” They rocked the socks off that joint.
Which leads me to two. After buying Full Moon Fever and seeing that show, it finally occurred to me to start buying the back catalogue. You know those what-the-fuck moments you have when you stumble across an album that gives you a whole new appreciation for an artist? I spent the early ‘90s having those what-the-fuck moments over and over with TP. Discovering “No Second Thoughts” for the first time, or thinking to yourself Hard Promises must be a pretty good album because, my god, it’s already got “The Waiting,” but then you hear “Insider,” and you’re twenty, and life seems to make more sense. You know Damn the Torpedoes is a hell of an album because, um, “Refugee,” and, um, “Don’t Do Me Like That.” And then you spin that son of a bitch and “Here Comes My Girl” plays and you’re like, how have I never heard this song before? Seriously? And that’s before you get to “Even the Losers,” which is without a doubt one of the finest four minutes ever committed to vinyl by an American recording artist.
“Well it was nearly summer as we sat on your roof / yeah we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon. / And I showed you stars you never could see. / It couldn’t’ve been that easy to forget about me.”
Like a lot of GenXers, by the mid-‘90s I was pretty committed to “alternative” music. Not just grunge, mind you. I was digging Soul Coughing and Tricky and Ben Folds Five. I thought Luscious Jackson epitomized cool. I gobbled up new music as quickly as I could. Through alt-country acts like Uncle Tupelo, I was getting into roots music. I was getting more fully into jazz. A Tribe Called Quest was the shit. I was in my mid-20s and it still seemed like the music I listened to said something about who or what I was, and what I wanted to be was cool. So I listened to what I thought was cool music and debated it heavily. I mean . . . shit, you know what I mean, we really debated it.
In the middle of all that coolness and newness and hipness and rightness, along comes Tom Petty and releases two of the best albums of the decade with Wildflowers (solo) and Songs and Music from “She’s the One” (Heartbreakers). Wildflowers gets a lot of love. It should. It was a huge album, combining radio-friendly hits, with full-on rockers, and some of the most delicate songs of Petty’s career (if you haven’t listened in a while, re-visit “To Find a Friend”). But a special shout out for She’s the One is in order. It’s a fantastic album that often gets overlooked because it dropped when Wildflowers was still all over the radio. But She’s the One is loaded with great music, from the beautiful vocal pop of “Walls (Circus)” (listen to those Lindsay Buckingham vocals!), to the spine-tingling, slow-burning rock jam of “Supernatural Radio,” and one of Petty’s most plaintive philosophical inquiries on “California.”
And, also . . .
In the spring of ’97, I went through that breakup. I mean, I’d been through breakups before, had my heart broken, broken some hearts myself. But this was that one. The one they make movies about. The “it doesn’t matter, I can’t get out of bed, fuck this world and fuck you, too, I’m gonna wake up and start drinking, nothing will ever hurt like this hurts” one. I tried everything. I tried booze, I tried exercise, I took up tai chi, I bought an ounce of weed and spent more than a few nights smoking myself straight. I wrote poetry.
Luckily, I had some fantastic friends that spring, and a couple of amazing roommates. They listened to me whine, bought me drinks, got me out of the house, tried to take my mind of things. And they tolerated a shit ton of Petty.
For all the great breakup music out there, that spring nobody spoke to that pain of mine like TP did. I listened to his version of “Change the Locks” multiple times, every goddamned day (and I love Lucinda’s version, love it, but that spring, I needed the ferocity of the Heartbreaker’s version, which, by the way, is on She’s the One). I realized that “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” was a completely different song than I’d ever thought before. Jesus, it had nothing to do with a friendly spat or Alice in Wonderland. It was about ME and MY exact feelings!
Even previously fun jangly rockers like “Change of Heart,” took on a depth I’d never noticed before: “you never needed me / you only wanted me around. / It gets me down.” And it’s important to talk about clichés for a second, because a lot of our darkest feelings are clichés. Humans are clichés. We feel feelings that have been felt before, for millennia, by other humans, and even though our feelings are ours, they’re not new. Not in the scheme of things. So we read books, listen to songs, look for guidance. And when you’re in the shit, for whatever reason – lonely, sad, depressed, angry – it’s hard enough to articulate those feelings, and they so often come out as oversimplified clichéd nonsense. Because if you try and get all high-falutin, well, who gives a shit. I’m too goddamned sad for high-falutin. So when somebody like Petty sings, “you never needed me / you only wanted me around. / It gets me down,” it just takes all the crazy chatter going on in your head and distils it down to a pure, crystalline version of exactly how you feel. And it feels good to know that somebody else out there in the void fucking gets you.
Having Petty as the sonic wallpaper of my life for the previous ten years, it felt, now, like he was a friend. You know I know that’s stupid. And you know I know it wasn’t true. But that’s what good music does, it gives back to you what you give to it, and if you treat it like a friend, it’ll be there for you when you need it.
There might be better break up music out there. I mean, I know Blood on the Tracks is out there. But that spring I took TP into the trenches with me, and TP had my back.
Echo came out right before I left America.
I didn’t know then I’d still be gone, eighteen years later. I did know it was a big move. I saved up my money, packed everything I could into two bags, and hopped on a plane with my friend Sam just before Y2K. In the lead up to that departure, I listened to Echo a lot. If mid-decade Petty was already being passed by grunge rock and hip hop, by the end of the decade he’d just about fallen off most people’s radar. I mean, who wants to listen to an old fogey like Petty when albums like OK Computer are coming out. And pop had moved on to “Hit Me Baby, One More Time” – it would be almost indecent to throw on something by Petty after that!
Music, as it does, was moving on. After being one of the biggest stars in the firmament of American music just five years earlier, Petty had been consigned to “Classic Rock” status. Were college kids playing Petty on their radio stations in the late ‘90s? Were turn-of-the-century punkers still thinking, yeah, I can get down with Petty, dude rocks?
I doubt it.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Echo was a break-up album. Surprise, right? But, no, really. Petty had divorced his wife after twenty years of marriage (apparently, later in his career he eschewed playing most of the album because the songs were too painful). I was two years out from the shit storm of ’97, but it wasn’t completely out of my system. Also, leaving a home, a country, is kind of like a break up. Maybe. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. But whatever it was, and however much I dug Radiohead, Echo did it to me again that autumn. The title track is a really poignant kiss off song. The singer’s sad about the break-up, also angry, but also glad to be rid of it all. That’s exactly how I felt about leaving America in late ’99. I loved the hell out of the place. I just didn’t like it anymore.
Then there’s “Free Girl Now,” one of those exuberant Petty songs about a woman finding freedom. And “Swinging,” one of his fantastic songs of defiance. Both of which told me, do it, dude. Get the fuck out of Dodge.
And “Room at the Top.”
One of Petty’s best songs, “Room at the Top” fits in with some of his other defiant-but-not-really songs. This isn’t “Won’t Back Down,” where you truly believe he could stand up at the gates of hell. This is the defiance of “You Got Lucky,” or, going all the way back, “Breakdown.” Songs that wear their toughness so hard on their sleeve and traffic in such big, major-chord transitions, that one can be forgiven for missing the vulnerability underneath. In “Room at the Top,” Petty mentions the other people there in the room with him. There are no other people there with him. He’s alone, and he’s lonely.
What can I say, I was a Petty acolyte. I listened to his music all the time. He was in my blood.
I got drunk and explained his genius to anybody who would listen.
Most annoying to my friends and fellow expats was this weird antipathy I’d formed towards Springsteen. Don’t get me wrong, Springsteen’s great. I dig him. But in the early to mid-‘00s, he was experiencing a sort of re-evaluation. With The Rising (so so) and his Pete Seeger album (fantastic) and Bush in the White House, Springsteen took on the mantle of America’s soulful poet. Which, fine, he totally deserves it. But I’d be like, yeah yeah, Springsteen’s cool and all, but dude, you gotta listen to Petty.
To me, Springsteen was Walt Whitman and Petty was Emily Dickinson. As much as I love Whitman, I’m a Dickinson guy at heart. And I let everybody know it.
Wait, are you shitting me? I’m moving country again, and Petty’s got a new album out. Aaaand it’s been 20 years since I got my license, and ten years since the spring from hell?
In 2007 Highway Companion came out. It’s the last of Petty’s three solo albums and probably his last great top-to-bottom album (which, more in a sec). By 2007, I had a hard time getting my music-loving friends to give a shit about Petty. If they weren’t waiting for the next Jack White project, they were jacked up about some dude on MySpace or some torrent they’d downloaded of a low-fi band from Sweden that mixed rock with dance music. All good stuff, to be sure. Not only was music changing, but the whole way we listen to, interact with, share, and even talk about music. In that landscape, you had to want to listen to Petty. If you’re still reading, I guess you know I wanted to.
Highway Companion is straight-up great. Once again, it mixes balls-out rockers with tender ballads, and a couple of those great one-offs that don’t sound much like anything else from Petty’s catalogue. And his songwriting is still invigorating . . . the word play, the knowing cynicism, the willingness to be silly, it’s all there. I love Budapest, my home at the time, but I was soooo ready to go. And you know how it is, once you make up your mind to leave – a town, a job, a lover – all the negative shit becomes so clear, and so persistent. And Petty comes along with a song like “This Old Town,” which I listened to every day to confirm the decision to leave for Belfast. But also, just listen to “Square One,” “Turn this Car Around,” “Flirting with Time.” These are all songs that any songwriter would kill to come up with. Still that economy with language, that ability to put crystal clear images in your mind, while still leaving so many cracks in the narrative that you can fill them in with whole worlds of meaning.
The last few years
Life changed a lot in Belfast, and it wasn’t just the weather. I was married, I was doing a PhD, in 2011 we had a kid. I was still listening to a ton of Petty – one of my multi-year projects has been to convince my partner of the Heartbreakers greatness (for the record, she loves “Free Fallin,’” “Honey Bee,” and “Into the Great Wide Open,” and it’s been incredibly heartening this week, as Petty’s been on non-stop in the house, to hear her say over and over, “oh, this is his, too? I love this song”).
But with all that going on, my energy for new music waned a bit. And I was also realizing how many holes there were in my musical knowledge, so I spent a lot of time catching up with English pub rock, and soul music, and some of the ‘90s and ‘00s pop music that I was “too cool” to listen to first time round.
I got the Mudcrutch album when it came out, and really liked it, but it was more of an “in the rotation” experience than a “listen to this album and only this album for many weeks” experience. When Mojo came out in 2010, it passed me by. It shouldn’t have. I finally caught up with Mojo a few years later, and it’s killer. Recorded live in the studio, the band is on fire – listen to Mojo and feel yourself in the hands of one of the best American rock units ever, still nailing it. I mean, just listen to this:
What that is, right there, is a bunch of sixty-year-olds. And you know what? They’re better than any other band to make it to sixty ever. That’s right. I said it. The Heartbreakers at 60 are better than the Stones at 60, the Who, Zepplin, and yes, the E Street Band. I mean, listen to that energy, listen to Steve Ferrone slay those skins, listen to Mike Campbell rip the face off that last solo. Listen to Tom own it.
And they did it again on Hypnotic Eye in 2014. I mean, just play this loud:
How are they still coming up with funky shit like that? How is Petty still plumbing the depths of his own soul in a way that blends full-on rock and roll with probing introspection? Masterful.
Oh, and for what it’s worth in this day and age, this fractured musical landscape, Hypnotic Eye, Petty’s last album, went to number one. Maybe more people are still into TP than I give them credit for.
I wrote above that Highway Companion was probably Petty’s last top-to-bottom great album, but that’s really only because Mojo and Hypnotic Eye are a bit on the long side. Cut three or four songs from each, and you’ve got two more stone-cold classics, full of driving rock, and thoughtful, funny, insightful lyrics. In a forty-year career, with the Heartbreakers and solo, Tom Petty never put out a bad album. Never.
I’ve been listening to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers intensely for thirty years. Before Monday, if you’d asked me who my favorite singer/band/songwriter of all time was, I probably wouldn’t have named Petty. There have been so many – The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Liz Phair, Prince, the White Stripes. But as much as I’ve loved and love those acts, along with many, many more, I don’t think any of them have stuck with me, and stuck around, like Tom “my middle name is Earl” Petty. He’s travelled with me, rode the road, partied with me, held my hand when I needed him to, told me it was gonna be all right. It’s not nostalgia. I mean, it is because there were so many times my life took a turn and I turned to TP, and the music is like a bee-line straight back to those moments. But the songs are also still so goddamned good. The production’s great, the lyrics resist sentiment, and the Heartbreakers remain one of the most rocking units of all time. I mean, Jesus, even if I haven’t sold you on Petty as a songwriter, give some fucking props to Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench!
In the end, I don’t know if I have a “favorite.” On reflection, though, one thing’s become absolutely clear. Tom Petty is the beating heart of my rock and roll life, and I’m sorry and sad as hell that he’s gone.
It’s time to move on,
time to get goin’,
what lies ahead,
I have no way of knowin’.
But under my feet, baby,
grass is growin’.
Yeah, it’s time to move on
time to get goin’.