In some respects, Tom Petty, who died earlier this month at the age of 66, was an unlikely rock star — maybe one of the last true rock stars before the music business began micro-managing, focus-grouping, and mass-marketing its product; polishing any unsightly, rough edges off its would-be idols. And by unsightly, I mean unique, individualistic, independent, strong-willed.
Petty, to quote the character Joe Hackett in a memorable episode of one of my favorite ’90s TV sitcoms, “Wings,” was also “a pretty gawky looking guy” with a molasses-thick Florida drawl and straight straw for hair. Too many teeth, too few heartthrob angles.
It’s difficult to fathom from this vantage point, but back in 1976, when he emerged on the national music scene as the 25-year-old namesake of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, the scrawny upstart with the throwback Rickenbacker guitar didn’t really belong in any easily compartmentalized genre.
In a world dominated by decibel dinosaurs (Led Zeppelin), Southern rock shit-kickers (Lynyrd Skynyrd), cocaine cowboys (Eagles), and mellow singer-songwriters (Jackson Browne), Petty’s nervy jangle and mercurial sneer was an anomaly of free-ranging, genre-free spirit. Like his offbeat face, he didn’t fit the frame of fame. But he and the perspective reflected in his music felt instantly, remarkably familiar for those who took a chance and listened.
At first blush, “Rockin’ Around (With You),” the first track on the band’s debut, released 41 years ago, was — to put it mildly — a fairly inauspicious beginning to a remarkable career.
And yet, those brief two minutes and thirty seconds, which actually feels shorter than it is, contained the DNA of what would what would become the Petty pedigree early on: a mission statement affirming the pure pleasures of rocking and rolling the day and night away with your best crush for company, libidinal abandon set to jumpy guitars, a pumping backbeat, and a fresh, keening vocal that sounded like Roger McGuinn’s and Bob Dylan’s kid brother after he raided a stack of Buddy Holly 45s.
Besides a clutch of cool, if unassuming little rockers — “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” is the sound of a promising welterweight working the bag with a voice that was already a knockout one-two punch of verve and attitude — Tom’s self-titled album also contained two of the finest, tightest pop tunes Petty ever penned: “Breakdown” and “American Girl.”
Try to forget, for a moment, how many times you’ve heard them on the radio (especially the former which, in the early days, seemed to get nearly as much airplay as Petty’s breakthrough single, “Refugee”) and try to listen again with the fresh ears of your mind.
(When news of Petty’s demise broke, it left me a bit dazed, dumbstruck, and at a rare loss for words or succinct analysis. Like many of us, Petty’s evergreen rock & roll has been woven into the fabric of my musical life and education since junior high school; sifting through his expansive body of work anew, against the surreal backdrop of his sudden, unexpected death — Petty in the past tense? How in the hell could that be possible? — and sorting out what it all meant, to me at least, took some time. Mostly, I just wanted to immerse myself in the music and listen like I did as a teenager huddled over the radio in my room).
These two songs, in a nutshell, encapsulate what I always liked best about Tom Petty: his uncanny ability to both inhabit and channel the nothing-left-to-lose underdog whose wily but pugnacious sense of self-preservation keeps him (or her) pushing toward his (or her) goal. “Breakdown” and “American Girl,” each in its own way, is a dare and a dream — and maybe a little of both.
“There is no sense in pretending,” young Tom sidles up to say in “Breakdown, ” Your eyes give you away / I’m not afraid of you running away, honey / I get the feeling you won’t.” Part conspiratorial plea, part secular prayer to a would-be lover to cave in and give him what he craves, the lyric is also a blustery bit of bluff-calling. Meanwhile, the musical arrangement of mood echoes Tom’s feverish state of mind, building from hushed nocturnal whisper into a decorum-dispensing chorus of naked carnality — “Break Down — Go ahead and give it to me!” It doesn’t look particularly sophisticated on the page, but raw, sexual hunger rarely is. What the stated sentiment lacks in poetry it makes up in accuracy, capturing the essence of unhinged desire as few pop songs do.
Petty’s “American Girl,” meanwhile, expresses a different kind of desire, but just as powerful and consuming. This anygirl from anytown U.S.A., “raised on promises” (you can almost hear the silent “empty” in there), decides to dive headlong into whatever future that awaits out in “a great big world / With lots of places to run to.”
She’s also running away from something, or someone, which lends an extra urgency and pathos to her journey. You can feel the young woman’s bursting anticipation, her desperation to escape as well as arrive, in Petty’s (and the Heartbreakers’) exuberant, empathetic performance. He’s rooting for her, and we are too. For me, it’s the rare rock song by a male performer who believably channels the leap of faith and hope of the young female protagonist at its center.
Buoyed by winning tracks like “I Need To Know” and ‘”Listen To Her Heart,” 1978’s curiously overlooked “You’re Gonna Get It” followed through on Petty’s promise as an emotionally candid, resonant storyteller.
But “Damn The Torpedoes,” from the next year, marked Petty’s own official arrival and watershed moment. Sparked by a clutch of soon-to-be FM radio staples like “Refugee” — a banner-raising monument to spirited striving for self-acceptance that remains Petty’s signature song — “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Here Comes My Girl” (the latter one of the most perfectly delicious distillations of tension and release), “Torpedoes” was a critical and commercial success that shot the singer to stardom.
1981’s superb “Hard Promises” was nearly as great. Tracks such as “The Waiting,” “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me),” and “The Nightwatchman” were all examples of Petty’s inventive, wholly personal takes on well-worn themes of love, fidelity, trust, and finding one’s place in the world at large, and the world of another.
Meanwhile, “The Insider” was, and is, a gorgeously stirring duet with Stevie Nicks, perhaps the only other major American pop singer of the day whose voice and style was as sublimely idiosyncratic as Petty’s. This track, much like the searing “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me),” showcased the songwriter’s poetic gift for wedding profound loneliness to an almost regal loveliness; here, the crippling emotional ache of the song’s lyrics are coupled with a stately melody of quiet elegance and dignity.
Petty went on to have a long, illustrious career, of course, that — like his fellow chronicler of tales from the heartland, Bruce Springsteen — had its share of stylistic detours, downturns, and upticks, both with and without the Heartbreakers. I liked a lot of what came after those early, heady years (1994’s solo Petty excursion, “Wildflowers” remains a favorite, and 2015’s “Nobody’s Children” has been a recent revelation).
For awhile there, it seemed as though Tom was everywhere — magazine covers, endless tours with Dylan and the Dead, membership in the Traveling Wilburys, a rag-tag bunch of millionaire good-time charlies that included Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and ex-Move/Electric Light Orchestra leader Jeff Lynne.
Funnily enough, the Petty period I didn’t much care for proved to be his most commercially lucrative, when he teamed with Wilbury pal-turned-co-producer/co-writer Lynne for 1989’s “Full Moon Fever” and 1991’s “Into The Great Wide Open.” Both albums yielded a bumper crop of huge hits (“Free Fallin'”; “Learning To Fly”; “I Won’t Back Down,” among seven smash singles spread across both albums) now in perpetual radio rotation.
Yes, I know I’m in the minority on this one (and I’ve never believed myself to be a calculatingly baiting — read: insufferably annoying — music contrarian). But after awhile, all that damn, dry acoustic strumming, soporific singing (as if barely roused from an expensive armchair after a few rounds of bong hits), and simultaneously widescreen yet airless production became formulaic, a little too self-satisfied. Smug, even.
I never begrudged Tom any of his success, though (I preferred to blame Lynne), and was very happy for his ascendancy as an A-List rock star. He was always one of the good guys to me.
In covering his shows over the years in the wake of all that success, I was struck by Petty’s sly, almost sneaky greatness as an artist. Here was someone I usually associated with hit singles — creative, quick bursts of ear candy that were, to the guy’s immense credit, rarely rote or obvious. Historically speaking, a Tom Petty single was often a sparkling, sometimes taciturn little universe unto itself, a spinning marvel brimming with personality, efficiency, and scope; three or four minutes that could instantly, if briefly, connect with its intended audience.
But then, when I would see and hear him over the course of a two-plus hour concert, the totality of Petty’s accrued body of work would come into full, panoramic view. And it was staggeringly good rock & roll; soul-nourishing substantive, thematically linked, all of a piece. Springsteen always got the credit for staying and playing all night. But I wondered whether Petty and his perfectly paced, custom-tailored Heartbreakers would ever run out of killer songs if given the chance to just keep going.
Petty never made the tedious claim of being the voice of a generation, or the greatest this or the most successful that. He never posed either, except maybe as the mischievous Mad Hatted Jester. But even that guise was playful, winking, self deprecating — not so much a pose as a lark, which seemed to be his predilection.
Speaking of larks, two of my favorite Petty-related activities not directly associated with his own music was his informative and entertaining “Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure” radio show showcasing forgotten and overlooked rock, pop, and rhythm and blues gems on SiriusXM radio. Through those programs, I got to hear the dyed-in-the-wool, lifelong music obsessive shining through the rock star celebrity; and there was his gloriously deadpan comic turn as the voice (and visage) of lovable loser Elroy “Lucky” Kleinschmidt on Mike Judge’s animated series, “King Of The Hill.”
On our televisions, radios, and stages, Petty was a ubiquitous fixture, giving us more cool songs and bringing the goods without hype or hubris. Summer after summer, year after year, decade after decade, he was there, as sure and inevitable as the seasons. As such, I think Tom was taken for granted by many of us who grew up with him, after awhile. Now, sadly, he won’t be any longer.
Tom Petty died at 8:40 p.m. on Monday, October 2, at the UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica after being found unconscious and in full cardiac arrest at his home that morning. He was 66 years old. Tomorrow, October 20, would have been his 67th birthday.
Only two days after he and The Heartbeakers finished a triumphant tour celebrating their 40th anniversary together this year, Petty spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the future of his band.
“The thing about the Heartbreakers is: It’s still holy to me,” Petty told the L.A. Times. “There’s a holiness there … We’re a real rock ‘n’ roll band — always have been. And to us, in the era we came up in, it was a religion in a way. It was more than commerce — it wasn’t about that. It was about something much greater: It was about moving people, and changing the world, and I really believed in rock ‘n’ roll. I still do.”
Thanks for all of the music, Tom. And for the record, I still believe in it too.
My concert review published in The Boston Globe (2006):
MANSFIELD, Massachusetts, June 21, 2006 – Somewhere along the line when we all weren’t looking, or were perhaps paying attention to stadium superstars, or frothing over uber-hip indie-rockers with cool haircuts and the right clothes, Tom Petty became a rock & roll institution.
And yet somehow, that description just seems too ossified, too staid for a twinkle-eyed rascal like Petty. Or maybe, like Springsteen or Bono, it doesn’t seem applicable to a rock ‘n’ roll dreamer who still so obviously, so fervently, believes in the dream.
This year, Petty and his brilliant band of longtime friends and foils dubbed the Heartbeakers, are celebrating their 30th anniversary as certainly one of the finest, most enduring outfits in American rock ‘n roll – check, make that rock ‘n’ roll, period.
Already in possession of a treasure chest filled to the brim with pop jewels and jangle-coated gemstones about American girls and free-falling refugees, Petty didn’t need a two-hour, 21-song set of classics to stump for the rich legacy to which he keeps adding pearls.
That he gleefully threw his treasure chest wide open because that’s what he clearly still loves, and lives, to do – digging into time-tripping flashbacks like a cover of Them’s “Mystic Eyes” and the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac chestnut, “Oh Well” as well – is what makes Petty an artist, not a nostalgia act.
Even the sold-out audience who packed the Tweeter Center for the first night of summer didn’t seem prepared for the sustained sizzle and lavish surprises – Stevie Nicks, everybody! – in store when Petty and Co. blasted into “Listen To Her Heart,” his clipped sneer in place, the band roaring like a locomotive behind him.
Like the “co-captain” Petty introduced him as, Heartbeakers’ lead guitarist Mike Campbell has always been the band’s not-so secret weapon. His bottomless bag of riffs and solos, in particular, lent sinewy crunch to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” soared regally on “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” and wept slide-soaked tears on “I Won’t Back Down” and a new number, “Saving Grace,” from Petty’s forthcoming solo album, “Highway Companion.”
It’s a tall order to expect a new song to stand amid the canon that was on display Wednesday. But then again, every one of these songs was new once, and “Saving Grace,” a John Lee Hooker-esque snake-charmer with an old-fashioned boogie beat, fit right in. The fact that it was nestled near a heady cover of “I’m A Man,” the Bo Diddley blues tune dressed up, and sped up, as a raver in Yardbirds finery (which is from whom Petty learned it), didn’t hurt.
Halfway through the show, Nicks, who’s been touring with the band, took the stage for a sublime duet with Petty on the lovely breakup ballad, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and then stuck around for another world-weary duet with him on “The Insider.” The jubilant encore-closer, “American Girl,” had Petty and Nicks championing the dreams of a young woman striving, much like Petty himself, toward tomorrow.
My concert review published in The Boston Phoenix (1999):
I guess it was around the halfway mark of Tom Petty’s two hour-plus, 23-song set at the Tweeter Center Friday night when the question struck me: Even if we could stay here and hang with Tom and his Heartbreakers all night — and a lot of folks looked like they’d be up for it — would this human jukebox ever run out of hits? In the first fifteen minutes alone, Petty gave us gleaming readings of “Jammin’ Me”, “Running Down A Dream”, “Breakdown”, and a good-as-gold new rocker, “Swingin’”, from the superb new Echo (Warner Bros.) album.
Springsteen always gets the credit as being THE archetypal symbol of the American rock singer-songwriter — perhaps justifiably so — but single for single, is there anybody else who’s made such consistently beloved, enduring American rock & roll? Neil Young doesn’t count (technically, he’s from Canada). John Mellencamp spent too many years as Johnny Cougar to qualify.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, who in something like a three-year span tossed out smash singles like he was counting change — or trying to match the Beatles for prolific hit-making. But he rode off into the flannel sunset and waited out a decade or two. By the time Petty came along, CCR was already oldies nostalgia.
OK, so maybe Springsteen. But Tom’s a close second. And like his assortment of rag-tag rebels who won’t back down, underdog’s a role that’s always suited Petty particularly well — even if, at this point given his hugely successful career, it’s a fictitious one.
This is Petty’s first tour in four years, but during the first of a two-night stand in Mansfield, he and his longtime Heartbreakers (sans drummer Stan Lynch) — the understated and brilliant lead guitarist, Mike Campbell; bassist Howie Epstein; and keyboardist Benmont Tench — played as if they’d never been away. Exuding the casual, down-to-earth nobility of a self-made king, Petty sauntered on sage after opener Lucinda Williams’ quicksilver set and was at once his drawling, sly self.
He plucked his Mad Hatter derby from a cedar chest for the Eastern-tinged psychedelia of “Don’t Come Around Here No More”. He traded hot-wired guitar licks with Campbell on “American Girl,” which sounded as urgent and vital as it did 23 years ago.
If Petty leaned a bit heavily on his hits and shortchanged the new stuff, well, it was probably a safety precaution. He would never have made it back to the hotel alive without fulfilling his civic duty to deliver “Refugee”, “Free Fallin’”, and the tender, acoustic reading of “Learning To Fly” that ended the two-encore evening on a balmy, majestic note.
Then, with us out of time and quarters, the human jukebox was gone, headed back to his room at the top of the world.