When Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers first burst on the scene in the mid-70s, I was…ah… suspicious — it seemed to me, inexperienced music fan that I was at the time, there was a possibility the band was aiming for pop stardom or LA pretty boy fame that could be leveraged into… I dunno…a career as game show hosts? Stars of the next Cameron Crowe movie? Well, it quickly became apparent that my radar had been faulty as Damn the Torpedoes, their big breakout album, proved to be a smart, rockin’ affair, chock-full of great tunes and great playing. Even at this point in his career there was an edge to Petty that, although he was laconic and laid back about it, basically announced to the world and any and all potential business associates, that he was always gonna do it his way. Call me crazy, but I can’t help but admire a person with those kinds of instincts and sensibilities. Though he never sounded or acted much like a Southern Rocker, for all intents and purposes Petty was; one just had to peel back the layers a bit to see it. And then, there was The Heartbreakers, his backing band. And what a band! Guitarist Mike Campbell quickly established himself as a “tastemaster”; a well-grounded player versed in all of the essential elements of great rock and roll styles, but disciplined enough to always support the singer and the song. Likewise for the keyboards of Benmont Tench. Neither guy ever overplayed his hand. The great rhythm section of Stan Lynch/Ron Blair gave Petty the ability to write songs as tight as The Beatles/Byrds or as loose and funky as Stax/Booker T and the MGs, which is exactly what he did and they always pulled it off awesomely. As the 70s rolled on into the 80s, Petty’s star kept rising and though some of the albums were not fully realized and some of the critics chided him for being shallow or not fully committed to I don’t know what, there was always that Tom Petty song on the radio that I didn’t change the dial on…and so the moorings of a 40+ year career were established.
By the mid 80s he was headlining a whole new genre — HEARTLAND ROCK; a “movement” that only lasted about 10 minutes in 1985, but is still a thing in programming jargon. How Petty and his band went from LA New Wave to heroes in Iowa in the space of 10 years is still a mystery. Perhaps LIVE AID had something to do with it. Or FARM AID. I dunno…the 80s were a little confusing. I was certainly confused sometimes…Talk about connecting with your (or somebody else’s) roots! U2 was probably more than a little jealous. After all they TRIED to do the same thing with Rattle and Hum and all they got was well-deserved derision. (Maybe it’s just me, but the guy who wears the sock hat constantly never sounded particularly “rootsy”). The truth is TP and the Heartbreakers kept building their nationwide audience by subterfuge; they had played Heartland-sounding music from the beginning, wrote great songs, and avoided all of the bombast and most of the overexposure that plagued other 80s stars (Phil Collins, Sting, Huey Lewis). Sure, Stevie Nicks sang with the band on a big hit song, but not liking Stevie Nicks is downright UnAmerican. The band was able to score hit song after hit song because that is the medium to which Petty excelled as a writer and probably how he related to rock and roll in the first place. So, as a band they were always around, no matter the “era”.
The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades!
Then there was what I like to call the LIKE-ABILITY FACTOR. A lot of rock stars aren’t really very likeable, some are even complete a-holes. Yet, one always got the sense that Tom Petty was a pretty cool, down-to-earth, affable guy, even if he was ornery sometimes. You understood the orneriness and accepted it though because he was in a tough business and no matter who you are, everybody’s had to fight to be free. He didn’t take himself too, too seriously and was always honest about his feelings and intentions and that counted for a lot. You never felt like he was putting you on or telling you stories about people he read about in the newspaper. I hate that crap. With Tom it was always personal, but never overblown. He knew how to write and sing to people so they didn’t feel put upon. Did you know that the song I Won’t Back Down was inspired by an arsonist burning down Tom’s house? While he and his family were in it? Most of the house did burn down and the person was never caught and that’s pretty messed up, yet a very succinct and brilliant song came out of the ordeal. A song you could sing after 9/11 or in the cancer ward…or after someone tries to burn down your beautiful house. There was always that to-the-point authenticity to Petty’s single-based songcraft and the fact that he didn’t give you a 9 minute story like Dylan, turn it into a hopeless dirge like Springsteen or pile 34 different instruments onto the track like Mellencamp made you like him even more. He wasn’t ever gonna be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but, thousands and thousands of people were capable of singing along because they KNEW his songs. That’s a pretty impressive achievement, especially in today’s 8 second attention span world.
By the end of the 80s Tom completely looked the part of a wizened California mega-stoner with his acoustic guitar, his traveling top hat, and the friends in super high places: Harrison, Dylan, Lynn, Orbison, Garcia and Ringo. (You have to be cool if you have Ringo as a friend). He was in a very successful project with some of these “friends”, recorded a career-defining solo album, Full Moon Fever, and a suddenly a whole new era of Pettiness began. Just in time too because there was a whole new generation of angst-ridden Generation X youths who, in time, would come to appreciate Tom and the Heartbreakers just as the previous generation had…and for the same reasons. Unlike the loudmouth/controversial-type rock stars that prowl the horizon and the pages of tabloids, I don’t think there was an I Hate Tom Petty Fan Club out there in the universe. Even hipsters grudgingly respected him in that ironic kind of way. How could you hate a guy who wrote…
Take Back Joe Piscopo!
…into one of his chart-topping songs? Petty’s inherent goofiness and rock and roll sincerity made everybody sit up and RESPECT because he had that real deal gift for the art of communication. Even the songs that don’t sound like much will fool you. Listen again and you will find they usually contain a line or couplet that just defines life or a person’s place therein, and you’ll realize (after your 50th listen) that maybe it’s this small comment on emotions, the unfair nature of life, or unbridled human determination to go on that was the basis for the whole song in the first place. Tom did that a whole lot because these moments are scattered throughout his catalog. He would continue writing and recording songs for another two decades with the same sense of assurance and modeled on the same sounds and influences that always worked. In time, the band became an institution and I do believe that Tom knew that his time was coming to an end, at least as a rock star, so he loaded up the tour wagon one more time and went out like a boss, doing what he loved, taking it to the people like he and the Heartbreakers had been doing since the 1970s.
And so… I was shopping for Christmas dinner a few months after Tom Petty passed over and his voice suddenly filled the store, singing that silly Christmas song he released back in the early 90s and there I was, staring into a cheese display for three minutes. I saw Tom in many mediums, but going back to when I was still a teen, through all of the jobs I had, including many driving hours, when rock and roll radio was always on, I LOVED to hear his songs on the radio because they fit so perfectly. And now to realize that this voice, this guy, who has been singing and talking through this medium for more than forty years will only exist that way from now on — forty years of radio, concerts, MTV, and playing his music…forty years worth of LIFE blast through my head in the space of a few seconds. While it’s hard not to get sad and emotional, there comes the realization of not only the inevitability of life and death, but also, though I could’ve lived at any time, I lived in this time and heard all of this music and so much more… and my life was made so much richer by it.
Recently I was able to attend the Loser’s Lounge Tribute to Tom Petty and it was pretty fun. This long-running music cabaret has thrilled and chilled audiences for a quarter century at this point. WOW! This is the first time I’ve seen them though and this isn’t something I would normally do, but I’m glad I went. The basic band is HOT! They are led by Joe McGinty and they are seriously crazy good…probably the BEST drummer I’ve seen in a long time only because he was so solid and crushing and you need that if you are going to put on a show like this. But everybody else: bass, guitars, percussion and backup/lead vocals by the core band was just brilliant. They had my attention all night. They had guest singers come up for the long two sets of songs they did and while some of it didn’t work, the stuff that did more than made up. The evening made me realize even more how great Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers were, because even the stupendous versions by these great musicians still came up short and so would anyone’s attempt to try to copy one of rock’s truest originals. Fare thee well Tom…Thank you! May you run down that dream forever!