Swinging Modern Sounds #89: In Praise of Tom Petty
Since Tom Petty’s death, one year ago today, I have been haunted by the nuances and complexities of his songs, the sense of how they improve with attention, and have improved markedly in the period of reckoning that has come to pass since his untimely death.
Because Petty was so prolific and so popular, the intense craftsmanship of his body of work has been hiding in plain sight. The more I thought about this, the more I wanted to write about it. I decided to convene some people whom I knew to be up to the task of reassessing Petty’s music, and who might be well equipped to articulate some of what is lasting and important about the range of his considerable accomplishments.
We spoke by email most of the second half of 2017, even as news having to do with Petty’s death was being unveiled around us. This gigantic thread (cut down significantly here), therefore, has the marks of grief and astonishment happening in real time, and sometimes opinions and impressions have changed, as you will see below, as the facts changed. It was a real delight, however, to be able to bring enthusiasms and confusion about our hagiographies to this supremely wise and brilliant group of people.
I hope our conversation will lead you, too, back to the marvelous songs of Tom Petty.
Florence Dore, critic, professor, singer/songwriter
Regan Good, poet, contributing editor at Interim Magazine
Peter Holsapple, the dBs, the Continental Drifters, etc.
Patrick McCarthy, project manager, Light in the Attic Records
Rick Moody, novelist, music writer, professor, musician in the Wingdale Community Singers, the Unspeakable Practices, etc.
Mark Rogers, guitarist, songwriter in Mark Rogers & Mary Byrne
Darcey Steinke, novelist, nonfiction writer, guitarist and vocalist in the band Ruffian
Part One: Initial Encounters
Rick Moody: Here’s a link.
Everybody remembers where she or he came into the story. For me it was Damn the Torpedoes. It came out as I was heading off to college in the fall of 1979. I remember hearing “American Girl,” and “Breakdown” before that. I had a friend in high school who had been an intern at WMMR, the really great AOR station in Cleveland, and he had all the albums that were significant before anyone else. He had sold me on the first Petty/Heartbreakers album when it finally got some airplay in 1978. I was episodically interested in the first album, not fully committed. But when Damn the Torpedoes came out, I had just the opposite experience. There was a really ambitious sound to the album, which I’m betting had a fair amount to do with Jimmy Iovine, and with the room in Van Nuys where they recorded it all. The sound is not all that different from the flavor of Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town; the keyboards occupy a similar place in the two albums, maybe, and the guitars have some similar melodic role. You can see where Jimmy Iovine might have worked on each (but not, perhaps, how he would become a great producer of hip-hop). That’s sort of where the similarities end. The sound, however, called to me, with Damn the Torpedoes, more than it did with the Springsteen album. Petty’s album felt contemporary and passionate.
The track that closed the deal was “Refugee,” in part because it’s lyrically brazen, at least in the chorus. Comparing a lover to a refugee is lyrically brazen, or it seemed brazen in 1979, and, in a way, more post-punk than Tom Petty would turn out to be. But that was the thing. He seemed a bit punk. He wore a leather jacket on the first album, so we could be forgiven for thinking he might have something in common with post-punk or new wave or power pop, or whatever you want to call all of that unrepentant guitar-oriented tunefulness of that period. But even though “Refugee” lured me in, and it’s an undeniably great song, I have not included that link here. I have included “Here Comes My Girl.”
Both were written with Mike Campbell, as some of the best Petty songs invariably turn out to be, but these days I really love “Here Comes My Girl,” while I wouldn’t care terribly if I didn’t hear “Refugee” for a while, despite its charms. “Here Comes My Girl” starts with that stuttery guitar slide by Mike Campbell and a drum part that isn’t over-recorded. Best of all are the spoken verses. Part of my contention about the excellent songs by Tom Petty is that they are almost universally sad. Not all of them, but a great majority of them are sad. Petty had to sue a bunch of people to make Damn the Torpedoes, and then he had to declare bankruptcy, and so just getting to make the record was in doubt, and maybe the gravely sad quality of the majority of the songs on Damn the Torpedoes reflects the uncertainty of his circumstances (though I remember him saying in an interview at the time: “It’s an album of love songs, not an album of lawsuit songs”). “Here Comes My Girl” is uplifting in the chorus but bleak and sort of hopeless in the verses, and though the spoken lines are all about the emptiness of the heartland and the spiritual destitution of the America of the later ‘70s, it was somehow to me, in Providence, RI, reassuring at the time. There was some truth-telling to the idiom.
The verses, too, are evidence of Petty’s vocal range. When he did the deeper baritone chest voice thing, generally, the vowels were always kind of rounder, and as a gesture, it often preceded going to the top of his range for the chorus, where his tenor was thin, and sort of Roger McGuinn-ish. He used the vocal strain of his top end as an expressive thing. You can hear it when he goes “Hey!” just before singing the chorus. If I don’t miss my guess, he’s singing a whole octave in “Here Comes My Girl.”
The video is of little interest, it bears mentioning, except that you get to see the Heartbreakers at their moment of maximum attractiveness. And one wonders how Petty managed to look directly into the camera that long while lip synching. It captures the time, the moment, the look, when those things were ephemerally important.
My question then for you all is: when did you get interested? And why?
Darcey Steinke: I was fifteen in 1977 when the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers record came out. I think I heard “American Girl” on the radio. I went directly (I walked along 419) to Discount Records in Tanglewood Mall and bought a copy. This was in Roanoke, Virginia. I also remember on that same mall visit a red-haired boy named Chad Woods pulled up his shirt to show me that he’d shoplifted a copy inside his pants.
I just listened now again to both “American Girl” and “Breakdown” and the songs to me still feel so sacramental and holy it’s frankly hard for me to discuss them. I loved how emotionally direct they were, and poetic and also violent. Petty spoke directly to me like there was a hole in my heart and the songs were life blood. Physical desire had swelled up in me in that year and I remember thinking, How the fuck am I ever going to control this? I was sure it would derail me. And break me. I remember thinking I would have to be a prostitute or that I was bound to be one. Of course I was also a good girl. Though I deeply admired the girls in my school who were free, the hickies on their necks, the slightly sex-drugged look of them, it was not possible for me to go over to their side. Though it would have been the courageous thing to do. I know that now and I also knew that then.
“American Girl” is about a disillusioned girl who is going to break out of her town. This was me! I was going to do this! She was also going to break out sexually. She was, with the tool of her body, going to make a new life for herself. She was going to “fuck” her way to freedom. The two things I thought were opposite—sexual freedom and actual freedom—in the song are connected. Before this I was afraid I would get pregnant and stuck in my town. I thought being free physically could only lead to me getting stuck. I did not think I could use my body to make me free.
“Breakdown” raised the stakes even further and seemed to give me more absolution. Breakdown, go ahead and give it to me. I could hardly believe this was a line in a song, as it was such a common emotional pressure in that time. Just break and give yourself up to it. This is what I longed to do. It was the line after that moved me most. It’s all right. As if Petty is a priest saying it’s okay, just go ahead and break yourself. It’s okay. Be broken.
Not that Petty gives any sense ever that he will stick around or that any man will actually. But I liked that, too. He was honest. It was going to be hard and lonely and sad and scary. But it had to be done.
Also, I identified with him as well as the girls he sang about. This is a thing it is hard to explain to my twenty-two-year-old daughter and my young students; I have no problem both being the women sung about and being the man who is singing. I identify with both. There was no girl power yet. You had to both be the girl giving up something and be the boy taking something. But that feeling of being both giver and taker was liminal and powerful.
Mark Rogers: I was too young for Petty’s mainstream debut, and my family never had MTV or cable, so I missed his early videos. I don’t remember my older brothers being into him. But Atlanta’s Channel 17 aired a late-night video show on Fridays, and seeing the “Don’t Come Around Here No More” video on a small, rabbit-eared, black-and-white TV was the first time that Petty and company made an impression on me. That was 1985, and I was twelve. Later, I saw the “DCAHNM” video while fighting with the rabbit ears on that same little black-and-white TV. I was eager to buy whatever LP the song was on, just to hear more Mike Campbell. Petty’s live cover of the Byrds’ “So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star” was in heavy rotation at the time and, after Farm Aid I, his older songs got a second life. As a result, “Stop Draggin’,” “Refugee,” “You Got Lucky,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “American Girl,” and “Breakdown” were all but unavoidable on the radio, and I liked everything I heard.
I remember liking how Tom Petty could pull me in to a story with the first line. There was a sense of whimsy about him even if his lyrics were rife with don’ts and won’ts; he was second only to Dylan as rock’s poet laureate of standoffish indignation, furious finger-pointing, cautionary warnings, and stinging admonitions. Whereas Dylan occasionally came off like a heavy-handed street preacher, Petty reminded me of a protective cousin; he had advice but he gave you a choice to take it or leave it. I remember appreciating that Petty did not seem to demand my loyalty.
As soon as I had enough money from chores, I walked three miles in the summer heat to Turtles Music on Memorial Drive to ask which Tom Petty album I should buy. The clerk behind the register pointed across the floor to a large poster of the Winslow Homer painting “Veteran in a New Field.” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Southern Accents were tastefully superimposed on the painting in a cool, old-looking font, but the entire display was festooned on all sides by a garland of little Confederate flags, the kind you can hold in your hand and wave. The marketing decision might have been made in a boardroom in LA or New York, but what startled me was that these were the same cheap little flags you could get down the street in Stone Mountain Village, which was, at that time, a sort of Disneyworld of CSA tourist nostalgia.
I don’t really remember even walking toward the display. Truth be told, the sight of the Stars and Bars always startled me and, even if I was not bringing an album into the house covered in the Confederate battle emblem, the display alone was enough to trigger an inner warning: Don’t do this; it’s nothing but trouble. So I stuffed that wad of sweaty dollar bills back into my shorts pocket and did not buy a Petty album until Full Moon Fever, four years later.
Peter Holsapple: Young males in my family were preordained to attend a “St. Grottlesex” prep school and then matriculate to the Ivy League; my brother had turned a dull spell at South Kent around by having a Holden Caulfield weekend in Manhattan on my father’s dime. I didn’t know about this at the time, but it caused great turmoil. So I presume my run for the roses at Phillips Exeter Academy was expected to be the antithesis of my brother’s, full of great corduroy-clad friendships and fine Socratic discussions on the quad that I could refer back to later in life. That didn’t happen. I found the joy of psychedelic drugs and discovered I’d never learned how to study in public school. And I discovered something far more important.
On my dorm hall that fall of 1974 lived two seniors who were obsessed with the MC5 and the Stooges. They were both musicians, and they took an interest in the freshman from Winston-Salem who turned up with a Les Paul Special and a Bandmaster amp, ready to rock. One was Bill Magoon, a bassist from Ann Arbor, who had ZAP Comix and more important, precious tabloid CREEM Magazines. The other was Benmont Tench, from Gainesville, who drew and painted watercolors and was the best piano player I’d ever heard. I just wanted to watch him play; he was devastatingly good to hear.
Moving the calendar forward, past high school back in Winston, I was a sophomore in Chapel Hill in a doomed relationship. I longed for the short periods of time when I could be by myself and one time while waiting for her to get out of an appointment, I went to Record Bar at University Mall where I beheld a fascinating album cover for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ first album. It looked promising—sneery blond guy with a leather jacket and bandoliers, and the logo was a Flying V. Upon flipping the cover, I found Benmont looking up at me from the bottom right corner and my heart leaped. Here was my talented friend, playing in a cool-looking band with logo (I hadn’t heard note one at that point) on a real record put out on a real record company, and Leon Russell’s label to boot!—of course, the label woes Petty and crew experienced with Shelter/ABC were yet to come. I was beyond impressed, I was refueled. I broke up with my girlfriend and moved out, immediately ready to get back into a band and write some songs.
The first song of theirs that just killed me was “American Girl,” which is still my favorite of his tunes. The hi-hat pattern Stan Lynch plays is powerful and alluring, Ron Blair on floating bass and Mike Campbell’s chime guitar are like layers of ice. Phil Seymour’s backing vocals are a gorgeous counterpoint to Petty’s story, vague and specific at the same time. Benmont is Benmont, providing a chordal foundation that allows everyone else to race toward the finish like they’re rolling by out on 441. I knew his American girl—she was not my ex-girlfriend; she was unattainable, just this blurry figure that twenty of my high school classmates might’ve been. I wanted to know her, even though I knew I’d never be of any interest to her. (Unless, perhaps, she knew of my Significant Rock and Roll Prowess, of course. We live on dreams, don’t we?)
The Pettys were everything I ever wanted from a rock band, from the instant I saw Tom Petty and my friend on the cover. They managed to maintain that station for me their entire career. Their live shows were always exhilarating, and I’m glad I got to see them a few times. Admittedly, I wasn’t paying as close attention to their last couple of albums, although I did own Hypnotic Eye, I didn’t give it enough love. Now that there’s a finite number of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers albums, it’s time to go revisit the catalog with an eye toward what I may have missed earlier.
Patrick McCarthy: I grew up with TV in the house. Saturday Night Live was big and so was MTV. I’m trying to remember exactly, but I’d guess the first Heartbreakers video I saw was ”Don’t Come Around Here No More.” I would’ve been really little, but back then MTV would play videos for a few years. I just remember that one. For a kid, that was a fantasy land and the instant connection as Alice In Wonderland was something my big sister was into. How great were those early videos? And later into the ‘90s, ”Learning to Fly” and ”Free Fallin’“… those were so important to me. Maybe the videos haven’t aged so well for some, but the music cannot be touched.
I was raised in Fernandina Beach, FL, about an hour north of Jacksonville. It’s a sleepy beach town, a barrier island around the size of Manhattan. The Heartbreakers hailed from Gainesville, where my mother was from, and just under two hours to the southwest from us. Mike Campbell was from Jacksonville, where I went to high school. We went down that way a few times a year when I was a little kid to visit my great-grandparents in Gainesville and catching a Gators game. But when I got older,I remember being in awe that someone like Tom Petty came from there. It was so simple and small. Gentle rolling hills that went nowhere but maybe a BBQ stand. Southern suburbs with dirt roads. Go Gators. Listen to the Lou Reed/John Cale song ”Small Town” and that’s how I felt about my whole world.
Over the years, their music has been a sort of test. If you meet someone that loves Tom Petty, not just the radio hits, then they must be good stock. Oh you know ”Face in the Crowd”? Wow, no one talks about that song. Halloween 2008, I was in a crowded bar in Brooklyn waiting for a drink when I felt someone standing close behind me. I turned, and a woman with curly blond hair was there. She smiled at me. The first words she said were “Do you like Tom Petty?” I said, “Of course, I love Tom Petty. I’m from Florida!” Turns out she was from Florida, too, and just so happened to have the documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream on her roommate’s DVR if I wanted to come over and watch it. We’ve been together ever since. We got married in Miami.
Regan Good: I am approaching this discussion from the standpoint of a fangirl—and a poet. I should quickly reveal that I had an unrealized and now dead much older musician brother who is mixed-up in my love of men who play guitars. I experience a kind of ecstasy watching clips of these men who did what they needed to do to be able to do what they wanted to do. Petty was a hero to me.
Like Darcey, I was ten in 1977 when Damn the Torpedoes came out—a bit young for it all—but I heard and absorbed “Refugee” later, when I was in high school. His raspy, chewy voice was Bob Dylan mixed with the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, not that I could have articulated that then. It’s a strangled, nasally voice overall, though sometimes, rich and deep. There’s a desultory, laconic quality to it when he sings of damaged people and the moments when they get a reprieve or even win—when even the losers get lucky. “Refugee” pricked up my ears partly because of the word “refugee.” I was startled by this metaphor; this was rock-and-roll language, not the sun pouring in “like butterscotch” territory of Joni Mitchell. Maybe the word bugged me, and maybe I made fun of the song at the time. But secretly, I was a fan.
That half-spoken, rushed first line, speaking of adult connections—”We got something, we both know it, we don’t talk too much about it”—establishes their secret intimacy. The refrain about not living like a refugee and fighting to be free is now heard as a feminist anthem. (I hear it, too, in the lines “I know you really want to tell me good-bye / I know you really want to be your own girl” in “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” his duet with Stevie Nicks.) From “Refugee,” it is the line “Tell me why you want to lay there, revel in your abandon” that truly haunts me. It’s tattoo worthy. It’s an empathetic challenge to the woman; it also could be a lyric from a Medieval madrigal or a Psalm from the Bible in its richness and syntactical oddness. I felt its beauty and wisdom. I was already seeing people fail, and so I took that line as a warning and a guide.
Eventually, I saw the Torpedoes album cover. No doubt about it, he was a slammin’ babe, but definitely weird looking. There was his fetching smirk and that red t-shirt. There was his twelve-string Rickenbacker. He reminded me of Jackie Earle Haley in the original Bad News Bears. Petty was a skinny, lizard-like, fish-lipped angel—a dreamboat from an alternate universe. He had a model’s high cheekbones and big old teeth. His light blue, sleepy heroin eyes (though he was not on heroin at the time) were like my brother’s (who was). Hard to explain why I thought this at sixteen, but I felt that the Heartbreakers were a distinctly American band; it’s part of why I love them (not that I love everything about America). There was a symmetry and simplicity to the lyrics, each song a deft little drama. Add the other two greats from Torpedoes, “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Even the Losers,” and you have a little cycle of songs that all are connected, spiritually, if I can say that. Others can talk about how they are upside down mirrors of each other musically, but those four songs are of a piece in world view—and a sound view—and it’s really not an entirely sad or negative one. The songs themselves trounce the sad content.
The bare-bones “Refugee” video is pure ‘70s. An awkward Petty slithers along (and at one point strangely pats and does a kind of pirouette against) a brick wall, making his way into a nighttime studio to rendezvous with the Heartbreakers (though, as keyboardist Benmont Tench once said of their name, “I mean, who were we kidding?”). A booming voice issues from this skinny boy/man; it’s clear he’s the blonde leader of the dark Heartbreakers. He does something in this video that I find irresistibly fetching: he spins around, hunched and low, his blonde hair hanging over his jean-jacket collar. He’s so boyish, as if he were in a rec room or at a garage band practice. I sometimes watch this video just to watch him spin in his perfect ‘70s female beauty.
“Here Comes My Girl” was also baked in to my brain around this time. It was the gentle piano, that happy little waterfall from Tench, that told you this world was not all losers—the broken and the wretched. Or that with a righteous beloved, one could make an oasis of love. Petty was a high romantic, a kind of Jude the Obscure who gets to Cambridge and becomes a Master. The video was another bare-bones affair, just the lads in a studio. Petty is super foxy here in his blazer and jeans (his waist is what, twenty-six inches?), holding his Vox teardrop guitar. Petty does his hunch-spins here as well, coupled with a fabulous subtle cocky peacock walk as he visits and talk/sings with each member of the band. He talk/sings at the camera, too, as he sometimes periscopes his head and wags it. Who can forget the lines, “You know sometimes, I don’t know why / But this old town just seems so hopeless”? The talking parts get bleaker and bleaker: “It just seems so useless to have to work so hard / And nothin’ ever really seems to come from it.” His grunt and deeply croaked, “Watch her walk” might objectify her in a classic sense, but honestly, I like to watch my boyfriend walk as well, so sue me. Petty’s whoops, heys, squawks, and ows are distinctive—squeaky and wild. At the end of the video, we see that the man has been chewing gum throughout. What a bad boy! But he was other things, too, and he felt other always. Petty revered the underdog so it’s no surprise that he admired and helped the Replacements, a band who made an art out of being the ones left holding the bag, even stealing Paul Westerberg’s phrase “rebel without a clue” for “Into the Great Wide Open.” But Petty didn’t live the downtrodden life of his songs. One of the things I most love about him is that he was a skinny kid from Gainesville who ended up becoming a kind of rock-and-roll Buddha—a figure of wisdom. I used to imagine him in the Southern California hills, apart, alone, or on the roof smoking cigarettes and staring at the moon. He was a poet.
Florence Dore: I step out of the glaring Los Angeles sun into a dark music studio and find myself surrounded by the jangle of Tom Petty’s guitars. It’s “Free Fallin’.” The layered, glisteningly clean guitars sounding like God swallow me, the mesmerizing, slow rhythm, the build of the groove when bass and drums come in, the hallelujah vocals.
No record exists in my brain of when exactly this took place. Nor can I mentally locate data on what I was doing in LA or how I came to be there in the dark studio.
Thinking back, I do recall that it was a mixing session for It’s a Shame About Ray by the Lemonheads, and I remember at one point Evan Dando picked up an acoustic guitar and sang along with his recorded self. I deduce from this that I was there because of my former bandmate Chris Toppin from Boston—she was in a band with the Lemonheads’ drummer. Now I remember that the producers (it was the Robb Brothers) kept switching back and forth between their mix of the Lemonheads’ title track and “Free Fallin’.” They were using Petty’s guitars as an index, trying to make the sound match.
That’s it. All other details of the setting—what year was this? where was I staying? did I fly or drive?—are completely gone.
Looking at Wikipedia now I see that it was Cherokee Studios, and reading further, that during the 1960s the Robb Brothers were in Dick Clark’s band. I see that they also produced albums I love by Aerosmith, Devo, and Public Enemy. I note that It’s a Shame About Ray came out in 1992, and from this I conclude that I was there in 1991 or 1992. So, I was twenty-six or twenty-seven. I had just started graduate school at Berkeley. I see that Full Moon Fever came out in 1989, when I was still living in Boston.
I was born in 1965, a little too late to have experienced Tom Petty’s first impact. Peter and the other members of the dBs were there at the time—were paying attention and felt crucial moments in rock and roll as they were unfolding. But as a person born in 1965 I can only string rock music’s moments into temporal order retrospectively. I don’t remember ever having not heard “Refugee” or “The Waiting.” So it happens like this: Tom Petty dies, and I am swallowed again by his guitars in a dark studio in Los Angeles.
And then I go back over every single song in Petty’s catalogue to put things in their right order. But I wait to do this. Because sometimes I like being lost in the sounds of moments disconnected in time and space.
Part Two: The Mid-Career Problem
Moody: Here’s a video.
I am very interested in the dynamics of mid-career crisis, the moment when an artist, having done what she or he is going to do for a while suddenly, in some kind of epiphanic ecstasy that is next door over to high Germanic dread, realizes that she can’t continue on in the same way. There’s never any profit in this revelation. It’s to be cast out of Eden. The new way, whatever way that is, is uncertain, and one makes the transit with mitigated confidence. And/or one attempts to forestall that fact that change is essential, and tries to repeat the old formula, except without conviction, without discovery, and the work becomes dry and lifeless. Some portion of the audience hates either approach, the staying-the-same or the becoming-anew, so you just can’t win.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers made, it seems to me, five mostly faultless albums in a row, beginning with the eponymous one, up to Long After Dark, in 1982. Every one of these five albums I’m referring to has some miraculously clean “hit” that is hard to fault, and which in the light of retrospection now appears utterly beyond reproach.
But I have to say that my own tastes migrated away from all that was great about Tom Petty in the years between Damn the Torpedoes and the video link above. The agent of change, in 1982 or so, was probably Chronic Town by R.E.M.—it caused the migration, but also a host of similarly constructed albums (among them, I have to say, Stands for Decibels and Television and, then, The Good Earth and Let It Be and New Day Rising), and suddenly the Tom Petty who so seemed to speak for me in 1979 didn’t seem to speak for me at all. I think in part this crisis was not only my crisis, but was a problem with the music industry and in rock and roll in general. Let’s say it was also a mid-career crisis.
The album that Petty made after this hot five-album streak was Southern Accents, already alluded to in Mark’s post, the one that was sort of about the South, and which includes that somewhat hard-to-like first track entitled “Rebels,” which is sort of a variation on “Refugee” except with a little Civil War veneer. Nothing about this historical trajectory to me feels lived in at all. It feels ever so slightly forced to me, in the way that some songs on The River by Bruce Springsteen feel forced to me. Like the urgent need to make great art results in something that no longer expresses human emotions. Great art, in the popular song, is sometimes a counterproductive ambition. The less great art is sometimes more intimate, more human. Everything that is wrong with “Rebels” is not wrong with “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” It has electric sitar! It has some kind of weird fretless bass thing at the beginning. The band comes in big at the end, lest you think Petty has given up on roots rock for some kind of pudding electronic eighties gibberish. And then there are the lyrics. Something really important happens in the lyrics on this song. Instead of trying to come up with something important lyrically, on “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” Petty strips away everything. Down to the most potent and most emotionally accessible material. I still get the chills from “Stop walking down my street / Who do you expect to meet?” Because the implications about the self, about psychology, in the line are dark and revealing. The rule of identity, the philosophers say, is that A = A, and it has to be that way or there’s not identity. But in that line “who do you expect to meet,” A = not A. The person you meet is not who you expect, but some looking-glass version of the self. These stripped-down lyrics, once Petty figured out how to use them, never deserted him. We have alluded to “Free Fallin’,” and I really love the lyrics on that song so much. The chorus is just a big skydive into self-laceration.
At some point in this period, I remember Petty saying that he wrote his lyrics with refrigerator magnets. I don’t know if he really said this, or if I just remember him saying this because I liked the idea, the anti-elitist idea of writing lyrics with refrigerator magnets. (And I had some of them myself. Is this a thing people no longer do? Have those poetry magnets on their refrigerators?) I don’t think he really did it, or if he did, he yoked together the powerful inclinations of his unconscious with the limited palette of the refrigerator magnet poetry words with masterful results. The less ornate the words got, the less prepossessing, the more broadly accurate they got. They became, for example, extremely ambiguous, sometimes, which may seem the opposite of accurate, but not in my world. They are open-ended lyrics that nonetheless ring with habitable truths.
I love the way the Wilburys conjure mid-career angst and turn it into something that can be celebratory and fun. Petty sounded like he was having fun, they all sounded like they were having fun, and it was a catalytic route out of the dread earnestness that the Heartbreakers were locked into. Petty was making Full Moon Fever at the same time as the first Wilburys album, and he was making Into the Great Wide Open around the time of the second Wilburys album, and then, eventually, he just stopped for a while. There were solo albums and a soundtrack, but between 1991 and 1999 but no more Heartbreakers.
So was there a period in the middle of the Petty career that speaks especially to you all?
Steinke: The mid-career crisis. Very familiar to me. I think it’s what Rick says about doing the same thing or the different thing but I also think it’s precipitated by the first time you actually feel time moving forward. It’s like a record skipping. It makes a blankness. A silent space. It freaks you out. You feel for the first time like you are of the old guard not the new. You were looking in the direction you were looking and then one day you realize time has jumped forward. It’s jumped forward a lot. Your direction is not necessarily the grooviest direction. You thought the world was one way and then it’s another way, art, books, music have all moved forward while you did your thing, told your stories, moved your main ideas around in basically the same way. You feel the world shifting beneath your feet. Some people react to this by staying the same; some, as Rick points out, go off in some other direction. It’s the turbulent part of the flight when you feel they may not be a safe landing.
I must admit that into the early ’80s, I held on to Petty tightly for a while; he was a good thing that came from my early life, my teen-hood, my outside-the-real-world-Roanoke life. He was off and sinister, not like punk, which I could not really handle, but in a milder away that I could handle. He spoke to the darkness within in a jokey, sinister way. A sort of vulnerability that had hardened over like a scab. To me, he was different then Little Feet or ZZ Top or Rod Stewart. He had a particle of THE REAL.
My feelings for Petty started to fail when I went to college in 1981 in Baltimore. Freshman year I sometimes went to DC to shows at 9:30 and there I saw the Violent Femmes. I remember I had my high school girlfriends with me, them of the pancake makeup and large hair, all attending deep-South large universities. Roll Crimson Tide. I told them about 9:30 while they visited and we went one night. The opening act, I can’t remember their name, but I do remember the singer had a bouffant hairdo and wore a living boa constrictor while she sang. It was fantastic. My high school girlfriends were horrified, traumatized, they wanted to go back to my college dorm room. I remember one of them saying “I FEEL LIKE I AM IN HELL.” This made me happy. They went home but I stayed. Gordon Gano came onto the stage, with his head wrapped up in his coat and wearing a chain around his neck. It was both an homage to the early band but also an ionic put down. I got this. I liked this. A song or two in, my commitment to mainstream radio rock was severed forever.
The final break with Petty, the mid-career Petty we speak of, was the video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” I can still remember the first time I saw it. I don’t remember where I was but I remember my disgust at Petty as the Mad Hatter. Even the fact he would align himself with the Mad Hatter made me angry. Alice in Wonderland was a sacred text for me. The girl who gets lost, the girl who is confused but remains cheerful and plucky, that was me. The scene where Petty and the band cut in the Alice “cake” and then eat her still bothers me. I just watched it again. I find it just really terrible, sad, rude, mean. I don’t think it’s funny. You don’t eat someone that is trying hard to figure out who they are.
I felt Petty who had been, cold, inspiring, cynical but ON MY SIDE, was no longer. It was, for the time being, over between us.
McCarthy: Rick, I first have to respond to the Traveling Wilburys video you posted from “End of the Line.” When I was a kid, those Wilburys albums were a huge part of my sonic world. “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” from the first album was my absolute favorite: “Tweeter and the monkey man were hard up for cash / They stayed up all night selling cocaine and hash…”! I learned years later that the song was some sort of homage to or friendly jab at Bruce Springsteen, which is very clear now. All of this is to say, really, is that I had never honestly thought of “End of the Line” as a statement or rather rumination on the respective careers of the Wilburys, but watching the video now and seeing where they all were, most of them were, to the outside, perennially youth-obsessed pop world, were at the end of their lines. Roy had already reached it. That is save for Tom Petty. But hey, when those guys call you to hand and write some tunes, what can you do?
Is this mid-career crisis similar to the “sophomore slump”? That is, the malaise that is usually attributed to youngish bands when they attempt to deliver on the heels of a breakthrough album. As you noted here, Rick, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers did have a remarkable string of solid albums, but there must be a straining point from the endless write album, record album, tour album cycle. With Southern Accents, I have to agree. Though the radio hits were mainstays, I don’t remember this album growing up and discovering it later I didn’t connect with it as much.
Growing up in the South, I had family from Gainesville and my childhood house in Fernandina Beach was just a mile from Fort Clinch, a Civil War fort, so Confederate flags were common and often ostentatiously displayed. Talking about Southern pride was uncomfortable for me. Same deal later when I found the Pack Up the Plantation live album in a thrift store…I thought, why all the rebel yell?
Rogers: I’m interested in how—after surviving a violent father who used to come home drunk and, as Tom Petty said, “beat the shit out of him”—he seemed to find good-natured, affirming, and supportive elders among the Traveling Wilburys and Johnny Cash. I think working with his heroes showed Petty how to cultivate his talent in order to remain prolific as he grew older. If nothing else, his association with late-age mentors seemed to expand his horizons, showing him new avenues of creative and professional possibilities.
I wonder if he was also figuring out how to become a solo artist after years of leading the Heartbreakers. (I don’t think he ever completely sussed that one out.) Seasoned pros like the Wilburys and Cash might have shown him how different line-ups of musicians could open up creative possibilities in the writing room and the studio, as well as the stage. Tom wrote many of his mid-period radio hits with Jeff Lynne and, in interviews, he said his solo music was “not Heartbreakers material.” Looking at forty, what was he going to do? Sit on “Free Fallin’” because Howie didn’t think it was cool? Not perform his solo songs, because Stan complained, dismissing them as “covers”?
Johnny Cash once told Tom, “You’re a good man to ride the river with.” Maybe having the support of his heroes had something to do with his unusually prolific and successful middle period.
Good: Because I am a fangirl, I didn’t know there was a problem with middle periods. One loses critical thinking when possessed by true fandom. I was a bona fide Paul Westerberg groupie for a spell, meaning I even like 14 Songs, so it follows that I’ll be an Ambassador of Love when it comes to Petty. But I’m not insane: 1985’s Southern Accents? Pass. Stupidest thing he ever did besides the heroin excursion. I was unaware of the album’s existence and his contemporaneous Confederate flag concerts, or maybe I was ambiently aware and unconsciously turned away. He realized his error and corrected it. I agree with Rick that one doesn’t feel a whole lot of conviction in the record; to me, Southern Accents was his biggest misstep, but one for which he’s forgiven.
People have noted that Petty didn’t seem to have an experimental period. We were spared an awkward gospel phase or Tin Machine fiasco. Did Caravaggio disappoint us by not “experimenting”? No, he did not. I think this says a lot about Petty’s approach to his work: he’s a little bit like the painter Agnes Martin, working in a kind of expert but seemingly minimalist range. He’s not David Bowie with his radical identity shifts and sweeping vistas. He was a dedicated workhorse. Petty is Dickinson to Bowie’s Whitman (if one thinks of David as a New Yorker, not an Englishman). Petty’s mind was a monolith. My feeling is his psyche would cleanly crack in two, not fissure into shards.
I completely love Full Moon Fever, his 1989 solo album, but “Free Fallin’” is not my favorite song. I guess I’m with Howie, though I recognize it as a world-class earworm. I also admire the two soft songs from this album, “Alright for Now” and “A Face in the Crowd.” “Alright for Now” reminds me of the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers,” though less grand. It is a cold-comfort lullaby, Petty refusing to whitewash experience, only willing to assure that things are alright (in his deep rumble) “for now.” These two songs harken back to the beautiful “It’ll All Work Out” from 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough). That song is as mournful as a hundred bagpipes. Very beautiful and lush and sad; it sounds like an ancient Scottish dirge made even icier by the delicate whirling Japanese koto. “There were times apart, there were times together,” he sings. “I was pledged to her, for worse or better.” He recounts how he failed her in the past, but shrugs, “That’s the way it goes; it’ll all work out.” (No it won’t.) The song ends on a sad, long, spacey “Ohhhhhhhhh” that reminds me of Bowie’s gorgeous virtuosic vocals at the end of “The Man Who Sold the World.” Both of these icy howls move through one’s mind and body like ghosts; they function to me like the moment in the movie Poltergeist when the little girl runs through her mother. Afterward, the mother can smell the child on her clothes. It’s one of my favorite Petty songs, if not my favorite.
1991’s Into the Great Wide Open gave us “Learning to Fly,” one of his most beloved songs. I listened to it a lot in Joshua Tree one summer during a period of cosmic distress. One night I swam in a pool at midnight and was visited by a white owl that came to say: you are alright, go forward. As I rose from personal ashes, the line, “I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings” resonated. I started to think about Petty more seriously on that trip. I believed he had wisdom. When I hear this song now, all I can think of are the 9/11 hijackers who also learned how to fly, but not how to land. And the white owl—I swear Petty was in the owl. Petty’s impromptu bird whistle at the end of this video is ultra-charming; he only did it on the final take. And I love how he hides ever-so-slightly under a black brim hat sporting a big soft black feather. In his rock-star sunglasses, he sits or stands on dead planes in Tucson’s airplane graveyard playing guitar, singing in the sun. I die.
Petty’s middle period is capped with the semi-solo album Wildflowers. This is possibly my favorite album of his, despite the Platonic rock perfection of the early albums. There are perfect hits: “You Wreck Me,” “Crawling Back to You,” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” The sweet and simple “Wildflowers” is a Giotto circle of a song, and something he could have written in the shower. When talking about writing it, he said the song came out entirely in one sitting and was the result of a kind of “unconscious flow.” See, he was a Buddha, a seeker of the spirit and the mysteries. So, no, I’m not disappointed.
Holsapple: Most of my mid-Petty years were spent trying to ply the same trade as they were, dealing with my own mid-career slump. Many of my peers’ bands got the chance to open for them, and I was excited to think that Tom was aware of and appreciated the next generation of similarly influenced musicians and songwriters. Benmont played on some songs form the final dB’s album, The Sound of Music, giving them that immediately recognizable glue he provided for so many other great artists.
I sensed that, as with the Stones and the Ramones and the Fleshtones, there would always be a dependable, recognizable Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for all eternity. So much so that I did walk out of the Tom Petty/Bob Dylan show at Madison Square Garden in 1986. It was my first time inside the daunting arena for a show; I felt extraordinarily tiny in the crowd—playing there a couple years later was much easier because I wasn’t out in the audience. But that crowd seemed so yay-rock-and-roll-motherfucker for what I’d expected to be a more respectful one. One guy next to me cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled “HEYY BOBBBAAYYY!” at one sensitive acoustic moment.
Plus, despite how great the pairing of the two artists was (and how natural) on paper, it sounded mundane to my ears. We already knew how it was going to sound, and it was all that but less somehow.
I saw his videos on MTV like everyone else. They, too, had a great consistency—more artful and cleverer than many artists, but I think that was probably helped by a major label’s promotional budget, one that can withstand expensive direction. They didn’t inspire me to buy any of his records during that period, though. Thinking back on that now, with no Tom, I’m sad that I didn’t enjoy every moment.
“Into the Great Wide Open” is one of my favorite cuts from mid-Petty. Probably because I heard it endlessly on the radio and MTV, and also because it has a few little sly passing chords slipped in.
The Traveling Wilburys did interest me more. I was inspired to think that rock guys of that magnitude hung out together and wrote songs and drank beer or whatever they did. However, I couldn’t even begin to comment on who contributed what parts to what songs. With all the cross-pollination between Petty, Lynne and Harrison going on, by then they’d begun to have some identical qualities to offer. “Congratulations” is the song of theirs I find myself singing thirty years later. It was nice to think of those guys being musically happy and carefree, and one senses that started to end when they had a record company get involved.
Moody: Mark, could you go granular on the songwriting issues of the middle period for us?
Rogers: It is a huge topic. I think Petty was writing music (after Full Moon Fever) that defined the sound of the ‘90s. A cursory listen to pop music (Taylor Swift, especially, but also most country pop/bro country) bears his influence. Four-chord progressions over verse and chorus, repeating counter melodies, big interval jumps in the chorus (I’m FREEEEEEEEE….), dry and clean production, confessional lyrics, analog tape, vintage instruments, no gimmicks, and the conscious use of space.
But if you get granular, Petty’s work on songcraft was really interesting during this time. The things that made his songs “work” was that they were a “square meal,” but they had incredibly subtle details that kept them from being “square.” Namely, he was a master of taking a bar of 4/4 and creating a chord progression that was accessible (Bono called these the “sweep of human experience” progressions; this stuff has been perfected by Swift, Coldplay, Pharrell, Sheeran) but it never changed on the downbeat. Petty’s progressions were “odd meter” rhythms against a straight 4/4. This shows up in “Running Down a Dream” and “Into the Great Wide Open” where the chord progression is “circular” over two or four bars but the changes come on interesting off beats. Add Campbell’s repeated guitar figures over the top of these kind of “harmonic rhythms” or “rhythmic hooks,” and you’ve got a recipe that is now being used over and over again. But at the time, no one would say that this was ‘70s or ‘80s rock. This was a new approach.
That’s what I meant by working on his songcraft. I teach songwriting to people who are working in Nashville and in Brooklyn; contemporary pop and country have taken a page (to a fault, IMO) from his mid-career approach.
And yes—the baroque sounds (Zeppelin-esque) of “It’s Good to Be King” are some of the best things he ever did, as far as I see it. Campbell always kills me on that song. His guitar is so dry while he’s weeping. And then the cinematic strings come in and you’re just floored. That’s not an example of a simple song. I remember reading that Ron came back in the band after Howie [Epstein], and had to make notes saying “It’s Good to Be King” was not your typical verse-chorus-verse Petty song. It’s got riff-laden bridges between a verse that is the song’s main refrain or theme and instrumental breaks where the piano plays a counter melody. There’s no big chorus but it’s still so powerful. The song is all about arrangement. “It’s Good to Be King” aside, skillful arranging is how a mature songwriter can get around needing a bridge and create those merry-go-round, four-chord backgrounds (which implies that the listener needs a break from the verse-chorus-verse monotony; bridges always seem to “cut in” between the intimacy that is being forged between singer and listener).
Dore: Walking home from school late one afternoon, I could see from a block away that my house was pitch black. “A Woman in Love,” from Hard Promises, was blasting out at full volume from the front porch, and it looked like no one was home. When I went inside and turned on the living room light, there sat my older sister and her boyfriend staring straight out in front of them, utterly stoned. I was sixteen. I still use the speakers this same sister bought me with her own money that year. She bought them as punishment for having thrown my stereo out of a second-floor bedroom window in a dispute over a pair of black pants. I made the pants on my mother’s sewing machine and altered the pattern so they would have tapered legs. Mary had stolen them and when confronted looked me dead in the eye and tore a hole in the right leg, ripping them straight down from the knee to the skinny ankle. As rage progressed, she started throwing my stuff out of the window.
I didn’t listen to Hard Promises when it came out. When I started recording songs on a TASCAM four-track recorder, four years later, Southern Accents was released. I loved it, and listened to it all the time. In fact, I listened exclusively to mid-career Petty at first, and not just “Don’t Come Around Here No More”—which, like most of you, enthralled me. That’s the Petty record that came out when I was first paying real attention to making music. When I listen to it now I can hear that you’re all right: there’s only one good song on it. But it wasn’t until I was middle-aged that I even started listening to the flawless albums that first drew Rick and Peter to Tom Petty.
So, it’s the 4th of July, 2011. I’m forty-five. My husband and I have spent the year in a rented condo in Chapel Hill, having foreclosed on a house in Cleveland. At a family gathering on a goat farm in Pennsylvania, spouse on tour with Steve Earle, I put Hard Promises on and pointed the speaker cube outside through the window. I had listened to it before this but not carefully. My younger sister and her husband bought the goat farm with his two brothers and their mother. My sister and her family use it as a weekend getaway, but the mother lives there, making food out of goat milk. Yogurt, for example. And cheese: she made a variety of cheeses. She named one of her goats Katherine, after my sister, and there is a llama on the farm named Paschal, after her son. Over corn on the cob and veggie burgers, the mother told me that having a baby had softened me, that I had really “grown up.” She told me this while the kids ran around in the thick smoke made by their sparklers, the song “Insider” floating on the air. My brother’s wife, mid-bite, nods vigorously and cups her hand beneath the bun. “It’s a hall of strangers,” sing Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks, “It’s a cage without a key.” I drink my beer and watch as tiny lightning bolts come shooting out from between my six-year-old daughter’s tiny thumb and forefinger and then peter out. “Yeah I’m the broken har-ted fool who was never quite enough.” When the boxes of sparklers are empty and the song is over, it’s dark—time for the kids to get ready for bed. I hold my daughter’s hand as we walk up the stairs to get her toothbrush, and as we round the corner to the bathroom the mother’s comment begins to piss me off. My daughter pulls my face towards hers to rub noses and I forget it. Guiding pajama-footed girl back downstairs and out to the barn we meet her cousins to milk Katherine the goat before turning in. On the way back to the house, the wife of Pac’s brother is explaining how her sister was always fighting with her mother. She and my brother’s wife pronounce that sister “fucked up”: “I know… some kind of problem… so adolescent.. so fucked up.” Among my siblings, I am that sister, the one who kept fighting with our mother even as an adult, even after becoming a mother myself. They know this. These women are gloating—gloating with goats, I remark silently—confirming for themselves and all who are within earshot that they are not fucked up. “I’m the one who oughta know,” I say. “What?” They turn to look at me simultaneously. I haven’t listened to Southern Accents since.
Rogers: Reading Florence’s moving post this morning, I feel compelled to respond about fathers, mothers, family, the long shadow of adolescence, and how people get their needs met as time goes on. The gut punch in Florence’s last lines reminds me about who gets tarred with “bad,” and who gets to consider themselves “good.” I think Florence is very brave.
But maybe this is where Rick’s question about survival comes into play? I think Petty might have been learning not only how to keep the creativity flowing in the face of advancing age (and a diminishing box office), but also how to take his career to a new level.
Relating to Patrick’s post, I also really struggled with saying things like, “Tom’s childhood was terrible.” His childhood was terrible but he also grew up in an area of the country that is also rich with human depth and natural beauty, as well as the baffling contradictions and dangerous tensions that contribute to compelling music and literature. Earl’s father, Tom’s grandfather, William “Pulpwood” Petty, faced a gang of “night riders” and murdered a man in a standoff because marrying a Cherokee woman in 1920s Georgia got the attention of old Jim Crow. I guess that’s where Tom got those high cheekbones; he was really one of those guys who really could claim “native blood.”
Even before my father’s father
They called us all rebels
Maybe he was also referencing his grandmother what he meant when he said he was “born a rebel”? People talk about black and white when it comes to the culture of the South, but maybe Tom was sending a message about Native Americans, too?
He was equal parts tough and sensitive when it came to women, as far as I heard it. “Listen to Her Heart” is about trust, and for every rueful “Don’t,” “Stop,” or “You Got Lucky, babe” in his lyrics, there was also a lot of sensitivity, compassion and tenderness, too. There’s an urban legend that “American Girl” is about a coed at University of Florida–Gainesville who jumped out of a dorm room window “in one desperate moment” as a response to a breakup —“…raised on promises.” Route 441 passed right by that dorm and Tom was a groundskeeper on campus during the time.
Tom’s father, Earl Petty, was an abusive, violent drunk who frequently beat Tom’s mother, brother, and sister. When he came home looking for a fight, he went after his long-haired, conspicuously slender, sensitive, hippie son—maybe he believed Tom to be soft, shy, or gay. Earl left his son with welts as big as grapefruits; there is a scene with Tom’s mom, sister, and aunt laying him in bed and treating his broken body with rubbing alcohol. Tom learned early to make himself scarce when his father was around. We all did.
Honey don’t walk out, I’m too drunk to follow
You know you won’t feel this way tomorrow
Well, maybe a little rough around the edges
Or inside a little hollow,
I get faced with some things, sometimes
That are so hard to swallow, hey!
Rick asked us to think about how an artist like Petty takes on, and survives, middle age, but it strikes me that Petty’s entire story was one story of survival after another. With a father who could have killed him, he broke the grip of the South, moved to LA, founded a great band, scored a record contract, went platinum before he turned thirty, declared bankruptcy to hold on to his music, and stood on behalf of the fans when the record company vultures were trying to raise the price of an album. It’s a great survival story!
And between Darcey’s rightful indignation about the sexism in “Don’t Come Around Here No More” video and Regan’s observation about his development as a spiritual seeker or a Buddha, I notice that the earlier Petty’s persona as a back-alley hector edged towards grace and a generosity of spirit while working with Harrison and Cash. The indifferent, cruel person devouring Alice in the “Don’t Come Around Here No More” video was not the same guy singing “Wildflowers.” To me, that song always sounded like a magnanimous hymn and, oddly, more “Southern” than any old flag-waver could ever be. I am reminded that Petty repudiated his use of the Confederate flag after the Southern Accents tour. He confronted his own behavior, admitted that it was stupid and accepted responsibility. I remember being impressed and the next year, I was there to see Chris Whitley open up for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the “Into the Great Wide Open” tour in ‘91. There is a great story where Petty’s on stage in North Carolina in ‘90 (with Lenny Kravitz opening) where an audience member tossed the Stars and Bars on stage. Petty walked over, wadded it up, walked to the mic and said something to the effect of “We don’t do this anymore.”
Part Three: Legacy
Moody: Mark’s post makes evident a subliminal topic in the thread now more explicit, having to do with Petty as a Southern songwriter, in which his origins and circumstances are indelibly mixed up with the flavors and complexities of the South. It’s interesting that this would come up for a songwriter so associated, later in his life, with Los Angeles. But maybe, as with the written literature of the South, the region casts a long shadow, even when you want to grow beyond it. Maybe it’s inevitable that it would come up.
Meanwhile, I have been listening to the Tom Petty station on Sirius XM in the car quite a bit. And as a result, I keep hearing, periodically, live versions of various things, among them “Refugee.” Part of my problem with “Refugee” is having heard it ten thousand times, and perhaps having worn out the grooves on my own LP of it in freshman year of college. It’s always hard to get around these songs, the ones you have heard innumerably, into the genuine feeling of the song. But last week I did have the moment, maybe because things have been hard around the house, lots of illness and hard work, moments of hopelessness. The song shone through in this context. I think I was driving to the hardware store. Suddenly, a bunch of things happened in the live version. The real revelation on the way to the hardware store was the lyrics of “Refugee.” I know I just said a couple of weeks ago that it was better later on when Petty started in with the refrigerator magnets and the one-syllable words in the chorus. But on this particular trip to the hardware store it was precisely, “Tell me why you want to lay there, revel in your abandon” that got my attention, as it did Regan’s. What he means by “revel in your abandon” could be a long conversation. But what struck me about this line was: that it’s unclear who’s saying it. I always treated this song as confessional singer-songwriter stuff. If you assume, as a matter of course, that Tom Petty songs are most often in the category of the-guy-addressing-the-girl, based on, e.g., “American Girl,” which Darcey has so admirably discussed above, you could be forgiven for thinking you know what Petty means in “Refugee,” but as Regan said to me recently, that’s to miss the lurking portion of the Petty songbook that conceives of the feminine point of view so compellingly. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” for example, wasn’t written for Stevie Nicks so much as it was at hand, having been rejected (I think I’m remembering this correctly) by the record company for being too much from a woman’s point of view. There are many more such songs, including one I’m going to get to below.
While I apologize for carving out just this passage—because the book [Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes] is great and really good about music, not about tawdry familial revelations—the relevant passage is this:
When my father got home… he came in, took a belt and beat the living s— out of me. He beat me so bad that I was covered in raised welts, from my head to my toes. I mean, you can’t imagine someone hitting a child like that. My mother and grandmother laid me in my bed, stripped me and they took cotton and alcohol, cleaning these big welts all over my body.
This is incredibly painful to read, especially the plangent line “you can’t imagine someone hitting a child like that,” which has the complexity that I associate with really beautiful prose writing. I bring this excerpt to you here as someone who also grew up in a household where parental reprimands were physical on occasion and who has never forgotten. And: I mean that on the way to the hardware store, I suddenly could see the voice of “Refugee” as a feminine voice who could look down on the horror and injustice and abandon, and love into the horror and injustice and abandon, and say, “Right now this seems real to you / But it’s just one of those things you got to feel to be true.”
I think “true,” on the song, constitutes one the highest notes in the Petty canon, and later on he couldn’t reach it anymore, but in the early days he would really give it a wail (on Pack Up the Plantation, e.g.), as befits its importance in the lyric—expiation, redemption, lamentation, all in the one word. True!
Maybe this love and care that’s in the observing is not simply or easily feminine, and it’s re-inscribing some stereotypes to say so, but “Refugee” is more interesting to me now that I have looked closely at the lyrics and realized that the song is stripped of gender and that there’s a fluidity to how it might be read, and Petty is more interesting as a result. Maybe, on reflection, there’s a disassociation with some of the masculine stuff in his oeuvre, and a celebration of the feminine, an ability to see into women’s experiences and their subjectivities with a natural ease that you don’t associate with many male songwriters.
This all brings me to Echo, which was the reason I wanted to have this entire discussion in the first place, because Patrick reminded me to go back and listen to it. And because I know Patrick takes this Tom Petty stuff very seriously and has extremely good taste, and because, at the moment of Petty’s untimely passing, I didn’t really know the last period of albums well, I went back and listened to Echo again, and was overcome by what a great album it is.
The record as a whole isn’t this sad, though it oscillates in and out of this sadness. It also has a couple of punky songs that recall the earliest Heartbreakers albums, like “Free Girl Now,” which perhaps comments on the divorce with the kind of deep and mixed feelings that we associate with Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear. Mike Campbell gets his first and only lead vocal on a Heartbreakers (great voice!) on Echo, on a punk rock throwaway worthy of the Romantics called “I Don’t Wanna Fight.” And then there’s the song that explores the feminine subjectivity again, “Swingin.’”
I think it’s a manifestly dumb video, because it trivializes some of what’s great about the song (and it’s a really good song). Like “Free Fallin’,” there are observations here (“I know I can count on you”) that are precisely ironic, that mean the obverse of what they appear to mean, and meanwhile the list of other persons who went down swinging (Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Sammy Davis) serves not only as commentary on what swinging is (and this in a song that is a really clean 4/4 that doesn’t swing or shuffle at all), but also really makes the manifest content, the narrative of the song, a life lived at the margins, more indelible, when it, the list, lands on Sonny Liston. (The chord progression borrows “Rock and Roll” by the Velvet Underground, slowed down slightly.)
Echo, I think, inaugurates the last period of the Heartbreakers, four albums: Echo, The Last DJ, Mojo, and Hypnotic Eye. One solo album, Highway Companion. Two albums by Mudcrutch. For me, this period is everything some of the prior decade was not. It’s rangy, it’s serious, it’s playful, it doesn’t worry about airplay in any way (arguably, one entire album is about repudiating the notion of airplay), it’s uncompromising, it’s adult. As befits the older, wiser, cleaner Tom Petty, the adorable blond mop top guy becomes the geezer with the beard. He has gravitas. Also, the band loosens up a bit on these albums, tries things, Campbell is allowed to solo longer (for example on the Led Zeppelin flavored “I Should Have Known It,” which I like a lot). They play the blues a ton on Mojo, or at least that’s the idea. And then, in Mudcrutch, Petty relinquishes the dictatorship entirely, finally lets Benmont record and even sing his songs. And Petty resumes playing the bass.
What is the adult solution to the creative problem? The adult solution to the creative problem is to try to make yourself happy, to stop worrying about what the audience wants or needs. The adult solution is to individuate. Which is what I think is happening on these last albums. As such, for me they represent a triumph, even if we didn’t hear them as much, and need to search them out a bit.
What do you guys think?
Steinke: I am so happy to read this. As you write on something that has been inside me but not yet articulated completely, the odd androgyny of Petty and many of his songs and how that androgyny was, in some ways, easier to accept then someone like Bowie, at the time for me. I once had a dream that I found a stairwell I’d never seen before on the third floor of my house and it lead to a sort of ballroom, which was filled with Petty look-a-likes, not male or female but both and neither, all laying out on fur rugs in front of a huge fireplace, all sort of glowing.
Moody: I’m a little shaken by yesterday’s news, and wanted to write about it for a minute, as it bears on bringing the thread to a close, or so it looks to me.
I thought the note from Petty’s wife and daughter was singularly graceful and full of equanimity and what must have been a very difficult time for them. It’s open-hearted to say that they welcome any ensuing debate about the opioid problem, and generous to the fans to share the facts about how much Petty was suffering during the fortieth anniversary tour. (I was talking to a Midwestern booker guy last week who saw the fortieth anniversary tour twice, and he said he’d heard that Petty only stood on the tour while he was onstage. The rest of the time he was wheeled around. That is, his hip was really, really bad, and he really was trying to get through the tour, even as he was also, perhaps, delighting in the tour.)
This is from the last show:
What does this mean for how we think about the work? Does it affect how we think about the later work? What if the struggle at the end was a lot harder than we earlier thought? And what if the astonishing clarity of the recordings masks an otherwise very difficult time? What if the there was a lot more pain than is immediately apparent in the songs? What if the perfect craftsmanship is an attempt to keep one thing in control while other things were spiraling out of control? We can’t know the answers to these questions, exactly, and as the letter from Petty’s family suggests, it’s not our place to know the answers to all of these questions, at least not now. Maybe there will be commonplace answers to them later. But the problem with looking back at the work in times like this is that it’s very hard not to have these thoughts. The work is bent in the prism of tragic and sudden loss, and loss, in this case, that feels like it might have been preventable. It’s deeply sad.
Rogers: I read the story late Friday. Yesterday, I had a few songs running through my head as I processed. I was thinking the angry, accusatory “Joe” and the (self-referencing?) “When A Kid Goes Bad” from his furious, prophetic The Last DJ (sort of a brother to Rogers Waters’s Radio K.A.O.S. and Amused to Death; Amused to Death includes the line, “The wounded child as celebrity,” and I sent a prayer to Tom and his brave, plain-spoken family when it crossed my mind).
But mostly, I’ve been haunted since late 2016 by this. It is really extraordinary, especially the final moments. I think Tom was trying to say some very pointed things in the last few years; I don’t think many of us were listening, though. I think he was angry, compromised, and hurting just like his colleagues, Prince Rogers Nelson and David Bowie. I want to write more but, yes, I think Rick’s message re-frames things. It certainly sends a message to me to be compassionate, to try to be mindful of our complex human condition, and to listen in this difficult time.
Steinke: To hear the news surrounding Petty’s death did not surprise me. We live in a broken world, a world of pain and confusion… no one knew this better than Petty himself.
The thing about Tom Petty is that he was always a little off. A little dark. A little fucked up. Mainstream, but then not. And I think it was this darkness that I always identified with so strongly. There was such nuance coming out of the radio when his songs played—this is not the usually thing with pop music. It was one of the many things that woke me up to how sad and complicated life was and how this was not something to deny but explore and revel in.
I am listening to Wildflower while I write this and I have to say I love it so much and am so haunted and inspired by the very wealth of life he is able to get into the songs. The many emotions shifting but held together by the melodies.
Some will see his death as a sort of failure but better to think of it in line with what the best of his songs try to evoke: the paradox of life, the struggle and the pleasures, the pain, and the release.
Good: Terrible news about Petty’s death being the result of (in part) an accidental fentanyl overdose. Prince slipped away alone in an elevator from the stuff. Now we know Petty’s heart went deeply, quickly, and irrevocably to sleep one sunny afternoon in Malibu. We could have both of them still, but they were carried away by a lethal undertow. It makes no cosmic sense: Donald Trump has life, and these two have none. One turns to Lear, dead Cordelia in his arms: “No, no, no life? / Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?”
When I heard this latest news, he died again, and I let lines of his from all the decades come to me until I’d woven a giant Tom Petty spider web: “Breakdown, go ahead and give it to me.” “Well, it was nearly summer, we sat on your roof / Yeah, we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon.” “You know daddy had to crash / He’s always halfway there you know.” “And for one desperate moment there / He crept back in her memory.” “God, it’s such a drag when you live in the past.” “I’ll be the boy in the corduroy pants / You be the girl at the high school dance.” “And I don’t want to mean anything to you / And I don’t want to tempt you to be true.” “Baby if you can’t change the world / Maybe you should just change yourself.” “And the rocks might melt / and the sea may burn.” “The poison came in liquid / She was naked all the time.”
Thinking about Petty’s perfect early rock songs (he wrote them up until the end, frankly), I think they share something with the Renaissance idea of a “concetto.” Michelangelo wrote about this idea, that as an artist he was releasing his sculptures from the marble: the sculpture already existed fully realized within in the rock. It was the artist’s role to liberate the forms. Petty’s perfect songs felt as if they already existed elsewhere, as if Tom plucked them from the Platonic ether. He gets more painterly, emotional and expansive in his approach to song-making on Echo, as he had matured as a human and an artist, but he always had the ability to snatch perfection from the air. Obviously, by this album, Petty is a long way from the angel-faced, fish-lipped wonder boy of 1977. His androgyny depleted, he is a man. He’s thicker in the body, and his silky blonde hair is slightly grizzled. And it’s not actually blonde anymore, either. It’s more tea-colored, slightly red, and becoming sparse on top. No more long, feathered bangs. No more hip-huggers. No more boyish tuck-and-spins.
I poured over a picture of Mudcrutch the day I heard the news, marveling at the genesis of this scrappy genius. In the photo, he’s a skinny cracker with greasy long blonde hair hanging to his ribs; he sports a scant mustache, wears a lank poly-cotton Oxford, and smokes a cigarette. He resembled—it was the foxy look of the day—the handsome young recovering heroin addicts at my brother’s treatment center in Norwalk, Connecticut, where I was brought each week as a young child. Boys that looked like Tom Petty babysat me while my parents and brother met with counselors.
Look at him again in that Mudcrutch photo. Who could have predicted his greatness? Not his bastard father, the name alone frightens: Earl Petty. The description of his father’s abuse (and yes, Tom himself saying, “You just can’t imagine someone hitting a child that way”) is very painful to contemplate, and that sentence has also been echoing in my mind. I think his sensitivity to struggling women (in “Free Girl,” “Swingin’,” “Refugee,” and elsewhere, agreeing with Rick) must come from watching his mother be crushed by his father. Also, he married early and had two daughters, so the female spirit was always around him, plus, for God’s sake, he himself was one of the most beautiful girls in the ‘70s. I imagine this feline beauty was a problem for Earl. Wait, I need to call out Tom’s nose for a moment; it was a refined and fine nose. A delicate, pointed, perfect nose that his father must have resented. A sensitive fine-boned boy of androgyny and intelligent defiance being beaten by a man obsessed with what they used to call “machismo.” My eyes fill with tears.
There is a Zen koan that goes “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” Petty knew that finding one’s way through all experience—suffering, anger, confusion, all pains—was life; you can’t skip any part of it and become enlightened. The experience is the song. He said, “If I had known that at twenty, life would have been so much easier, but you have to experience all these things so you figure out how to find your way through the woods.” That’s knowledge a Buddha would bestow. But, honestly, right now I’m thinking of him in Gainesville, at the beginning of it all, a strange blonde manboy walking down a dirty road towards us, bringing with him his perfect songs.
Dore: I’m making dinner, chili and kale, iPod in my back pocket listening through ear buds to “About to Give Out.” Kid is upstairs watching TV, Will is in the other room listening to something else. I have a stack of bullshit emails to deal with upstairs but I’m listening: “Ricky and Dicky standing in the Sun / Out there on that highway and the dog wouldn’t run / Ricky rolled a number / Dicky raised the hood / Time we hit Daytona I was feeling pretty good. / Oh, Mama, I’m about to give out.” Pouring the water off the steaming greens I’m laughing and wondering if they’re going to spill because the stack of dirty dishes I put the colander on top of is pretty high. “Karaoke Katie drove the crowd wild,” sings Tom. “Curtain came up / Katie came on / Drinking like a lumberjack / And singing Delta Dawn.” This song rocks. And it’s fucking funny. The ridiculousness of naming the two guys Ricky and Dicky. I text Peter to tell him our friend Terry Anderson sounds like Petty. He text-responds back that Jack from Terry’s band is going to mix his record.
What happens in that first verse when they “hit Daytona,” that spinning out a slice of time way longer than it takes to sing those short lines: that is what the critics mean when they say “economical.” The song is economical. Will walks by and I give him the ear buds. “He sure could write hooks.” The song is a little bit “Jack and Diane” I notice, or any number of the here’s-some-beauty-in-everyday-strip-mall-America songs. He’s comparing Ricky and Dicky to Abraham and Moses, now, and when Petty sings about how the father of man wakes up “beat to hell and nude” I’m cracking up again, serving up the chili in blue coffee bowls. Kid calls me and I go up and get her an Advil and some tissues and stroke her forehead. Back downstairs grabbing the tongs, I wonder, What about Echo? This is the question I have been pondering for you all when the news about opioids and Petty’s cause of death came in. I have decided to keep it about that, even though there’s this other thing now; this thing that reminds me of my dad who never could or would do anything about it. They go into withdrawal, the elderly addicts, when they are in for some other reason, and this causes their organs and regions of their brains to give out. I’m just trying not to hold the drugs against these songs. It turns out that laughing about Moses as the steam comes up out of the colander onto my face helps.
Holsapple: The video Rick posted earlier was fascinating, but there’s another video of “American Girl” (listed on YouTube as “Tom Petty’s Last Song”) that’s pretty telling. Watching Petty limp offstage at the end of the Beatle bows and credit creep was distressing. You begin to get an idea of how much pain his hip must have been giving him.
I can’t speak to the man’s addictions or struggles, having only been clued in to them when I read Warren’s biography last year. When I finished reading it, I was left with a sense that Tom wished he could just be left alone for the rest of his life. He didn’t need any more friends or acquaintances. He’d like to go to the grocery store and shop for milk and eggs unnoticed. He’d like to write songs as they come, but not have to drag himself into the recording studio or onto the bus again for another twelve-hour overnight drive, with the stages and local crews and endless security and catering. And, mind you, this was not any sort of specific anti-social statements in the book, just a general “I’m done, thanks” tone I felt from this road dog.
When Tom died, I could not listen to any music for over a week. I sure couldn’t listen to him without bursting into tears. It never occurred to me that his death would be so affecting, but we lost a guy who was a sort of spirit animal to many of us underling musicians. All that stuff I said in the beginning about what he helped me think I could do as a writer and player was still intact when he died, so it was like losing the ability to breathe for a little while.
Rogers: With the recent revelations about Petty’s health and true cause of death, I’ve been thinking about how his passing comingled his defiant, wounded spirit with that of the American zeitgeist. In 1979/1980, Tom sang stark, metaphorical words about living like a “Refugee,” as America welcomed thousands of Cubans and Vietnamese to its shores; since then, the US has accepted three million refugees and countless undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. In 2016, America continued to be torn and divided over issues of immigration, jobs, and identity, with debates over border walls and phrases such as “economic nationalism” driving the debate.
In 2016, one hundred and fifteen Americans were dying from opioid overdoses every day and America saw the rise of a celebrity, nationalist authoritarian promising to solve all of our problems, including the opioid epidemic. These “forgotten men and women” (who Petty sung about all his life) have watched as their communities were ravaged by an unregulated flood of cheap, killer drugs, mostly made in China, the scene of the first opium wars. Interestingly, Tom had his own take on the power of celebrity, politics, and sadly, guns. Costner’s The Postman was released in 1997, the same year as the passage of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which brought Trayvon Martin’s life to an end. The bill was named after Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
In 2017, Klansmen and “White Nationalists” (ironically, the tribal antagonists in The Postman) waved the Confederate and Nazi flags in broad daylight, and lynched in the streets for the first time in decades. Confederate monuments—one man’s heritage, another man’s hate—were being openly debated for the first time in my lifetime. On his fortieth anniversary tour, the same guy who once used the stars and bars as stage props was urging for his fans (maybe one of the only fan bases to include Clinton, Sanders, and 45 supporters) to be kind to one another; he said that was the real way to make America great again.
Finally, the day before Petty died, a lone gunman killed or wounded hundreds at a country music concert in Las Vegas. The next day, Petty was felled by an accidental overdose of the scourge known as fentanyl, the deadliest form of heroin.
What do we make of Tom Petty? Was the child the father to the man? Was he a study in baffling, Southern-fried contradictions? Should we give him a pass because he brought us so much joy, or should we judge his actions as if he was any one of us? Are rock stars ever really responsible for anything? In the days after he died, Campbell went on Sirius to talk about Tom, his lifelong friend and musical partner. He said that it was good to see Tom so happy in his final years. He said he’d mellowed like fine wine, had given his all, and was in a really good place. Hypnotic Eye was the Heartbreaker’s first number one album and, in the last year, the industry he frequently railed against honored him with lifetime achievement awards. Tom was also giving back: he was active in addressing LA’s homelessness crisis (as seen in “I Forgive It All”), was instrumental in making sure songwriters in retirement continued to get their royalties, and was giving toys away to kids at Christmas. He said that Tom was hopeful and that “the future was wide open” as they wrapped up the fortieth anniversary tour.
To me, Tom Petty will always be a little bit of this (and I will always love him for it):
Oh, I’m a good old rebel,
Now that’s just what I am;
And I don’t want no pardon
For anything I’ve done.
And I won’t be reconstructed,
And I do not give a damn
McCarthy: When I heard the news, I wouldn’t say I was shocked. It seems many people go this way these days. Mixing drugs that shouldn’t be mixed. He was doing this to make it through the day, so it seems. Reading the reports and comments here, he was clearly in so much pain that it was all he could do to get through the tour and day. Why do people push themselves to such extremes? Clearly, he was adored and if he had to cancel the last few weeks of shows, or the entire tour, people would’ve understood. I would’ve. Is this “rhino skin” or just plain stubborn? Or the feeling that we’ll live forever, if we can just forget the pain?
You must understand, as Rick wrote above, Echo, Wildflowers, these are albums that have meant so much to me. I feel terrified to write about my love for them, honestly. I feel, in some way, I’ve avoided responding, as if putting these things down would reveal too much about myself to myself (or anyone else, for that matter). I have really felt over the years that I walked a lonely path in terms of my obsession with these albums.
When the news broke that Tom Petty had died, only to be back-peddled later, it was unreal. That night, when I got home, I thought I’d try to send out my love for him and his music by listening to Wildflowers, Echo, and Highway Companion (don’t overlook this one; it holds many secrets). My wife went to the gym and I was at home with her mother, who has dementia and has been in our care for the last eight years. As I fed my mother-in-law dinner, I played Wildflowers on a little Bluetooth speaker on the table and I was overwhelmed by the memories of those times with the Kings and how things went, by our current life as caregivers, by everything.
Feature image by musicisentropy (https://www.flickr.com/photos/bandfan/4701587083/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.