Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Love Letter to Tom Petty

First, let's get one thing clear: I love Tom Petty more than you do (unless, of course, you're from Gainesville, in which case I totally cede to you, your love of Tom, and your sense of loss). I'd heard "Breakdown" on the radio in 1976, but it was what I would've sworn was his first SNL appearance in 1978, during which Petty and the band pounded out the Byrds-esque "Listen to Her Heart" and the power-pop masterpiece "I Need to Know," both from the second album "You're Gonna Get It," that nailed it for me. The guitar hooks. The Hemingway-esque lyrics. The "WAAAAAAAAAH!" No one could go WAAAAAAAAAH like Tom Petty. I bought it all.

No. Really. I literally bought it all. Over the ensuing 40 years, I ponied up for every Tom Petty album the moment it came out (except the live ones; I preferred going to live shows instead). There's no other musician or band for whom I did that over that long a time frame. Especially considering that, these days, no one pays for music, this by itself is pretty astonishing. Sure, I own every Beatles album, but who doesn't? They only had an eight-year run. I have every Bottle Rockets album, and still buy every new one without fail, but they only formed in 1994.

Now, it's natural that either you grow up and your tastes change, or the same thing happens to a musician or band you like, or both, and the trajectories of your purchasing patterns and their artistic endeavors diverge. I think about my relationship with artists I loved with all my weeping pimply adolescent heart back in junior high and high school, folks like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, and Paul Simon. Their music reaches back into that special teenage space that nothing else can touch, and I will always be transported back there when I hear that music, but I didn't keep buying their albums. Maybe it was the fact that I was a young adult when Petty's music hit me that made the difference. Or maybe it was just that he was simply amazing, and amazingly simple, and his music reached a special place of its own--not the singer/songwriter place, but the place where people pound on electric guitars and go WAAAAAAAAAH! (Wait a minute... that's almost the lyrics to "Anything That's Rock and Roll's Fine" :^)

Maire Anne and I took Tom Petty's passing pretty hard. He was closer to being of our generation (I'm 59) than the big icons of the 60s and 70s. And, more to the point, his music was a more consistent soundtrack to our life. I believe that, when we met, we both owned copies of "Damn the Torpedoes." Or maybe she heard mine and then bought her own. I'll always remember the release of "Hard Promises." I was not the stable faithful loving partner I am now, and our relationship had run aground because of it. I begged her to take me back. "The Waiting" and "You Can Still Change Your Mind" seemed like they were written for me.

There was, and is, a lot to like about Tom Petty. That first TV appearance I saw showcased perfectly the jangle and the snarl that would become the twin peaks of his music. His chord changes were ones that any new guitarist could play. They were never jarring or even overly clever, but they frequently made the songs sound like instant classics the first time you heard them while also managing the trick of sounding fresh and original over time. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell was a freaking genius at crafting iconic hooks that went over those changes like they were born there, which they probably were. And of course Petty's unique voice, all nasal and twang and drawl while never being something as simple as Bob or Byrds or "Southern." This all comes together on a song like "Here Comes My Girl" where the bridge consists of a single chord, a guitar hook with six notes, and the spoken three-word line "watch her walk," and, instantly, in your mind, that's what you do. Fucking miraculous.

And those lyrics. Look at a refrain like "Good loving is hard to find / You got lucky babe / When I found you." On paper you wouldn't think it's anything, but add those to simple chords and a simple hook, and boom. I loved the way that Petty could sometimes rhyme like Robert Frost (read the lyrics to the first verse of "The Waiting") but never let rhyming get in the way of what he wanted to say.

There aren't many big sprawling songs in the Petty catalog; most are compact and concise, about small moments and little things. Yes, "You Don't Know How It Feels" has the unbelievably catchy line "Let's get to the point / Let's roll another joint" that you'd think would make it damned close to a novelty song (and which caused MTV to fuzz out the lyric, which of course only made it more compelling), but the genius is in the simple refrain "You don't know how it feels / To be me." Is there any lyric, ever, that has ever been more universal? The fact that the rock star singing it presumably has all the women, fast cars, and cocaine he could possibly desire doesn't add a hint of artifice or irony because we believe him. We don't know how it feels to be him. We don't even care if he's writing and singing it as Tom Petty, Rock Star, or as everyman. It doesn't matter. He's not freaking Loverboy blathering and swaggering about how he's got to do it his way or no way at all. He's Tom and we believe him. His experience is every bit as real as ours.

He and the band were remarkably consistent over their 40-year run, both in their recorded products and their live performances. They produced song after song that sent you running to the volume knob to crank it up. He never went jazz like Joni, or went world beat like Paul Simon and David Byrne, or went "fuck you, I'm an artist, I'll do whatever I like" like Neil Young. (And that's not a knock against any of those people doing any of those things; as artists, you do what you gotta do.) His inter- and intra-album musical variety wasn't perhaps quite as big as Neil Young, who would swing from solo acoustic to proto-punk in the space of two adjacent songs, but damn it was close, and by the time he reached "Wildflowers" in 1994, it was almost that varied.

The point is that, in a world where musicians and bands are damned if they stay the same and damned if they change, Petty walked the wire of honesty and simplicity, put out a body of amazingly high-quality material that connected with a broad audience, and did it without being a one-note wonder. He.richly deserved his 40-year career. Not too god damned bad, Tom.

I'd also add that there are very few people who play rhythm guitar as well as Tom Petty did. It is an unheralded skill. John Lennon, Tom Fogerty (John Fogerty's brother in Creedence), and Tom Petty. I do a pretty fair job of it myself. The idea that you could write songs like that and pound them out onstage like that was a dream that took me years to shake.

Since Petty's death, I've re-listened to every album in order. To be sure, some albums are stronger than others--the last six songs off "Let Me Up" are pretty weak, the swerve into synth-land on the collaborations with Dave Stewart from The Eurythmics aren't my taste (and don't get me started on the horn section on "Southern Accents"), and the blues-based stuff on "Mojo" doesn't do a lot for me--but on hearing a song I'd forgotten about, my reaction was "What a great song!" far more often than "Well, that one was basically album filler."

Initially, upon reading through the discography of the sixteen studio albums, it seemed curious to me that thirteen are listed as TP/HB albums, and "Full Moon Fever," "Wildflowers," and "Highway Companion" are listed as Tom Petty solo albums. I'm a diehard fan who bought these albums when they first came out, and I don't recall even being aware of the "solo album" distinction then. After all, it's not like Springsteen whose albums "Nebraska," "Tunnel of Love," and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" have a distinctly different, more singer/songwriter-based sound than his E Street Band records. Petty's three solo albums pretty much sound like Heartbreaker records, and songs off the three were staples at most every live show. Because of that, I'd assumed that The Heartbreakers essentially were the backup band on Petty's solo albums, but according to Wikipedia, that's less true than I'd thought. HB guitarist extraordinaire Mike Campbell plays on all three, but only "Wildflowers" has the full slate of Heartbreakers on it (it was drummer Steve Ferrone's first record with the band after drummer Stan Lynch's departure). Interestingly, although I don't hear a big distinction between the solo albums and the HB records in terms of either material or sonic contour, the Wikipedia page on "Full Moon Fever" says that the other three Heartbreakers didn't like playing FMF songs at live shows, and that Stan Lynch said that, when playing them, he felt like he was in a cover band.

To me, although the second album, "You're Gonna Get It," will always be special (I've played "Magnolia" for years), my long-held feeling that "Wildflowers" is Petty's masterpiece only grows stronger. First, I should candidly admit that I am no fan of Jeff Lynne's production on "Full Moon Fever," "Into the Great Wide Open," and "Highway Companion." The snare sounds like a wet noodle hitting a damp sponge, and the trick of multi-tracking the acoustic guitar part until it sounds like a percussion instrument gets right tiresome. In contrast, Rick Rubin's production on "Wildflowers" is spare, clean, and perfect. "Wildflowers" is also the record with the greatest variety, combining flawless rock anthems like "You Wreck Me" and the aforementioned "You Don't Know How it Feels," stupid-silly-catchy stuff like "Honey Bee" ("She gives me her monkey hand / In a Rambler sedan / I'm the king of Milwaukee / Her juju beads are so nice / She kissed my third cousin twice / I'm the king of Pomona"), and lighter more acoustic fare like "Time to Move On." Plus, there's not a bad, or even a mediocre song, on the album. I love all of them.

But the real reason I love "Wildflowers" is that, on repeated listenings, I realize that it is, in a sense, Petty's singer/songwriter CD. Listen to "Don't Fade on Me." It's basically just Tom on acoustic, with only the lightest accompaniment during the eight measures of lead by Mike Campbell." And although the refrain is simply the four-word song title, the lyrics in the verses paint a fairly full personal and detailed story, and, unlike nearly every other TP song, there's no bridge. I can't think of any other song in the catalog that's like it.

There are other songs on "Wildflowers" that, like "Don't Fade on Me," are what you might almost call "sprawling." Length-wise, the album contains only one sub-three-minute song. There are four that clock in at over five minutes. "It's Good to Be King" and "Crawling Back to You" are both sonically gorgeous and use the time to stretch their legs beautifully.

But it's the last song, "Wake Up Time," that, 23 years after "Wildflowers" was released, absolutely blows me away. It's the only TP song I know of that has no guitar on it, letting the piano occupy the center instead. I assume it's Petty playing it. Read the lyrics below carefully. It is an absolutely gorgeous piece of songwriting, particularly what he does with the trees in the first and last verses. To anyone who has stumbled while trying to navigate life's path, or who has a loved one who has stumbled, it is achingly sad, yet ultimately hopeful.

You follow your feelings, you follow your dreams
You follow the leader into the trees
And what's in there waiting, neither one of us knows
You gotta keep one eye open the further you go

You never dreamed you'd go down on one knee, but now
Who could have seen, you'd be so hard to please somehow

You feel like a poor boy, a long way from home
You're just a poor boy, a long way from home
And it's wake up time
Time to open your eyes
And rise and shine

You spend your life dreaming, running 'round in a trance
You hang out forever and still miss the dance
And if you get lucky, you might find someone
To help you get over the pain that will come

Yeah, you were so cool back in high school, what happened
You were so sure not to have your spirits dampened

But you're just a poor boy alone in this world
You're just a poor boy alone in this world
And it's wake up time
Time to open your eyes
And rise and shine

Well, if he gets lucky, a boy finds a girl
To help him to shoulder the pain in this world
And if you follow your feelings
And you follow your dreams
You might find the forest there in the trees

Yeah, you'll be alright, it's just gonna take time, but now
Who could have seen you'd be so hard to please somehow

You're just a poor boy a long way from home
You're just a poor boy a long way from home
And it's wake up time
Time to open your eyes
And rise and shine

I am not aware of an official video of "Wake Up Time," but a fan put together a very moving and evocative one at this link here on youtube. It draws heavily on the fan's interpretation that the song is about Heartbreakers bass player Howie Epstein, who died after prolonged heroin abuse ended his tenure with the band, but the fan freely agrees that he does not know whether Epstein was actually the inspiration for the song.

I think about other artists and bands whose seminal albums occurred early on in their career. And, really, that's most of them. With most of the folkie artists I mentioned above, I was out after the first few albums. In the rock and roll world, David Bowie's best was "Hunky Dory," #4 out of his 25 studio albums.  I stayed with Neil Young longer, and he certainly had credible albums later in his career (1991's "Harvest Moon" is great), but Neil is famous for not giving a shit about what fans want or what critics think, so it's not surprising that his output is, shall we say, inconsistent. Had any other artist/band released "Damned the Torpedoes" in 1979--a tough year, with the apparent sun-setting of traditional mainstream rock and the rise of hair metal and "New Wave"--it likely would've been steadily downhill from there. In contrast, that was near the beginning of Petty's arc. A quick look down the Billboard hot singles list from 1979 doesn't show many other artists who are still successful. Sales-wise, Petty didn't top "Torpedoes" for ten years, not until "Full Moon Fever" in 1989. By my count, "Wildflowers" is #10 out of the 16 band and solo albums. When measured in time, that's just under halfway through TP/HB's 40-year career. In terms of longevity and maturation, that's amazing. And then to cap the career off with killer singles from the last two albums--"I Should've Known It" ("the last time you're gonna hurt me") off "Mojo," and "You Get Me High" off "Hypnotic Eye"--is nothing short of remarkable. I'm hard-pressed to come up with anyone else who has done anything remotely like that.

This past weekend, Maire Anne and I went up to Vermont to hang out with the former guitar player in our band, Jon, and his wife Eileen. Jon built a bonfire and we sat around it playing guitar under a nearly full moon. There is a canon of songs that guitarists of my age swap while banging on acoustics. Everyone knows what these are--Beatles, Eagles, CSN and sometimes Y, etc. Tom Petty has been creeping into this canon for quite some time. It is, of course, the dream of any artist to affect people and to have their art live on. As Jon and I banged off one Tom Petty song after another, I thought that, while I don't believe in any of that "he's looking down and smiling" stuff, the fact is that we were smiling. It felt good to be agents of Tom's immortality.

And if you follow your feelings
And you follow your dreams
You might find the forest there in the trees

Now there are words to live by. Thanks, Tom.

--Rob Siegel, 10/10/2017

(Note: I apologize if anything above seems derivative with respect to the dozens of pieces from media outlets. I read many of them in the days after Petty's death. It would be hard not to have absorbed a few words and observations. I've ordered "Petty: The Biography" by Warren Zanes, but have not yet read it.)

(Note: I would've laid money that the first TP/HB appearance I saw on television, in which he played "Listen to Her Heart" and "I Need to Know," was on SNL in 1978, but the SNL Wiki shows that the band didn't play until '79, in support of "Damn the Torpedoes" ("Refugee" and "Don't Do Me Like That"). A little research shows that it's likely that what I saw in '78 was a performance on The Midnight Special, as he did play those two songs. It's an early enough performance that Tom doesn't look into the camera or mug or sneer. He learned quick :^) Here is "I Need to Know."