Rock and roll legend Tom Petty, renown for his eponymous band and for being a part of super-group the Travelling Wilburys, died Monday evening after going into full cardiac arrest at his Malibu, CA, home. Undoubtedly the hardest-hitting death in all of 2017, and easily rivalling the most famous of those from years past. Petty crafted some of the most defining songs of the 70's, 80's, and 90's, and was in and of himself a singular force in rock and roll music a la Elvis Presley, David Bowie, and Prince. To consider what all we have lost as far as music in the past 2 years is incredible. Gary Richrath of REO Speedwagon, Bowie, Glenn Frey, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Prince, Leon Russell, Gregg Allman, Walter Becker of Steely Dan, and now Tom Petty are all gone. It's the curse of liking older(but quality) music, losing all your favourites.
Some argue that he and his bands weren't instrumentally proficient and versatile in the same was as, say, Blue Cheer, Moby Grape, Pacific Gas & Electric, Quicksilver, or the Soft Machine. Some even argue that, lacking a 'singing voice,' he's just doing a fobbed off rendition of Bob Dylan. On the first point, I say that whatever talents they did(and they did) or did not have were trumped by the adept, incisive song-writing team of Tom Petty & Mike Campbell. To the second point, I must say this: Bob who? In much the same way as the Eagles, though, Tom Petty's music resonated with me more because of the deeper cuts than the hits. That's not a dig at the wonderful hit songs he did, I'm just saying the songs ignored by radio play-listers were of better quality. Here's a taster of what he was really capable of doing, culled mainly from his late-80's and 1990's releases.
"Love is a Long Road," from the 1989 "Full Moon Fever" album, is anthemically descriptive not just of two young people passionately in love, but also the 'long road' of being in love(even if by one's self)--As I am apt to call it, the 'rush of the crush.' Lyrics and music both portray the image of a love cratering on a day-to-day basis. When it all gets too much, one has to jump off the 'love train' "To try and save my soul." Real talk from the realest of the rockers.
"To Find a Friend," from the 1994 "Wildflowers" album, is about as simple and laid back as one can find in Petty's catalogue. At least, the music is laid back(as opposed to its usual rambunctious self). But wait, those lyrics ain't laid back. These are the after-effects of divorce and the process of self-reinvention at play. His songs from this period tend to cover similar ground('self-reinvention' was covered, albeit not as succinctly, in "All the Wrong Reasons" from 1991's "Into the Great Wide Open" album), for a variety of reasons. Petty, by now, is going through the divorce and seeking out his true friends. The song features drums from one of those friends, former Beatle Ringo Starr.
"Walls(Circus)," from the un-heralded 1996 "She's the One" soundtrack, has Petty making universal statements. Granted, he arguably did it better in songs like "I Won't Back Down" and "Learning to Fly." However, this one, with our current President's talk of 'big walls, beautiful walls,' is especially timely. "I can't hold out forever. Even walls fall down." I'm sure some dismiss this song as flighty bubble-gum, but the simplicity of the lyrics belie the heady, weighty real-life concepts being expounded upon. Petty was, in 1996, breaking down his own decades-old walls. Definitely one of the more fitting, prescient songs he did.
"A Self Made Man" expounds upon the bitter after-effects of love gone haywire. Discovered this one by laughing chance when I was looking at the back of my then-copy of the "Let Me Up(I've Had Enough)" LP and thought the song title looked interesting enough. I was blown away when I dropped the needle, more than any other time past or future that I've done the LP rounds(the song in the linked video is the product of that dropping of the needle). Saw the movie "Baby Driver" in cinemas a couple of months ago, and I thought of this song when Kevin Spacey's character proclaimed "I was in love once," not long before he got into a life-ending shoot-out. "He's a self made man, he knows how to lose."
"Too Good to Be True" is Tom Petty at his most foreboding. He doesn't say it, and he doesn't have to. This girl has...lived the life, shall we say. The wayward life of a young girl. This I have seen from several vantage points. Saw from afar a Church girl on whom I had a crush on-again and off-again over the course of five years gradually lose, after she went to College, whatever semblance of the wide-eyed innocence that drew me to her in the first place. Nowadays, I couldn't possibly care less. "You don't know what it means to be free." How true. Most people never get that opportunity, or outright waste it entirely.
"It's Good to Be King," a lesser hit from the "Wildflowers" album, is one I cottoned to just recently. In fact, the whole "Wildflowers" album got a re-listen from me(initially, I wasn't much of a fan beyond the hits and key deeper songs), and I realised why Petty himself liked it so much. Raw honesty, which reached a new level on this album. Recently put this song to a burned disc, and I can be occasionally heard singing to myself the lyric "Can I help it if I still dream time to time?" 'Everybody wants to rule the world,' and 'you may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.' A universal sentiment borne of life's whole cloth. Also, adapted to today's circumstances, very prescient. It's like Tom Petty was keyed into the American spirit in a way that would make people like Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen look like total shysters by comparison.
"Room at the Top," from his highly personal 1999 "Echo" album(having been recorded in the midst of the aftermath of his aforementioned divorce and a late-in-life heroin addiction), is the best song he ever did in my estimation. My love of the song stems from the linked video I did for the song, the idea for which sprouted at one of the lowest periods in my life. Was driving down the road the day after one of my magic crushes cratered(sensing a pattern?), more spectacularly than usual. Had the "Echo" album in my CD player, and this song was playing. I thought to myself "Room at the top of the world...Windows on the World...Hey, that's a good idea! Mark that one down somewhere." The song became one of my favourites ever as a result of that video, which has to be the best one I ever did. "I've got a room at the top of the world tonight, and I ain't coming down" is my own way of looking at life and where I am now.
I'll end this song set with another "Echo" album track: "Lonesome Sundown," a mournful lamenting of past relationships and the disintegration thereof. Petty wrote a great many of these, almost all of them good, though few could match the mournful energy of this song. I don't know anything about relationships myself, but I do know about crushes that fall apart. Some are far more painful than others, especially when there's another guy in the mix. "Forgiveness is the key," and so few people ever realize the truth of the sentiment. I'd imagine lots of 'lonesome sundowns' gradually give way to even more 'tequila sunrises.'
Was in Athens, GA, earlier Monday afternoon sifting through several LP Bins, and came across brand new, shrink-wrapped Tom Petty LP's. Not just re-issued studio albums, but also live performances. Gave me a curious chuckle to see that Petty and his band did a live cover of the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" Since I am a cheapskate, I didn't give them a serious thought(around $20 a pop). No doubt people are buying them up now. This was all before I got the horrible news, standing in the music section at the Athens Barnes & Noble. Overlooked a great many selections as I bee-lined for the Petty slot to finally get his band's debut release(it's a better album than even I had ever imagined). With the Eagles and the Moody Blues, they were a band I had wanted to see live in concert. However, on his last two swings through Atlanta(with Mudcrutch and the Heartbreakers, respectively), I found ticket prices to be on the high side for me(north of $100 per seat). Again, my cheaper side won out.
The first memories I ever remember of Petty's music involved my tween-year love and hate relationship with the song "Free Fallin'." In one of the more love-fuelled periods, the band's 'Greatest Hits' compilation became my first ever music CD(when love transitioned back to hate, I kicked myself HARD for passing up Matchbox 20 and Clay Aiken). Later, towards my teen years, I added "I Won't Back Down" to the ranks of songs for which I possessed said 'love/hate relationship.' As my music tastes fell more solidly into place, Tom Petty slowly became a favourite, propelled by the songs "Running Down a Dream" and "Learning to Fly." In no time, those stragglers came on out the other side, and not a moment too soon. When my big crush fell through in 2012, it was "Free Fallin'" that resonated the most, as it summed up everything. As time went on and circumstances unfolded, I would come to find "A Woman in Love(It's Not Me)" appropriate.
Tom Petty was a giant of music in America and around the world. His loss is absolutely staggering. Music was in a downward-spiralling state the past 15 or so years, and Petty was the only one still doing good albums. That's gone now. What that means for music is at present unclear, but one can guess the end result won't be a good one. More personally, this is not the article I ever thought I'd have to do right now.
RIP Tom Petty