why tom petty was the ultimate rock fan

Note: Some months back, I wrote this piece for the website Music Aficionado, and MA has been kind enough to let me post it here. Still miss Tom Petty…

Every night, on what was never supposed to be their last tour, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers opened the show with side one, track one of their debut album, “Rockin’ Around (With You),” as vintage footage of the band was projected on the big arena screens behind them. It was a flashback, and a statement of purpose, a manifesto: This is what we do, the song promised; we’re in this thing together. It forged a bond between performer and audience that this band had always lived up to for four decades. You knew, whether you saw them near the start of it all, as I did, on the bill with Roger McGuinn at the Bottom Line in 1977, or on the final swing that ended forty years later, that they were there, as they say on reality TV, for the right reasons.

“Rockin’ Around (With You”)—not the only such declaration on the first album; they also had a song called “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll” (Petty was determined to get “roll” back in the rock game)—is the simplest song imaginable. It could have been a ’50s record by Ricky Nelson or Gene Vincent, a ’60s song by the early Kinks or Mitch Ryder. “I was waiting, you came through,” Petty sings in that instantly distinctive emphatic drawl, and it felt new and classic. “I dig rockin’ around with you.” Is there a lyric more fundamental to the premise of rock? Here, right now, is where you want to be. This night, this moment, with this band.

In a Los Angeles Times interview given shortly before his death, Petty said, “We’re a real rock ’n’ roll band—always have been. And to us, in the era we came up in, it was a religion in a way. It was more than commerce, it wasn’t about that. It was about something much greater.” That fervor, the sense that this was a band with a clear sense of purpose, was evident from the beginning, even though it wasn’t clear to everyone exactly what they were up to. Were they revivalists (they covered Chuck Berry and “Shout”)? A new wave band (they were included on an early import compilation Geef Voor New Wave alongside the Sex Pistols and the Adverts)? Petty wore a leather jacket on the cover of the first album: were they like the Ramones, perhaps? Really, as Petty admitted, it was simple. They were a real rock ’n’ roll band. And at a time when mainstream rock was having something of an identity crisis, Petty and the Heartbreakers were trying to press the reset button.

Petty was one of a generation of musicians whose early childhood coincided with the rise of rock ’n’ roll and whose adolescence was in the post-Beatles ’60s. They were around to see Elvis Presley (Petty actually met him on the Florida set of the movie Follow That Dream), to experience the British Invasion firsthand, to grow up on the wildly varied sound of American top 40 radio. They heard everything—rockabilly, girl-group pop, surf music, R&B, garage rock, folk-rock—and soaked it all up. Those kids, born smack in the center of the 20th century, 1949 through 1951, had a common frame of reference, coming of age when popular music wasn’t carved up into competing categories.

Petty (1951), Bruce Springsteen (1949), John Mellencamp (1951), Joey Ramone (1951), David Johansen of the New York Dolls (1950), Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders (1951), Billy Joel (1949), Alex Chilton of the Box Tops and Big Star (1950), Eric Carmen of the Raspberries (1949), Willy DeVille (1950) … they all had overlapping influences, drew on some of the same sources and took them in different directions. Petty, Springsteen, and Johansen all covered the Animals; Petty and the Ramones each did the Searchers’ “Needles and Pins” and the Dave Clark 5’s “Anyway You Want it.” Petty, Chilton, and Hynde have dipped into the Ray Davies songbook.

You can tell they were all listening at the same time to the same Stones, Beatles, and Dylan albums, were all glued into radio stations that played frat-rock one-offs and early soul. The Heartbreakers’ guitarist, Mike Campbell, who was at Petty’s side since they were teenagers in Gainesville, Florida, told Mojo magazine, “We would get all the records as soon as they came out. … I’d go over to Tom’s and he would put on a record, and then turn it over and play it again and again, totally enamored.” They learned from those records, and picked up songs from the Stones (you can bet they heard Bert Berns’s “Cry to Me” on Out of Our Heads). Their own band was a synthesis of so much of what they heard: the defiant growl of the Animals (“Breakdown” copped a good deal from “Cheating” on Animalization), the exhilarating lilt of the Byrds, the motorvatin’ Chuck-and-Bo momentum of the Yardbirds, the pop crunch of Paul Revere and the Raiders.

It came through vividly in Petty’s music, that level of devotion to what he considered the true values of rock ’n’ roll. What he, Campbell, keyboard player Benmont Tench, bassists Ron Blair and Howie Epstein, and drummers Stan Lynch and Steve Ferrone did over their entire career, always felt like a calling. Like, if we aren’t going to do this, who will? Someone’s got to. And they did it without any heavy self-mythologizing, without going out of their way to demonstrate how hard-working they were. You got the sense that they considered themselves lucky, and why wouldn’t they? Can you picture Petty at 14, 15 years old, playing in his first band, starting to sing, write, play guitar, and if he could have looked into the future, seeing his band back up Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash? Seeing himself in a group with George Harrison and Roy Orbison, or producing Del Shannon and the Byrds’ Chris Hillman, playing alongside Buffalo Springfield the night he inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? He never lost touch with his inner fan, and for those of us of a certain age, he was a surrogate: we had heroes in common, and record collections, and cultural touchstones, but Petty had the talent to superimpose himself into the scene.

Certainly, he was among the most gifted songwriters of his Born-In-Midcentury Generation. But many of his most resonant moments on stage and on record came when he turned to songs he didn’t write, when he and his remarkably adept and adaptable band pulled an unexpected cover out of their vast memory bank, doing John Barry’s theme from Goldfinger as a moody surf instrumental, unearthing an oddball oldie like Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air” or the Music Explosion’s “A Little Bit o’ Soul,” romping through “Route 66” or “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone.” Petty was aware of the place those songs held in his narrative. When he compiled The Live Anthology, a boxed set that should be a model for any career-spanning live collection, he made sure to include a batch of them, and explained his decision in the liner notes: “Sometimes the covers we played revealed more about who the Heartbreakers are and how we think musically than the songs that became hits. The covers revealed something special, and we always took them as seriously as anything else we played.”

Petty’s death is deeply sad for many reasons, but one is that he was a keeper of the flame; he wanted to be a constant, present reminder of what came before him, of how rock ’n’ roll began and persisted and thrived, what it meant. His SiriusXM show, Buried Treasure, where he played records mostly from the ’50s and ’60s, was his way of saying: Pay attention, you need to know about this music. In interviews, he could get a little cranky, bemoaning the state of the music business, the decline of radio, the pernicious effect of TV talent shows. He’d be as pissed off as anyone that the Heartbreakers lost their lead singer and songwriter, because that leaves such a void, breaks a connective thread. This list of a dozen records just scratches the surface of all the ways Petty and the Heartbreakers kept the spirit of rock ’n’ roll alive through songs Petty didn’t write, and artists he owed so much to.

Don’t Bring Me Down

It can’t be overstated how significant the records by the Animals were to so many members of Petty’s musical peer group: songs like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and “It’s My Life” were pitch-black, insolent anthems, and if you were between 14 and 16 when those singles came out, they were likely the soundtrack of your frustration. Every time someone like Springsteen, Mellencamp, or Petty (or even Billy Joel in his more truculent mood) wrote a fist-raising song about breakin’ loose, not backin’ down, and standin’ your ground, there were Animal echoes. When Springsteen and Petty (and Dylan) shared a stage in 1990, the Animals’ “I’m Cryin’” was one of the songs they did together. “Don’t Bring Me Down,” written by Gerry Goffin & Carole King, was a perfect fit for the Heartbreakers; it rumbles ominously and slowly, then erupts on the chorus, a trick Petty used quite a bit on his own songs. The song is a desperate plea, a man asking for a little support, while his self-confidence is chipped away:

When you complain and criticize 
I feel I’m nothing in your eyes
It makes me feel like givin’ up 
Because my best just ain’t good enough

I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better

There were always Byrds-Heartbreakers comparisons, and they made sense: the guitars that jingle-jangled, and the fact that Petty’s voice sometimes had the nasal tone of Roger McGuinn’s. Early on, the story goes, McGuinn heard “American Girl” on the radio and thought it was something he’d cut before and forgotten about (he promptly went ahead and recorded it). “American Girl” wasn’t even the most Byrdlike of the Heartbreakers’ early songs (Petty acknowledged that “Listen to Her Heart” had more of a Byrds and Searchers influence). The band included “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” in their set (Campbell’s guitar incorporated elements of “Eight Miles High”), and on his first solo album, Full Moon Fever, Petty went back to the Byrds’ debut album for Gene Clark’s “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.” His version doesn’t deviate much from the original. It doesn’t have to. It was always perfect.

Wooden Heart

The first album Petty owned was the soundtrack from the movie Elvis Presley made when he got out of the Army,G.I. Blues. “Wooden Heart” comes from that LP, with a melody that sounds like something from an antique music box, simple and hummable. Although there were times, on other records, where Petty’s vocal was an aural match for Presley’s curled lip, on this track, backed mostly by Tench, he actually sings a little bit like Buddy Holly on “Everyday,” soft and reflective, his voice higher and sweeter than usual. In the book Conversations with Petty by Paul Zollo, Petty says it was knocked off in only one take. “I love our record of that,” he told Zollo. “When I hear that, I’m really touched by it, because it reminds me of being young and listening to those records.”

Somethin’ Else

Eddie Cochran was a rock ’n’ roll archetype: the kid eager for action, hitting roadblocks. The summer job that kept him from getting out and having fun, the flight of stairs that made him too tired to “rock” when he hit the top floor. On “Somethin’ Else” (written by Sharon Sheely and Eddie’s brother Bob Cochran), there’s a car he has his eye on, and a girl he’d like to know better, but one is too pricey and the other ignores him. He doesn’t get the exact car he wants, but he does get the girl. The song is sleek and sharp—it’s about what you can compromise on, and what you can’t—and Petty and his band used to jump into it gleefully. “Lookathere!” Petty slurs, “Here she comes!” (he means the girl, but he’s just as jazzed about the automobile) and you can feel his eyes light up.

Rainy Day Women #12 & 35

Petty and the Heartbreakers went on the road in 1986 and 1987 as Bob Dylan’s backing band, and although it was kind of a shambles—it was not Dylan’s most inspired period—how could they have turned down that chance? Not only did they get to play Dylan’s songs night after night, but he was as likely to play unexpected covers as they were: the sets included Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” most nights, and the country standard “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” and there was even, a couple of times, a Chuck Berry tune (“Bye Bye Johnny”). In 1992, Petty and the band were part of the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration at Madison Square Garden, and one of the songs they chose to do was Blonde on Blonde’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” only they approached it as if it were a track on Highway 61 Revisited, with Mike Campbell playing some searing Mike Bloomfield-esque guitar phrases. It gave the song a whole different texture, and everyone was happy, including the audience that still got to shout out “Everybody must get stoned!”

Born in Chicago

“Born in Chicago” was a spontaneous choice for a cover, cooked up when the band was in the song’s namesake city for a taping of the television show Soundstage in 2003. You might not think of the Heartbreakers as a blues band, but like so many musicians from their era, they found their path into the blues through groups like the Stones (the Heartbreakers have done “Little Red Rooster,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and other songs the Stones adopted) and, in this particular case, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, whose ’65 debut album was like a gateway drug to electric blues. This edition of the Heartbreakers, with Ron Blair on bass, Steve Ferrone on drums, and Scott Thurston, here on harmonica, blasted confidently through the hastily rehearsed song, but as Petty admits in the liner notes of The Live Anthology, “We tried to play it again a few days later and couldn’t play it to save our lives.”

I Want You Back Again

Writing about the Zombies for the boxed set Zombie Heaven, Petty said, “Their music was ethereal, with a groove from somewhere else, with a voice of rough velvet.” There was always an elusiveness about the Zombies, like you were overhearing the music and couldn’t exactly grasp all its mysteries. It was just out of reach. Picking any number of their songs to cover would have given Benmont Tench a chance to shine, and surely audiences would have been more familiar with “She’s Not There” or “Tell Her No.” But Rod Argent’s haunting “I Want You Back Again” feels exactly right. Petty recalled hearing it on the radio just once when it came out, and then not again for years, but remembering it. “It’s a jazzy kind of rhythm and chord sequence. Ben just rips it to pieces when he gets to his thing.” He knew the crowd wouldn’t know the song, but he trusted they’d get into it, and they did.

Six Days on the Road – Mudcrutch

Before Petty formed the Heartbreakers, he and Campbell (and a little later, Tench) were in a Gainesville band called Mudcrutch; they cut a single for Shelter Records in 1975 and broke up not long after that. They tilted more in a Southern/country-rock direction, with elements of the Byrds (naturally), Buffalo Springfield, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Maybe some Little Feat as well. Flash-forward to 2007, and Petty decided to get the old band back together; he, Tench, and Campbell were joined by Tom Leadon and Randall Marsh. Their reunion/debut album was mostly written by Petty, but among the other tracks were one by the later-day Byrds (“Lover of the Bayou”) and the country-trucker standard “Six Days on the Road,” made famous by Dave Dudley, but it was quite likely the Burritos’ version that prompted Mudcrutch’s rendition. Somehow, the Heartbreakers find a springy Chuck Berry song inside this ode to the open road and amphetamines.

Runaway – the Traveling Wilburys

It made so much sense that Petty would be a fan of Del Shannon’s. Listen to those Shannon records, “Keep Searchin’,” “Stranger in Town,” the cornered urgency of them, like Del is driving through dark backroads, a character out of film noir. Famously, Petty referenced “Runaway” in 1989’s “Running Down a Dream,” nearly a decade after he produced Shannon’s album Drop Down and Get Me. That should have been a comeback album, but it slipped away, and Shannon never got the commercial resurgence he deserved; he committed suicide before the release of Rock On, an album that Mike Campbell co-produced with Jeff Lynne, and that Petty and most of the Heartbeakers played on. When Roy Orbison passed away, there was some chatter that Petty, Lynne, George Harrison, and Bob Dylan were thinking about recruiting Shannon as a member of the Traveling Wilburys, but that feels like wishful thinking. The Wilburys did, however, record a very faithful version of “Runaway” (Jeff Lynne on lead vocal) that surfaced as a bonus track on their second album.

The Running Kind – Johnny Cash

None of Tom Petty’s albums ever won a Grammy (he won a few in other categories, like Best Rock Vocal Performance and Best Long Form Music Video). But he and the Heartbreakers were the backing band on a winner of the award for Best Country Album. Producer Rick Rubin asked them to play on American II: Unchained. As Petty told Paul Zollo, “These are the things that are the real bonus to being in the Heartbreakers. When you get to do something like that … That record is certainly some of the best playing the Heartbreakers ever did.” It’s remarkable how easily they lock into the project, how fluid they are in Cash’s musical language. It is, in some ways, the best of Cash’s albums with Rubin, the most varied (it goes from Beck to Dean Martin to the Louvin Brothers to Soundgarden, and Cash does a touching version of Petty’s “Southern Accents”) and steady-handed. On an outtake released on Unearthed, Cash and Petty do a duet on Merle Haggard’s “The Running Kind,” a song about rootlessness and restlessness, about not being able to escape your inner prison.

Here She Comes Again – Chris Hillman

Time and again, Petty paid his respects to how much the Byrds informed his music, giving Roger McGuinn the song “King of the Hill” for his 1991 album Back From Rio (and appearing on the track), backing McGuinn on “Mr. Tambourine Man” at the Dylan 30th anniversary bash, and, not long before he died, producing a lovely album, Bidin’ My Time, for founding Byrd (and Flying Burritos) member Chris Hillman. It was the last Petty-related album released in his lifetime, and it feels autumnal and reflective in context, with remakes of early Byrds songs (“Bells of Rhymney,” Gene Clark’s “She Don’t Care About Time”), an Everly Brothers cover (“Walk Right Back’), a version of Petty’s “Wildflowers.” A high point of the album is a rare McGuinn-Hillman song, “Here She Comes Again,” that evokes the sound of mid-’60s Byrds, with McGuinn on 12-string guitar, Petty on guitar, Tench on organ, Ferrone on drums, and Herb Pedersen on very Byrds-reminiscent harmony vocals. It’s as though Petty was trying to conjure up a memory, make it his own, and make himself a part of it. He became a Byrd.

Stories We Could Tell

Petty and the Heartbreakers closed out their first live album, 1985’s Pack Up the Plantation: Live!, with a lesser-known John Sebastian (the Lovin’ Spoonful) song that had also been recorded by the Everly Brothers. “Stories We Could Tell” is a traveling-musician song, but it’s more than that. It reminds us to savor every experience, take everything in. I thought about the song when I’d heard that Tom Petty had died. I hadn’t seen him live in many years, but I’d taken a field trip to Philadelphia to catch him on the 40th anniversary tour, and the show was a reminder of how deep my affection for him and his band is, how you have to catch these people while you can, because you never know.

If you’re on the road trackin’ down your every night
Singin’ for a livin’ ’neath the brightly colored lights
And if you ever wonder why you ride this carousel
You did it for the stories you could tell

One response to “why tom petty was the ultimate rock fan

  1. I love this piece and glad it’s so long! You know how much TP meant to me, how many times I’ve seen him since seeing him open for Roger McGuinn at The Bottom Line in NYC and how many ‘records’ I have in my collection. Never mind being reminded of how much his music meant and still means to me and so many. And grateful we got to see him in Philadelphia not long before we lost him.

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