Eleven years ago Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the Xcel Energy Center. It was a great double bill with Pearl Jam opening the show and Petty touring behind his solo Highway Companion album. It was a two night stand at the St. Paul Hockey Arena and I made it a point to be there for both evenings, largely due to an overwhelming desire to see Pearl Jam who had released their amazing self-titled album earlier that year.
As expected, Eddie Vedder’s crew delivered a powerful, bracing set of blistering rockers from “Do The Evolution” to “Even Flow.” Their setlist varied night to night, so there was no predicting what might happen. This was a band intent on holding their own, while also showing undying respect to the elder band they were opening for.
The consummate showman, Petty strolled to the stage wearing a fringed leather jacket, tassels dangling as he swayed and gently waved greetings to his audience. The Heartbreakers leaned into the opening chords of “Listen To Her Heart” from 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It! as their leader pointed the neck of his Rickenbacker towards the lighting trusses, spinning on his back heels, and savored every moment. The roar of the crowd, the energy of the backbeat, the jangling guitar chords and piano melding into one as Petty gazed into the audience with a wry smile spilling from the corners of his mouth.
The show itself was classic rock hit after classic rock hit. “Free Fallin’,” “You Got Lucky,” “Learning To Fly,” “Even the Losers,” each one cascading into another before finally concluding with Vedder joining him on a duet of “American Girl” from the band’s first album. Was that song really 30 years old? To hear it at this show in 2006, it was timeless. Throughout the evening, Petty played it loose. The singer, who once ran into considerable radio censorship with the line “But let me get to the point, let’s roll another joint” on his huge 1994 hit “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” seemed to have perhaps taken his own advice at some point. At the end of the first show, one of the more inebriated guests in attendance made his admiration for Petty’s skills by offering his own critical analysis, loudly intoning “Damn! Petty’s so stoned, he must piss weed!” Despite the heavily slurred analysis, I cannot say that he wasn’t entirely incorrect. Tom Petty was simply himself.
Upon his passing, there were a number of words used in the press to describe him. Among them, “Legendary” and “Iconoclast”
seemed the most prevalent. I am not sure that I really agree with either of these descriptors. I think that those perhaps over-reach a bit and seem like a “hack” way of describing a musician that spoke his truth honestly, and deliberately.
There was no artifice to be found. No false attempt to be cool. There was no obscuring of who he was. It was all right there in his work, from the previously mentioned admission in “You Don’t Know How It Feels” to the disconnection of the information age recounted in “Jammin’ Me.” He thought, and wrote, in a plain-spoken manner that was direct and didn’t mince words. He didn’t set out to upset the apple cart or to become larger than life. He just lived and wrote from a everyman point of view. While not legendary or iconoclastic, it is the everyday heroism that he truly represented in his music. That is better.
To me, Tom Petty was an intriguing musical summation of a number of influences-The Beatles, The Byrds and Dylan all rolled up with a Southern Rock Twist that only he, and the other members of the Heartbreakers, could master and deliver consistently. He wrote simply and directly. There was no fluff, no fanciful “artistic” over-reaching that can be attributed to many of his peers. He told it exactly as he saw it and let the chips fall where they may. To work consistently from that point of view is impressive. At no time did he appear to succumb to the fads and fashions of the times. He just did what he did, and let the world either accept or reject at its own leisure. Maybe he didn’t change the world, but at the same time, the world never changed him.
Like any true artist, Tom Petty was uncompromising. One of the things that I most appreciated about him was his dedication to the audience that supported him. After Damn The Torpedoes became a huge hit for MCA, the record company sought to take advantage of the hunger for the next record, Hard Promises. At that time, the usual retail price of a new album was $8.98 and MCA wanted to charge an extra dollar now that Petty & the Heartbreakers were a “Superstar” level act. Petty balked, delaying the album, and threatening to re-name the record “Eight Ninety-Eight.” Eventually, MCA relented and released the album with Petty’s desired $8.98 retail. Petty got his last digs in by appearing on the cover next to a bin of records priced accordingly. A punk to the last.
Petty was certainly not a man who was easily satisfied. Frustration in the studio led to smashing his hand into a studio wall during the making of Southern Accents in 1985. This impulsive moment affecting his playing ability for a few years to come. He was cantankerous, adventurous and heartfelt. He played with a fierce determination that stood fast and in line with his decided principles.
Despite his tough reputation and surface exterior, Tom Petty was also a man of reflective grace. Songs like “Wildflower” reveal a sweet gentleness at his center. With 2002’s The Last DJ album, a mournful sadness is found within this loose concept album. Ever the traditionalist, his recounting of how the business side of “the music business” has worked to kill the thing that he loved the most is heartbreaking. There is a resignation to it which is jarring.
Most of all, there is a quiet dignity and pride that can be found throughout his body of work. It can be best summed up in the lyrics found in the title track to the Southern Accents album:
“There’s a southern accent, where I come from
The young ‘uns call it Country
The Yankees call it dumb
I got my own way of talkin’
But everything gets done, with a southern accent
Where I come from
I got my own way of livin’
But everything gets done
With a southern accent
Where I come from”
He could stand next to the long-standing legends that influenced him, as well as the younger artists who admired him. He reflected honest respect for both groups as his peers without ever elevating, or diminishing himself and those he worked with. There is no doubt. Tom Petty had his own way of living. No compromise, no quarter, no kidding.
Tom Petty-The N10W Playlist
American Girl (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers 1976)
The Waiting (Hard Promises 1981)
Here Comes My Girl (Damn The Torpedoes 1979)
Change Of Heart (Long After Dark 1982)
Last Night (The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 1988)
Don’t Come Around Here No More (Southern Accents 1985)
Free Fallin’ (Full Moon Fever 1989)
I Got A Woman (Live) (Bad Girl Boogie E.P. 2010)
Surrender (Irvine, CA 6/11/83) (The Live Anthology 2009)
Wildflowers (Wildflowers 1994)
Southern Accents (Southern Accents 1985)
Dreams of Flying (Mudcrutch 2 2016)
Money Becomes King (The Last DJ 2002)
Breakdown (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers 1976)
Letting You Go (Hard Promises 1981)
I Need To Know (You’re Gonna Get It! 1978)
Kings Highway (Into The Great Wide Open 1991)
A Mind With A Heart Of Its Own (Full Moon Fever 1989)
So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star (Pack Up The Plantation: Live! 1985)
Honey Bee (Live-Saturday Night Live 11/19/94) (Runnin’ Down A Dream 2006)
American Dream Plan B (Hypnotic Eye 2014)
I Won’t Back Down (Full Moon Fever 1989)
Refugee (Damn The Torpedoes 1979)
Daniel G. Moir is a freelance writer, musician, part-time DJ and baseball enthusiast. Mostly, though, he is among the most passionate music fans and aficionados of our times. He can be contacted at @DMoir5150.
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