My wife got me two very special presents for Christmas this year. The first was a turntable with some vinyl to play on it. The owner of the record store where she bought the discs told me, “Welcome to the addiction.”
The second was the 4-CD set Tom Petty: American Treasure. While I loves me the vinyl, the box set meant more to me. See, it’s been over a year since Tom Petty died unexpectedly, and I’m still in mourning. There are few artists whose loss will affect me so. George Harrison was one. Stevie Ray Vaughan died when I was still in my early 20s. And David Bowie surprised me, possibly setting the tone for 2016 as the Year of Death. I am not looking forward to the day when all the jokes about Keith Richards’s immortality come to a screeching halt.
But right now, I am still in mourning for Tom Petty. Petty came onto my radar at roughly the same time as Blondie, though for different reasons. As a preteen just discovering that his body was about to change radically over the next seven or so years, Blondie’s Deborah Harry caused a strange stirring within me. I wanted to do something with this woman, but my sheltered childhood did not tell me what that something was. Petty, on the other hand, was chill. Angry yet chill.
Even the title of his best-known album, Damn the Torpedoes, had a note of anger in it. But Petty delivered those angry lyrics with a smirk and that Dylanesque style that told us we don’t have to live like a refugee. They marketed him as punk, but Petty, a small-town Florida boy, had music tailor-made for the Midwest of the 1970s and 1980s.
Petty was a rebel who came along at a time when I and my fellow classmates were rebelling. We hit prepubescence at just the right moment. We latched onto Genesis just as Phil Collins was on the rise but Peter Gabriel’s voice still echoed across the radio dial. All four Beatles still lived and could rock it like no one’s business, and the Stones, humming along with Woody replacing Mick Taylor, were still in their prime. Punk was new. Heavy metal was coming into its own, and if you wanted to go soft, England had a few synth bands it wanted to sell you.
But there was something about that plaintive, nasally wail Petty had that grabbed you. It wasn’t just Petty. The band was Tom Petty AND the Heartbreakers. It wasn’t a democracy. Petty was first above equals rather than among them. Yet the band was nothing without Mike Campbell’s guitar or, if you listen to “Don’t Do Me Like That,” Benmont Tench’s key work. The band shifted from Ron Blair to Howie Epstein on bass, then back to Blair when Epstein began flaming out from his own excesses. Blair himself even tried to save his replacement, having been content to have gotten the Heartbreakers off to a good start. Backing all this through the first twenty or so years of existence was Stan Lynch, a great live drummer who struggled in the studio. Jimmy Iovine wanted to fire him, but Tom Petty understood that the Heartbreakers were a unit. It took Dave Grohl, Ringo Starr, and finally, Steve Ferrone to replace him.
The song that sticks with me most now that I barely remember listening to while wearing out my uncle’s copy of their debut album is “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It).” There’s a kind of old-school, barroom rock vibe to it that I liked in the early Whitesnake before it became overprocessed hair metal. But while David Coverdale was a soulful singer in his youth and Roger Glover a capable producer, there’s something much more coherent about this song, which would have fit nicely on any Whitesnake album before 1984. There’s that mournful minor-key guitar and the forlorn synth that colors the sound without overwhelming it. You listen to Petty for the roots sound, even if he takes a bizarre detour in the 1990s with “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” the video for which still freaks me out to this day.
But listen to “Learning to Fly,” a coming-of-age song if there ever was one, or “You Wreck Me,” which almost made it onto the mix CD for our wedding (only I wasn’t quite coming off a wild streak when I met my wife.) Even Petty’s solo stuff was more to break out of the Heartbreakers vibe and to give the other guys time to go play in someone else’s sandbox. The guitar work is organic before grunge crushed the Zeppelinesque solos for the rest of rock. Benmont’s piano and keyboard work could stand on its own without the rest of the song, but it never overwhelms. And it all rides over top of Stan and Steve’s drumming. Grohl, who turned down the offer to replace Lynch so he could build the Foo Fighters, might have fit in nicely with this bunch, but I think Ferrone was a better choice. He’s Stan, but not Stan. Understand?
But if you need something that stills what Tom Petty is all about, you need to look beyond his solo work and the Heartbreakers. Look at his labor-of-love collaboration with Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne, The Traveling Wilburys.