Sad news today with the death from a heart attack of Tom Petty. Petty first came to my attention in the late 70s, just before punk hit the mainstream radio stations I was about to listen to in my bedroom when I could escape my parents’ AM tastes. Rock and Roll had been over-produced into a bland melange of easy listening tripe in which the likes of Chicago, Boston, and Steely Dan brought the elevator into your living room.
Petty represented a form of American rock and roll where voice was still important, where an individual sound could be identified, where an artist could have a look that stood him or her out from the beige, bearded multitude. He was at the crest of an awareness in my pre-teen self, a coterie that included the likes of Bob Seger, Suzi Quatro, Joan Jett as part of my musical awakening.
I would never have said that I was, outright, a Tom Petty fan. Yet every playlist I’ve ever created has used his music as a cornerstone. He’s one of those artists who has always just been there. His music has been a consistent part of the tapestry of my life. It’s not until you isolate him from the rest of the iPod and play him, one song after another, that you realise just how many great songs he recorded, how they’ve always been with you, and how, somehow, without ever really concentrating, you know every single word of every single damn song. And you sing along. You always sing along.
So here, by way of saying thank you for the music, for being part of my tapestry, and for giving me so many joyous riffs and rock and roll moments, are 5 of my favourite Tom Petty songs. They may not be the most famous, or the acknowledged classics, but they’re 5 of the many that loosen my vocal chords. I bet you sing along.
1. Don’t Come Around Here No More.
My absolute favourite Petty track, and one of my favourite songs by any artist. A swirling, defiant track, it’s the perfect combination of Petty’s unique vocal delivery, guitar style, and quirky arrangements. The accompanying video is, without a doubt, one of the greatest music videos ever filmed.
2. Billy the Kid
This is a broken song. Petty’s voice has diminished to a croak. The guitar layovers are discordant, and loose. Nothing fits. Where Petty’s arrangements were always as tight as William Shatner’s corset, here they’re all over the place, rambling and mis-timed. And that’s why it works. It’s a portrait of a beaten fighter, rising for the last time, whispering “You never knocked me down, Ray” as he’s carried from the ring, defiant to the last. It’s wonderful stuff.
3. Last Dance With Mary Jane
Petty’s stock in trade was a dark Americana that played like a shadowed counterpoint to Bruce Springsteen’s more obvious work– filled with hopeless characters that accepted their fate and rolled the taste of failure around their mouths, savouring it. Springsteen’s characters went down to the river. Petty’s smoked dope and had desperate, doomed sex. This is a slow, despairing love song to a girl who escaped his dreams, but we all know that where she escaped to was just another version of where she had escaped from. It’s darkly delicious.
4. You Don’t Know How it Feels
The later you go into Petty’s career, the more his slides from pure rock and roll into an electrified country sound that was the perfect primer for my discoveries of Steve Earle and Todd Snider. This is a great example, full of fuck-you false humility and a love of poking at the pain centres in the artist’s own psyche.
5. Two Gunslingers
Two gunslingers meet in the middle of a deserted street. The ultimate symbol of Americana. Then Petty does what Petty does: twists the image into a story of loneliness, and despair, and ultimately, the rejection of a story that was written by others with the hero as unwilling and un-consulted victim. There’s hope at the end: battered and damaged hope, flickering only because the characters reject their assigned roles in favour of a sort of despairing unknown.
Tom Petty was a unique voice, a dark jester who picked apart the false nostalgia of the Bruce Springsteens and John Cougar Mellencamps and laughed at its pretensions. He coloured my sense of what a rock and roll song could do, without me ever really noticing or valuing it as I should. He will be missed.