I simply wanted to note that one of my favorite musicians, when I was growing up, Tom Petty, has departed this world.
I first came to know Mr. Petty as a kid because of his iconic vidos. He embraced MTV in its early days and is forever tied to that medium’s infancy by releasing truly iconic videos. In the early 80’s we saw “Don’t Come Around Here No More” with its delightful Lewis Carroll theme.
So my first recollection of this man was the grinning Mad Hatter visage. In the early “heavy rotation” of my mind’s eye it’s this video, The Cars’ “It’s Magic,” The Go-Gos “Head over Heels,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wana Have Fun,” and Van Halen’s “Jump.”
While the song is really quite a poor reflection of Petty’s rock sound, his videos were landmarks. Especially “Running down a Dream,” “Last Dance with Mary Jane,” “Into the Great Wide Open,” and “Free Fallin’.” I can’t be entirely sure the influence these images and Petty’s dream of LA had on leading me to seek the hand of a SoCal girl.
Petty was often doing rhythm guitar-work and his simple rock music sound never needed ornamentation, but when it needed to show up, it was welcome, generally in the form of Mike Campbell.
But this ethos was all over the Heartbreakers’ performance. They were there to serve a song and if it was light and friendly and required a steady C-E-G progression, then that’s what was going to happen.
“Wildflowers” 1994 solo record featured some wonderful steel-string pieces which were a fitting choice by a sensitive, aware guitar player.
On top of this, Mr. Petty never failed to collaborate smoothly with legends: Stevie Nicks, The Traveling Wilburys, Jeff Lynne, Dave Grohl or Dylan. He always served the song and the listener in an unselfish way. It’s humbling. As one YouTuber noted: “You know you’re badass when Stevie Nicks is one of your backup singers.”
For me, Petty’s influence will be inexorably bound with my last two years of living in Houston. I bought 1994’s “Wildflowers” and “Greatest Hits,” if I’m not mistaken, on the same day at Best Buy on FM 1960 (yes, they sold CD’s once, kids).
It’s strange that so much of my memories of my youth involved an album that is so decidedly middle-age. Now that I’m there, I recognize the reflective, and humorous, melancholic wisdom that’s the basis of “Wildflowers.” Consider: “It’s Good to be King:”
It's good to be king and have your own world It helps to make friends, it's good to meet girls A sweet little queen who can't run away It's good to be king, whatever it pays Excuse me if I have some place in my mind Where I go time to time
It’s mordant and keen. I remember being young and thinking it was humorous but now I see the character of the character who could think such a thing and he’s wrapped in vainglory, graying, and aware that control is slipping through his fingers. That Petty could paint this and wrap it in an ear-friendly lilt is a hallmark of his subtle style.
Petty could also embrace silly immaturity as well. His version of a naughty blues song:
She like to call me king bee She like to buzz 'round my tree I call her honey bee I'm a man in a trance I'm a boy in short pants When I see my honey bee And I've got something to say
(interesting throw back to the bee metaphor: king bee in this song, queen bee in “It’s Good to be King.”)
You can see Petty giving us an over-over-over overt WINK WINK with a “GET IT?!” with his metaphor, but couldn’t resist getting even sillier:
She give me her monkey hand And a Rambler sedan I'm the king of Milwaukee Her juju beads are so nice She kissed my third cousin twice I'm the king of Pomona And I've got something to say
I can’t imagine what the session looked like where that was recorded, but I imagine some serious duck-strutting and maybe a Budweiser or two shot out through a nostril.
The album ends from a dream with “Wake Up Time” which shows a sensitivity that didn’t always flourish in the Heartbreakers records:
Well, if he gets lucky, a boy finds a girl To help him to shoulder the pain in this world And if you follow your feelings And you follow your dreams You might find the forest there in the trees Yeah, you'll be alright, it's just gonna take time, but now Who could have seen you'd be so hard to please somehow You're just a poor boy a long way from home You're just a poor boy a long way from home And it's wake up time Time to open your eyes And rise and shine
I can’t remember how many times this CD accompanied me and my friends during our years of killing time as teens: passing through the dark forests between neighborhoods of Houston. It was many.
I’ll close not on a melancholic note, because in the first place, and the last place, Petty’s music wanted you to laugh and have a good time. I mused on Twitter that the number of babies made or encouraged by the good time created by a Petty record could not have been small. To recreate that joyful atmosphere at home, I recommend The Heartbreakers’ “Best of” record.
From its opening of “American Girl” to the later bonus tracks of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Something in the Air” you’re bashed by hit after hit after hit. One of my best days ever was a day hanging out with my cousin when we got to go bum around town with the windows down and the Tom Petty up. It’s one of my favorite moments. As I recall, we pulled out of a parking lot and this song, this one song was the one for merging into traffic as if soundtrack was done just for us.
“American Girl” opens in dead silence. Tom splits the silence with a exhalation and the opening ringing chords to “American Girl.” Bopping quickly in 4⁄4 it captures so much of what’s beautiful about Southern life and, indeed, America itself. It name-drops a highway, that most-American belief that whatever you want is available if you’re willing to move a little further from what’s comfortable, and that sometimes the people who are left back in the where of comfort are missed, desperately, silently, to the roar of cars as audience while you wonder whether it’s truly better out here in (what he would later call) “The Great Wide Open.”
“The Village Voice,” not generally regarded as a champion of basic roots-, Southern- rock even goes so far as to call this song “perfect.” Continues Molly Fitzpatrick perfectly herself:
This is a song for driving with windows down in the summer, in the back seat of your parents' car. Then, eventually, in a car that you're driving yourself.
We’re driving on our own now, Mr. Petty.