Impulse: Daydreams lead to worldwide fame for the Gainesville Rocker
By Dave Luhrssen
The Milwaukee Journal — Friday, April 5, 1985
A toothy, unpopular teenager named Tom Petty from the Gainesville (Fla.) high school he was soon to leave forever. Petty spent much of his time listening to music of the Byrds, CCR and others.
A few years later, Petty was on the corner of Sunseat and LaBrea in Los Angeles, feeding times to a pay phone, running his finger down the Yellow Pages that listed recording companies. Incredibly, the young man who couldn’t keep the bangs of his yellow hair from falling into his eyes got lucky. His stab into the dark netted a recording contract.
Although the road from his initial inking with Shelter Records and his 1976 debut on wax with the Heartbreakers was pitted with enough problems to fill a two-hour film, Petty persevered. In those years, punk-rock was defined as music made by practically anyone white and under 25, so Petty found himself double-billed with Blondie and Elvis Costello. Despite the smirk he wore in place of a smile, Petty felt no ties to the new wave, and was quoted as saying “call me a punk and I’ll cut you.” Coming from a man who bragged of renegotiating a contract by pulling a switchblade in a corporate boardroom, this was no idle threat.
A blank canvas
A lot of people used to believe that rock music was necessarily an enlightening experience. Centuries of prejudice would be eradicated by five-minute songs, by plugging electric guitars into amplifiers and cranking the volume to 10. The starry-eyed of the late ’60s didn’t comprehend that rock was, like, painting, a blank canvas on which anything could be drawn.
Petty was unsettling to those who welcomed rock stars as the shock troops of tomorrow. The Heartbreakers could easily have been a Southern cracker leaning back on two chair legs on the porch of his general store, hat slouched over his eyes, stogie fuming in his mouth, waiting for some hapless miscreant to stray down the road. As it was, he fell in love with the Byrds, grew his hair past the lobes of his ears, bought an electric guitar and learned how to make it talk with a Roger McGuinn accent. The toothy, unpopular Petty was hooked by what he heard on the transistor, and doggone it, nothing would ever affect him again. You can’t teach a good ol’ boy new tricks. Like most rock starts to emerge from the ’70s, Petty never stopped to think that none of his idols from the ’60s were slavishly worshipping the past while creating the music that got under his skin and into his soul.
No wonder his new “Southern Accents” album is being greeted with a note of surprise by Petty fans. Sure enough, the ol’ boy from Gainesville hasn’t changed his colors on the anti-punk song “Spike.” “I’m scared, ain’t you boys scared?” sneers Petty with the braggadocio of a cracker among his peers on the porch of the general store. “Boys we got a man with a dog dollar on. You think we ought throw ol’ Spike a bone?” Although it’s easy to picture Petty with smoke rings rising ominously from his stogie, fingering the bullwhip he normally reserves for disobedient sharecroppers, even this sterling postcard from the New South holds a surprise. Instead of refried McGuinn, Petty serves up lazily drawling electric piano and guitar a la that master of Southern minimalism, J.J. Cale.
Broadens his base
On “Southern Accents,” Petty broadened his base, going so far as to co-author three songs with Eurythmics Dave Stewart. We can only speculate how Petty, who once wrote a song criticizing someone for his “David Bowie hair,” explained the move to the good ol’ Heartbreakers. “He might be an English sissy boy, but he writes a mean tune,” Petty could’ve offered while passing the jar of white lightnin’.
Regardless, the odd couple of Petty and Stewart wrote three of the best tracks ever laid down by the Gainesville rocker: the funky bump and grind of “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me,” built around a call and response while guitarists Petty and Mike Campbell try to dirty up the proceedings and Benmont Tench vamps the atonal piano stylings of McCoy Tyner; the soulful “Make It Better (Forget About Me),” powered by Tench’s pumping irgan, a puncuating horn section, the deep Stax-Volt groove of drummer Stan Lynch and the bass of Milwaukee expatriate Howie Epstein; and the sitar and syndrum interplay of “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” on which the Heartbreakers succumn to the sort of trance and dance music they smirked at for years.