Petty Projects — He And His Band Have Rock-Solid Reputations
By Patrick Macdonald
The Seattle Times — Friday, November 15, 1991
Whenever you see a comedian doing rock parodies, they always include one of Tom Petty. They’ll put on a flat-top derby and a pair of square granny glasses and, in a pinched, drawling voice, do a gag version of “Refugee” or “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
The fact that the Petty look and style is instantly recognizable is just one indication of his status as one of rock’s unique personalities. He and his great band, the Heartbreakers – who play Wednesday at the Coliseum, with promising newcomer Chris Whitley opening – have gained such status that they not only are familiar figures but can share the stage (and the recording studio) as equals with greats like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and George Harrison.
Petty and the Heartbreakers’ new album, “Into the Great Wide Open,” reinforces their image as one of the premier bands working today. Their 10th release, it features some of Petty’s sharpest, most mature song writing and underscores the Heartbreakers’ ability to make fresh and vital music without resorting to contemporary gimmickry or gadgetry, like synthesizers or drum machines.
The album’s title cut takes on the rock ‘n’ roll myth that Petty and the Heartbreakers have always managed to rise above. The old story of rock excess leading to a fall is especially vivid in the video, which features Johnny Depp as rock star Eddie Rebel and Faye Dunaway as his manager, who’s dumped by the star as soon as he makes it. But she has the last laugh as she watches his career crumble. Petty has a bit part as a roadie who witnesses the drama, and he’s also the narrator of the piece – in a flat-top derby and granny glasses.
Other cuts on the LP deal with maturity, professionally and personally, including “Learning to Fly,” “Kings Highway” and “All the Wrong Reasons.”
On the current tour, the band emphasizes material from “Into the Great Wide Open” and from Petty’s last release, his “Full Moon Fever” solo album (which included most of the Heartbreakers). That LP was noteworthy because it followed several uneven albums by Petty and the Heartbreakers, and yielded some of his biggest hits ever, including “Free Fallin,’ ” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” songs that also addressed the rock and movie-star lifestyle, especially as practiced in Hollywood and its environs.
While that album was making an impact, Petty could also be heard as part of the Traveling Wilburys, the superstar studio project made up of Dylan, Harrison, Jeff Lynne and the late Roy Orbison. That experience with some of the grand old men of rock (Petty, now 40, was the youngest) seems to have mellowed Petty and renewed his confidence.
It also seems to have reinforced Petty’s gift for perspective – his ability to detach himself from his own career and life, and examine them with insight and intelligence, and a wry, ironic sense of humor.
The show makes use of an elaborate set, a fanciful forest that includes chandeliers and a totem pole. As with the recent dedication of the Reagan Library, several presidents are on hand (played by roadies in masks).
Whitley, Petty’s choice to open, is a singer-guitarist with a gritty, bluesy style. He plays an open-tuned National steel guitar, which has a twangy but mournful sound. Whitley has just released his debut album on Columbia, “Living With the Law,” with songs about outlaws, drifters, misfits and rebels.