Tom Petty’s Grand Larceny
By Susin Shapiro
The Village Voice — June 5, 1978
Note from the right side of my brain: Tom Petty’s second record, You’re Gonna Get It!, has all the earmarks of a classic, even if it isn’t one. It’s in harmony with rock’s most conservative ideologies, particularly influenced by Roger McGuinn’s nasal optimism and Mick Jagger’s vampy half-speak (see “Hot Stuff”). Petty’s not hazarding new routes; he’s too busy polishing the familiar and systematizing the sensational. He’s carrying on rock tradition for the benefit of the blank generation. Every tune on the LP is Gothic architecture — two-and-a-half-minute, scientifically structured units by a band that plays strictly as a community.
The LP has no moments of unrestrained frenzy, but its cultivated aesthetics (“Restless”) somewhat compensate. This is why Petty is not a new waver, as some have claimed. New wavers are primarily romantic, carving drama out of their own flesh and open sacrificing, neglecting, or mutating their lives for art and inspiration’s sake. The Heartbreakers play no-punches-pulled power pop, but they are far too sophisticated and far too commonplace to destroy themselves in the process. Their music has every intention of commemorating the past. Nietzsche once warned that the artist’s break with tradition (in other words, revolution) would mean the end of art, but Petty and other classicists will never let that happen. He has subsumed his personality in the service of Good Clean Fun.
Mike Campbell’s speed-fingers guitar, spanning the Duane Eddy era to Jeff Beck; Benmont Tench’s webclome if subdued keyboards; and Stan Lynch’s metronomic drumming will not force you to wrestle with your brains; their resonance is sleek and subliminal. But you’ll dance to the LP, and probably blame the ensuing empty feeling on the drugs.
Note from the left side of my brain: Sharpiro! What are you, a space-case? You’re Gonna Get It! is 15-year-old fuck-me music, that’s it. What do you expect, if you’re twice that age you’ll feel it twice as intensely? “No Second Thoughts” is petty larceny; it’s “Factory Girl” circa 1978. Stan Lynch’s skin-slamming is of the wham-bam variety, and the rest of the band is foreplay. Petty, OK, he’s got those photogenic bones, but he sounds like a Ricky Ricardo-Eartha Kitt hybrid. You think he’s all right because he’s separated sexuality from aggression, not like those Ian Dury midnight-rambler lemme-in-on-your-rape-fantasy types.
But what’s the goof of this LP? Petty has nothing to say! Check out those wimpy lyrics, big zeroes. You know what GBS said, first you must have something to say, then style will follow. So what’s Petty saying? Even his first LP with its radio hit, “Breakdown,” was about maybe you will, maybe you won’t, it’s all right, no it isn’t, blah blah blah. And the Heartbreakers are just a great high school prom band, admit it. Just cause the ladies in Santa Cruz and Hollywood lost it over Petty what does that prove, except they’re bored with aging hippies.
And on stage, did you catch Mike Campbell’s impersonation of a dead man? He’s so obviously restrained by Petty’s format, it’s all he can do to to keep his lids apart. Petty has no moves either, he just changes hats and hits Campbell with a bunch of roses. Vicious. And those Rolling Stones encores (“King Bee” and “Route 66,” and where was “Do-Do-Do-Do-Heartbreaker”?) are positively varicose. The band plays with no raw edges at all, no spontaneity. And the LP doesn’t even do justice to their live shows! The engineer kept the band in a cage, sounds like.
So could you cool out your carrot-up-the-bum erudition? Petty and Co. are fodder for adolescents who pursue pleasure in forgetfulness — and lust via an intermediate source. All that Nietzsche crap. Just ’cause you need a forum to reveal yourself, do you think it’s like that for the Heartbreakers? Relax, Sharpiro, it’s only rock and roll and you like it, however indefensible it sometimes gets. Now pass the Stolichnaya.
Right side’s response: It’s sophist jerks like you who give people like me a bad name. At least I’ve got a will to find meaning in the majesty of life and the travesty of death, or is it vice versa. Rock does have responsibilities. I’m only complaining that Petty’s music is the excuse for his existence instead of its outcome. Straight or on the rocks?