ROCK REVIEW; No Heroics, Low Hopes, Happy to Break Even
By Jon Pareles
The New York Times — March 22, 1995
With his scraggly beard, long legs and intermittent grin, Tom Petty looked like a cagy young geezer at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, someone who has been cheerfully holed up in his own private citadel. The 41-year-old Mr. Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, have persisted for two decades, barely budging from folk-rock, but regularly ascending the pop charts.
Although Mr. Petty’s tone is calm and the tempos rarely rush, the music is at home in arenas. Every so often, Mr. Petty would walk out to the lip of the stage to draw extra cheers, or hold his guitar aloft in triumph.
Through skill and persistence, Mr. Petty and the Heartbreakers have become the compleat California rockers. The songs are lean and sure of their pop structures, while the arrangements range up and down the West Coast. Early Heartbreakers songs like “American Girl” and “Listen to Her Heart” emulated the Byrds; more recently, the band has picked up the slow trudge and bare-bones melodies of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse. On Monday, one song turned into a Grateful Dead-like jam, and the guitarist Mike Campbell stepped forward to play a surf-rock instrumental.
Yet the optimism that was once fundamental to California rock has been drained from Mr. Petty’s songs. Sunny frontiers have been replaced by suburban dead ends and a sense that anyplace else would be better. Mr. Petty opened the nearly two-hour set with “Love Is a Long Road,” in which the singer leaves a devoted girlfriend simply because “some things are never enough.”
While the songs are laconic, they’re not always straightforward. They are tales of characters whose hopes are shrinking and who don’t know what went wrong. Although he has been a rock hit-maker since the 1970’s, Mr. Petty hasn’t lost touch with the small-time life; his characters are sullen and bewildered, stubborn as well as restless.
He gives them anthems like “I Won’t Back Down”; he also captures their doggedness in the face of setbacks. “I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings,” he sang, “Coming down is the hardest thing.” And he knows that his narrators are not always nice guys; they can be selfish and oblivious, proclaiming, “You don’t know how it feels to be me.” In the bluesy “Honey Bee,” he tells the girl he’s with, “Don’t tell your mama, don’t tell your sister/Don’t tell your boyfriend.” Women don’t thrive in Mr. Petty’s songs; those who aren’t left behind are merely used. But from Mr. Petty’s deadpan voice, it’s impossible to know exactly where his sympathies lie.
The songs deflate melodrama. There are no heroics, only escapes, and while his characters’ expectations are low, they don’t wallow in despair. In “You Wreck Me,” he sang, “Now and again I get the feeling,/Well, if I don’t win, I’m a-gonna break even.” With its chugging beat and its “oh yeah” chorus, the song makes that sound like a victory.