Petty Strikes Gold by Panning Greed Of The Music Biz
By Jim Abbott
Orlando Sentinel — October 8, 2002
There’s already a long list of rock stars who have tilted at the windmill of the music industry’s stifling corporate structure, but the topic is more timely than ever in this era of bottom-line media consolidation.
Unfortunately, even the most articulate rants can grow tiresome to fans, like listening to millionaire athletes demand more money.
That makes The Last DJ, Tom Petty’s 30th studio album (in stores today), an inspired anomaly for looking at the issue from the cheap seats rather than the back of a limo. Occasionally, the rhetoric still sounds strident, but it’s obvious that Petty and the Heartbreakers remember and honor rock’s irreverent spirit.
Petty and his mates have never licensed a song to a TV commercial and the band doesn’t gouge concert fans with outrageous ticket prices, despite its recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That lends hard-edged credibility to the cynical nostalgia of “Money Becomes King,” a bluesy lament about the evils of the corporate-concert business.
“Johnny rock that golden circle and all those VIPs,” Petty sings in a wistful tenor. “And that music that had freed us became a tired routine. And I saw his face in close-up trying to give it all he had. And sometimes his eyes betrayed him; you could see that he was sad.”
At points, Petty goes overboard with the stereotypes, such as on “Joe,” a venomous character study of a money-grabbing record company executive: “Bring me a girl, they’re always the best,” Petty shouts against a thundering Pink Floyd-style bass-drum-piano assault. “You put ’em on stage and you have ’em undress.”
Wisely, however, Petty and the Heartbreakers don’t let bitterness overshadow the raucous energy that makes The Last DJ the band’s most vibrant showcase in years. Compared with the stripped-down Echo (1999), these 12 songs are expansive arrangements that lend majesty to the band’s familiar infatuation with the jangly Byrds guitar sound.
Mike Campbell’s ringing Rickenbacker electric and Petty’s acoustic 12-string rhythms transform the opening title track into something more than a longing for a bygone era. It’s ironic that the tribute to free-form radio might not find a place on today’s narrowly formatted stations.
Yet the beauty of The Last DJ is how Petty harnesses the absence of commercial pressure to craft an album that drifts so effortlesslessly between styles.
Building from Benmont Tench’s solitary piano into a wall of powerful orchestration, “Dreamville” is Petty’s gorgeous love song to the music that has sustained his career.
He’s floating back on silver guitar strings to his carefree childhood days, crafting the tale with the skill of an accomplished poet. A blue jay reference nods reverentially to the late George Harrison as the song’s harpsichord and twisting cellos echo the Beatles at every turn.
Throughout the album, Petty sprinkles subtle references to his heroes like grass seed: The sweetly goofy “The Man Who Loves Women” appropriates the Kinks’ cheeky charm; “Like a Diamond” brushes against the pensive melodic touch of John Lennon’s solo years; “Blue Sunday” suggests the Stones in twangy blues mode; and “Have Love, Will Travel” recalls Highway 61 era Bob Dylan.
It slowly becomes apparent the stylistic shifts yield an album that mirrors the free-form stations that Petty misses so much. By reinventing his cherished resources so skillfully, Petty elevates himself from historian to gifted preservationist.