The Last DJ | Tom petty and the Heartbreakers | (Warner)
By Darryl Sterdan
CANOE — October 11, 2002
Conventional wisdom says that everybody loves an angry young man and nobody likes an angry old one.
Well, on behalf of angry old men everywhere, conventional wisdom can go take a flying leap. Better still, it can go take a listen to Tom Petty’s superbly vitriolic new album and realize the error of its ways.
The Last DJ, the 14th album of Petty’s 26-year recording career, captures the shaggy heartland rocker at his most curmudgeonly, frustrated and disillusioned — and at his most vital and outspoken. More or less one long and bitter harangue against the arrogance, ignorance and greed of the music industry, many of The Last DJ’s dozen egdy, guitar-driven tracks lash out at corporate-sponsored rock tours (Money Becomes King), homogenized radio conglomerates (The Last DJ) and the heartless, manipulative record moguls (Joe) that “want to see how much you’ll pay for what you used to get for free.”
Granted, on the one hand, there’s a certain irony in hearing Petty — a guy who’s been a major-label act longer than Britney’s been alive — biting the hand that feeds him with lyrics like, “Bring me a girl, they’re always the best / You put ’em onstage and you have ’em undress.” But the truth is, Petty’s been raging against the star-maker machinery for almost as long as he’s been part of it — oldsters will remember he threatened to change the title of 1981’s Hard Promises to $8.98 to sabotage a proposed price increase by his label. Since then, he’s continued to walk that walk, bitching about videos, eschewing corporate sponsors and refusing to sell his music for ads.
But while Petty spends much of The Last DJ talking the talk, his strident gripes don’t totally consume the album. There are plenty of songs that won’t have music-biz types reaching for their blood-pressure pills. The Dylanesque Have Love Will Travel, the jazzy Beatle-pop of The Man Who Loves Women, the loping California Byrds-rock of You and Me and the melancholy acoustic ballad Blue Sunday offer a break from the debate with more conventional (and less confrontational) fare.
Truly, though, most of The Last DJ’s power comes from Petty’s seething anger and resentment. It’s heartening, inspiring even, to see that after all these years of excess and success, Petty still gives a damn and hasn’t abandoned his principles like so many of his contemporaries. Deep down, he’s still that sneering punk in the leather jacket you saw on his first album cover. And the jacket still sorta fits.
So yeah, you can call him an angry old man. A fool. An idealist you pity like the village idiot. But you can’t call him a sellout, even if he is a bazillionaire. Hell, he’s earned every penny. And with The Last DJ, he earns deserves a few more. For our money, there’s no beating the sound of Petty drawing a line in the dust like some Old West gunfighter and staring down the greedy robber barons on Can’t Stop the Sun: “Well, you may take my money / You may turn off my microphone … But there’ll be more just like me / Who won’t give in.”
Here’s hoping he’s right.