MUSIC: It’s Radio That Breaks His Heart
By Jon Pareles
The New York Times — October 13, 2002
Rock musicians make a show of defying authority, but rare are the ones who vent any misgivings about the radio stations that can turn their songs into hits. Elvis Costello did it with “Radio, Radio,” and on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ new album, “The Last D J” (Warner Brothers), Mr. Petty bemoans big media with the album’s title song, a tribute to “the last DJ who plays what he wants to play.”
Yet with its straightforward tune and Byrds-rooted arrangement, “The Last DJ” has been embraced by radio stations, including many that are part of increasingly uniform national chains. “One place called it anti-radio, which fascinated me,” Mr. Petty said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “I’ve never heard a more pro-radio song. I think radio at its best was an art form, and they’re in danger of completely obliterating it. The radio used to represent your local area really well, and if it’s all just a network feed and we’re all hearing the same song and the same guy talking, we’re not going to be entertained.”
After leading a rock band for a quarter-century, Mr. Petty still thinks like a music fan: someone who listens to the radio, goes to concerts and recalls when “the sound,” as he sings, “was my salvation.” What he hears lately doesn’t thrill him. Like many of his fellow baby boomers, Mr. Petty, 51, wonders what went wrong with a culture that once inspired idealism. A ballad called “Dreamville” looks back to a childhood of playing guitar and listening to “rock and roll across the dial,” when “all the trees were green.” Throughout the album, the songs are grounded in the 1960’s: the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Memphis soul, Buffalo Springfield and the blues.
Still, Mr. Petty said, he’s trying to guard against middle-aged nostalgia. “Saying that things were better is kind of tiring when it comes from old people,” he said, “but they were, is the weird thing. I’m just gravely concerned about us losing our collective soul. There’s a kind of moral decline in the air that maybe comes hand in hand with the rise of corporate America. The idea that you’re going to put human beings over money, I think we’re missing that.”
On “The Last DJ,” the title song isn’t the only parable about music being swallowed whole by business imperatives. “It used to be that you were considered a success if you did something really creative and turned a profit,” Mr. Petty said. “Now, maybe the computer is helping us find every penny out there, and people want every single dollar no matter what the consequences are. I’m worried about the way the media and the entertainment business want to appeal to the lowest common denominator, whereas it should be the other way around. We should assume that one of us is in the audience.”
The songs sound tautest when Mr. Petty is crankiest. “Picking on the record business is like shooting fish in a barrel,” Mr. Petty said. “But it’s a good metaphor and one that I knew quite well. You could substitute the business of your choice.”
In “Money Becomes King,” Mr. Petty offers a fan’s perspective on a rocker who has sold his songs to advertisers and made concerts a luxury; to a slow rhythm-and-blues vamp with hovering strings, he sings about how “Everything got bigger and the rules began to bend.” (Mr. Petty has not licensed songs for ads, accepted tour sponsorships or added premium-priced “golden circle” seats to his concerts.) “Joe” is a brusque stomp about a music C.E.O., who sings, in Mr. Petty’s most self-important sneer, “You get to be famous/ I get to be rich.”
Throughout the album, the songs switch off between indictment and benediction. Mr. Petty watches a rampage with sad bafflement in “When a Kid Goes Bad”; in “Lost Children,” he rises to falsetto with a prayer for their safety. “Blue Sunday” is a glancing encounter between two highway drifters, with gleaming 12-string guitar; “Have Love Will Travel” and “Like a Diamond” remember romances that strayed apart. And “You And Me” is a classically balanced, good-hearted promise of undying love.
But Mr. Petty’s greatest gift is to speak for a stubborn Everyman: the voice that came through in “I Won’t Back Down,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “Free Fallin’.” The album’s finale is “Can’t Stop the Sun,” a stately “Abbey Road”-style crescendo in which the singer warns, “You can’t steal what you can’t feel” and “There’ll be more just like me who won’t give in.” The tempo, as always in the Heartbreakers’ music, is deliberate and inexorable, with no need to rush and no possibility of retreat.