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headphone masterpieces: ‘Torpedoes’ guided Petty to success
By Jason Casselberry
The Brand — February 3, 2004
My “Top Five Things I Want to Do before I Die” is as follows (Not in order, just listed. All are equally important):
1. I want to be around to see the next musical revolution; the next big thing that’s on the scale of John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, and Mick Jagger.
2. Work at Marvel Comics as a writer. Write my own takes on Spider-Man, the Avengers, and Daredevil. I’d get to meet Stan Lee, and write the kind of stories that inspired me.
3. Marry Catherine Zeta-Jones. I think I need to re-evaluate that.
4. I want to introduce my child (whenever the day comes that I decide to have children) to my creative idols and see his or her reaction. I’d be exposing him/her probably to Akira Kurosawa, Eddie Vedder, Thom Yorke, and Brian Bendis.
5. I want to write Tom Petty’s biography.
As a music zombie, I hold Tom Petty in incredibly high regard. No matter how many records the guy sold, how many tragedies his his life (lost his home to a fire), or how much cash the guy rakes in, Tom Petty is one of us. He loves music. He fights for the little guy (he refused to release his album Southern Accents unless MCA lowered the price by a buck back in the early 80’s). He’s constantly expanding his creativity. Most importantly, the guy NEVER sold out.
You know, the term “sold out” gets thrown around way too much. Is it “selling out” to feed your family? No. Is it “selling out” to get a nice home instead of sleeping on dirty clothes? I don’t think so. I think “selling out” is when your music becomes secondary to making money. Musicians had a tendency, after making major bank on an album or tour, to begin making stale pieces of work that only serve to please record execs, fickle pop music dorks, and line cash coffers. Creativity dies, as does artist integrity. That’s why it’s so hard to take “musicians” like Fred Durst seriously.
Tom Petty has failed to fall into this category. After releasing Damn the Torpedoes with the Heartbreakers in 1979, every album by Petty has evolved and pleased the ears.
Damn the Torpedoes has accomplished two impressive feats. One, it’s the standard bearer for all of Tom Petty’s work, and two, it’s allowed me to use “damn” for the second time in the school newspaper (Score: Jason 938, HSU 3. Yes, I know that’s very high school of me). It was also one of the first albums I was introduced to by my father. I have listened to it on 8-track, vinyl, cassette CD, and now via iTunes since someone jacked my copy. I love the record.
And how can you not with a track like “Refugee”? This barn-burner encompasses the band’s Southern rock, bar blues, new wave machinations, and Petty’s trademark slurred vocals to create one heckuva sing-along track. The struggle to get the words out on the chorus (“You don’t…have…to live like a refugee”) and the clever lyrics (“Somewhere, somehow, somebody must’ve kicked you around some”) make “Refugee” not only the signature track, but also a CAREER definer.
“Even the Losers” captures feelings of hard luck (“Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes”). It’s a playful, reminiscing track for the young and once young.
“Don’t Do Me Like That” is a quick, jittery track that demos Petty’s pop sensibilities. He really does have a knack for hooks (“Then he said, ‘You better watch your step or you’re gonna get hurt yourself. Someone’s gonna tell you lies. Cut you down to size”). For an album, it’s pretty short at nine tracks, but the songs are so full they brim with creativity. Nearly 25 years later, it still holds up as an incredible piece of rock music.
So back to my Top 5; what would I do if I ever got the chance to meet Tom Petty and write his biography?
I’d probably grab a chair and start firing off questions. I would as him of his perception of the music industry today, since it’s such a vile place to work in. I would ask him what his favorite records were. I’d ask him what he was thinking when he wrote “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” for Stevie Nicks (I can’t stand Stevie Nicks).
Then I’d go, “Hey, your album Damn the Torpedoes… I think that’s one of my favorite albums ever. Thanks, man.”
Jason Casselberry is a grad student and the former Entertainment Editor of the Brand. He writes columns for the back pages. In the frozen tundras of the Viking countries of Minnesota and Wisconsin, he is referred to by the citizens only as “Master Storyteller.”