Commentary: Tom Petty’s Nostalgia Reigns Supreme
By Ricardo Baca
Lakeland Ledger — August 29, 2005
When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have played live in recent years, the music leapt off the stage and raced up and down the bleachers with a reassuring exuberance and familiarity. The band’s cohesiveness was outshone only by the blinding brightness of its sunny catalog of songs that fans know by heart.
Yes, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have grown into one of those bands.
More than a decade has passed since they released anything that left a lasting impression on popular culture. Petty’s Rick Rubin-produced solo epic “Wildflowers” hit shelves in November 1994, and the Heartbreakers’ career-encompassing, era-defining greatest-hits retrospective, which included the hit “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” as a bonus track, was released in 1993.
Ever since, Petty and the Heartbreakers have played on the loose end with 1996’s “Songs and Music From ‘She’s the One,'” on the stripped-down front of 1999’s “Echo” and in overtly political land with 2002’s “The Last DJ.” Petty is far from phoning it in, but he seems to have lost his knack of tapping the main circuit cable of memory and imagination that courses through the American subconscious.
Regardless, Petty is a star. He’s unstoppable on tour, selling out venues with ease and on such a simple premise and promise: The unexpected. “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Congenial banter and big, almost stoned grins. “Breakdown” and “Refugee.” Dancing like a scarecrow and countless heartfelt thank-yous. “Free Fallin’.”
And his fans are rabid for it. A 50-something man danced without cause at the Heartbreakers’ show this month at Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver, becoming the embodiment of utter delight when Petty blasted into the twanged rock of “American Girl,” a song the artist wrote nearly 30 years ago.
In the case of “American Girl,” his excitement is understandable.
“American Girl” is the creative centerpiece of Petty and the Heartbreakers’ eponymous 1976 debut, and while it hinted at his penchant for colloquial, play-by-play storytelling, it also encapsulated his fondness of acts like The Byrds. Some critics compared his music’s urgent energy to the work being produced by the New York Dolls and the Ramones.
The song’s shiny 1960s reverence is beyond infectious, and it stands the test of time better than anything Petty has ever written. And while Petty’s slide into roots music has produced some songs that play a large role in the Great American Rock Songbook, including “Wildflowers” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” other tracks haven’t aged so gracefully.
“Refugee” is musically anchored — and ultimately weighed down — in late-1970’s pop sensibilities that haven’t survived with any credibility. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was a sizable hit in 1985, but the track and its affected synthesizers and echoed vocals were never able to move beyond that decade’s limited aesthetics.
The Dave Matthews Band still produces music on the level of its early stuff, and easily sold out three nights at Red Rocks this summer. Petty is in that same class — only he’s doing it without the contemporary appeal of new material people want to hear. Nostalgia reigns supreme, of course, as these songs defined radio and MTV in years past. But it also reflects Petty’s connection with his fans.
It’s almost as if Petty is their plain-spoken mouthpiece. They’ve been there — amid the joy, the pain, the boredom and the heartbreak — but he’s setting it to music in a tangible voice that never gets swept away in metaphor or seriousness. In “Listen to Her Heart,” his straight-ahead rock and straightforward lyrics paint a picture of potential love.
“She’s gonna listen to her heart/It’s gonna tell her what to do/She might need a lot of loving/But she don’t need you.”
There are no frill theres — no filler — and Petty’s compassionate, naturally succinct everyman is the lure for everyone from the 50-something guy rocking out at Red Rocks to the teenage girl digging into her dad’s vinyl collection, from the young country artist who looks on in admiration to the titular Tom Cruise character Jerry Maguire, who shouts along to “Free Fallin'” with abandon as he cruises the countryside in a rental car.
It’s that connection that keeps them coming back for more of the same, and it’s what separates Petty from Dylan, Springsteen and others famous for their character studies. While their music is more specific (say, about a serial killer driving through the Midwest) Petty’s is more general. It applies to folks throughout America’s vast expanse with the same comforting ease.