For Petty, signs of vindication
By Patrick Berkery
The Philadelphia Inquirer — July 26, 2006
Finally starting to ‘get’ Petty
Dependability has its downside. Just look at Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
For 30 years they’ve been a model of consistency and integrity.
Classic albums like Wildflowers, Full Moon Fever (technically, solo Petty discs), and Damn the Torpedoes weren’t return-to-form follow-ups after putrid flops, but part of a succession of good-to-great records.
You’ve never heard “Runnin’ Down a Dream” in a Chevy ad – Petty refuses to license his music for commercials. Lest we forget, Hard Promises from 1981 was almost called $8.98 because Petty’s label tried to jack up the suggested retail price from $8.98 to $9.98 (it caved).
Despite all this, and resume-builders like induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers simply don’t get their due as one of the all-time great rock-and-roll institutions.
“That’s the drawback to being consistent,” Petty says with a laugh, on the phone from his home in Southern California between legs of his 30th-anniversary tour (which will hit the Tweeter Center on Aug. 18).
“Sometimes, I feel as though we’ve been taken for granted. We’ve always been there and always did what [the fans] thought we should do. We’ve had such a great deal of success it’s hard to complain. Now, if the records had failed or no one came to see us, then it would bother me.
“I’m kind of happy this year because I do feel that people are finally starting to get it. They’re starting to reevaluate what we’ve done, and are starting to realize that this is one of the great rock-and-roll bands.”
To hear Petty’s languid drawl over the phone is to be reminded of a voice that sang to you as a child, a voice that was the soundtrack to teenage kicks, and has helped you through adulthood’s more trying days.
Millions probably cite a similar relationship with Petty, now 55, and his enduring songs like “Breakdown,” “Refugee,” “The Waiting,” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” (to name but a few). They’ve outlasted every next big thing, from disco to rap-rock.
And they’ve influenced modern rockers like the Strokes, who appropriated the sprightly jangle of “American Girl” for “Last Nite,” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose recent single “Dani California” shares some DNA with “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” a likeness Petty just shrugs off.
“Ah, so it sounds a little similar, bless ’em,” he says.
That those whippersnappers would cop from songs that are 30 and 13 years old, respectively, underscores the timelessness of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ sound. The clarion tone of Rickenbacker guitars, two-lane-blacktop riffs, an occasional slow-burn groove, sun-blessed harmonies, and lyrical truisms like “The waiting is the hardest part” – it’s as deeply woven into the fabric of American rock as the band’s chief influences: Elvis, the Beach Boys, Dylan and the Byrds.
Credit the expert textures of the Heartbreakers – original members Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on keyboards, 12-year vet Steve Ferrone on drums, 17-year vet and multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston, and original bassist Ron Blair, who returned in 2002. They’re a crack unit whose musical lexicon embraces country, rock, blues, surf, soul, folk, lengthy jams and tight pop.
Discussing the Heartbreakers’ underrated place in rock – particularly, that his versatile band often takes a backseat to Bruce Springsteen’s more lauded, though arguably more one-dimensional, E Street Band – Petty slyly dances around the issue.
“Better for you to say that than me,” he says, again laughing. “I’d say, put anybody up against them and you’ll really see what’s going on there, you know? The Heartbreakers, it’s a multifaceted thing. You’ve got the hits, the albums, and a whole different personality as a live group. There’s a lot of music in those boys.”
Though he holds the Heartbreakers in high regard, Petty sensed early that his brilliant new album, Highway Companion (out yesterday), was shaping up to be a mellow affair and needed to be an intimate solo project. He’d play most of the instruments, rely on Campbell for his trademark lead and slide guitar lines, and tap Full Moon Fever coproducer and fellow former Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne to produce.
“I knew as the songs were being written that this was going to be a more delicate sort of record,” Petty says of the album, which was initially being recorded simultaneously with a new Heartbreakers disc. “I wanted to use the space to my advantage and let the words do the work. And the band was cool about it, because they know we’ve got this other (album] that’s going to be great.”
When that new Heartbreakers record appears (Petty says it will include live favorites from recent tours such as the Southern-gothic epic “Melinda” and the breakneck garage-rocker “Black Leather Woman”), expect to see Petty out there promoting it. He disputes assertions recently in Rolling Stone that he’s swearing off interviews and touring.
“You can quash that rumor. All I meant was that we’re going to take some time off. A lot of projects have accumulated that I want to get done. And I can’t get them done if I keep stopping and putting half the year into touring. I just want to finish this tour and get these things done. Give us a year or two; we’ll come back.”
Past ‘Breakdown,’ The Essential Petty
Ten Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers songs you won’t hear on WMGK-FM:
1. “Runaway Trains” from Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), 1987. So very “Boys of Summer”-ish, so very forgotten single from the mid-’80s.
2. “Counting on You” (Echo, 1999). The Heartbreakers posing as Memphis soul men on a standout track from an unjustly overlooked album.
3. “Something Big” (Hard Promises, 1981). Cinematic dime-store mystery set in a dry, no-horse town.
4. “Honey Bee” (Wildflowers, 1994). Heavy dose of caveman blues-rock in the midst of a very pretty album.
5. “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976). Angry young Petty gets done wrong and screams, “I Don’t Like It.”
6. “When the Time Comes” (You’re Gonna Get It, 1978). Their Byrds-y jangle was finely honed by the time of their sophomore album.
7. “Two Gunslingers” (Into the Great Wide Open, 1991). Breezy song inspired by the Gulf War, still pertinent today.
8. “Echo” (Echo, 1999). Stunning melancholy from a dark time in Petty’s personal life.
9. “Southern Accents” (Southern Accents, 1985). A poignant song about Petty’s Dixie roots, with orchestration from Jack Nitzsche.
10. “Like a Diamond” (The Last DJ, 2002). A beautiful, harmony-filled ballad from a song cycle about the corporate tainting of America.