Runnin’ down the DREAM
By Larry Rodgers
The Arizona Republic — February 3, 2008
Classic catalog makes Tom Petty a natural for Super Bowl show
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers have recorded a string of timeless hits rivaled by only a few other elite acts. Their infectious, jangly rock draws concert fans from their teens to their 60s, has earned respect from peers and has landed the group in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Free Fallin’, American Girl , I Won’t Back Down, Breakdown, Learning to Fly, Refugee – that quiver of hits that incite mass sing-alongs in concert made the Grammy-winning singer-guitarist a solid choice to perform tonight at Super Bowl XLII.
“Tom Petty writes quintessential American rock and roll,” says Howard Kramer, curatorial director for the hall of fame in Cleveland. “His body of work completely stands the test of time.”
Petty says making memorable songs that defy musical trends always has been the priority of the group, which was spawned in Florida.
“We’ve never sought to be famous personalities or anything like that,” he says. “We try to make the best songs and best records and do the best shows we can, and we keep it that simple.”
Petty’s songwriting will never be confused with the weighty observations of Dylan or the clever commentary of Elvis Costello. But it’s some of the most accessible and hummable music of the past three decades.
A mix of populist poetry and catchy tunes emerges in such Petty hits as 1976’s American Girl. Amid ringing guitar and shuffling drums, Petty sings: “Well, she was an American girl, raised on promises / She couldn’t help thinking that there was a little more to life somewhere else.”
He also has a knack for turning everyday phrases into wide-ranging imagery: “Learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings / Coming down is the hardest thing,” he sings in Learning to Fly, used in the movie Elizabethtown.
“I’m always on the lookout for a good line,” says Petty, 57, who keeps a notebook within reach at all times. “If you make it your business to do that, you’ll hear really nice bits of conversation or a line will come off the television or radio.”
A number of Petty songs have become anthems, including the defiant I Won’t Back Down, which generated mail and comments from fans who say the song gave them strength in tough times.
“When (a song) really mattered and really made a difference in people’s lives, that’s more than you could ever hope for as repayment,” says Petty, who lives in Malibu, Calif.
Longtime fans have watched Petty’s style season as they’ve moved into middle age.
“He and that band have such a history of songs that lock people into certain periods in their lives, and they’ve been doing this for 30 years now,” says George Taylor Morris, a programming executive for XM Radio, which includes Petty’s “Buried Treasure” show in its lineup.
Kim Ian Madsen, 52, of Mesa, is one of those boomer fans: “Petty has always been a class act. He’s known for all his big hits, but his whole catalog is full of gems.”
Although baby boomers certainly make up his core audience, Petty’s nothing-fancy rock has kept him connected with fans.
Deanna Hartmann, 23, of Phoenix, wasn’t born when Petty debuted nationally in 1976. But she grew up on Petty’s music, thanks to her parents, and has seen the rocker live.
“It was awesome,” she says. “He put on a really good show. I think (today’s appearance) will be better than the past few years at halftime.”
Petty, who plans a 37-date Heartbreakers tour in the summer that hits Glendale on Aug. 20, thinks good songs, rather than laser shows and pyrotechnics, are the key to appealing to fans less than half his age.
“We never went in for gimmicks or making a record that sounded like the ’80s or anything,” he says. “We’re just a basic group of guitars, drums, piano and organ, and I think the truth is with the songs. We’ve always put a lot of stock in songs, so if you’ve got good songs, they tend to stick around.”
And what a bunch of stick-around songs this band has churned out since its self-titled debut in ’76.
Add Runnin’ Down a Dream, Don’t Come Around Here No More, The Waiting, Don’t Do Me Like That and You Wreck Me to the list of Petty classics that have fueled album sales of 50 million.
Tales to tell
Petty also has written some of rock’s great storytelling songs.
Tales of tattooed lovers trying to make it in Hollywood (Into the Great Wide Open), a woman’s ill-fated move west from Indiana (Mary Jane’s Last Dance, with its haunting video starring a “dead” Kim Basinger) and a rebellious hitchhiker (Swingin’) dot Petty’s catalog.
“I always try to . . . become that character and think the way that character would talk and how they would react and what they would be looking for, what makes them who they are,” Petty says.
Whether he’s telling tales or commenting on real life, Petty says honesty is a key to his music:
“Honest music is where the artist actually believes in what they’re doing, and the listener senses that. They sense that this isn’t some kind of trick or that they’re not being manipulated in any way.”
He has lost his patience with manufactured pop artists who release a CD or two, make millions and then vanish.
“They can make anyone a singer in the studio, but it won’t matter. It still won’t translate the way it would if it was real,” Petty says.
His no-nonsense attitude and writing, many times in collaboration with longtime guitarist Mike Campbell, have earned high standing among his peers.
“It’s really the essence of rock and roll, which is about freedom and rebellion . . . pursuing your dreams, and among the most important stuff, it’s about speaking the truth,” fellow hall of famer Jackson Browne says in Runnin’ Down a Dream, a new documentary about the Heartbreakers.
Despite his songwriting and studio skills, Petty’s winning approach to rock is more visceral than cerebral. A strong rock song, he says, “is just one that makes you feel good, one that makes you feel.
“A good rock-and-roll song is usually just three minutes of bliss one way or the other. . . . I’m much more interested in that than if the bass player played all the right notes.”
Year by year
Petty’s ability to continue selling albums and drawing large multigenerational crowds puts him in the small group of rockers, including Bruce Springsteen, Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and ZZ Top, who have remained popular past 50 – popular enough to headline the Super Bowl.
As the years pass, Petty and his contemporaries are taking the relatively young genre of modern rock into uncharted territory.
“There’s nowhere to look for an example, really, so you’re kind of on your own,” Petty says.
“Still, to me, it’s all about the music. . . . You just hope you can keep coming up with songs that people like and can relate to.”
Petty still has plenty of gas left in the tank, including a new Heartbreakers album to be recorded later this year:
“I’ve got so much music inside that I want to get out,” he says. “I’m just trying to find the vehicles and the time to get that music out and to keep making more.”