Tom Petty forever the Wild One
By David Schmeichal
CANOE — August 7, 2008
Here’s the thing about Tom Petty, the Florida-born rocker who brings his much-anticipated show to MTS Centre this weekend: No matter what your station in life — no matter how much money you’ve earned, or how many accomplishments you’ve racked up — Tom Petty is cooler than you.
Why? Because Tom Petty is cooler than everybody.
Oh sure, he’s kinda funny-looking, and thanks to endless repetitions on classic rock radio, his catalogue has taken on a certain Baby Boomer ubiquitousness. Even so, it’s unlikely we’re going to grow tired of Tom (or his longtime backup band The Heartbreakers) anytime soon.
Why? Glad you asked.
Where to even start? Anyone who bought Petty’s recent Greatest Hits comp knows there’s not a weak track on it. And those who’ve been following his career from the start — which began with early ’70s act Mudcrutch (where he met future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench) — know there’s plenty more where those gems came from. Prominent placement in Fast Times at Ridgemont High has helped cement American Girl’s rep as an anthem, and near-constant radio play has done the same for tracks like Breakdown, Refugee, The Waiting, Don’t Do Me Like That, and Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around (one of several duets with Stevie Nicks). Fast-forward to the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Petty kept up his streak with his first solo work Full Moon Fever (which spawned Free Fallin’ and I Won’t Back Down) and its followup Into the Great Wide Open, which gave us the title track and Learnin’ to Fly. And while many of his peers are content to coast, Petty’s more recent work (the mid-’90s masterpiece Wildflowers, the She’s the One soundtrack, 2002’s vitriolic The Last DJ, and 2006’s Highway Companion, in particular) can easily be counted among his best.
Petty took some flak from feminist groups for his Alice in Wonderland-inspired clip for Don’t Come Around Here No More (in which Petty, as the Mad Hatter, encourages his tea party companions to start chowing down on Alice, whose body has turned to cake). But the video remains one of the trippiest clips to hit the airwaves. Even better? He followed it up with a series of similarly striking efforts, including his star-studded Into the Great Wide Open (watch for Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway and Gabrielle Anwar), Mary Jane’s Last Dance (starring Kim Basinger as the sexiest corpse in history) and the eye-popping clip for Walls, which features a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from Jennifer Aniston. Oh, and speaking of Hollywood connections, when it came time to spin a documentary about Petty’s life, the rocker attracted no less a legend than Peter Bogdanovitch (The Last Picture Show), who combed through years of archival footage to come up with the four-hour opus Runnin’ Down a Dream.
Since 1981, Petty has been nominated for an impressive 18 Grammy awards, taking home hardware for You Don’t Know How It Feels, a few of his videos, and his work with the Traveling Wilburys (more on them later). He scored a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999, was inducted (along with the Heartbreakers) into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, and received the keys to his Gainesville hometown in 2006. Most recently, he played the half-time show at the Super Bowl, serving as a comfortable middle ground for those who’d grown bored of the likes of Paul McCartney, but found Prince too risque.
The Side Projects
The term “supergroup” has lost its lustre, but they don’t come much more pedigreed than the Traveling Wilburys, the late ’80s combo of Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. Sadly, the group only put out two records (Orbison died shortly after the first one, and Harrison’s 2001 passing makes a threequel unlikely). But Petty has continued to collaborate with everyone from Johnny Cash to Rick Rubin to Lindsey Buckingham. A few months back, longtime fans were rewarded with a new album from the recently reunited Mudcrutch (who released one single before breaking up in 1974). On the non-musical end of the spectrum, animated comedy fans will recognize Petty’s drawl as the voice of Lucky, Luanne’s hillbilly husband on TV’s animated hit King of the Hill.
A staunch defender of artistic freedom, Petty has found himself feuding frequently with the music biz — first over his transfer to MCA Records (after original label ABC was sold), then over MCA’s plans to impose the “superstar” price of $9.98 on his ’81 album Hard Promises (they backed down after he threatened to title it $8.98). But when it comes to musicians, Petty would prefer to be a booster, dismissing reports that the Red Hot Chili Peppers had ripped off Mary Jane for their 2006 hit Dani California. “I seriously doubt there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock ‘n’ roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry,” he said. “If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe (I’d sue). But I don’t believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs.”
How cool is that?