Petty Puts Focus On Social Ills
By Robert Hilburn
The Los Angeles Times — June 8, 1987
Tom Petty is a classic American rocker who used to supplement his own songs in concert with party-minded numbers by Chuck Berry and other early rock or R&B figures.
On Saturday night at the Pacific Amphitheatre, he instead spotlighted “For What It’s Worth,” the Buffalo Springfield’s memorable 1967 reaction to repressive authority.
He and the Heartbreakers’ version was darkly poignant, but in no way merely nostalgic. There was an anger and disconsolation in Petty’s voice that seemed directed entirely at today’s unsettled–and unsettling–social agenda.
Do you think he and the band–who open a four-night stand tonight at the Universal Amphitheatre–were trying to tell us something?
There’s a subtle injection of social comment in several tracks on the group’s outstanding new “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)” album, but Petty–speaking to the audience much more freely between songs than before–was even more aggressive about social issues on stage.
To avoid the impression of a lecture, the lean, blond singer weaved remarks about social problems–the homeless, preteens on crack, the unemployed–into a story about troubling things he has seen from the window of his tour bus.
He then turned to a more specific reflection about the credibility of people who are looked upon, to varying degrees, as leaders in this country. Whom do you trust anymore, he asked. Reagan? Bush? Falwell? The CIA?
“It dawned on me a few days ago that in this time and age, you’d better trust yourself,” he continued, moving into the Springfield song.
After that tune, Petty referred to the May 17 fire that destroyed his Encino house–a fire that officials believe was deliberately set. “Someone burned my house down,” he said. Holding his guitar over his head, he added, “But he didn’t burn this down. . . .”
Again using the rock example to illustrate a larger point, he continued, “You can have (all kinds of material possessions), but it ain’t nothing. It’s just stuff. . . .”
Petty then went into “The Waiting,” one of his many early compositions that deals with the struggle to maintain integrity.
This toughened social attitude and more open manner on stage gave the evening a freedom and focus that makes this tour shape up as potentially the Heartbreakers’ best in years. Things should get even better as the quintet begins featuring more songs from the new album. (Saturday’s lineup offered only three of the new tunes, including the raucous single, “Jammin’ Me” and the melancholy “It’ll All Work Out.”)
After living up to the considerable challenge last year of playing behind rock’s greatest songwriter (Dylan), the Heartbreakers gave themselves another sizable test in inviting two frisky, upcoming bands to open the shows: the Georgia Satellites and the Del Fuegos.
If there were any signs of cobwebs in the veteran group, they would be magnified on a bill with these energetic outfits. But there were no signs of wear. Indeed, the Heartbreakers seem revitalized, played with a freshness and hunger that is in keeping with the spunk and craft of the new Petty tunes.
Both the Satellites and the Del Fuegos are no-nonsense, guitar-oriented bar bands, though the Satellites’ good-times manner is a lot more appealing than the Del Fuegos’ somewhat colorless and unduly insistent irreverence.