There are a few musicians that I connect with on a very personal level. The music feels like walking through the front door on a particularly lousy day at work, and the warmth of home melts all those bad vibes away. A certain song takes me back to a car ride in the summer of 1983 to my grandma’s house for a day of fishing. Or an album puts me in the dead of winter with the blue, Midwest air freezing my lungs on first contact. There are a few artists that take me to certain places when I hear them and Tom Petty has always been one of those artists.
Though, it took me years before I truly appreciated the man.
As a kid he was a soundtrack in the car, much like Steve Miller, The Eagles, Foreigner, and Styx. He was part of AOR soundtrack of my childhood. Most of that stuff I hear nowadays and I just want to turn it off immediately. Steve Miller is an exception, as is Tom Petty. “American Girl” “Listen To Your Heart”, “Even The Losers”, “Refugee”, “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, and “Breakdown” were always welcomed ear candy when I was a kid. There was something inviting in the songs of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Something that felt familiar. When I saw pictures of Tom Petty he reminded me of the gaunt, stick figures I’d see at family reunions. He looked like the smoking long hairs I called relatives. He looked as if he should be in the basement playing pool and drinking a Strohs with my mom and dad and uncles. He just seemed like a dude that would show me a couple bar chords and let me swig some of that half warm Strohs.
Though I wasn’t buying up Petty albums growing up he was always around, making weird videos I’d catch at friends houses or playing on the local classic rock station 97.7 out of Elkhart, Indiana or 95.3 out of Niles, Michigan. Then my freshman year of high school he released his first solo album, Full Moon Fever. Hearing songs like “I Won’t Back Down”, “Free Fallin'”, “A Face In The Crowd”, and “Yer So Bad” were like a revelation. They were like this reinvention of the middle-aged rock and roll guy I’d heard for so many years in the backseat. Petty’s Wilburys collaboration created this long standing working relationship and friendship with ELO’s Jeff Lynne. Lynne gave Petty a new sonic imprint; he brightened the drums, brought the vocals front and center, and gave Petty a spotlight on his more personal songwriting style.
He made Petty cool to the kids.
As much as I loved Full Moon Fever, it wasn’t until 1994s Wildflowers that I completely fell for Tom Petty. That album to me feels like a sonic work of art. It sits among my all time favorite records as this regal musical piece. It was well-aged the day it was released, chock full of absolute masterpieces. To me, this feels like the record where Tom Petty found himself. Yes, even after nearly 20 years of making music, gold albums, and number one singles it wasn’t until this Rick Rubin-produced record did Petty find Petty. There’s a looseness on this album that evokes visions of bearded guys sitting around a studio with smoke(of the cigarette and “Mary Jane” variety) swirling around as amps buzz, basses thump, and drums groove. The atmosphere of those Lynne records, however great they were, were very tight and uniform. There seemed to be no room for letting the tape run and see what would happen. “Honey Bee” and “Cabin Down Below” under those conditions might’ve come out sounding pinched, or worse yet twee. Here they’re gruff and unruly, just the way the Lord intended.
There isn’t one song on this album that I don’t love. It brings back the winter of 1994. It was cold, but the inside of my little Nissan pick up was warm and inviting thanks to songs like “You Wreck Me”, “It’s Good To Be King”, “To Find A Friend”, “Hard On Me” and “A Higher Place”. This album also inspired in me the need to create myself. Even more than Rubber Soul or Village Green Preservation Society, Wildflowers songwriting and sonic stamp made me want to make songs like those. From both writing and engineering standpoints this album was that bar I needed to reach. It sounded like an album you’d find in some dusty record store bin from 1972, not 1994. It was well aged, much like the vintage Fenders and Rickenbackers used to make the record.
I think the song that hits me hardest on this album and always has is “Only A Broken Heart”. There’s something very fragile about it that feels like a punch to the gut every time I hear it. From Petty’s nearly whispered, gently delivered vocals to the mellotron to his acoustic strumming it hits all the right emotional notes for me. There’s loneliness and pain being given out in dollops of musical beauty. Petty sings lines like “I know the place where you keep your secrets/Out of the sunshine, down in a valley” and “I know your weakness, you’ve seen my dark side/The end of the rainbow is always a long ride” with almost the innocence of a child. I think this song is an absolute masterpiece, and it connects me to Tom Petty forever.
There’s not much more I can say. I loved Tom Petty as a songwriter, singer, and musician. If I’d known him I’m sure I would’ve loved him as a friend, too. Mentor, even. He is, was, and always will be one of the greats in the pantheon of rock and roll. So long, Tom Petty. Thank you for everything.
And the days went by like paper in the wind
Everything changed, then changed again
It’s hard to find a friend,
It’s hard to find a friend…
If you haven’t seen the doc Runnin’ Down A Dream by Peter Bogdanovich do yourself a favor and clear about 4 hours for it. It’s the ultimate history on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.