I didn’t grow up a Tom Petty fan. As a little kid he was always in the background; be it on the car radio or in some weird video on MTV while at a friend’s house, or even as the musical guest on late night television. I never wanted to turn the dial when he and his Heartbreakers were in my ears, but I never sought out his albums once I started doing such things. He was the goofy looking guy that played pretty good townie rock that occasionally surprised me with a really good riff or melody.
Now, at nearly 45-years young I am a huge fan of Tom Petty. There were four pivotal Tom Petty moments in my life that turned me from occasional listener of Tom Petty to a massive fan and admirer of the man and his songwriting: Full Moon Fever, “American Girl” in Silence of the Lambs, Wildflowers, and the She’s The One Soundtrack.
Those three albums and that one pop culture reference made a huge impact on my brain. From the MTV cycle of “Free Fallin'”, “Runnin’ Down A Dream”, and “I Won’t Back Down” embedding those songs into my brain to seeing Catherine Martin belt out “American Girl” three times in the theater was enough to make me take notice of Mr. Petty in high school. But once I bought Wildflowers in 1994, I was sold. That record is still a high point for me, not only in the Tom Petty discography but as far as favorite albums of mine period. It’s a top ten of all time for me. In my head it took the AOR staple rocker and put him up there with the best songwriters America has churned out in the last 50 years. Of course there’s also She’s The One. If you don’t recall, this was another okay film from writer/director/actor Ed Burns. While the film was alright, Petty’s soundtrack was incredible. “Walls” has one of my favorite Petty lines, which goes “You’ve got a heart so big/It could crush this town.”
When Tom Petty died last year it was a huge blow to the music world. It was also a huge blow to me personally. I just imagined Petty continuing on being this weathered southern gentleman making tight, beautiful rock and roll records well into his golden years. He was still making amazing albums, even up to his last one Hypnotic Eye. He kept himself and the Heartbreakers relevant by never settling into a role: The role of “rock and roll guy”.
With his passing you expect there to be retrospective and greatest hits releases, but there’s already plenty of those out. So then what’s the point of An American Treasure, the 63-track collection of alternate cuts, live outtakes, and studio demos of Tom Petty thru the years? It’s not a retrospective, but a step into a backdoor to the life and career of Tom Petty. It’s an intimate portrait of a man that was passionate about music 24/7. The versions of these songs are raw, shining examples of the greatness of Tom Petty the solo artist and the bandleader. An American Treasure is like finding a box full of home movies you didn’t know you had of a loved one that passed away. All those feelings come rushing back, and those reminders of why they were so special to you.
You know all of these songs, so there’s no reason telling you about them. There are some true highlights, though. From the buzzing rawness of “Listen To Her Heart” recorded live 1977 to the tight, bluesy version of “Breakdown” recorded live later that year you hear just how good of a band the Heartbreakers were live. You can almost imagine a young Johnny Cougar hearing the alternate take of “Here Comes My Girl” and basing a music career of his own on it. Even the 1974 outtake “Lost In Your Eyes” was a hint of what was to come, with a more E Street Band lean in the blue collar soul delivery.
For my ears one of the absolute highlights is the gorgeous 2007 Clubhouse Version of “You and Me”. The sparse but lush arrangement harkens back to Petty’s Wildflowers and the Beatles-esque nature of that record. This is Petty in raw, heavy mode. It’s a bittersweet track that reminds you truly of what we’ve lost.
An American Treasure is a must for any Tom Petty fan. It’s a photo album of musical memories, but in a new light. Remastered emotions and alternate versions of life experiences. This is Tom Petty’s last gift to us; to you. Accept it and treasure it.
8.5 out 10