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Career Arc: Tom Petty

Taking stock of the legendary rocker’s steady, stunning 40-year career

Who is Tom Petty? Naturally I’m asking this because there’s a pretty good Heartbreakers album called Hypnotic Eye coming out July 29. But that explains only why I’m asking this question now. I’ve been listening to Tom Petty for nearly my entire life. It’s time to get to the bottom of this guy.

Here’s what I think I know: Tom Petty has been a rock star for almost 40 years. He has a dozen or so songs that will be played on classic rock radio for as long as there is classic rock radio. If you’re a music fan of a certain age, there was a time in your life when he seemed inescapable. Even now, Petty is still a guy that most people know, even if you don’t actively care about him one way or the other. Tom Petty’s music doesn’t necessarily demand a value judgment. It’s like having an opinion on tap water or concrete. Why bother? It’s just there, reliable to the point of invisibility. If it went missing, you would notice. But it’s never going missing, because Tom Petty has existed since the beginning of time, and will continue to exist until time is extinguished.

So, for real: Who is Tom Petty? He has always been an aloof presence in his music. He’s like the stoner Clint Eastwood, wielding a crooked smile like a long-barreled hand cannon to prevent any too-close attachments. He’s a hard guy to get a read on, particularly in the last 20 years, when he receded from pop culture and became an eternally cranky and fitfully insightful recluse. And yet, again, his music is still there. It’s summertime, and Tom Petty songs are playing in baseball stadiums, across outdoor bar patios, and inside cars embarking on cross-country road trips. He’s always with us even when he’s not present. 

How do you explain Tom Petty? Is it foolish to even try? Perhaps, but let’s try to break it down anyway.

Photo of Tom PETTY and Tom PETTY & The HEARTBREAKERS

Peak Petty (1988-96)

Many of Petty’s best-known songs — “American Girl,” “Refugee,” “The Waiting,” “Breakdown,” “Listen to Her Heart,” etc. — originated in either the late ’70s or early ’80s. His third record, 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, is commonly regarded as his best. (It’s the one that got the Classic Albums documentary treatment.) Nevertheless, I would posit that Peak Petty actually occurred a decade later. It’s true that the years I’ve designated as Peak Petty coincide with the time when I personally became a Tom Petty fan, so I can be fairly accused of being self-serving. But that doesn’t mean my assessment of Petty’s career is wrong. This is one of those rare moments when wanton solipsism and universal truth can peacefully coexist.

Tom Petty entered this period as a 37-year-old journeyman with a fading career and exited an unassailable 46-year-old bedrock of modern music. Anything that was good or notable in rock seemed to be associated with him in some way. He sang with Axl Rose at the MTV Video Music Awards when GNR was at its peak. He played with Dave Grohl on Saturday Night Live seven months after Kurt Cobain died. He backed up Johnny Cash on his second-best American Recordings album. Petty cowrote Roy Orbison’s last hit and hired (then fired) the Replacements as his opening act. He covered an obscure but great song by Beck and wrote an obscure but great song that was covered by Rod Stewart. He seemed neither young nor old. He didn’t belong to any specific scene. He was an Everyman for everybody. If rock had a fulcrum, it was him.

Peak Petty starts with the first Traveling Wilburys record and ends with the She’s the One soundtrack.1 But as far as Petty’s life goes, it really begins with a house fire. In May 1987, Petty’s L.A. homestead was set ablaze by an arsonist who to this day remains at large. “Why in the world would anyone do that, especially to Tom Petty, who’s just cool?” says Stevie Nicks, asking the unanswerable, in Peter Bogdanovich’s exhaustive four-hour documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream.2 Petty himself claimed to not be haunted by this question. Instead, the fire became Peak Petty’s origin story.

Listen to Steven Hyden’s playlist of essential Tom Petty deep cuts.

A brief prologue: After touring behind 1982’s Long After Dark, the Heartbreakers took a sabbatical from the road for two years and plotted an ambitious four-sided concept LP about the South. It came to be known as Petty’s noblest failure. When the record, christened Southern Accents, was released in 1985, the track list was slimmed down to nine songs and the liner notes ballooned to five different producers. Petty famously shattered his left hand against a wall in the midst of mixing the album’s flinty opening track, “Rebels,” an injury that continued to cause him pain nearly 30 years later.

Talking to Rolling Stone in 1995, Petty described this period as a mess of frustration and substance abuse. “Everyone had their own set of problems,” he said. “Like, ‘I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but [keyboardist] Benmont [Tench is] face down in the aisle of the bus. And he hasn’t moved for a long time.’”3 Petty’s next record, 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), came out a month before Petty’s house went up in flames. With the possible exceptions of the Beatles’ Let It Be and the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, there has never been a more prescient album title; Petty had arrived at a low ebb personally and professionally. He came to see the fire as a rebirth. “That anger went away,” he told Rolling Stone. “You hear Full Moon Fever — it’s a very happy, pleasant and positive album and was meant to be so. And that was a result of just being so glad to be alive.”

Full Moon Fever is my favorite Petty record — this is about as far from #tompettyhottakes as you can get, but some opinions are unoriginal for a good reason. Full Moon Fever is the one with “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and nine other songs that weren’t hits but seem like it. Every other Petty album has at least some filler, but Full Moon Fever has zero percent body fat. (I will not entertain any argument that says “A Mind With a Heart of Its Own” is filler.)

One of the more amazing things about Full Moon Fever is how well it works on a completely superficial level — the songs are instantly likable, they are produced in such a way as to maximize their immediacy, and Petty sings and plays them in an agreeably laid-back way. Full Moon Fever might be the least challenging Great Album in rock history. (The only person who hates Full Moon Fever is original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch, and that’s because he wasn’t asked to play on it.) Only recently have I noticed that the ineffable sorrow at the heart of Petty’s persona exists even on an ostensibly happy record like Fever. “Gonna leave this world for a while,” Petty sings at the end of “Free Fallin,’” a sneaky-sad number about pining after the girl who got away (and, more broadly, the emptiness of nostalgia). Right away, Petty announces that he’s checking out; you can have his songs, conveniently delivered via that inimitable cotton-mouthed drawl, but his heart and mind are already making their getaway on a solitary trip down Ventura Boulevard.

I’m not saying Petty’s music is itself superficial or devoid of emotion, just that tapping into Petty’s emotional core isn’t essential to enjoying Full Moon Fever. For most people this record is merely a tuneful amalgam of easy chords and easier smiles. Then 25 years pass, and Full Moon Fever is woven into the fabric of your life, and “Free Fallin’” somehow turns into a song about you. Petty has a lot of songs like that. He works the long game.

Rick Rubin was one of those people who got into Petty because of Fever. It made him want to produce 1994’s Wildflowers, my second-favorite Petty record. This one has “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “You Wreck Me” and “Time to Move On,” which is the first song I think of when I try to explain to non-fans Petty’s ability to write really simple songs that seem OK the first time you hear them and incredible after the 100th time.

Between Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers was another Heartbreakers record, 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open, made under somewhat contentious circumstances with Petty’s collaborator on Fever, Jeff Lynne. The title track and “Learning to Fly” were the hits, but the song I always go back to is “Two Gunslingers,” maybe Petty’s least-appreciated great song. It’s like a self-help version of a Sergio Leone Western. (It fortifies my “Petty as stoner Eastwood” theory.) Instead of shooting it out, one of the gunslingers says “I’m taking control of my life” and walks away, a true Peak Petty maneuver.

I must also mention 1993’s Greatest Hits — also known as “the Petty comp with the garish red cover” — which collected 16 essentials plus the newly recorded “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and a cover of Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air.” Yes, I know, greatest-hits albums are for housewives and little girls. But this is Petty’s best-selling LP, and it deserves to be. It’s a perfect record. Each time I buy a new car, I put my 21-year-old copy of Greatest Hits in the glove compartment. They should put a copy behind encased glass, like a fire extinguisher, in every bar, in case someone plugs the jukebox with a run of substandard drinking songs. Greatest Hits can mollify any emergency.4

My VH-1 Music Awards 2001 - Pressroom

Near-Peak Petty (1979-82)

I became aware of Tom Petty’s music with Full Moon Fever, but I started listening to him when I was around 3 or 4. I didn’t know it was Petty, as I was too young to knowingly “choose” anybody to listen to. Petty was in my life because his music was the wallpaper of FM radio during these years and FM radio was the wallpaper of my parents’ lives.

That was true in the car, anyway, and we were in the car a lot in those days. My parents were splitting up and shuttling the kids between two apartments. Petty was ideal for this fraught context. Even as a young kid I could tell that Petty sounded much surlier than the Kim Carnes and Eddie Money tunes I was otherwise being exposed to. The blinding corporate-rock shine that Jimmy Iovine gave to Damn the Torpedoes, 1981’s Hard Promises, and Long After Dark couldn’t completely block out the darkness rumbling at the core of the Heartbreakers. Benmont Tench’s swampy keyboards on “Refugee,” “Breakdown,” and especially the Stevie Nicks duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” still fill me with discomfiting dread. I realize that I’m merely reliving the trauma I experienced at the time and projecting that feeling onto the music, but it’s not all that. Tench was aptly named — his role in the Heartbreakers was to create tension, bottling up all the fury and spite of Petty’s songs with foreboding keyboard lines until Mike Campbell swooped in to release that power via a searing guitar solo in the final 30 to 60 seconds.

Damn the Torpedoes and Hard Promises are rightfully counted among Petty’s best records. But I have a soft spot for the one that gets left out, Long After Dark. It’s not Petty’s best record (or even his fifth best), but it is perhaps his most archetypal. Three songs are unequivocally great,5 five songs are good tracks that are made great by the band,6 and two are throwaways that sound decent because of the band.7 That’s 30 percent great, 50 percent good, and 20 percent blah, a breakdown that applies to nearly every Petty studio LP.

The hit was “You Got Lucky,” a fixture of my personal Tom Petty top five songs list. 8 I love Tench’s synthesizer on this track — it is one of the all-time best “’80s big-label rock keyboard” sounds. When I was spending a lot of time in bars in my early twenties, my two favorite songs to play on the jukebox were Johnny Cash’s “Rowboat,” on which he’s backed by the Heartbreakers, and “You Got Lucky.” The former is a casual demonstration of incredibly potent masculinity, which is what I aspired to as a young man spending a lot of time in bars. The latter is about how young men preoccupied with demonstrating masculinity are transparently weak, which is what I was. Petty’s lyrical wheelhouse is situated between these poles.

Tom Petty

Young Punk Petty (1976-78)

“We played with a lot of punk bands like the Clash, the Ramones, and Blondie, and played at clubs like CBGB’s, so we got lumped into that whole punk thing,” Petty told Spin in 1989. “I think we were the first band to be called new wave, not that it’s any honor you’d want to hang on your wall.”

Getting into Petty later on meant that his first two LPs were the sixth and seventh albums of his that I owned. To me, Petty was the epitome of populist middle-of-the-road rock. The idea of him existing in the same context as the Ramones had never occurred to me as a young music fan; it was like discovering that John Mellencamp played dobro on Master of Reality. Runnin’ Down a Dream spends many minutes illuminating the connections between Petty and punk. But all you really have to do is punch up the first track on 1976’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It’s called “Rockin’ Around (With You),” and Petty sings (actually shouts) lines like this: “You got me babe / I got you / and I can’t stop thinkin’ about / how I dig rockin’ around with you.”

The trash-rock Sonny and Cher reference, the dropped g’s, the desire to [insert activity here] “with you” — “Rockin’ Around (With You)” is basically a Ramones song. (Not to mention Lynch’s “Blitzkrieg Bop” drum beat.) On the cover, Petty smirks into the camera while wearing a leather jacket. The Ramones were in black-and-white on the cover of their self-titled debut and Petty is in color, I guess because Gainesville is a sunnier place than mid-’70s New York City.

Of course, the punkiest punks aren’t punks at all, because those punks don’t fit in anywhere. They don’t wear the uniform. That’s the kind of punk that Petty was. “To the punks we were slow and wimpy and to the mainstream crowd we were too wild and original,” he said to Spin. “Plus, they couldn’t understand a band from Florida not playing ‘Free Bird.’”

Confused Petty, Part 1 (1985-87)

Here’s an easy way to gauge the depth of a Petty admirer’s fandom: Ask for that person’s opinion of Southern Accents. It’s sort of been forgotten by casual fans, in part because it’s the only Petty record that sounds dated. There are real live horns all over Southern Accents, but they sound fake in that uniquely 1985 sort of way. But if you’re really into an artist, you wind up loving the ambitious misfires most of all. (Neil Young has at least six albums that fall into this category.) Petty wanted to make a record that celebrated and critiqued his Southern roots, acknowledging past sins without exactly apologizing for them. At some point, I imagine he realized that he did this so well in the space of just the title track that making a whole album about this idea would’ve seemed redundant.

I wish I could argue that Southern Accents is a precursor to “experimental Americana” benchmarks like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Los Lobos’ Kiko, only instead of playing around with esoteric soundscapes, the Heartbreakers dared to take a stab at improbably funky rhythms. But Southern Accents primarily seems like an attempt to make An American Music Masterpiece without a coherent plan for how to do it.

“Incoherent” is an adjective often applied to Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), made in the midst of the Heartbreakers’ worldwide tour backing Bob Dylan and kicked off by the Dylan-assisted “Jammin’ Me,” a brilliantly stupid garage-rock masterpiece bitching about the tyranny of acid rain, “angry slander,” and Vanessa Redgrave, among other curiously chosen irritants. I’d also like to send shout-outs to “Runaway Trains,” for which the late-’80s Heartbreakers were apparently replaced by late-’80s Rush, and the handsomely shambolic ballad “It’ll All Work Out,” in which Petty stands on a levee that’s about to burst and thinks about the girl with “eyes so blue they looked like the weather,” right before he presumably drowns.

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers In Concert - Mountain View CA

Confused Petty, Part 2: Post-Fulcrum (1999-Present)

Once Petty stopped being the Everyman, he became the nowhere man. In the late ’90s, after his marriage fell apart, Petty decamped to a chicken shack in Pacific Palisades. He was in a bad way, battling clinical depression and the possible dissolution of the Heartbreakers as bassist Howie Epstein slowly succumbed to heroin addiction.9 A gifted musician, harmony singer, and record producer, Epstein appeared with the Heartbreakers when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. “I’ve kind of been the new guy in the band for 21 years,” he said in a shaky voice keeping time with his small, emaciated, unsteadily vibrating frame. Epstein died the following year. He was 47.

Where Petty at his peak was fully integrated into popular culture, he was now in full-on retreat mode. In 1999, he put out Echo, his divorce record and the photo negative of Full Moon Fever. All you hear is Petty’s pain during the first several listens — the part in “Room at the Top” when he sings “I love you / Please love me / I’m not so bad” is the most anguished seven seconds in Petty’s whole catalogue — before the songs start to finally emerge. Then came 2002’s The Last DJ, perceived by the bulk of the music press as Petty’s “Old Man Yells at Cloud” record, though in retrospect it sounds like another manifestation of his profound personal dissatisfaction. To my ears, The Last DJ is less about the music business than about Tom Petty’s ambivalence about being Tom Petty.

You could call Petty’s central thesis on The Last DJ — there was once a magical time when money didn’t corrupt music [portentous pause] unlike today — at best delusional and at worst hypocritical. Petty, after all, came of age when rock was in the initial throes of corporatization, which his generation not only didn’t fight against but actively benefited from. If anything, money matters less in pop in the 21st century, because there’s so much less money in pop now. But I don’t think Petty is all that committed to his argument anyway. After the record’s first four songs, The Last DJ essentially drops the concept and becomes just another collection of gently wandering and fatalistic Petty tunes. The best is “Blue Sunday,” a travelogue about a brief roadside encounter that concludes far too quickly. (“When it’s time to leave you go,” Petty sings, equal parts wistful and bitter.) Petty’s best songs from his subsequent records are similarly set on lonely roads going nowhere in particular. “My tire’s losing track,” he sings on “Night Driver,” from 2006’s Highway Companion. “Now I sit and count the days / and try to fill my time.” In the strange, illusory “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove,” from 2010’s Mojo, an aimless road trip turns dark when Petty and a friend party with two motel maids: “My friend said I don’t like mine / so what do you say we trade / She was a part of my heart / now she’s just a line in my face.”

On Highway Companion, Petty relied on the back-porch songcraft of his Full Moon Fever guise; on Mojo, he de-emphasized the songs and made it about the interplay among the Heartbreakers, drifting for the first time on record into jam-band territory. (After resisting the influence of Florida homeboys the Allman Brothers for so long, Petty finally acquiesced.) These are insular but quietly worthwhile records. The stakes are low, but Petty doesn’t seem quite so miserable.10

And so it goes on Hypnotic Eye. The same 30 percent great/50 percent good/20 percent blah ratio applies. It has been described as “political,” as several songs reference ineffectual leaders and a disenfranchised proletariat. (“Well, I ain’t on the left / and I ain’t on the right / I ain’t even sure I got a dog in this fight,” Petty, a non-joiner to the end, sings in the noncommittal “Shadow People.”) But two out of the album’s three great songs — “Fault Lines” and “Red River” — are about nothing other than Petty locking in with the Heartbreakers on a greasy, bluesy groove. They sound like rehearsal tapes in the best possible way. Then there’s my favorite song on the record, the beautiful “Sins of My Youth,” in which Petty bids his inevitable farewell to this world for a while. “I’m worn and wounded, but still the same,” he sings, explaining Tom Petty better than anybody. 

Filed Under: Music, Tom Petty, The Heartbreakers, jimmy iovine, Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell, bob dylan, Traveling Wilburys, Classic Rock, career arc

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland. He is currently writing a book on pop-music rivalries.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden