Tom Petty : Keeping Hard Promises

The death of Tom Petty rekindles the love for one of music’s most under-rated stars.
by Gordon Campbell

The ideal outcome, as Neko Case said on Twitter yesterday during the brief period of confusion about his actual state of health, would have been for Tom Petty to wake up and be able to read all the sweet things that people had been saying about him over the past 24 hours. It wasn’t to be. One of the nicest tributes came from Case herself, and it felt particularly resonant in the shadow of Las Vegas, and in the divided country of Trumpland.

As she put it: “At a Tom Petty show in Austin walking toward it, a full 3/4 of a mile to the stage every single person living was singing every word. That’s the kinda powerful love you don’t see every day, but the kind we all long for when we think about our society, and togetherness.” Exactly, and its what music means in the wider scheme of things. It turns the personal into a communal experience – and time and again in concert, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would bring out the light in all of us. Not by being rock stars either ; but by being so humanly accessible. Just ordinary Joes with a shared love in what they were doing, and of the tradition to which they belonged.

On “I Need to Know” to take one of any number of examples, you could hear the Byrds/Searchers back story, even while the coiled urgency of the song allied it in unlikely ways, to punk as well. To Petty, punk wasn’t a concept. He’d started playing music as an escape from his home on the wrong side of the Gainesville tracks, and as a refuge from a father who’d beaten him up since infancy.

Early last year, I’d dived back into Tom Petty’s music, in the wake of reading the excellent 2015 biography by Warren Zanes. Yesterday Zanes wrote on Slate about a memory he had of walking with Petty towards his car one night, while they were chatting about the Lovin’ Spoonful. Suddenly, Petty recited the entire lyrics to “Nashville Cats”, savouring it as if it were a classic poem that belongs up there beside Allen Ginsberg or Langston Hughes. Which it does.

Petty’s first album had been out for a year virtually unnoticed, when I took a chance and bought it unheard, while working as a bellhop at a hotel in downtown Denver in 1977. Ironically – given that he became such a classic American rock star – Petty began to filter into American consciousness only after he’d got some great reviews in the British music press, in the wake of the Heartbreakers playing support for Nils Lofgren on a tour of the UK and Europe in late 1976. Three career-changing years later, Petty toured New Zealand. Last year I wrote about that in this Werewolf review of the Warren Zanes book, reprinted here.


A terrific new biography of Tom Petty rekindles the love for one of music’s most under-rated stars.
by Gordon Campbell

tompettyPersonally, this has been a Tom Petty summer. That’s partly because of reading the new biography of Petty written by Warren Zanes, and partly thanks to watching the four hour long Running Down a Dream documentary about Petty and the Heartbreakers, made in 2007 by Peter Bogdanovich. Along the way, it brought back to mind a few days spent on the road with Petty and his band during their tour of New Zealand in May 1980, just after the Damn The Torpedoes album had turned them into global rock stars.

The tour was musically exhilarating every night, but riven by conflicts with the local promoter, Stewart MacPherson. Early on, Petty’s road manager Richard Fernandez had asked me with what seemed like genuine curiosity : ‘Is this guy incompetent, or is he a complete asshole ?’ It was a fairly easy question to answer. Long before he wrote “ I Won’t Back Down” Petty was the wrong person to mess with by accident, or by intent – whether you were a huge corporation like MCA, or a local promoter from the Kapiti Coast. In the end, things got sorted. At the Wellington show, Petty laconically dedicated a song to the experience: “Even The Losers (Get Lucky) Sometimes.”

So this Tom Petty summer has meant listening to a lot of the music again, and discovering things not known or forgotten. Over the past 40 years, Petty has written a staggering number of classic pop songs and arena-sized anthems. “Breakdown” may have been the breakthrough hit on the debut album and “American Girl” was its closing anthem….but the killer segue from “Mystery Man” to “Luna” tucked away near the end of side two had sounded like neither of them. Thanks to the magic of Youtube, here are a couple of good live renditions of both those songs. Unfortunately I can’t embed Mystery Man, but here’s the link to it.

OK, so we all know “Listen To Her Heart” “I Need To Know” “The Waiting” “Refugee” “Here Comes My Girl” “Don’t Do Me Like That” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” “I Won’t Back Down” “Learning To Fly” “Free Fallin’” and about two dozen other great songs. Even some of the rejects were exceptional. Like, for instance, the “ Keeping Me Alive” track that producer Jimmy Iovine inexplicably left off the Long After Dark album, which was a record that could have done with all the help it could get.

Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida in 1950, on the poor side of the tracks in a university town. The wealthy kids helped to sustain a vibrant music scene to which outsiders like Petty gravitated in his early teens – partly as an escape from a father who beat him savagely from the time when Petty was only five years old. (Much later, once Petty had become famous, Earl Petty would use his status as Petty’s dad to pick up women at his son’s concerts.) In 1974, Tom finally loaded up the car and drove across the country (with a few other musicians and Jane, the long time girlfriend he’d just married) to Los Angeles, to make records and pursue a life in music.

“Listen To Your Heart” is from the second album. This 1978 live version from a British TV show has a somewhat thin sound, but it is kind of amusing to see Petty’s determination to out-cool the English. As Zanes says in his Petty biography, drummer Stan Lynch was the only extrovert in a band of introverts. The vocal harmonies that Lynch and the other Heartbreakers wove around Petty’s Southern twang were an essential part of the band’s sound. As George Harrison later said, Petty had a head start on him ; he came naturally to the Southern nasality that the British had to learn how to imitate.

Again, I can’t embed Listen to Your Heart but here’s the link.

Like many other Petty songs, “Listen To Her Heart” was a great original solidly planted in what came before, and it was a template he’d use again. The lyric was something of a forerunner to ‘Free Fallin’’ in that both songs combine genuine compassion with keen observation of the foibles of the woman in question. It also hurtles forward with a sense of anticipation akin to what Jackie De Shannon had brought to 1960s songs like “ Needles and Pins” or “When You Walk In The Room.”

I’d tried to talk about this stuff with Petty in his hotel room after the Auckland show, while Richard Fernandez sat in the corner rolling a series of home-made cigarettes. For a big rock event, the Heartbreakers shows had felt inspiringly intimate. The music hadn’t been used to dominate the audience, or to exalt the main man – and it celebrated a tradition whose contours that in 1980, we were only just beginning to recognise. Here’s how I’d tried to describe it back then, in print :

In England, rock music is…as immediate as a fist, and free. But the echoes of the Byrds guitars, or the way Petty sings’ Refugee’ involves a true romance with the mystery of time, a sense of the distance covered behind the wheel.

Petty looked amused by the pretension but went with it, up to a point.

“I hear that stuff you’re talking about,” Petty said in his hotel room after the show.” But not just in music. I hear it now in everybody’s music. But because of that feeling…and I don’t know whether it came from the Byrds or from Jackie De Shannon or ‘Needles and Pins.” I couldn’t go out there with the dry ice and do that kind of show. Y’ see, we go out there to rock. We’re not here to write The Book.”

Maybe so. Yet a good rock song like “Straight Into Darkness” – which was written and recorded when his long marriage to Jane Petty was really starting to unravel – also manages to convey a tough message about making the marriage commitment succeed, even if only by sheer force of will :

I don’t believe the good times are over
I don’t believe the thrill is all gone
Real love is a man’s salvation
The weak ones fall, the strong carry on
Straight into darkness….

And here’s the upside of that kind of committed relationship : “Here Comes My Girl”

By the early 1990s, as Zanes’ book explains at length, Petty has fallen on hard times. Stan Lynch had been kicked out/had got himself kicked out of the band and Petty’s marriage was finally over – even though the final parting of the ways came nearly ten years after “Straight Into Darkness. ” As a child, Petty has been beaten by his father. In the wake of Jane’s decline into mental illness and verbal abuse, Petty finally moved out.

Living alone, he became prey to a depression that left him a housebound recluse, and it culminated in an addiction to heroin. Echo is the album where the depths of this period are evident. Since Petty was unable to write, Zanes relates in his book about how producer Rick Rubin once got a box of “poetic” fridge magnets and stuck the phrases all over the studio walls in the hope that this might stimulate Petty into finding some useful song ideas. The depression/heroin backstory lends a real chill to this video for the ‘Swingin’’ track from that album. There are ghosts aplenty in this song, and they include the wasted guy who is singing it.

The person who became central to Petty’s five year long detox and recovery was Dana York, who eventually became his second wife. Stevie Nicks was another key support before and during the depression/heroin period. Nicks had been a friend of both Tom and Jane Petty. In fact, her “ Edge of Seventeen” hit song had been inspired by a conversation with Jane Petty in which she’d misheard Jane’s heavy Southern accent, as Jane explained that she’d met Tom at the “age” of seventeen. (Age = edge.)

Early on, Nicks was willing to leave Fleetwood Mac and did ask to join the Heartbreakers, but the band was always strictly a boys club. While never a romantic item, Nicks and Petty have been friends and musical allies for over 35 years. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” was the big hit, but I’ve always preferred their duet on “Insider” from the Hard Promises album. The album title – the hard promises, the ‘circular deception’, the whole notion of being an insider – seemed like a conversation with Nicks, and a statement about Petty’s dogged fidelity to a marriage that had come by then to feel like a prison.

On the NZ tour, I’d come in assuming that keyboardist Benmont Tench was the de facto deputy leader of the Heartbreakers. Wrong. It took a couple of days to realise that Petty’s right hand man and closest collaborator was actually the guitarist, Mike Campbell. Yet in this band’s complex eco-system the guy who claimed to know Petty best – instinctively – was Stan Lynch, the drummer. Certainly, he was the only person in the band willing to openly and regularly butt heads with Petty.

Lynch’s competitive, fractious nature pushed him into at least one fantastic image of Petty, well described in Zanes’ book. High on mushrooms with a friend, Lynch, Petty and the rest of the Heartbreakers reportedly went to an arcade in Gainesville. Lit up by the mushrooms, Lynch watched Petty feeding quarters into an arcade game, while reaching back over his shoulder (without turning his head) for someone to feed him more coins. Entirely focussed on the game, Petty remained oblivious to the fact that Lynch’s friend had just collapsed behind him in a epileptic fit. Inexorably, the hand just kept coming back for more quarters. Lynch’s point being that when Petty was in the zone, nothing else – no other human need – could earn his attention.

Lynch went on :
“ I could see into him.. I knew who he was, even when we started out together in the band. I could see that he was fucking scared. I could see that he wanted to be important. I knew what he wanted. He wanted you to hear him. He wanted to be that boy. But I also knew ‘This is a frightened guy.’ And we’re getting into big things. This is big surf. Part of my job was to re-assure him. Like, we’re going to come out of this fine. These gigs are ours! We’re playing big places but, you know, ‘We got this, motherfucker.’ He was ambitious and scared, making damn sure you think he’s not either one. Tom’s cool. That’s what he loved. That’s what he became. He made that face for so long it became permanent. But early in life, he had to invent himself.”

As everyone does, I guess, to some degree. Great reporting though, and the entire book in a nutshell. This kind of stuff is ancient history now, most of the time. At 65, Petty seems to be happily married to Dana York, and he appears to have re-forged good relationships (as well as can ever be done) with his two daughters. “All Right For Now” is a terse, grateful lullaby to Dana, with the “ for now” being a reminder of how fragile these connections can still be. And since Petty and the Heartbreakers are a great live band above all else, here’s their version of the Troggs’ classic “ Wild Thing” … which was always a good litmus test of any garage band with wild ambition.


Petty : The Biography written by Warren Zanes. Published by Henry Holt & Company LLC.