One of the things that pops up in my mind when it comes to Tom Petty was his integrity It goes back to when he was just about to release the Hard Promises album back in 1981. He was engaging in a big tussle with then MCA Records over the suggested retail price for the album. Tom didn’t want the price of his new album to be raised. This always stuck in my mind. He cared about his fans.
One of the other things which always stands out as well was when he released The Last DJ album back in 2002. Though the album didn’t garner a lot of critical praise, I loved the fact that he centered his album around the sad shape of Rock radio and the whole industry which created something that all of us old music fans despise. It was another aspect to his integrity. He cared about the state of the music community at large and how it had been funneled into repetitious corporate nonsense of which no feeling was involved whatsoever.
I still remember how he was originally marketed as a New Wave act back in 1976 when the self-titled debut album came out. Yet, whenever I heard “Breakdown”, I heard a guy who was more than what I heard with “American Girl” (and I liked “American Girl” a lot). With “Breakdown”, I heard a guy who knew the roots. It was in him. I knew to keep this guy in mind when he released another album. When I heard tracks off of 1978’s “You’re Gonna Get It”, I was saying to myself that I was hearing consistency. I was hearing all of this while I was still living down in the Bay Area of California.
I moved up to Oregon on Labor Day of ’78. When 1979 rolled around, Tom Petty’s Art took what was, in my eyes, a huge leap with the Damn The Torpedoes album. Petty went from being someone to keep an eye on to someone to take very seriously. The whole album jelled from one end to the other. The lyrics took on added depth. It was commercial and it had something to say. “Even The Losers” was the song which told me that Petty had reached a higher status in the hierarchy of Rock. He had become the perfect combination of being a serious artist while being commercially viable. He had a niche in the marketplace.
It all got reinforced with the Hard Promises album. “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)” put him in my own personal high priority list. Two albums in a row, he knocked it out of the park. I sure hope a few of you reading this own the old Mobile Fidelity Gold discs of these two albums because the mastering on them has never been topped for those two titles of Tom’s.
Even when he ended up releasing albums which may not have been 5-star albums throughout the ’80s, he still managed to have at least a couple of really great songs on each one. It’s like a roll-call of titles of which any self-respecting musician would have been envious of. Through all of this, Petty ended up becoming not just one of those guys who was only known around circles of music geeks. His forays into different areas of Rock made him well known to a lot of people while not being a superstar. And when it all came down to the nuts and bolts of who he was, I thought roots. He really was a roots guy at heart.
One of the greatest moves he ever made was seeing through that The Traveling Wilburys became reality. His teaming up with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison gave all of us a two album shot of great humor and serious musical intent. It wasn’t a superstar collaboration filled with overbearing egos to influence the outcome of an album presentation, it was a stars aligned perfectly project where the songs spoke more about themselves than about the music icons who created it. The thing I’ll always carry about the first Wilburys album (especially) is that “Handle With Care” and “End Of The Line” seemed to hold me in its arms as I came to the realization that I was more battered and bruised from having endured the ’80s than I realized. “Handle With Care” was the song which played in my head when I went to Las Vegas in very early 1989 for some much needed rest and relaxation. Flying at (what?) 30,000 feet and I had this feeling that I was passing an important milepost in my life as it assisted me to a place where some personal history was to be made. It was an ironic song to have playing in my head. Las Vegas doesn’t have anything to do with “Handle With Care”, but it was perfect for me at the time. Maybe it was what I was aiming for all along?
The beautiful thing about Tom Petty is that he managed to pull off what some may consider to be the best album of his career almost 20 years into his career back in 1994. That’s no mean feat. Music artists almost 20 years into their career aren’t supposed to do that, are they? The album was fully identifiable Tom and yet it had an edge which hadn’t been present for some of his previous material. It was another 5-star album. Wildflowers. It is one of the best albums of the ’90s because of that edge and the fact that his terrific guitar player, Mike Campbell, was still coming up with so many good ways to expand Tom’s material through his playing.
I got to witness seeing Tom and a few of The Heartbreakers playing live for the first time at Neil Yong’s first Bridge Concert back on October 13, 1986. He pulled off an acoustic set which was the equal of Neil Young, CSNY, Bruce Springsteen and Don Henley. He was confident and he put it over so convincingly. A few years back, I finally got to see a full band electric Heartbreakers show at Matthew Knight Arena. He still had it and he nailed it.
So, when I look back on him, the biggest thing I always feel sorry for was that he got tagged with the Heartland Rock label back in the ’80s while he was managing to come out with gems like “Don’t Come Around Here No More”. I mean, come on now, is that song Heartland Rock? It had more feeling in it than the writers coming up with the tag did. I detested this label because of the fact that a lot of dumb-assed journalists who did not follow music closely had to call it something after the popularity of Springsteen’s Born In The USA album and subsequent tour in 1984-1985. The bandanna and blue-jeans stereotype got placed onto him, Bruce as well as John Mellencamp. The morons couldn’t just say that it was something as both simple and profound as it was great Rock and Roll or just plain great music period. If they couldn’t see a look on you, then I suppose some of these people wouldn’t have bothered at all. But I think it was Tom’s integrity through the years which helped him to rise above it all. Nobody calls him a Heartland rocker anymore. His was just great music. Thank God for that.
We’re going to have to see what kinds of decisions Tom’s family, the surviving members of The Heartbreakers and Universal are going to do now that Tom has passed away. How are they going to approach his legacy?
For starters, the All The Rest project for the Wildflowers album is going to have to be addressed off the top of the bat. I would like to see this long delayed project morph into a Wildflowers album box-set. There should be a remastered album to go along along with the outtakes and unreleased songs from the sessions. I can also easily envision 2-CD Deluxe Editions for most of his back-catalog as well as more unreleased live performances from his career. It’s a matter of how things will be presented which becomes a concern. I would hope that Tom’s old fight with MCA back in 1981 will be kept in consideration of what will be done with his back-catalog and archives. He gave of himself with his integrity. Will Universal do the same for him and his fans? We’ll see.
In the meantime, it feels really empty right now. I don’t think any of us expected Tom to pass before some of our huge icons who are still among us. He was one of those guys who was great without having a lot of attention drawn to him like some of our other stars who are closely aligned with him. It was so much so that I think we ended up taking him for granted. The big celebrations always took place for every Dylan or Springsteen album. And then there’s the people like Petty and Mellencamp. It seems like they’ve always been just under the surface at a slow boil. When they came out with great albums, they caught our attention. When Dylan and Springsteen release albums, they get big attention whether they’ve released good ones or bad ones. Petty’s consistency was almost too quiet for its own good at times-even when the albums were not his best. Still, like I said before, you could always count on those couple of really great ones on each one. You are going to be missed so much, Tom.
— Steve Talia