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Patrick Walsh

Tom Petty: A Charmed Rock ‘n’ Roll Life


    Tom, you’re a good man to ride the river with.– Johnny Cash’s handwritten note on a postcard to his friend Tom Petty

    I think Tom’s politics is in his work, I mean, he is a humanist. – Peter Bogdanovich at the IFC Film Festival debut of Runnin’ Down a Dream

Anyone who knows me knows that Tom Petty occupies a top spot in my pantheon of personal heroes. From early boyhood, Petty resolved to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll star–he never wavered in fulfilling his destiny. He grew up listening to The Beatles, The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash; as a man, he would be their peer, friend, and even their leader.

Of all the kids in America in the ‘50s and ‘60s who listened to their transistor radios, serenaded and beguiled by Rock ‘n’ Roll’s icons, this one would play and write songs and record and pal around with the heroes he idolized. An icon himself, he led a charmed Rock ‘n’ Roll life.

Beyond the immense pleasure he gave us with his music, Petty lived a life of remarkable integrity–some of it dazzlingly obvious, some of it behind the scenes–which, in its own way, also gives a kind of pleasure.

His integrity permeates dozens of unforgettable songs and hundreds of performances, as well as some of Rock and Country music’s best collaborations. He succeeded at being both a friend and leader to his bandmates, The Heartbreakers. Even legendary artists he admired growing up recognized his unusually complete stature. And he took on the record industry, winning not one but two landmark battles which benefited all musicians. In this lesser-known role, Tom Petty was the kind of American whom cigar-smoking fat cats hate and fear, an eloquent man of unshakable conviction who can’t be bought.

Damn the torpedoes, he would not back down.

I first heard Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 7th grade when their third album, Damn the Torpedoes, released in October 1979, was in the process of establishing them as a mainstay of Rock radio with hit after hit: “Here Comes My Girl,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Even the Losers,” “What Are You Doin’ in My Life,” and, of course, “Refugee.”

Like millions of listeners, I immediately loved Petty’s music, but it was many years later when I discovered his character by watching renowned American film director Peter Bogdanovich’s aptly-named 2007 documentary, Runnin’ Down a Dream.

What’s funny is that when he started, Bogdanovich didn’t know much about Petty or his music. He thought 90 minutes would be enough, but as he learned more, he knew the film needed to go longer. When he finally felt he’d done his subject justice, his documentary came in two minutes shy of four hours.

Petty’s all-too-early death at 66 on October 2, 2017 will undoubtedly prompt new books, but they’ll all be playing second fiddle to Petty: The Biography, the 2015 release by Warren Zanes. Zanes’ 30-year friendship with Petty began in 1987 when he and his band, the Del Fuegos, opened for The Heartbreakers. Down the line, Petty asked Zanes to write his story then gave his anointed biographer unflinching access. Authorized, extremely well-written and readable, Petty: The Biography is a great primer; if you’re going to read Petty’s story, this book is
the one to get.

But Bogdanovich commands the superior medium with which to chronicle Petty’s life and artistic legacy. Along with interviews and a trove of photos, his film features whole-song live performances, music videos, news coverage, TV appearances, and home movie footage going back to Petty’s childhood, as well as bonus footage from three concerts.

Born in 1950 in Gainesville, Florida, Tom Petty trailed the previous decade’s wave of arrivals who would become Rock’s Olympian gods: Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin. By dint of birth he was already running down a dream.

In some ways, though, the dream came to him. As Petty recounts, he was 10 years old when Elvis Presley was making a movie (Follow That Dream) in Ocala. Petty’s uncle was working on the picture and arranged for his nephew to meet Elvis. “I went home and it changed me,” he recalled. He bought some Elvis records posthaste and played them to the point that his parents worried there was something wrong with their son.

“And when I was 13,” Petty continued, “The Beatles came and in those few minutes when they hit the Ed Sullivan show it all became clear: this is what I’m gonna do, this is how you do it.” His dad bought him a guitar. Soon he formed his first group,
The Epics, and dropped out of high school at 17 to play full-time.

The Epics morphed into Mudcrutch, which, despite the name, spawned a hefty regional following, “the biggest thing Gainesville had ever seen,” as Petty proudly described them. These proto-Heartbreakers rocked their fans with “Depot Street,” “I Can’t Fight It,” and a song playing on a Rock radio station somewhere in America right now, “Don’t Do Me Like That.”

Once again, the dream seemed to be runnin’ down Petty. Two future Heartbreakers–guitarist Mike Campbell and pianist/keyboardist Benmont Tench–joined the band serendipitously. With a headshake of disbelief, Petty said: “You couldn’t ever have planned it or dreamed it up, just two of the best musicians in the world walked right into my life and completely grasped what I wanted to do.” Mudcrutch also fielded guitarist/vocalist Tom Leadon, whose brother Bernie was already making it big out in L.A. with a band called The Eagles.

Petty knew his calling, so much so that he persuaded Campbell and Tench to drop out of college, telling them: trust me, we’re going all the way! Looking back, he laughed at his gumption:

      I said look, this is it with school, we’re gonna make records. I do remember having to go to his [Tench’s] father who was a big-time judge, very intimidating, and I had to talk him into letting his son quit college. And I made a pretty good case.

Demo in hand, Petty drove to L.A. In short order, the band agreed to sign with London Records, but they’d be scooped up for Shelter Records by Petty-Hard-Promises-OVAL-cr2Denny Cordell, who had produced such greats as Procul Harum and Joe Cocker.

With the addition of drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Ron Blair, Mudcrutch became Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Like a proud parent, Petty boasted: “I was really inspired when I got this group. They could pretty much do anything I threw at ‘em and give it back to me better than I had pictured it in the first place.”

The Heartbreaker’s self-titled first album featuring “Breakdown” and “American Girl” didn’t do much in America but hit big in England. Guitarist Mike Campbell remembers, “the English press really connected with the record and built it up as a big deal and when we went over there it was really exciting.”

There were some listening back at home. “I was kidding my manager,” said Roger McGuinn. “He played ‘American Girl’ for me and I said when did I record that? He said it’s not you and I said yeah, I know it’s not me: who is it?”

It wouldn’t be long until all of America listened. But while Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers rocketed to fame they also raced towards bankruptcy . . . and a fateful showdown.

Like so many musical artists, Petty and his band signed a rotten deal. Here they were playing sold-out gigs night after night, their songs on the radio, their albums selling well, and they were going broke. Much the same way Baseball’s reserve clause was standard contractual boilerplate which condemned players to perpetual indentured servitude, record contracts fleeced musicians. After the company deducted all the costs of making the record–the artwork, the pressing of the vinyl discs–from your royalties, you made pennies per LP.

And they owned your songs, even songs you had yet to write.

MCA acquired Shelter Records. As The Heartbreakers worked on their third album, Petty filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and argued that he’d signed the contract under duress: if he didn’t agree to the publishing deal he wouldn’t get the recording deal. If you go bankrupt, the contract is null and void. It was the first time anyone had used that strategy in the music business. The wrangle provided Petty with the new album’s title: Damn the Torpedoes.

As Petty told it, “suddenly I’m not in a battle with one record company, I’m in a battle with all of them.” So naturally, they try to intimidate him:

      The Big Guy comes in and he goes “Let me tell you something, kid, you’re gonna forget this, you’re gonna go make your records and shut up.” You know, I said look, I’ll sell fucking peanuts before I’ll give in to you. I refuse to give in to you. I said you can break me but you can’t make records.

The MCA robber barons knew they were beaten. They settled with Petty, creating a sub-label for him, Backstreet Records, and giving him back the publishing rights to his songs. But Petty’s victory was a win for all musicians. Soon a wave of similar lawsuits pummeled the once invulnerable labels. Record contracts would never be the same.

Not long afterwards, MCA tried to foist an industry-wide increase of record prices on the back of The Heartbreakers new album, Hard Promises. And once again, Petty took the music industry to court and won.

Knowing about these two major legal battles gives layers of new depth to Petty’s everyman anthem “I Won’t Back Down.”

By now you can see why Peter Bogdanovich needed to make his Tom Petty documentary a true epic. With Hard Promises, the fourth Heartbreakers album, well-established artists began to seek out Petty as a songwriter and collaborator, starting with Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, who sang a duet on the album and scored a huge hit on her solo album with another Petty duet/composition, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”

Petty’s future collaborative projects would be the envy (and entirety) of any other artist’s career. He and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics co-wrote “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” The Heartbreakers toured for a year as Bob Dylan’s band. Petty and George Harrison formed The Traveling Wilburys with Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne.


A true supergroup, this wonderful band of “brothers” made joyous music together, including “Handle with Care” and “End of the Line.” Ringo Starr, by now a good friend, joined Petty on several numbers, such as the video for “I Won’t Back Down.” And like he did for Dylan, Petty put The Heartbreakers at the service of Johnny Cash, who would win a Best Country Album Grammy for Unchained. Another masterpiece, another beautiful friendship.

His Voice

One thing that makes a Tom Petty song immediately recognizable is his voice. He grew up in Gainesville but he neither spoke nor sang with a distinctly Southern accent (ironic as the sixth Heartbreakers album was called Southern Accents and featured an anthemic song of the same title.) To my ear, Petty’s voice is one part Roger McGuinn, one part Bob Dylan, and one part Brooklyn street-tough (listen to his Flatbush inflections on “Breakdown,” i.e. ees alrigh if you luv me, ees alrigh if you don’.)

Those first two thirds come as no surprise. Petty cited Roger McGuinn and The Byrds as his one of his strongest influences. (Oftentimes, when an artist covers a song, he or she tries to put their stamp on it, make it their own, but on Petty’s colossal solo album, Full Moon Fever, he does an absolutely faithful rendition of “Feel a Whole Lot Better.”)

After a while, of course, Petty just sounds like Petty, but cue up The Byrds doing “Tambourine Man” or play some Dylan–say “Highway 61,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”–and follow it up with either “Listen to Her Heart” or “Refugee” and it’ll leap out at you. As for that Brooklyn delivery, go on YouTube and check out a young John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back, Kotter and tell me I’m wrong.

His Songs

Quite simply, the Tom Petty songbook astonishes. Just the sheer number of familiar, let alone beloved singles!

There’s something cinematic about many of his best songs, such as this moment in “American Girl” on the Heartbreakers debut album:

      Well it was kind of cold that night,

      She stood alone on her balcony.

      She could hear the cars roll by

      Out on 441

      Like waves crashin’ on the beach.

      And for one desperate moment there

      He crept back in her memory –

      God it’s so painful

      When something that’s so close

      Is still so far out of reach.

Or these two scenes from “Even the Losers” from Damn the Torpedoes:

      Well it was nearly summer as we sat on your roof,

      Yeah we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon,

      And I showed you stars you never could see –

      Babe, it couldn’t have been that easy to forget
      about me . . .


      Two cars parked on the overpass,

      Rocks hit the water like broken glass,

      I should’ve known right then it was too good to last:

      God it’s such a drag when you’re livin’ in the past.

And this evocative sketch with just a few brushstrokes in “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” a bonus track (!) The Heartbreakers whipped up for the Greatest Hits collection:

      There’s pigeons down on Market Square,

      She’s standin’ in her underwear

      Lookin’ down from a hotel room,

      The nightfall will be coming soon.

Like few others, Tom Petty had a gift for lyrics, the genius of moving from the telling detail to the diamond-bullet insight; of establishing a mood, a scene, and then effortlessly rising above it; of bringing his listener up with him–even when he was Free Fallin’.

He could do it all, from punchy Pop hooks on “You Wreck Me”–“you’ll be the girl / At the high school dance / I’ll be the boy / In the corduroy pants”–to the defiant self-assurance of “I Won’t Back Down,” a song, a credo so direct, so just, that not only did Johnny Cash cover it, but when Petty performed it live he could hold the microphone aloft and let his oceans of fans sing it as one.  

Even the rare times Petty got really angry he nailed it, as in his scathing takedown of Rock radio, “The Last DJ,” with a set of lines which I think sadly summarizes the American scene for quite a while now:

      As we celebrate mediocrity,

      All the boys upstairs want to see

      How much you’ll pay

      For what you used to get free.

Toward the end of Runnin’ Down a Dream, there’s a sweet interview with Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s lead vocalist. As Vedder explains how he idolized Petty as a kid and bought Hard Promises the day it hit stores, Bogdanovich cross-cuts footage of him singing lead on “The Waiting” with Petty and the Heartbreakers in concert. You can see Vedder’s pure, almost childlike adoration for the elder blond guitarist on his left. In a touching comment that gets right to the heart of the whole mystical enterprise, Vedder says:

      I don’t know if an artist completely understands or needs to be reminded of sometimes is how deeply these songs affect people in such a way that when you hear the song you know like where you were and even the feeling in your gut when you were 14 hearing that song. And the artist, like if they can accept that, that’s a potent thing, it’s really . . . what a gracious situation.

Yes, Eddie, that’s it exactly! And Tom Petty seemed to understand it intuitively. The guy led a charmed Rock ‘n’ Roll life.


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Patrick Walsh served four years as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. His articles and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers both here and abroad.
More at his Website:
He is a columnist and Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.

©2017 Patrick Walsh
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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