There are some musicians who don’t so much arrive in your consciousness as you suddenly realize they’ve been there all along. But with Tom Petty, there are a couple of moments that made him leap from “guy I don’t mind hearing on the radio” to “guy I listen to of my own volition and pick to sing at karaoke and consider dropping $100 on tickets to go see.”
The first came when I was working as a production editor at Working Woman magazine, which during the week or so each month when the magazine was going to press was a job big enough to require two people. My co-pilot at the time was a hilarious guy from Oklahoma named Brian, and we quickly bonded over our mutual musical tastes. One month, Brian presented me with a surprise gift: He’d bought a Tom Petty boxed set as a present to himself for completing a round of chemo for the leukemia he’d been fighting on and off for years, which meant he didn’t need his Greatest Hits single-CD collection anymore, so would I like it?
Wikipedia tells me that Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits has gone 10x platinum, so odds are that you don’t need me to tell you about it. But still: It’s one of those albums that the minute I had it, I didn’t know how I’d lived without it. Just about every song is a classic, and the whole collection is just varied enough that re-listening never becomes tiresome. (It remains my go-to road trip CD.) And it’s a great reminder that Petty has managed to take classic Top 40 guitar rock and … elevate it? Perfect it? One of those, or both.
The second moment arrived a few years later, when my friend Matthew was helping to produce my band’s album (okay, he was mostly showing us how to use dynamic compression in Cool Edit Pro so we could burn better CDRs, but it sounds more impressive the other way) and mentioned that one of the best-produced albums he knew of was Tom Petty’s solo album Wildflowers, which Rick Rubin (yes, the Def Jam guy with the crazy beard before its time) had helped make into a stripped-down, intimate beauty. I didn’t know this album at all beyond the single “You Don’t Know How It Feels” — which mostly got attention at the time because radio stations forced Petty to release an edit that bleeped the line “let’s roll another joint” — but it turned out to be another can’t-miss selection, with terrific songs including the title track, “You Wreck Me,” “Cabin Down Below,” and the positively demented “Honey Bee,” which features one of my favorite over-the-top Tom Petty lyric sequences:
She give me her monkey hand
And a Rambler sedan
I’m the king of Milwaukee
Her juju beads are so nice
She kissed my third cousin twice
I’m the king of Pomona
Tom Petty and Neil Young are very much linked in my mind, not just because they occupy a similar folk-rock-turned-up-to-11 musical space, but because both start with classic rock forms and subjects and go off at oblique angles. A remarkable percentage of Tom Petty songs are about “girl, you’re so beautiful, and I can show you a better life/can wait for you if I have to/had to leave you,” but they manage to do so in a way that transcends triteness, or at least conveys the depths of emotion behind the trite. If there was a third defining Tom Petty moment for me, it was when I first heard Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby’s cover of “Walls,” which I’d somehow missed on its initial release, and which is one of the sweetest love songs (lost/unrequited category) ever written.
I still haven’t managed to see Tom Petty live — he played a set of shows at the Beacon Theater a couple of years back that I really wanted to go to, but they sold out in seconds (or at least Ticketmaster insisted they did) and I don’t love him so much that I was ready to spend $150 on StubHub. For some reason I never went to see him with Brian — in fact, I never went to any concerts with Brian, turning down his offer to go see Neil Young at Madison Square Garden because I was fed up with arena shows. I’m sorry I didn’t go, and not only because Brian’s been gone for over 15 years now, as that moment when he bought the Tom Petty boxed set turned out to be the high point in his fight with leukemia. I wish he were around for me to thank, and to chat with on Facebook about classic rock favorites, and to say something to him when he’s distracted so he can respond with his favorite Oklahomaism, “You did what behind the barn?” Not too unlike Tom Petty, he was a superficially simple guy whose complexities ran deep. You want to appreciate those people while you can.