Damn the Torpedoes was my introduction – and I still think it’s pretty close to being a perfect rock record. It’s also just seeped in nostalgia for me, not just for the actual music but for cassette tapes. And what an intro to the music of Tom Petty.
Overall, the catalogue is strong. Most of the albums are credited to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, a superb and sympathetic band. Mike Campbell never seems to appear on top-guitarist lists but he has a great ear (and skill) for the right thing to play. There are three albums credited to Tom Petty as a solo act (1989’s Full Moon Fever, very much a rebirth; 1994’s Wildflowers and 2006’s Highway Companion). If nothing else Highway Companion was a decent apology for The Last DJ, a reboot that was followed up on by 2010’s Mojo.
Some days I’m pretty sure my favourite Tom Petty album is Wildflowers, so many great songs. And such a special feel to it. It just arrived at a great time too – the Heartbreakers had been anthologised and then Tom heads out on his own again…
So, lately I’ve been going back through a few of these great albums – the mid-80s live album, Torpedoes and Wildflowers are constant favourites. And the superb live box-set from a decade or so ago still gets a work through fairly regularly.
Great live band, solid albums band, superb singles band. And there’s been the odd wobble, some inconsistency, but I like that. No one makes the perfect record every time; few ever achieve anything close. I could obviously do away with some of my Tom Petty records but there is at least half a dozen I could never be without. That’s a decent effort I reckon. Few artists make half a dozen really strong albums that last; albums that survive fads and trends and flukes and revivals. But then Tom Petty was never really about fads and trends and flukes and revivals (part of the problem with The Last DJ; it feels like a phoned-in phoney).
Also, now, a few years on from Petty’s death, the music arrives back in your life like the hug you need, at the time when you need it.
I like the fact, too, that barring production ideas, so many of Tom Petty’s songs could have been swapped around to appear on another record. He might not be hitting it out of the park every time but Mojo, Highway Companion, Wildflowers, parts of the She’s the One soundtrack and Into the Great Wide Open feature songs that could have appeared on earlier albums. They just hadn’t been written at that time.
Another way of saying that: there really aren’t fads and trends with Petty. He cared about the song. And if/when the song happens then there it is, preserved at that time for all time.
And then I remember I have a friend who just can’t stand Tom Petty. This announcement was made – with a follow-up that no amount of explanation, no cajoling, no selecting the right tracks/albums will change this decision, this stand.
This friend will not budge. There is nothing I (or anyone else) can do. This person is convinced that Tom Petty cannot be good, cannot mean anything to them – because Free Fallin’ feels like small-town bogan music. And that taint has lasted.
I can almost sympathise with part of this. The opening chords of Free Fallin’ and the drawled vocals really bug me now – the way any overplayed song continues to creep and crawl around when it’s (annoyingly) under your skin.
But I can still take Free Fallin’ in the context of the Full Moon Fever album. And even though that’s not one of my favourites – not anymore, anyway – I can’t let that change how I feel about Wildflowers and Mojo and Torpedoes and the other albums. And if I have to go
through that song to get to something like A Face in the Crowd, well, then it’s worth it.
The Playback box-set was a constant musical companion for me through university. Before that the single-disc greatest hits was my go-to (for when I didn’t feel like listening to any one album but needed a fix).
I listen to Tom Petty for the lyrics, the jangle, the timelessness – the fact that this American guy singing about American Girl(s) quite clearly comes from The Byrds and Dylan and sits alongside Costello and Springsteen. I listen to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers to hear a great live band. This version of Breakdown is what it’s all about. That’s live music for me – the crowd anticipating the song, so caught up in the tune, their own emotions invested.
My friend plays music, knows music – is interested in so much music, but won’t touch Tom Petty. It’s been ruined. Spoilt forever, apparently. I have thought about how futile it would be trying one more time to make the recommendation to check out this amazing career anthology of live highlights. There might be a blues track from the 1970s or a folkie cut from the early 1990s that would work. I decided I wouldn’t even try. I can respect the stand being made – even if I don’t completely understand it.
But that can happen, can’t it? That’s the thing with music. It is hardly ever just about the music. It’s about who we are or who we were, where we were, who we were there with. It’s often about many things beyond the music, outside the music, or just barely hanging in around the music.
I first saw Tom Petty on Live Aid. That was my introduction. I knew the songs he played – and possibly even recognised him. But face to a name and music to a name, that was my connection. And then it was possibly the Traveling Wilburys for me before I even heard that copy of Damn The Torpedoes. My brother bought the tape. Told me I might like it. It wasn’t the only thing he introduced me to. But it was one of the very best things. And I have such strong memories of that. And so many more that have sprung from that. Those wonderful songs, and melodies, and memories. The blur of that music and those times and those worlds.