My Tribute to Tom Petty

Japanese translation available:

"Goddamnit, man, you don't just drop dead one week after wrapping up your hugely successful 40th Anniversary Tour with a 3-night stint at the f#%!ing Hollywood Bowl!!" Yet, that was how he had to go, as fate would have it. 66 years of age... In a little over two weeks, he would have turned 67. The guy was not even 70!! He just left this world way before his time, and it just didn't seem right. But I also found myself feeling strangely impressed about his professionalism, as he actually finished his "last big tour" and didn't die in the middle of it (or, heaven forbid, collapse on stage during a concert, which some idiots would have called "a real rock 'n' roll way to go").

Then, three months later, I was back in the US for the first time in many years. Upon my arrival, I casually picked up a copy of Rolling Stone Magazine's Tom Petty Special Tribute Edition while waiting in a supermarket checkout line. One evening, I was alone in my hotel room, watching the news on TV, when his official cause of death was announced as an "accidental drug overdose" involving "several medications that included opioids." ANOTHER MUSIC LEGEND LOST TO LEGALLY-PRESCRIBED PAINKILLERS. Michael Jackson. Prince. And now Tom Petty ("TP"). "...Just as I suspected," part of me said, but it still felt indescribably sad. He didn't have to go that way.

I first became aware of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ("TP&HB") circa 1978 -- on the pages of MUSIC LIFE (which was one of the biggest monthly music magazines in Japan at the time). I still remember this particular black-and-white portrait of TP himself, who looked quite mysterious... and a bit out of style (i.e., not punkish) with his long blonde hair. It was also around the same time when I got to see a video clip of the band performing "I Need to Know" on local TV. The hooky chorus stayed with me, and I was certainly intrigued, but not enough to the point where I had to run to the nearest record shop and grab the single. After all, this was the end of the Seventies, with SO MANY new, exciting talents arriving on the scene relentlessly -- and I only had so much money to spend on records. Therefore, it actually took me until early 1980 to do just that...

"Don't Do Me Like That" / "Casa Dega" [single -- 1979]
I fell in love with TP&HB when this single hit the charts. It just sounded perfect -- so catchy, punchy and to-the-point. There was not even a guitar solo (!), and that drum break following the middle eight alone just about killed me. I also loved the more sombre, atmospheric B-side -- nearly as much as the A-side. As soon as I got the single, I knew I had to go buy the album, too...

"Here Comes My Girl" [DAMN THE TORPEDOES -- 1979]
...And then came the knock-out punch. If I had to choose my single favourite TP&HB song of all time, this would be it. The transformation from the spoken-word verse (featuring TP's distinctive Southern drawl) to the gloriously sunny chorus sounded absolutely fantastic! Immediately after falling under the spell of this magical track, I had to put Stan Lynch on the ever-growing list of the Coolest Rock Drummers whom I admired the most. To me, Stan's drumming was all about the art of (deceptive) simplicity with the right feel -- to serve the song first and foremost. Of course, this did not only apply to Stan -- they had such a great song to begin with, and it was so beautifully constructed and arranged, with everyone in the band playing brilliantly, without the slightest hint of showing off their chops. I was so impressed by how Benmont Tench slowly built up his keyboard parts throughout the song, not to mention the way his piano made the whole world blossom during the chorus. (If you closed your eyes, you could imagine this girl of your dreams pop up out of nowhere!!) Ron Blair's melodic bass line was also essential in creating the irresistible groove. It probably took me several more years to fully appreciate these guys' musicianship and instrumental skills; but I knew instinctively at this early stage that they had their unique sound, and they really understood how to play and make everything blend together -- to achieve a truly outstanding group performance. This was what you wanted your band to sound like! Boy, they set such a high standard for me.

DAMN THE TORPEDOES was one of the last records I bought before my whole family left Tokyo and moved to Texas. Upon my arrival, I discovered that TP&HB had become one of the hottest rock bands in the United States, and that almost made me fall off my chair. Then, I thought to myself, "Gee, I probably didn’t even have to go buy that LP -- most of those songs are played on the radio ALL THE TIME!!" ...AND GIRLS WERE GOING CRAZY ABOUT TP (who, to my eyes at least, didn't exactly look like your typical sex symbol)!!!

"Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" [single with Stevie Nicks -- 1981]
This was a huge hit in the summer of 1981, and even though I dug the song, I couldn't help wondering why it had not been released as a bona fide TP&HB single. (To tell the truth, I was not particularly fond of Stevie's voice back then.) After listening to the demo version of this song (released on the PLAYBACK boxset in 1995), however, I came to understand that Jimmy Iovine had made the right decision about turning it into a duet. Stan really shines on this one, too.

(P.S. One of the hidden gems of the HARD PROMISES album, by the way, was the closing track, "You Can Still Change Your Mind," which also featured Stevie's harmony vocal.)

"Straight Into Darkness" [LONG AFTER DARK -- 1982]
Sadly, the first and only time I ever got to see TP&HB live in concert was at the Budokan hall in March 1986, when they joined forces with the ever unpredictable Bob Dylan for the True Confessions Tour. I had never seen Dylan perform live before, so this was such an exciting double billing. And TP&HB certainly knew how to deliver the goods; Dylan looked and sounded so comfortable to be on stage with these guys, and their mutual respect was evident. A considerable number of TP fans (who did not necessarily care for Uncle Bobby's music) did turn up at Budokan, but much to their chagrin, TP&HB only played 4 songs on their own. The lesser-known "Straight Into Darkness" was definitely the highlight as far as I was concerned. The image of TP wandering about the stage freely during the song's middle section -- throwing glances into the audience -- was forever etched in my mind.

"Dogs on the Run" [SOUTHERN ACCENTS -- 1985]
The long and hard struggle that TP&HB had to go through in putting together the whole SOUTHERN ACCENTS album has been well-documented, but at the time of its release, the LP sounded kind of scattered and threw me off a bit. I really didn't know what to make of a record that had this whacky hit single with Dave Stewart ("Don't Come Around Here No More") on the one hand, and then such majestically beautiful ballads as the title song and the closing track, "The Best of Everything," on the other hand. Eventually, I got used to and came to really love the album with all its peculiarities (including "Make It Better (Forget About Me)," which even TP himself dismissed), and there is something about "Dogs on the Run" that I find so exhilarating. Maybe it's Mike Campbell's guitar riff -- or it's the horn section, I don’t know... But it's one of the few straight rockers on the album, and it's just a great track to groove to on a beautiful sunny day.

"Southern Accents" / "Rebels" [PACK UP THE PLANTATION: LIVE! -- 1985]
Having spent my high school years in Texas during the early 1980's (when lots of things used to be so very different), I would rather not get into this whole dispute surrounding the Confederate flag. But if that controversy may actually turn out to be one of the main reasons that have kept this great concert video from being re-released (as a DVD/Blu-ray disc), it is such a shame indeed. This particular segment (featuring a couple of the strongest cuts from their latest album at the time) was definitely one of the most memorable parts of the show, and I always loved the way their great horn section brought an extra touch of colour to the band’s sound (even though some of the guys in the band were said to be less than happy about TP's decision to bring them along on that tour). "Rebels" in particular sounded much more exciting live, and sure, I would have happily joined everybody else in the audience to sing along the chorus, if I had been there.

"My Life Your World" [LET ME UP (I'VE HAD ENOUGH) -- 1987]
Like so many die-hard TP&HB fans, I always believed LET ME UP (I'VE HAD ENOUGH) was a great album. Yes, the record did have its share of fillers, but, dare I say it, even their "fillers" sounded much better than those average pop songs played on the radio in the late Eighties. So there you go. This track serves as a showcase of Mike Campbell's superb guitar work; but if you listen closely to the live recording on THE LIVE ANTHOLOGY, you may realise that the true star was the late Howie Epstein, who sang with pitch-perfect harmony AND played some terrific bass. Howie, you are missed by so many.

"Yer So Bad" [FULL MOON FEVER -- 1989]
One of the best tributes ever to the Lennon-McCartney song-writing team, as far as I am concerned. I still cannot help grinning while listening to this tune. It would have been quite interesting to see Lennon's reaction to this nifty little number!!

"Mary Jane's Last Dance" [GREATEST HITS -- 1993]
Truth be told, I was not too crazy about the albums TP made with Jeff Lynne from the late 80's to the early 90's. I mean, it would be insane to dismiss such TP classics like "Free Fallin'" and "Learning to Fly" -- but I felt quite relieved to find out that TP had moved on and started working with Rick Rubin by 1993... Especially when a song as strong as "Mary Jane" was being tacked on as a customary bonus track to the "Greatest Hits" package (which, of course, went on to be certified 12 X Platinum by the RIAA in 2015!). My favourite performance of this song came from the MTV Video Music Awards in 1994, which you should still be able to find on YouTube. It must have been one of the last live performances by TP&HB with Stan playing the drums. Absolutely no offense to Steve Ferrone, who took over and kept the Heartbreakers alive for more than 20 years (!), but to me, TP&HB were never the same without Stan.

"Crawling Back to You" [WILDFLOWERS --1994]
I remember picking up a copy of "WILDFLOWERS" at this "fnac" store in Paris, back in the late autumn of 1994, on my way back from this unforgettable two-month journey to Africa. Just checking out the first track on the CD -- the title tune -- at the store, I knew right away that it was the best thing TP had ever done. (...Little did I know that Stan had no longer been a Heartbreaker by then...) There are so many great songs on this record, and it made me feel vindicated to see "Crawling Back to You" topping the Rolling Stone's "Reader's Poll: The 10 Best Tom Petty Deep Cuts" in 2016.

"Climb That Hill" [Songs and Music from 'SHE’S THE ONE' -- 1996]
TP&HB meet AC/DC -- just crank it up!

"Swingin'" [ECHO -- 1999]
This will always be ranked among my Top 3 TP&HB tunes. It has got to be one of the most cinematic tracks in this storyteller's huge songbook. (The music video of this song is not bad, but I'd rather just close my eyes, listen to the song and let my mind create its own images.) Hearing that guitar intro alone, and the way the whole band kicks in with a drum fill, can move me emotionally in an indescribable way that few other songs do. I just don't know what it is -- it's not really a sad song, but almost nine times out of ten, I get all choked up when I hear that chorus. The guitars sound so big and beautiful, but I also love the way Benmont plays the piano, and I love the way Howie's voice can be heard in the background. That TP and the lads more or less adlibbed the whole song in the studio was such a shocking revelation, but that seems to explain why I love it so much. To me, it was always about this extraordinary chemistry that TP&HB had as a team. By now, most fans know that the ECHO album had to be recorded during a very dark, difficult period for the band, out of which TP eventually came through, but poor Howie didn't. This image of a girl, who "went down swingin'," is forever intertwined with the sad and painful memory of Howie's slow disintegration, but even so, there's something uplifting about this music, and I guess that's why we've loved TP&HB so much for so very long.

"This One's for Me" [ECHO -- 1999]
Another proof of TP as a song-writer extraordinaire. He seemed to write these songs so effortlessly, although I'm sure he just made it look (I mean sound) that way. On the surface, casual listeners may perceive it as another sunny pop tune with catchy melody lines (...and having that twelve-string guitar solo always helps); but if you listen closely to the lyrics, you begin to grasp the extent of personal hardship TP lived through at the time. "And you don't even know what you've got 'til it's walking away / Yeah, you don't even know what you had 'til it laughs in your face" -- those lines HURT, man. On ECHO, there are so many great cuts with overtones of loneliness and sadness, and while it may never become your first pick for a record to help cheer yourself up, it has been and will always be one of my favourite TP&HB albums.

"Like A Diamond" [THE LAST DJ -- 2002]
At the risk of repeating myself over and over again, I cannot help pointing out the fact that TP wrote so many beautiful melodies. This number, along with "Dreamville" stood out in THE LAST DJ, which was one of those albums that seemed to have fallen through the cracks. I remember how the whole music industry gave TP the cold shoulder upon its release -- because they knew damn well that TP was right (and they were wrong). It may sound corny, but TP&HB were extremely sincere and cared about their fans, and making more money was never their first priority. But coming back to this particular LP, I recently revisited it for the first time in many years -- and just couldn't help being immensely impressed. It appears that, after surviving in the business for so long, TP's talent might have come to be taken for granted.

...Even though I kept buying the new releases, my enthusiasm for TP&HB fell into a slow decline after THE LAST DJ. It was certainly not their fault by any means -- they managed to maintain an incredibly high level of quality standards for such a long period of time, and when it came to their live performances, I do not remember reading a single negative review, ever. It had more to do with the fact that I was getting older, and whenever I felt like listening to some TP&HB, I would inevitably gravitate towards their earlier works (i.e., the "good-old vintage stuff"). That was nothing special, because it sort of applied to most other artists, too -- including Dylan, Bowie, Neil Young, Lou Reed and so on...

"Hungry No More" [MUDCRUTCH 2 -- 2016]
The first MUDCRUTCH album (2008) was a very pleasant surprise, but their second one turned out to be even better (which in itself is a remarkable achievement). "Hungry No More" and "Beautiful Blue" were standout cuts, and even though no one would have thought of the record as TP's parting gift at the time, I know I can no longer listen to it in the exact same way after he's gone. I mean, he literally did come full circle in his musical journey by getting back together with his old bandmates. I'm sure there will be lots and lots of posthumous releases in the future, and considering the number of hits he had over the years, I wouldn't even worry about TP's legacy not being kept alive. But listening to this MUDCRUTCH 2 album makes it so clear that TP still had so much music left in him -- and he still had so much more to say to us. That is what makes me feel so unbelievably sad about his untimely departure. I really wish he had stayed with us a little longer.

...Well, it looks like my rambling tribute to this great man is finally coming to an end. We have lost so many iconic musicians over the last few years, and even though we all have to come to terms with this inescapable reality, TP's passing was one of the more upsetting cases (as it had been so totally unexpected). Since October, I went back and listened to all his albums, and none of them could be described as a "stinker." Can you name ANY OTHER ARTIST who stayed alive in the music business for 40 F#%!ING YEARS and never even released a single crappy record? I salute you, Mr. Thomas Earl Petty. May your soul rest in peace... but PLEASE don't stop ROCKIN' AROUND up there!!







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