Pretty Petty

Rethinking divorce and Mojo, the wisdom of Tom Petty is no joke: Songs 55-41

Rethinking divorce and Mojo, the wisdom of Tom Petty is no joke

Tom Petty wise
Sometimes Tom Petty's brilliance sneaks up on a music critic.
Tom Petty Mojo
Like his work on Mojo — which already has two songs in the Top 100 of Petty's career.
Mike Campbell
Mike Campbell is a invaluable right-hand man in Petty's career.
News_Tom Petty_Dam the Torpedoes
Tom Petty's been through a few painful divorces and they've shown up in his music.
Tom Petty cartoon
Just because you're an icon who plays with the Heartbreakers doesn't mean you don't get your heart broken. Courtesy of www.fanpop.com
Tom Petty wise
Tom Petty Mojo
Mike Campbell
News_Tom Petty_Dam the Torpedoes
Tom Petty cartoon

Editor's note: CultureMap is counting down the Top 100 songs of Tom Petty's career in anticipation of his concert at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion Sept. 24. Stay tuned for the selections each week.

Earlier this year, I reviewed Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers new album Mojo for this site, and I didn’t exactly give it five stars. In truth, I was a bit let down by the album, feeling that it felt too much like uninspired blues jamming that lacked both Petty’s songwriting idiosyncrasies and the Heartbreakers’ unique alchemy.

Yet here we are in the midst of running off the top 100 songs of the man’s illustrious career, and we’ve got two Mojo songs standing proudly among some true classics in the Ultimate Tom Petty Countdown. What does that mean? Either I was way off base in my original review, or, and this is the way I’m leaning, we tend to hold the best to pretty rigorous standards.

Whatever the case, we’ve got some amazing songs to talk about as we get a little closer to the top of the heap.

Song 55: “Accused Of Love”
Album: Echo

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This is an example of a situation where the context of a song will weigh heavily on how it’s interpreted. On the surface, “Accused Of Love” is a nifty little number, paying tribute to Petty’s British Invasion influences with reverence while adding the songwriter’s nimble wordplay and mischievous sense of humor to the mix.

But, coming as it does on Echo, it’s impossible not to associate the song with Petty’s divorce proceedings. With references to witnesses and attorneys in the final verse in a farcical version of a trial, you can certainly read it as Petty using gallows humor to try and make sense of a difficult time in his life.

Putting all of that weight on the song isn’t really necessary though, because it works just fine without it. With that Searchers-style instrumental break and the swirling strings sneaking in, this is, ironically, one of the lighter moments on Echo. And it’s such a tight, precise pop song that it’s damn fine no matter what the circumstances that inspired it.

Song 54: “Down South”
Album: Highway Companion

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Petty explored his Southern roots in depth on his classic 1985 album, Southern Accents, and managed one of his most complete artistic statements in doing so. If that album was a memoir, then you can consider this song off Highway Companion the afterword. It’s a fresh take on basically the same subject matter.

As it was two decades before, the South proves to be fertile ground for Petty. He has affection for all of his old stomping grounds, even as he can feel the past coming alive at every stop. And who else but a Southerner would rhyme “women” with “Samuel Clemens” with “white linen”?

This is Petty at his breeziest, and yet there’s a hint of melancholy to the proceedings too, a bit of mourning for all of those ghosts on the premises. With a Wilburys-style acoustic gallop and Mike Campbell’s wistful guitar solo in the middle, the instrumental backing is on point as well.  

This character may not be the firebrand of Petty’s narratives from Southern Accents, but he’s got a little spirit left as well as some hard-earned wisdom. The effortlessly pretty chorus, with Jeff Lynne providing subtly heart-tugging harmony, tells of his noble intentions: “If I come to your door/Let me sleep on your floor/I’ll give you all I have and a little more."

Now that’s a Southern gentleman for you.

Song 53: “Angel Dream (No.4)”
Album: Songs and Music From The Motion Picture She's The One

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The songs gathered for the She’s The One soundtrack were a collection of odds and sods, and, as a result, it lacked the cohesion of an official Petty album. But there are a few moments of brilliance, and this lovely little ballad inspired by Dana Petty is undeniable one of them.

I prefer version "No. 4" over version "No. 2" (the numbers were just an in-joke by Petty which did not correlate to the songs’ recordings in any way). While "No. 2" has a gentle charm, it almost feels like a demo. "No.4" is more of a complete recording, complete with nice touches from the strings and Benmont Tench’s teasing piano fills.

The click-track percussion is a bit of a surprise coming from Petty, but remember that Stan Lynch was not involved in this project, so they had to make do. It actually adds to the charm of this heartfelt song, mimicking the narrator’s heart all a-flutter, as Petty finds himself in bemused wonderment at his good fortune, and just in time too: “I can only thank God that it’s not too late”.

Easily one of the most unabashedly sentimental and pretty songs he has ever recorded.

Song 52: “House Of Stone”
Album: Mudcrutch

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The Mudcrutch project was a necessary pit stop in Tom Petty’s career, if for no other reason than it gave him an excuse to let loose a little bit and try things that he might never do with either the Heartbreakers or if it was a solo album bearing his name. This hilariously offbeat number, which closes the album, is a prime example.

Petty inhabits the character of a charming drunkard with a thing for a God-fearing, respectable woman so completely that he even sings with a distinguishable slur. This rake can’t quite overcome the forces stacked up against him (“The deacons in her church say to leave me alone/They say my brain is in the twilight zone”), but his resolve to wear down her resistance seems tireless. Unfortunately, so does his commitment to seedy living.

The rest of the band get to play the straight men, keeping Petty company without much showiness. That is, at least, until the instrumental break, when Mike Campbell and Tom Leadon trade off some licks, on mandolin and acoustic guitar, that Petty’s character would likely consider very “high tone”. You can almost hear him dancing a graceful little jig in approval before passing out in the corner. The woman in the “House Of Stone” may resist his charms, but we, as listeners, wouldn’t even dare to try.

Song 51: “Zombie Zoo”
Album: Full Moon Fever

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We round out the first 50 songs with yet another album-closer, in this case the song that drew the curtain on 1989’s glorious Full Moon Fever. Petty had to be coaxed by producer Jeff Lynne into including the lightweight song on the album, but it works perfectly as a summarization of the devil-may-care spirit that permeates the album.

It’s probably as close to a novelty song as Petty has ever come. I prefer to see it as something in line with some of the Beatles more outré outings at the tail end of their career. The point is to have fun with it, and it’s hard to listen to this song without a smile on your face.

I suppose if you dig deep enough, you might be able to find a commentary on the conformity of youth culture or something like that, but why bother? With that horror-movie organ at the start of the song and lines like “You like Boris Karloff and you don’t even care”, it’s best just to enjoy the aural delights of “Zombie Zoo.” Consider it the victory lap on this triumphant album.

Song 50: “Dreamville”
Album: The Last DJ

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This song starts with some plaintive piano chords by Benmont Tench before blossoming into a George Martin-style production full of sighing violins and majestic horns. That musical flourishing mirrors what music did to the heart and soul of the young man in the song, a young man who seems to be a dead ringer for a young Tom Petty.

Indeed, this is no doubt one of the more personal songs on The Last DJ. If other songs express Petty’s anger at the sad state of the popular music scene, “Dreamville” eloquently describes why it’s all so important in the first place, why the music is worth every bit of that anger.

You see, before the cynicism, there was wonder. A teenager gets ready to buy a fine guitar string to make his guitar sound just like his heroes. Even further back, a young boy at a public pool with his mother hears the sound on the radio and becomes entranced. Petty doesn’t shy away from the clearly autobiographical touches here, and it makes the song more moving.

What brings the melancholy into the song are the refrains, which make it clear just how distant the past has become, not so much in terms of time, but in terms of emotion. That feeling, the way that the music lit up the young kid, now seems like a half-remembered dream. Notice how the glorious music heightens all of his other senses (“All the trees were green” and “The air smelled good”).

He doesn’t say it in the song, but you know he’s contrasting it with how bland everything seems in his current state.

Can we ever get back there? Petty eventually makes the point on the album that we can, but it’s impossible not to fear that “Dreamville” is fast becoming an impossible dream.

Song 49: “Runaway Trains”
Album: Let Me Up (I've Had Enough)

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It was the '80s after all, and even Tom Petty could fall victim to the overproduction techniques that marred so much of the music of that decade. Actually, Petty should be commended, because he so rarely fell into that trap that the few occasions when he did are more conspicuous.

“Runaway Trains” is one time when this problem rears its head, and it’s one of the few TP songs where you can guess the date just by hearing it. All of the usual suspects are there: The processed drums, the overbearing synths, the overall Miami Vice-ification of the record to make it sound suitable for late-night drives through city streets in a Lamborghini.  

Yet the amazing thing about “Runaway Trains” is that, once it kicks into that glorious chorus, it overrides all objections. It becomes the Heartbreakers again, galloping through the proceedings with elegance and power.  

I can only speculate how high this one would have been ranked if not for the production fussiness. But any song that ranks in the Top 50 of a Tom Petty countdown has to be a standout, one in which the positives far outweigh any missteps.

Song 48: “Scare Easy”
Album: Mudcrutch

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You can consider this song from Mudcrutch a worthy heir to “I Won’t Back Down” in terms of statements of defiance by Tom Petty. The difference is that the guy who sang “I Won’t Back Down” seemed to have everything to gain; This guy seems to have nothing to lose.

As such it’s sung by Petty with a wary sneer, warning anyone who crosses him that they won’t walk of a showdown unscathed. Listen to the killer first lines:  “My love’s an ocean/You better not cross it”. This is as tough as Petty has ever sounded, and that’s saying something considering all of the rugged music in his rear view.

His Mudcrutch cohorts are up to the task of accompanying him, grinding out some ruthlessly catchy rock that bares its teeth when it’s called upon to do so. “I don’t scare easy for no one”, Petty sings on his way out the door, sounding like a gunfighter.  He delivers his message so well that you can bet that no one in the whole rock and roll saloon would dare to draw on him.

Song 47: “Louisiana Rain”
Album: Damn the Torpedoes

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Rescued from the early Mudcrutch days by producer Jimmy Iovine, “Louisiana Rain” provides the big, sweeping ballad necessary to end an album as powerful as Damn the Torpedoes. It’s the first time that Petty would attempt this kind of big closing statement on an album, a technique that he would master in years to come.

The odd little electronic squiggles at the start of the song seem out of place at first, but it makes sense when the song proper begins, because the contrast between the off-kilter start and the panoramic beginning strains of music really opens the song up in majestic fashion. The band really does a nice job finessing this song rather than plowing through it, showing that they were quite ready for Petty’s changes of pace.

It all builds to that tremendous chorus, the rain providing not so much a baptism for this nomadic character as much as a resurrection, washing away his past and welcoming him to a home of sorts. There is a subtle melding of melancholy with wonder here, proof that Petty could already write emotionally complex material at a young age. Add the Heartbreakers, and, voila, you’ve got the perfect swan song for a damn near impeccable album.

Song 46:  “Out In The Cold”
Album: Into the Great Wide Open

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Petty has talked in interviews about the subtle tug of war played out in the studio during the making of Into the Great Wide Open. On the one hand you had Petty and producer Jeff Lynne, chuffed after making the classic Full Moon Fever with little help from any of the band save Mike Campbell. On the other side, you had the remaining Heartbreakers, wary about the new alliance between their bandleader and this British rock veteran.

On the whole, I’d say that, based on the sound of the album, Petty and Lynne largely won the battle in a split decision. But, on “Out In The Cold”, the Heartbreakers throw a haymaker of their own. To me, it is the song on the album in which they don’t feel constrained by the producer. Instead, Lynne’s production seems to enhance to heft of the band’s assault.

And what an assault it is. Stan Lynch’s drums practically burst with force, while Mike Campbell piles riff upon riff until embarking on a scorched-earth solo that leaves nothing in its wake. Howie Epstein hits home with some excellent backing vocals in the chorus, and Petty practically has to yelp just to keep up. Indeed, he takes to spoken-word sections just to catch his breath here.

Whatever you feel about the album (for me, I think it’s an excellent group of songs, even if the Heartbreakers do feel a bit pushed to the margin), there is no doubt all sides came together on this blistering track. Cooperation aside though, I still imagine the other four Heartbreakers slapping secret high fives after they laid this one down.

Song 45: “Wildflowers”
Album: Wildflowers

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Petty claims that this gorgeous opening title track from his excellent 1994 album came right off the top of his head, as he picked up an acoustic guitar and laid down the bare bones of the track on the spot in a total improvisation. Most improvisation ends up sounding like Dana Carvey’s “Chopping Broccoli” classic on SNL.

Rarely will you get something as lovely as this: “Run away, go find a lover/Run away, let your heart be your guide/You deserve the deepest of cover/You belong in that home by and by."

And so it goes on this lullaby that’s tinged with sadness, as the singer wished freedom for the one he loves, even if that freedom ultimately means separation from him. The advice he gives her feels like it comes from a sage a hundred years old, so even-tempered is it in its wisdom.

The acoustic picking by Petty gets some help from some perfectly-pitched keyboard work from Benmont Tench, while Michael Kamen’s orchestration is restrained and lovely. I especially like the instrumental break, which skips the obvious solo in favor of some rapid-fire chord changes that expertly convey the twists and turns of the journey ahead for the person Petty is addressing.  

I’m not sure if TP had that whole arrangement planned as well on that fateful day when “Wildflowers” came pouring out of his subconscious into his mouth and through his fingers. I guess it doesn’t matter, because having the words and music was accomplishment enough.

Song 44: “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll”
Album: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

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Most people tend to think of “Breakdown” or “American Girl” when they think of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ eponymous 1976 debut album. But the truth is that the band broke big in England before they did in the United States and the song that was the hit overseas was this chunk of ebullient, energetic rock.  

The point being that this somewhat forgotten song holds a pretty important spot in the TP annals. Somehow it’s fitting, because its commitment to rock ‘n’ roll at all costs is something that still holds Petty today, even if some of the song’s youthful trappings may now seem a bit quaint.

Besides, the whole kids-versus-parents, 50’s-style rave-up feels right on a song that clearly owes a lot to Chuck Berry’s adolescent potboilers. The spirit of this song is just irresistible, and when those guitars hit a fever pitch in the break in response to Petty’s previous verses (“But I know what I want/I want it now/When the ‘lectric guitars are playin’ way up loud”), well, you don’t need to be young to feel the juice at that point.

So don’t just look at this song as a historical Heartbreaker footnote. Appreciate it for the frenetic firebomb of a song that it is.

Song 43: “I Should Have Known It”
Album: Mojo

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Earlier on this list, I speculated that the Heartbreakers sounded a bit listless to me on the by-the-numbers blues tracks found on Mojo, but came to life when aping Abbey Road-period Beatles on “Good Enough." In similar fashion, they really take off on “I Should Have Known It” by following the blueprint of another British rock band.

If you guessed Led Zeppelin, let out a banshee wail in triumph because you hit it right on the head. Mike Campbell plays the Jimmy Page role to the hilt, crunching out riffs a la “Good Times, Bad Times” or “Misty Mountain Hop” or countless other songs you can hear when your local classic rock station says it’s time to “get the Led out”.  Meanwhile Steve Ferrone goes all Bonzo on us with some of the most muscular drumming in Heartbreaker history.

I can’t say that Petty sounds anything like vintage Robert Plant, but the attitude is similar, as TP sneers and slurs his way through a diatribe against a no-good, back-stabbing woman. The lyrics are just an excuse to allow the band to get nasty though, and they savor the opportunity. When they kick it into double-time toward the end as Campbell burns down the remainder of the record with a solo, you really get to hear a major-league band at the top of its game.

Just call it “Stairway To Gainesville.”

Song 42: “It’ll All Work Out”
Album: Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)

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The casual fan probably doesn’t realize how much collaboration Tom Petty does with his longtime guitarist and right-hand man. While Petty is the lyricist and often writes the music, there have been many occasions when Campbell has taken a Petty song into another stratosphere.  

Take, for example, this stunningly pretty offering off Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough). Petty wrote the song in the midst of a separation from his first wife Jane. Unable to bring himself to finish the deeply personal tune, which borrows the smiling-to-keep-from-crying ethos of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” Petty handed it over to Campbell and told him to see what he could do with it.

The result was stirring, to say the very least.  Using a Japanese guitar called a koto , Campbell gives a song about very modern relationship turbulence the feel of something ancient, as if this discord is the way it has always been and will continue to be. At its simplest, “It’ll All Work Out” is a sad little tale. Thanks to Campbell, it’s a saga of profound heartbreak.

Song 41: “Free Girl Now”
Album: Echo

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Think of this song as the flip-side of the Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” Petty is celebrating the freedom of a girl who has, to paraphrase Mick, talked only when she was spoken to for far too long. It’s a nice sentiment that the Heartbreakers plug with some of their most joyous music.

Petty and the gang ride roughshod over those repeating three chords, with Steve Ferrone’s stomping drums like a martial beat that signals the band to play with abandon. In the break, there is some nifty harmony guitar work reminiscent of The Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing,” itself a statement of personal freedom.

Although the song is a good-timey romp, things get sorta moving toward the end as Petty’s lyrics begin to reach deeper. “One day you’ll live for a reason”, he sings, a line that gets right to the heart of what is truly lost when one’s own identity is denied. Typical TP; he knows how to grab your heart even while the Heartbreakers are aiming for your feet and pelvis.