Pretty Petty

Why Eddie Murphy hates Tom Petty: The truth comes out in Countdown songs 40-26

Why Eddie Murphy hates Tom Petty: The truth comes out in Countdown songs 40-26

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 weekend.

If you’re looking for a common thread that runs through this batch of Tom Petty songs on the Ultimate Petty Countdown, I can give you two. First of all, you’ll notice a bunch of guest stars making appearances. A Beatle, a Mac, and three members of one of the great groups in rock history all show up at some point in this bunch, proving that Petty has always kept very good company.

The other recurring theme is that three of the 15 songs are ones that close out albums. You’ll find the last songs from Hard Promises, Southern Accents, and Echo, three classic Heartbreaker albums, all in this batch. Just one more talent we’ve discovered about TP as the list has progressed: An uncanny ability to save the best for last.

Song 40: “Jammin’ Me”
Album: Let Me Up (I've Had Enough)

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Leave it to Bob Dylan to get Tom Petty in trouble. Dylan had the idiosyncratic idea to spice up this tale of the encroaching pressures of modern life, co-written with Petty, with shout-outs to real celebrities. Thus the bizarrely hilarious rants on former Saturday Night Live stars Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo along with British film Grande Dame Vanessa Redgrave.  

Murphy found it none too amusing, and since Petty released the song, that’s where the blame was placed. You have to think that Bob mischievously chuckled at being the cause of this minor imbroglio. You also have to think that it was the last time Piscopo was mentioned in the same breath as such movie royalty.

Petty and Mike Campbell rewrote the music, and out came the first single to Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough). Even if the names and places are dated now, the song holds up as a hilarious slab of frazzled paranoia thanks to the engagingly raucous music. And, as anyone exasperated with the state of television these days, the line “Let your TV bleed” is more relevant than ever.  

Song 39: “You Wreck Me”
Album: Wildflowers

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Here is another song that began with Mike Campbell coming up with a piece of music and bringing it to Petty for lyrics and melody. Ironically, this song is found on Wildflowers, technically a solo record, and yet it’s one of the most indelible Heartbreaker performances ever.

Steve Ferrone was not yet an official member at the time, but it’s his drumming that provides the necessary propulsion. The beat is so quick and powerful yet completely unerring. Notice how the band leaves space for the music to breathe in the verse sections, blasting away at those three chords and allowing Ferrone to do his thing for the rest of each bar. That makes the full onslaught in the refrains that much more powerful.

Mike Campbell gets in a quick, stabbing solo before things quiet down again for Petty’s final verse. There is unabashed nostalgia on display in this set of lyrics, from his readiness to rely on rock ‘n’ roll (“Tonight we sail on a radio song”) to his character’s young-at-heart outlook (“I’ll be the boy in the corduroy pants/You be the girl at the high school dance”).

It all adds up to one of the most enduring up-tempo numbers in the man’s career, which is really saying something. “You Wreck Me” is just a timeless rock record, simple as that.

Song 38: “The Wild One, Forever”
Album: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

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First of all, it’s a great title, isn’t it? I mean, you see “The Wild One, Forever” on the back of an album, and you’re just expecting something special.

Well, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers do that title justice on this great little change of pace from their debut album. As a track, it shows that the band could do something other than swinging-from-the-heels rock. The arrangement is well thought out, with each element given its space. The acoustic guitar meshes with a few piano chords and bass notes that are as important for their timing as for the notes themselves. The arpeggiated guitar plays off Stan Lynch’s delicate high-hat percussion, and there’s even some cello played by bassist Ron Blair in the chorus. Everything is precise and the impact of each instrument is maximized.

Meanwhile, Petty lets his vocal provide the emotion against the studied musical backdrop, turning in a great performance that proves you can be unrestrained without being over-emotive. He has always been a great chronicler of the stolen moments that, at the end of one’s life, will outweigh the bulk of routine existence in the memory of those involved. This song shows this skill off brilliantly.

Wherever this girl is now, she runs on perpetually in the heart and mind of the narrator. Thus, she is granted the eternity promised by that memorable title.

Song 37: “You Can Still Change Your Mind”
Album: Hard Promises

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Mike Campbell must have been listening to Pet Sounds when he came up with the music to this breathtaking ballad, the closing song off Petty’s excellent fourth album, Hard Promises.  In particular, “Don’t Talk, Put Your Head On My Shoulder” and “Caroline No,” killer ballads from that Beach Boys masterpiece, must have been on repeat in the Campbell household, because “You Can Still Change Your Mind” captures that same beauty.

The chord changes and quirky percussion are the obvious touchstones, and TP buddy Stevie Nicks joined Sharon Ceylani in the studio to provide ethereal backing vocals that would make the Brothers Wilson proud. But it’s not so much a tangible thing; it’s the fragility of the track, from the modestly churning piano to its weightless feel, that Campbell nails, and that’s a much harder thing to accomplish than just copying some instrumental flourishes.

There’s a “Hey Jude” thing going on in there as well, especially in Petty’s reassuring lyric. He refuses to believe that anyone has to suffer alone, and the importance in his delivering this message to the downtrodden soul in the song is revealed by his vulnerably urgent vocal.  

This is really beautiful stuff, and though it may owe its debt to another artist, it makes it no less impressive. After all, if it were easy to do, I would think everybody and their brother would be trying to rewrite Pet Sounds.  

Song 36: “Breakdown”
Album: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

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“Breakdown” makes you wait. That’s part of its charm, really. You’ve got that kicky little drum beat by Stan Lynch, Mike Campbell fiddling around with his guitar for a few moments. Somehow, that disarray catches your attention. All of a sudden, Campbell plays that riff, spiraling downward into your soul, and they’ve got you.

When you think about it, “Breakdown” is an unlikely candidate, not only to be the band’s big American breakthrough, but to be the enduring staple that it is today. I wouldn’t call it a rock song, although it does build up to some serious thunder in the choruses. To me, it’s more jazzy then anything else, when you combine Campbell’s riff with Lynch’s hiccupy playing and some equally slinky work by Ron Blair on bass and Benmont Tench on piano.

Yet there’s something unmistakably cool about it, from the way the band locks into that groove so effortlessly to the way Petty’s voice shifts from unbothered nonchalance in the verses to furious passion in the refrain, abetted by the soulful backing vocals. You can really spread credit all the way around to each member of the band, and throw a little to producer Denny Cordell for getting a sound that still cuts through radio speakers everywhere.

Come to think of it, maybe it does make sense that “Breakdown” gained the stature that it did. Since it is ultimately a relatively modest composition in terms of words and music, at least compared to some of Petty’s other material, it can’t really be ranked any better on this list than where it stands. But it’s still damn near perfect for what it is. For whatever it is.  

Song 35: “One More Day, One More Night”
Album: Echo

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Echo is an album full of raw wounds barely concealed, but they all come to the surface on the brilliant closing song, “One More Day, One More Night.” Tom Petty’s vocal performance on the song is harrowingly heartfelt, although, given the circumstances in his life at the time, there was probably very little performing in it.  

All of the hurt at the grievances suffered and the fear of isolation are evident in Petty’s vulnerable howl. Most affecting are the brief sections after the verses when he lets the façade fall for all to see: “Somebody better hurry, I’m all alone/And I keep breaking down... No one ever taught me to be on my own.”

The self-help feel of the title is more like a gruesome parody of the agony that the singer seems to be going through in his daily existence. Even the hopeful last verse plays more like an impossible dream than a reachable goal.

The Heartbreakers accentuate these unsparing lyrics with a powerful performance. The rhythm section of Howie Epstein and Steve Ferrone is sharp here; Epstein struts all over the gaps in the music while Ferrone beats the devil out of the snares as if trying to exorcise some demons. And what is there to say about the solo Mike Campbell busts out to bring down the curtain? Not only is he playing along with the music but he is playing to the lyrics as well, reaching for the catharsis that Petty’s lyrics so desperately seek.

As this list progresses, I become more and more convinced that Echo may be the band’s most underrated album. It probably could have been edited better and it lacks any obvious hit songs, but it’s the closest Petty has ever come to true autobiography in his lyrics, and that honesty goes a long way. Plus, it’s got a killer closing track.

Song 34: “Something Good Coming”
Album: Mojo

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I suppose you’d say it’s ironic that on an album that was designed to show off the virtuosity of the Heartbreakers, the finest moment comes on a song in which they mostly recede into the background. To me, Mojo hits its peak with this somber and sedate song about the very human face of an economic disaster.

The main character here could easily be one of the good ol’ boys that populated Southern Accents, now grown up and responsible, yet suddenly left hanging without a tether when he loses his job: “Work’s all I know/You take that away/Don’t know where to go.” Faced with the doubts and fears of his significant other, he stubbornly clings to his home as everything else falls out from underneath him.

It is mostly Petty’s show here, but it doesn’t in any way mitigate the band’s effort. They do their duty, playing delicately in sympathy for this character’s hardship. Only Mike Campbell’s slide guitar peeks out of the murk to make tasteful commentary.  

The song ends with the main character deciding that his luck has to change: “Somethin’ good comin’/There has to be.”

It’s a line that reeks of desperation and delusion, yet speaks to something undefeatable in the spirit of every man. It’s proof that Petty is still on top of his game, even if the album that contained it, for the most part, misunderstood what makes the man and his band so great.

Song 33: “The Best Of Everything”
Album: Southern Accents

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I would think that a music fan like Tom Petty has had a lot of thrills in his life created by getting to play alongside his idols. I mean, the guy was in a group with a Beatle and Dylan, for Pete’s sake. But is there any way to possibly top the chance to close out an album about the South with contributions from three members of The Band?

Robbie Robertson finished off the production on this track after Petty and Jimmy Lovine took a crack at the song in its basic form. Robertson added some horns to the track, pumping up the majesty on this big ballad. But he went one better and invited a few old friends along. The inimitable Garth Hudson casts an angelic glow on the proceedings with his keyboard overdubs. And then for the coup de grace, Richard Manuel harmonizes with Petty in the verses and refrains.

Still, none of that outside help would have mattered had Petty not crafted such a winning song. On an album full of characters who fail to make the right choices and go down the wrong paths time and again, the guy in “The Best Of Everything” matures enough to wish his love the best even though she won’t be finding it with him. It shows a progression and it’s a lovely way to end Southern Accents.

So give Robertson, Hudson, and Manuel some credit for taking this song to another level, but don’t overlook Petty’s providing them with standout raw material.

Song 32: “Straight Into Darkness”
Album: Long After Dark

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The Heartbreakers had a pretty high batting average in the late '70s and early '80s when it came to songs released as singles going on to become legitimate hits. Here was one case that I think they should have pushed a song as a single, because “Straight Into Darkness” is a practically flawless rock song that was left to languish as an album cut on Long After Dark.

This is one of those of those numbers with nary a wasted moment. It cleverly builds anticipation in the listener with the subtle piano play of Benmont Tench in the beginning. The first verse is also downbeat and restrained, but when Petty busts out with the line “Then one day the feeling just died,” the band takes its cue and explodes into the crackerjack refrain.

Once there, you’re in Heartbreaker heaven, with the Searchers-style riff cementing each of Petty’s powerful lines. He wraps things up with a glimmer of hope and wisdom in the final verse, a refusal to give in to the darkness: “I don’t believe the good times are over/I don’t believe the thrill is all gone/Real love is a man’s salvation/The weak ones fall, the strong carry on.”

Grace and hope find their way in the midst of the despair, and Petty finds his way to another classic, one that a lot more people should know.

Song 31: “To Find a Friend”
Album: Wildflowers

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It’s a distant cousin of “Yer So Bad” in terms of the episodic nature of the lyrics, but “To Find a Friend is the less whimsical of the two songs. While the adults bounce around with frenzied unpredictability, I’ve always looked at the song from the perspective of the unmentioned children of this family. They’re the ones I believe Petty has in mind when he talks about this sequence of events changing lives and plans.

The song is an excellent example of Petty’s underrated melodic flair. The refrain is especially tuneful, and it features an effortlessly moving lyric that details what it feels like when your life becomes unmoored: “And the days went by like paper in the wind/Everything changed, then changed again/It’s hard to find a friend.”

While Benmont Tench’s saloon-style piano solo is the thing that sticks out on the instrumental end, the most notable contribution on the song is the drumming of the one and only Ringo Starr. Ringo bumps things along gently with his undeniable feel for such things. After all, who else would know better about drumming for a song a great melody?

Song 30: “You Got Lucky”
Album: Long After Dark

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Proving that it is possible to use a synthesizer without it sounding like the theme music from some bad '80s sitcom, “You Got Lucky” makes ample use of the instrument and still somehow comes out sounding like vintage Heartbreakers.

As a matter of fact, it’s one of the tougher-sounding singles the band has ever released.  Benmont Tench resisted the decision to go with the synths with extreme prejudice, but he relented and came through with the part that defines the song (albeit a part somewhat derivative of the Cars song “Touch And Go,” released two years earlier).

Mike Campbell also delivers a chiller of a solo toward the end of the song, one with minimal notes that seem to bend and twist until they lose their shape completely. The entire song manages to focus on a single attitude and project that with the utmost skill, like only the finest singles can. Synthesizers and all.  

Song 29: “Don’t Do Me Like That”
Album: Damn the Torpedoes

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Copping a phrase that he often heard his father use, Tom Petty raided the pop charts with “Don’t Do Me Like That.” Suddenly Petty was more than a classic rock staple; he was blasting out of car radios all over the country.

All for a song that was a castoff. Like “Louisiana Rain,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” was excavated from the Mudcrutch era by producer Jimmy Iovine, so he deserves some serious credit here for this critical contribution to Petty’s career.  His production is fine as well, as this is a song that really pops each time you hear it.

Petty had the idea right from the start for the piano rhythm that drives the song, although Benmont Tench’s organ work layered on top gives the song its soulful vibe. Also memorable is Stan Lynch’s nifty little drum fill in between the grinding bridge and the final verse, kicking the song back into gear in high style.

The hooks are everywhere in this song, and it’s one of Petty’s most instantly recognizable songs to this day, a sing-along staple. No deep thoughts on this one. Just crank it up and enjoy it.

Song 28: “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”
Album: Bella Donna (by Stevie Nicks)

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You would think from the video of this duet with Stevie Nicks that turned into a big hit (No. 3 on Billboard) that the song was a proper collaboration between the band and the Fleetwood Mac chanteuse striking out on her own. But in fact, Petty and Mike Campbell wrote the song for the Heartbreakers to record, which they did. Producer Jimmy Iovine then convinced Petty to give this song to Nicks for her own album, Bella Donna.

So what you end up getting is Nicks’ singing overdubbed onto the Heartbreakers recording, with Petty’s original vocal mostly edited out except for a single verse and during the refrains, when Nicks harmonizes over the top of him. The result was so seamless that it will go down as one of rock’s great duets.

It works wonderfully as such because of the lyrical content. If Petty had sung it by himself, it might have come off as a one-sided and condescending request to a young girl (“You need someone looking after you”) to let the man take charge of her life. Instead it becomes a running argument that hits surprisingly profound levels, aided and abetted by the Heartbreakers soulfully restrained performance.  

From such an unlikely beginning, a hit song was born. With artists of this caliber, it turns out they don’t even have to be in the same room together to create magic.

Song 27: “Like A Diamond”
Album: The Last DJ

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Petty counterintuitively chose the middle of The Last DJ to drop one of his most gorgeous ballads ever. “Like A Diamond” is a stunningly realized melody, one that can bring chills even after you’ve heard it a thousand times.

With a tune so winning, Petty really could have sung gibberish over the top and it wouldn’t have mattered a bit. When he adds his heartfelt lyrics and Mike Campbell’s towering guitar solo to the equation, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches.  

The surrealistic, dark imagery in the first verse clashes against the music’s grace, but it’s necessary to illustrate the horrors of being alone. When in that position, a man reaches out for something to believe: “When the ground gives way/You have to pray/To the unknown/And hope it’s real.”

Ultimately, this lonely passenger can fall back on Keats’ adage “Truth is beauty, beauty truth.” The eternal glow cast by his love gets him through. And, by the way, if Keats was right, “Like A Diamond” has to be one of the truest songs of Petty’s career.

Song 26: “Orphan Of The Storm”
Album: Mudcrutch

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This knockout offering from Mudcrutch comes on like some lost Gram Parsons nugget or American Beauty-era Dead. The guitars of Mike Campbell and Tom Leadon seem to be having a conversation with each other across the speakers about the unfortunate soul at the heart of the song, while Benmont Tench moans for her troubles high and lonesome on his organ.

The storytelling abilities of Tom Petty are on full display here, as he sings about a Hurricane Katrina survivor displaced to Houston. He doesn’t overplay the Katrina angle (he actually never calls it by name, just referring to it as “that hurricane”), and, as a result, we can focus on the troubles of this girl whose life is being buffeted about by the wind as if it were so much debris.

The scene of her weeping as she looks out onto the Houston skyline is a real grabber in a song full of heart-wrenching moments, but Petty underplays it so things don’t get too maudlin. When this girl sings, “I’m so tired of rain,” we know that it’s the figurative rain that’s really wearing her out.

Any Petty fan that wrote Mudcrutch off as some unworthy side project really missed out on some outstanding songs, and this one is first and foremost among them.

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