Monday, October 2, 2017

A few reflections on Tom Petty's brilliant simplicity

I had one topic all ready to go, but then this came out in the afternoon, and it's hitting me right now.
Tom Petty was put on life support Monday (Oct. 2) after suffering cardiac arrest, and conflicting reports now say that he has died at the age of 66. CBS News' breaking news tweet citing LAPD has since been deleted. The LAPD later tweeted out an apology: "The LAPD has no information about the passing of singer Tom Petty. Initial information was inadvertantly [sic] provided to some media sources. However, the LAPD has no investigative role in this matter. We apologize for any inconvenience in this reporting."

Earlier in the day, Petty was found in his Malibu home in full cardiac arrest, not breathing. Authorities told The Hollywood Reporter they did respond to a Malibu home around 10:52 a.m. for a man who suffered a heart attack, but they could not confirm it was Petty. Emergency responders were able to get a pulse back, but the man is in critical condition. He was then rushed to the hospital.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers just wrapped their 40th anniversary tour at the Hollywood Bowl last week.
My wife and I saw Petty on this tour at Summerfest 3 months ago, and in addition to the great performance, it was very cool to see Petty act as a bandleader on the stage with the Heartbreakers and work out some new arrangements of the old hits. And now he is likely gone? It's hard to take.

Wisconsin native Steven Hyden retweeted this article he wrote on Petty for the now-defunct Grantland site in 2014. It goes through Petty's career output, putting extra focus on the two peaks in his career (late '70s to early '80s and then late '80s to mid-'90s), along with other down/odd times. These paragraphs hit home the most for me.
Full Moon Fever is my favorite Petty record — this is about as far from #tompettyhottakes as you can get, but some opinions are unoriginal for a good reason. Full Moon Fever is the one with “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and nine other songs that weren’t hits but seem like it. Every other Petty album has at least some filler, but Full Moon Fever has zero percent body fat. (I will not entertain any argument that says “A Mind With a Heart of Its Own” is filler.)

One of the more amazing things about Full Moon Fever is how well it works on a completely superficial level — the songs are instantly likable, they are produced in such a way as to maximize their immediacy, and Petty sings and plays them in an agreeably laid-back way. Full Moon Fever might be the least challenging Great Album in rock history. (The only person who hates Full Moon Fever is original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch, and that’s because he wasn’t asked to play on it.) Only recently have I noticed that the ineffable sorrow at the heart of Petty’s persona exists even on an ostensibly happy record like Fever. “Gonna leave this world for a while,” Petty sings at the end of “Free Fallin,’” a sneaky-sad number about pining after the girl who got away (and, more broadly, the emptiness of nostalgia). Right away, Petty announces that he’s checking out; you can have his songs, conveniently delivered via that inimitable cotton-mouthed drawl, but his heart and mind are already making their getaway on a solitary trip down Ventura Boulevard.

I’m not saying Petty’s music is itself superficial or devoid of emotion, just that tapping into Petty’s emotional core isn’t essential to enjoying Full Moon Fever. For most people this record is merely a tuneful amalgam of easy chords and easier smiles. Then 25 years pass, and Full Moon Fever is woven into the fabric of your life, and “Free Fallin’” somehow turns into a song about you. Petty has a lot of songs like that. He works the long game.

Rick Rubin was one of those people who got into Petty because of Fever. It made him want to produce 1994’s Wildflowers, my second-favorite Petty record. This one has “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “You Wreck Me” and “Time to Move On,” which is the first song I think of when I try to explain to non-fans Petty’s ability to write really simple songs that seem OK the first time you hear them and incredible after the 100th time.
That last part about Petty's simplicity is the best description of Petty's genius that I've heard, and you really notice it when he plays on stage. There aren't many lyrics or instruments in this tune, but the few elements that exist are perfect.

But Petty could also open it up and still rock it. So I'll end this with three of my personal favorites. The first is a relatively easy one from that first peak album, Damn the Torpedoes, which has all members of the Heartbreakers getting a chance to show what they are made of. It's got the trademark short verses, and it still kicks the hell out 99% of what you'll hear today.

The next one is the ultimate "fuck you" breakup song, which Hyden describes as "about how young men preoccupied with demonstrating masculinity are transparently weak," and it's probably why my sexually frustrated self loved this song even more as I got into my teens.

And lastly, I'll end with another Wildflowers song. Also brilliant in its simplicity, with a serious edge hiding underneath. And how many other artists could have the self-deprecating half-verse of "Think of me what you will, I got a little space to fill"?

I hope that there's a miracle in that LA hospital, but I'm not getting my hopes up. It infuriates me that so much brilliance has been taken from us in the last 2 years- Bowie, Prince, Cornell, and now likely Petty. Even throw in ones like Glenn Campbell and Glenn Frey and Lemmy. Meanwhile, 71-year-old Donny Two Scoops is still standing and wrecking this country? It's just not right.

1 comment:

  1. Not too many better things in this world than blasting down a sweet-smelling country road with "Runnin' Down A Dream" on the car stereo. So grateful Petty and Benmont Tench have gifted us with such incredible talent over the (sadly, too few) years.