He’s made at least one quality album in five different decades. He’s a rock star despite his turned-the-corner-and-got-smacked-with-a-frying-pan looks. He’s had his house burned down by arsonists and toured with Bob Dylan. He’s played Live Aid, Bonnaroo, and the Super Bowl. He’s fought with record companies and been the subject of a 4-hr documentary. When he was 10, he met Elvis. He’s on the shortlist of Greatest Video Hitmakers of the 80s, but he’s also a Rock’n’Roll Hall of Famer who really does seem like he’d be cool to have a beer with.
He’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a guitar strap. He’s Tom Petty.
Seriously, does anyone hate this guy? Sure, some might not love all his music. Some might be a bit turned off by his Dylanesque whine, or maybe they find “Free Fallin’” a bit annoying and overplayed. But does anyone hate Tom Petty? I don’t think so.
Without recounting his entire career, the broad strokes of it are a case study in… in… I’m not sure what. Petty and his career are just so unique for someone who comes off so ordinary. The first sentence of his bio on allmusic.com mentions that he was “shoehorned into the punk/new wave movement” of the late 1970s, but would anyone confuse Petty with the Sex Pistols or Talking Heads? He often shares sentences (and fans) with Bruce Springsteen, but even this Springsteen fanatic must admit that it’s Petty who exudes the regular-guy cool that Bruce has (ironically) tried so hard to personify.
His turn as the Mad Hatter in the infamous video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is one of the indelible images of MTV’s heyday, inexplicably tying him to the likes of Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and the more-usual suspects who brought some artistry to the commercial art of video making.
He once threatened to withhold an album, or name it Eight Ninety-Eight, to protest his record label’s plan to sell his album for a then-high price of $9.98. (MCA relented, agreeing to sell Hard Promises for $8.98, the going rate at the time.) And while stick-it-to-the-record-company-man stories are cliché and obsolete by now, he was doing this back in 1981. In 1987, he sued a tire company for using a song very similar to his “Mary’s New Car” in a TV commercial. [Much more recently he forced politician Michelle Bachmann to stop using “American Girl.”]
This doesn’t mean he’s a stubborn stick in the mud. He didn’t stand on some phony anti-sellout soapbox and turn down an offer to play the Super Bowl; he and his fine band of Heartbreakers went out there and tore it up that night. And when some claimed that the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California” sounded similar to Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” he offered this classic quote of common sense to Rolling Stone magazine: “I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock ‘n’ roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry. The Strokes took ‘American Girl’ [for their song ‘Last Nite’], and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you’ … If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe [I’d sue]. But I don’t believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs.”
His Greatest Hits CD is one of the better, more-listenable albums of its type. It actually sounds like great music and not just a rehashed money grab rushed-out for the Christmas shopping season. “Breakdown,” “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Even the Losers,” “The Waiting,” “Running Down a Dream.” Even the new song on that set (“Mary Jane”) was worthy. And that was almost 20 years ago. After that he could have just toured on his catalog and/or rested on such considerable laurels. Instead he returned in 1994 with a masterpiece album, Wildflowers.
Petty has continued churning out the albums since. And while some missed the mark (She’s the One and Echo never did much for me), and some are a bit uneven but underrated (The Last DJ), there’s been some great gems lost in the shuffle (2006’s Highway Companion and 2010’s Mojo.) Mojo is a solid live-in-studio bluesy band record, but if you haven’t heard Highway Companion you should check it out. His latter-career work really does stand up to his earlier classics, and that’s saying something.
His backing band has always been top notch and their live shows worth every penny, whether you saw them in 1987, 2008, or both (as I did). The releases dubbed “solo albums” always featured several Heartbreakers and the “band albums” still showcased Petty as a singular songwriting talent.
He’s got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the aforementioned induction in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame and Super Bowl appearance, and he’s one of only two people walking the planet who can say they’ve been in a band with Dylan AND George Harrison. He’s been on The Simpsons, won a few Grammys and a Billboard Legend Award (whatever that is), and has sold somewhere north of 50 million albums in his career. And somehow, other than whoever burned down his house, he doesn’t seem to have any enemies. Dude just makes great music, sometimes has a cool beard, and usually sports a sly grin.
Don’t look in this closing paragraph for some cheesy pun about how he’s still runnin’ down a dream and won’t back down, cuz the scary thing (and potential good news) is that it’s possible he’s still learning to fly.