This article originally ran in 2015. We’re republishing today to celebrate the career of the great Tom Petty.
Sadly, Florida will always be my home. I grew up in Miami and experienced each of the four seasons at the beach, under the sun, and in my swim trunks. When it came time to exit stage left for college, I shifted things up to Northern Florida, where the people spoke in a different accent and the lack of an ocean meant that my free time was instead spent chasing the opposite sex, drinking, driving, or listening to music. Sound familiar?
I’ve always loved Tom Petty, and especially his Heartbreakers, but I never really understood where he was coming from until I drove up the peninsula and spent a few seasons in the tropical woods. The smoky claustrophobia, laced with a light Southern mindset, brought so much of his music to life for me, from his 1976 self-titled debut all the way up to his 2006 solo album, Highway Companion, which he dropped just before I would leave the area. (Fun fact: I was fortunate enough to catch his historic hometown show in Gainesville that fall, and it’s still one of the best performances I’ve ever witnessed.)
Photo by Philip Cosores
Chicago’s been my home for seven years, but I’ve never shaken off the imagery of Petty’s music. When he revisited Mudcrutch in 2008, it felt like a homecoming for me, and 2010’s jammy Mojo was quite similar, only things shifted a little deeper into the swamp. But what I’ve really come to realize and appreciate about a songwriter like Petty is how consistent he’s been throughout his 45-year career. Sure, he doesn’t write the hits that he had decades ago, but he still has an ear for melody and an eye for tomorrow.
His latest album, Hypnotic Eye, speaks to those strengths. At No. 13, it’s hardly his band’s strongest effort, but there’s enough charm and magic within to keep his Southern mythology alive. If anything, it proves that the Heartbreakers still know a thing or two about the required mechanics and legwork behind rock ‘n’ roll. And boy do they have a history of great rock ‘n’ roll. Now, because everything involving Petty is usually an agreed upon event, we decided to roll back the years and sort through the very best of his catalog.
To paraphrase the bard himself, “Take what you can and leave the past behind.”
There’s just no argument. Others might champion Tom Petty’s 1989 solo debut, Full Moon Fever, but that’s a very distant second to the diamond spectacle that will forever be his third studio album, Damn the Torpedoes. It’s not only his best work, but also one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most iconic records. At a lean 36:40, the album’s nine addicting anthems craft an unmistakable portrait of the Florida singer-songwriter, who nods hello with a dizzying two-punch opener.
On “Refugee”, he’s a denim rebel with a steel tongue (“We got somethin’, we both know it, we don’t talk too much about it”), working off one of the sleekest mantras this side of the six- and 12-string (“Everybody has to fight to be free”). Then almost immediately, he’s flesh and blood on “Here Comes My Girl”, thrilled to buy into everlasting love (“And man, you know I can’t begin to doubt it”) and tickled with emotions (“Yeah, I just catch myself waiting, wondering, worrying”). Not surprisingly, both were co-written with guitarist Mike Campbell, and both are among his best.
Co-produced by Jimmy Iovine at the legendary Sound City Studios, Torpedoes also sounds like the best in rock ‘n’ roll. Organist Benmont Tench is baked into each track to golden perfection (“Refugee”), while Campbell’s solos sound as if they’ve been stretched over a sunny Route 66 (“Century City”). This is also Petty’s strongest collection vocally, adding playful inflections at just the right moments (“Here Comes My Girl”, “What Are You Doin’ in My Life?”), doubling up on the angst (“Even the Losers”, “Don’t Do Me Like That”), and even channeling and trumping ol’ Bob Seger (“Louisiana Rain”).
People knew about Petty prior to Torpedoes. They loved him after it.
Ariel Swartley said it best in her original Rolling Stone review for Damn the Torpedoes: “‘Here comes my girl’ sounds like a line you’ve heard a thousand times before — and the only one that will ever say it all.” Yes, the percussion at the beginning sounds a tad like the album’s preceding track, “Refugee”, but what follows is a sunflower of a song. It’s a ballad in disguise, a journal entry pretending to be a song. The way Petty spirals off his lyrics (“Every now and then I get down to the end of the day/ And I have to stop and ask myself why I’ve done it”) and how it’s fired away with Campbell and Tench’s glazed rhythms … it’s unique in style yet wholesome in nature. Every human being can connect with this song; that is, if their heart hasn’t gone the way of Cruella de Vil.
After all is said and done, the song takes its time to walk away with almost a minute of extraneous jamming. Not just to jam, though. No. But to let out all the feelings at hand. C’mon, try and think about all those times you’ve walked away from something pure, something life-changing, something great. “Here Comes My Girl” is what every romantic comedy tries to capture and fails to every time. It’s a Cameron Crowe movie condensed into four-and-a-half minutes. It’s the sound of rock ‘n’ roll doing what it does best: fulfilling the fantastical realities that come at all the right moments. When Petty sings, “We’re gonna last forever,” he’s so happy he can’t even let his own legitimate skepticism take him aside. He can only smile, hold onto that moment, and let the feeling carry him away.
Seriously, what the fuck is better than that?
Best Music Video
It’s all about the cameos in Petty videos, right? “I Won’t Back Down” had Ringo on drums and fellow Wilburys George Harrison and Jeff Lynne on guitars and going halves on a mic. “Into the Great Wide Open” saw a young Johnny Depp playing the role of rebel without a clue Eddie, and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, well, let’s just say original corpse bride Kim Basinger, for all her chops and Petty’s coaxing, could never quite breathe life into her role. But despite all of their star power, these videos aren’t the ones that have stuck in your head, haunted your dreams, or made you think twice about having a slice of sheet cake at your office’s annual employee appreciation day. No, that distinction goes to the Petty video that took us through the looking glass and down a rabbit hole.
Because “Don’t Come Around Here No More” came off Petty & the HB’s Southern Accents, I always assumed it was a subdued finger wag by Johnny Reb telling Yanks to kindly stay out of Dixie. Turns out, the title, song, and, to some extent, the video came from Stevie Nicks (She looks great! Baaaa…) telling Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh to take a hike. Fair enough. But what we all remember is Petty’s full Mad Hatter regalia; a giant cup of tea with a donut life preserver; and the Alice cake. Yes, in one of the most unforgettable — and, oddly, both mouth-watering and disturbing — moments in music video history, our young, blonde heroine curiously finds her body now composed entirely of cake and being sliced and served to the Mad Petty’s guests as dessert. Petty’s Alice belch was a nice touch, too. Now, who wants cake?