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?
Best Album Cover
I always imagine this album cover as a snapshot of a young Petty picking up his date for the school dance and meeting the girl’s parents for the first time. The scene goes something like this: Mom and Dad open the door to find Petty — equal parts The Fonz, down-home boy, and “The Kid” from Purple Rain — backlit by the headlight on his motorcycle illuminating the steam rising from the street. Little brother peeks out an upstairs window, not believing his dweeby sister brought this cool guy home. Dad grudgingly shakes hands, glares at him, and speaks in grunts but secretly prefers the hoodlum over the jock types his daughter usually brings home. Mom smiles and wonders if the boy has an older brother. And the girl, “raised on promises,” floats down a staircase — her skirt a little short, her top a little low, and her affections won by a v-shaped guitar straight through her teenage heart. Maybe I’m reading too much into an image, but clearly this album cover gave Petty all the authority needed to deliver songs with names like “The Wild One, Forever”, “American Girl”, and “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll”. It just doesn’t get any more rock and roll than this cover.
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10. “Change of Heart”
Gals, we love ya, but sometimes, as Petty says, “You push just a little too far.” And that’s the moment captured by “Change of Heart”. It’s the anti-“Here Comes My Girl”. The girl who used to make everything alright just by walking our way (our “moon and sun”), the girl we’d do anything for (“I fought for you…”), now only brings us down (she’s “just a loaded gun”). It’s time to get out while we still can, and we’re going to do it with a mainlined, jangly crunch and a liberating sneer (“I’ll get over you/ It won’t take long”). Later, babe. –Matt Melis
09. “Square One”
Most Tom Petty fans invite him along for any drive, adding credence to the title of his 2005 solo album, Highway Companion. Fully stocked with concrete anthems, none capture the magnetism of staring off into the distance for hours on end as “Square One”. The sparse, acoustic track hugs with beautiful arrangements and one of the most peaceful vocal hooks of Petty’s career: “It took a world of trouble, took a world of tears/ It took a long time to get back here.” Deep. –Michael Roffman
08. “Love Is a Long Road”
A wise man in a bar once turned to me and said, “Love is a long road, son.” And that man, my friends, was not Tom Petty. Actually, I have no idea who the guy was, but after bestowing that wisdom, he downed a shot of something or other, patted me on the shoulder, and peeled out of the bar’s parking lot. If he was headed out on the highway to get some dame (why don’t people talk like this anymore?) out of his head, I can’t think of a better companion than this often overlooked Full Moon Fever cut. From those pulsating keys (not Benmont Tench) to that driving guitar (yes, Mike Campbell), Petty reminds us that our odometers are all going to turn over long before we ever figure out this crazy, little thing called love. –Matt Melis
07. “Angel Dream (No. 2)”
I’m not a religious person by any means, but there’s something truly spiritual about Petty’s 1996 ballad. Granted, it’s for Ed Burns’ dated ’90s film, She’s the One, but the lyrics are timeless. It’s all about the delivery, too. “I saw an angel,” Petty croons, sounding so sincere my own atheism withers away into the closet. Weddings, funerals, or moments of reflection — here’s your soundtrack. –Michael Roffman
You can take the Heartbreaker out of the South, but apparently you can’t take the South out of the Heartbreaker. There’s an intriguing idea being floated here — that where Petty’s protagonist comes from, specifically its rebellious history, in some way explains why he turned out reckless and ill-suited for relationships or living a lawful lifestyle. But, if that notion doesn’t float your steamboat, you can have just as much fun with that “Hey, hey, hey” call-and-response and the horn section blaring along with it. Little known fact: Petty, quite high at the time, got so frustrated during this recording that he busted his left hand by punching through a wall. Well, you know what they say: “One foot in the grave/ And one foot on the pedal/ And one fist in the wall/ I was born a rebel.” –Matt Melis
There isn’t any room for “Surrender” on Torpedoes. There isn’t. But, if there was ever a candidate for a tenth track on that album, well, here you go. This B-side is all about the moments. The way Petty’s pleas segue into the cascading chorus and then back into an even louder plea captures so much of the album’s magic. Then comes Campbell’s cartwheel guitar riff, walking everyone out of the ’70s. But maybe that’s just how I hear it. –Michael Roffman
04. “You Don’t Know How It Feels”
If you had to sum up the ethos of rock and roll in a single lyric, you couldn’t do much better than “You don’t know how it feels to be me.” That’s really the whole shebang right there. Now, just throw in some moseying harmonica and drums, roll whatever you prefer, and you have the perfect song for either driving down a dusty country road in a pickup or just chilling out on the back porch with friends. Like the best Petty songs, this one gets to the point. –Matt Melis
03. “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)”
One of the nine gems off Torpedoes, “Shadow of a Doubt” thrives on its exhaustive percussion. Try and imagine drummer Stan Lynch crunching his face to this one as he pummels away, especially when he switches to the more understated tribal rhythms. Let’s throw bassist Ron Blair a bone, too. After all, he kept up with him. –Michael Roffman
02. “The Wild One, Forever”
It’s that familiar story. Boy meets girl. Girl (aka “The Wild One”) carries a bad rep. Boy rescues girl, teaches her to love, and they ride off together … well, all except that last part. The “forever” here doesn’t refer to eternity or even the few hours actually spent together, but rather to the memory of those fleeting moments. In three minutes and change, Petty captures that uniquely teenage feeling that every encounter will be indelible and life-changing. –Matt Melis
01. “You Wreck Me”
Have you ever tried playing these chords on the guitar? It’s like therapy. Or a slice of apple pie. I can’t tell the difference, really. But this slice of quasi-country Americana alternative — that’s a mouthful, huh? — is equal parts delicious and sexy. Wouldn’t you know that it’s another collab with ol’ Campbell, only under the Wildflowers moniker. Hmm. Weird. It’s like … that’s the Heartbreakers. But, that’s not the Heartbreakers. –Michael Roffman
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Photo by Philip Cosores
10. “Runnin’ Down a Dream”
Campbell’s worn the cape for years, but he’s the world’s finest on “Runnin’ Down a Dream”. Onstage, he and Petty bounce off each other like Wade and LeBron — it’s wonderful. Over the years, the song has admittedly lost some of its punch, but that’s like saying Michael Jordan’s dunk isn’t up to par these days. What’s with all the basketball references, Mike? –Michael Roffman
09. “It’s Good to Be King”
Since debuting in ’95, Wildflowers cut “It’s Good to Be King” has become a mid-concert staple for Petty and the Heartbreakers. Not only does it offer an extended cooldown after a barrage of hits, but it allows a group known for its three-minute rock songs to flex their jam band muscles for a change, taking the audience through a series of bright flashes and mellow stretches before a final, cathartic breakdown. About all this performance lacks is powder-wigged Mel Brooks breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging, “It’s good to be the king.” –Matt Melis
08. “Even the Losers”
Great song, even better chorus. When Petty screams the title, so does everyone else. Who knew so many people were down on their luck over the years? –Michael Roffman
07. “Handle with Care”
It would strain credulity to suggest that Petty and the Heartbreakers debuting “Handle with Care” in London on the one-year anniversary of George Harrison’s passing was mere coincidence. Since then, the Traveling Wilburys cover has steadily found its way onto setlists and continued to celebrate the memories of both Harrison and Roy Orbison — “celebrate” being the optimal word. The song quickly turns into a full-audience sing-along: after all, “Everybody’s got somebody to lean on.” R.I.P. Nelson and Lefty. –Matt Melis
06. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
With so much star power behind the instruments, it’s easy to forget that the Heartbreakers know a thing or two about harmony. So, when Petty and the boys reach the chorus, it’s like someone spilled cold beer over your head in August. (That’s a good thing.) The harmonica is also choice, too. –Michael Roffman
I won’t insult your taste or waste your time. Watch the video. If you don’t come out thinking that this is a perfect rock and roll song, then I can’t help you. Really, there’s just nothing I can do for you. Good luck. –Matt Melis
04. “I Won’t Back Down”
I usually loathe when songs are completely reworked — here’s looking at you The Police circa 2007-8 — but there’s something humbling about the way Petty strips down “I Won’t Back Down”. The acoustic brings a veteran edge to an old standard, and while Petty sounds even more like Dylan in this rendition, it’s agreeable to the source material. It’s also cool how he excises the harmonies at the end and closes it on his own two shoulders. –Michael Roffman
03. “You Wreck Me”
On Wildflowers, it’s a desperately needed shot of adrenaline. In concert, it’s the song that all the Greatest Hits newbies ask about afterwards. And why wouldn’t they? “You Wreck Me” purrs out of the gate and onto the highway; pits boy and girl against the world (“Tonight we ride, right or wrong”); lets the crowd fill in the “Ohhhhh, yeeeaaahs”; and slows to a near stall before flooring it to the finish line. Why do we like it? Because it moves us, honey. Yes, it does. –Matt Melis
02. “Here Comes My Girl”
Yep, the song’s just as good on stage as it is off. –Michael Roffman
01. “American Girl”
Buffalo Bill murdered Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses” (a mercy killing if you ask me), but The Silence of the Lambs skin-coveting serial killer wasn’t anywhere near disturbing enough to turn us off “American Girl”. Nearly 40 years later, the early Petty single and perennial encore closer never fails to elicit utter jubilation from audiences. It’s catchy as hell, captures the rebellious desperation of youth, and, maybe most uniquely, features a female protagonist. Every woman, regardless of age or what country Petty tours in, becomes the American girl in question when Petty plays it. Petty could introduce this song as “one for the ladies,” and he wouldn’t be creepy or wrong in doing so. Really, it belongs to all the American girls of the world. So, wait for it. Wait for it. Tchhhhh… –Matt Melis