Growing up in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s Tom Petty was part of our soundtrack. What made him an icon is that his music seemed to transcend genres without actually transcending genres. Yes, I know that’s confusing. He played rock music, but rock music that people who liked country, or alternative or dance music and other genres could still enjoy. We got to see him in August of 1995 and he was as great as someone of his caliber should be. It was a last minute decision for us to go to that show, and I look back at it now knowing it was well worth it. In honor of his passing we look back at some of our favorite Tom Petty songs.
If someone asked me to name my 25 favorite musical performers individual or bands, Tom Petty would not make this list. I really have very little if any emotional connection to his music. Yet Tom Petty was always there in my life, on MTV, on classic rock stations, on current rock stations and I really took him for granted. He really loved music and was so consistent and good at what he did. He had much more hits than I remembered, with the Heartbreakers, solo, with the Traveling Wilbury’s, and with Stevie Nicks.
“The Waiting” (1981)
MTV first exposed me to “The Waiting” in 1981 from Petty’s Hard Promises album. A simplistic video with Petty and The Heartbreakers performing in an all-white stage with three colored triangles on the wall. MTV played it all the time. It’s the first of his collection that I remember. The song has a great distinctive opening guitar hook. It’s a great song that still sounds fresh today. Also, it’s confirmed the waiting is the hardest part.
MG: Up until recently I never thought much of this track, but I’ve come to appreciate it more in the last 10 years or so. Petty got all the glory, but The Heartbreakers were a steller backing band – all of them solid musicians.
“Even the Losers” (1980)
“Even the Losers” from my favorite Petty album Damn the Torpedoes is another rocking infectious killer of a song. I often felt that this song was a bit of a theme song as it gave hope to all of us kids who maybe weren’t the most popular but that we would get lucky someday, that life sometimes balances out just by happenstance. This was a non-single for Petty but it still has become very popular often played on classic rock stations. All three of my selected songs were done with The Heartbreakers and don’t want to minimize their contributions on these tracks, the band was tight.
MG: As a kid this was right up there as my favorite Petty track. As you said, it was a song I could relate to. It gave me hope that even this loser might get lucky sometime and a girl would like me.
“Into the Great Wide Open” (1991)
So we flash forward ten years from my previously selected songs and we get “Into the Great Wide Open”. At this point, Petty had matured quite a bit and instead of the quick hook rock songs he is doing more storytelling and doing more pop-oriented stuff. This song has one of my favorite lyrics of all time, “a rebel without a clue”. The video was awesome, it was an all-star cast and directed by the great video director Julian Temple. Johnny Depp played Eddie Rebel. Oscar winner Faye Dunaway co-starred along with 90’s favorites, Gabrielle Anwar, Terence Trent D’Arby, and Chynna Phillips. Like he did with “Don’t Come Around Here No More” Petty also had recurring roles throughout. The early 90’s was an alternative grunge type of life for me musically but I was still enjoying Tom Petty.
MG: I loved this song when it came out and enjoyed the video. I always gravitated towards videos that had a story and were like a mini-movie. For whatever reason, as an adult this song started to grate on me a little – and (I’m not making this up) some of it was due to the line “a rebel without a clue”. Can’t really explain it – just comes off as cheesy now to me – more the way Petty sings it than the words.
So a friend said to me last night “I thought you’d be more upset” about Tom Petty dying. I’m sad that he’s passed, but it didn’t hit me in the gut like Prince or George Michael did. Yes, Petty is a bit older than them, but for as much as I was entertained by Petty’s music over a big stretch of time, I never developed that personal, emotional connection to his music. The closest was probably the 1994 album Wildflowers, which came out in a tumultuous year for me and also has a relationship connection. It’s a great album, and has some of his most introspective work on it. Like DJ, I’m really glad I got to see him in concert – at the original Boston Garden in 1995, which I believe was the last show there before it was demolished.
“Change of Heart” (1982)
“You Got Lucky” is the only single people associate with the lesser-known 1982 album Long After Dark, but “Change of Heart” is a fantastic tune that I didn’t come to know of and appreciate until years after the album came out. From the opening heavy guitar riff, the song has a nice edge that fits the lyrics about a guy who’s finally fed up with a relationship turned sour. There aren’t many angry relationship songs like this, and I have gone to it for catharsis many times. “You push just a little too far/Made it just a little too hard/There’s been a change of heart.” I also love the metaphor in the lines: “I’ve stood in your gallery/I’ve seen what’s hanging from the walls.” I once played this song on my car stereo when I was driving a girlfriend home on a night we argued and broke up. I know, it’s “petty” and immature in retrospect, but we all do dumb things when we are young.
DJ: I think you introduced me to this song, I didn’t know it at all but now its one of my favorite tracks. I do like the badassery of the song, so bitter.
I don’t even know if this song was a single off Petty’s solo album of the same name, but I always loved the beauty of this song. It’s almost the antithesis of “Change of Heart”, where a guy seems to be letting his lover go find something better, and he’s ok with it. “Run Away, go find a lover/Run away, let your heart be your guide/You deserve the deepest of cover/ You deserve somewhere you feel free“. Petty was well known as a singer and front man, but I don’t think he was fully appreciated for his songwriting capabilities. He was as good at using metaphors as he was crafting memorable and catchy sing-along tunes. You know, as I’ve been doing this writing, and listening to his music, I’m getting more emotional about his passing. Maybe I was tied into his music a little more than I thought.
DJ: It was not a single and honestly I do not know it at all. I was a fan of “You Wreck Me” from this album. That was my point about Petty he was an icon but never got enough credit, I don’t think of him as a songwriter but he absolutely was. I have never heard anyone say they dislike Tom Petty or his music, which is a nice compliment.
“Learning to Fly” (1991)
I purposely put this song at the end, as I associate this song more with the time period when I finally felt like I was a confident adult and ready to put overblown nonsense behind me. The Heartbreakers really shine on this track, particularly Mike Campbell’s slide/electric guitar breaks. Again, listening to this song, the lyrics are so well written, and some of the credit for that goes to the great Jeff Lynne, who co-wrote and co-produced this album. “Learning to Fly” is quintessential Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – it’s not overly complex or produced, but it is a tightly composed and musically accomplished song that tells a little story we can all relate to. You will be missed Tom.
DJ: I was close to picking this song as well, another classic. I am glad you mentioned fellow “Wilbury” and ELO founder Jeff Lynne who’s presence here is felt. We didn’t really mention Petty’s offshoots much but the Wilbury’s had a couple big hits and Petty had influence on these songs. It’s funny to think he was the baby of that group. Petty also had his biggest hit with a song he wrote with The Heartbreakers and sang with Stevie Nicks, the classic “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”.