Tom Petty and the Cheap, Eternal Thrills of Rock & Roll
In 1976, both the Ramones and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their first albums. They were both self-titled debuts, and there the similarities end. The Ramones were minimal, radical, loud and bratty; if not a break with everything, they were the start of something. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were careerists; three of them had been in a band called Mudcrutch, moved from Florida to Los Angeles, released a single that went nowhere. The Heartbreakers was a second try. The band’s music shuffled, it strutted, it boogied; it wasn’t a break with the past. It was a continuation of everything.
And yet, play the first song on each album. Short ones, determinedly so. The Ramones blast off with “Blitzkrieg Bop,” which clocks in at 2:13. Petty’s “Rockin’ Around (With You)” lasts just fourteen seconds longer, 2:27. (For comparison’s sake, consider the lead song of another cornerstone of 1976, the title track of the Eagles’ Hotel California, which takes 6:31 to recast “Stairway to Heaven” as California noir.) These songs define very different worlds in very different ways, but they both look back to the tight and structured sound of the songs on the radio when rock & roll first took hold of the airwaves, packing explosive possibilities into small spaces. And they celebrate it in common language. “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!” chant the Ramones. “Yeah I can’t — Hey! — stop thinking about how I — Hey! — dig rockin’ around with you,” sing the Heartbreakers.
Petty was no punk, though. He was a revivalist, bent on translating what had inspired him into the present moment. On their first two albums, the Heartbreakers play the kind of bar-band soul that was called pub rock in England, although they make it a wide-open, highway music. Graham Parker would lace this sound with dread and be celebrated for it; Petty mined it for good times. “Take it easy, baby,” he counseled in 1976’s “American Girl.” “Make it last all night.” The story — in my high school lunchroom, anyway — was that the song was about a girl standing on a balcony, listening to the traffic below, and jumping to her death when the failed promises of a lost love got too much for her. And it you listened close, that was there. But did it matter? Not as much as the light funk breakdown two minutes in which gave way to a full minute of instrumental guitar chatter, the mounting handclaps an invitation to a speeding ticket.
A year after it came out, “American Girl” was covered by one of Petty’s heroes, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. Twenty-five years after its release, the Strokes turned the song into “Last Nite.” This was one of Petty’s gifts, reaching backward and forward in the same moment. His 1979 breakthrough, Damn the Torpedoes, used ‘60s garage rock to define how rock radio would sound in the 1980s, before Bruce Springsteen and U2 got there — particularly the way the snap of the drums soaked up studio smarts to seem at once human and bigger than any man-made thing. This was music about loss and dashed expectations, but Petty sang it like a come-on. Springsteen asked you to prove it all night, and you understood he was talking about an existential wrestling match. Petty stretched a hand out when you’d been kicked around and advised there was no reason to live like a refugee, and you understood he had a warm bed to offer.
He’d make hits in the ‘70s, the ‘80s and the ‘90s, hits that drew on the ‘50s and ‘60s to establish a new classicism. At a certain point, he took so much from the bedrock, he formed a new bedrock of his own. His songs circulated for so long — so many of them, for so many years — that they formed the basis of other songs: “American Girl” became “Last Nite”; “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” turns up in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California”; “I Won’t Back Down” forms part of Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me.” And as his influence crossed to younger generations of listeners and creators, it also touched older ones.
In 1986, Petty and the Heartbreakers backed Bob Dylan on a joint tour, and in 1989 Petty would record with Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne as the Traveling Wilburys, a strange and remarkable collection of hitmakers laying momentary claim to the freedoms and fun that made them pick up guitars in the first place. A few years later, Petty and the Heartbreakers recorded 1996’s Unchained with Johnny Cash, who, like Orbison, had pushed the boundaries of American music at Sun Records in the 1950s. In a cover of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” they reach back to Cash’s skeletal early singles, scoop up the snarling rhythms of Bo Diddley, and lean into the song, bent on opening new territory. It doesn’t matter if they make it; the sound of the struggle is what matters.
That kind of talk didn’t quite suit Tom Petty. He never embraced the role of spiritual leader, onstage or off. Springsteen was a preacher, Bono a mystic, Petty an arena rock star. He disliked interviews. He put his pain and thought into his songs, shared them that way. He wasn’t much interested in explaining further. “Rock & roll songs are just cheap shit — nothing deeper than that,” he sneered in his first Rolling Stone cover story. The music told a different story, over and over. Yet there was something crucial in that sneer. Not just in the way that you could hear it in his vocals, the sneer making you believe the way songs like “The Waiting” mixed talk of life’s denials and prizes, or “Into the Great Wide Open” laced rock-star dreams with sardonic realities; the sneer animating both the rebellion of “I Won’t Back Down” and naked desire of “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”
But there was also something in the bluntness of Petty’s statement itself: the cheapness of rock songs was part of their appeal. They were moments to be snatched — for both the artist and the listener — shared and used as needed. It didn’t have to be anything more (which is why Petty was always better served by greatest hits collections, or playlists, than any individual album). Make it last all night — sure. Make it last a lifetime — maybe not. Because there will be another song. And you can string those songs together into a lifetime.
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