Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Mending Broken Hearts with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Pretty much the album that made everyone a Tom Petty fan.
I was originally going to talk about all of the bands I carry around in my head, and why, but I think I can demonstrate my relationship with music using only Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I really wanted to make this a positive, uplifting essay. Instead, it’s going to be another damn eulogy.

I don’t talk about music very much. It’s not that I don’t want to, but rather, I don’t want to run afoul of someone who doesn’t get what I like, or why. Few things bow me up into a fighting shape like being told a band I like really sucks. Slightly less irritating is being boxed into one particular category of music fan. That’s really not fair because I genuinely like a little bit of everything. That is to say, I like certain artists and bands in just about every genre. For the most part, I do not indulge deeply, but I do enjoy widely.

There are exceptions, of course. Certain bands transcend whether time and place and become part of your history. At least, that’s how it is for me. I assume that other people have a music memory on some sort of level, that listening to the song you lost your Virginity to will catapult you back in time like you’re on an episode of Quantum Leap. Music is the thumbtack on my memory map. I know where I was when I first heard certain songs. I can recall memories, sights, sounds, and sometimes even smells, all tied up in and around certain songs.

I was still a youth when their debut album hit, but back in the 1970s, radio stations would play an album and the singles released from it for up to two years without thinking twice. So, while I remember hearing “American Girl” on the radio, it didn’t quite resonate for me. I wasn’t really dialed in to what Tom was talking about until Damn the Torpedoes. Like the rest of the planet.

You couldn’t get away from “Refugee.” It was everywhere. All of the radio stations played it. At the skating rink. Forty-Fives and cassettes. Probably a few 8-Track tapes out there, too. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, DJs were actual people, not computer programs, and they played “Refugee” constantly, and then they went back and played other Tom Petty songs when they got bored with that one.

After that, I started hearing Tom Petty. Not listening, but really hearing him. His lyrics really spoke to me. See, I had to grow into the affable, charismatic, devil-may-care person you know so well. In Junior High, and High School, and, oh, most of my 20s, and probably right up to the age of thirty, I can chart my successes (and many, many failures) with the opposite sex using nothing but Tom Petty songs. No one writes a male break-up song like Tom Petty. He never had that machismo swagger. There was always a plaintive vulnerability to his voice that really conveyed pain, loss, and yeah, even heartbreak.

I weathered high school listening to “Stop Dragging My Heart Around,” that fantastic duet with Stevie Nicks, and also “American Girl,” “Listen to Her Heart,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” and “You Got Lucky.” Those songs had a quality to them that you did not find in any other rock and roll records. Springsteen was singing about larger concerns. Heavy Metal might as well have been singing about a colony on Mars. I was going to a high school in a suburb of Waco, Texas. The girls Motley Crue focused on? The “club girls?” They didn’t exist for me and my friends.

The other record that made everyone
a Tom Petty fan. 
New Wave? Just as alien, though not without some of its charms, thanks to many a teen movie soundtrack. Pop music around this time was just shitty. It was Rick Astley and Billy Ocean and New Kids on the Block. There were very few rock and roll acts out there that managed to keep their street cred and just play their music. Top of that list was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Thank God MTV and VH1 kept him in rotation. Generation X might not have survived otherwise.

When Full Moon Fever came out, I was in college. “Free Falling” and “Feel a Whole Lot Better” got me through one of the worst break-ups of my life, and it’s the reason why, to this day, I have a serious problem with women named “Amy.” It was a reinvention for Petty, and I think that producer Jeff Lynne made the inspired decision to put Tom’s voice right up close on the mic. It’s a more intimate sound, not as big and sonic as the early Heartbreakers albums, but it’s part of what makes songs like “Free Falling” so effective. When he goes up an octave for the chorus, and it sounds like genuine anguish, it gave me chills the first time I heard it.

Somewhere along the way, I started decoding the lyrics and I realized how effortless Tom Petty’s music always sounded, and how incredibly complicated it really was. And the Heartbreakers? One of the most underrated bands in rock and roll history. They are so tight that it’s really hard to unpack them. That more people don’t consider Mike Campbell to be a genius is just weird. That opening riff is so immediately identifiable, and yet it doesn’t sound like anything else, not really.

I owned this album twice. That's how much I liked it.
I was in the middle a tumultuous relationships when Wildflowers dropped. One of my most impactful relationships was stretched to the breaking point when I moved to California. I was trying to keep it together via long distance when I first heard “You Wreak Me,” and it cut into me like few songs ever have before or since. Taking it back to high school with the lyrics “I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants / You be the girl at the high school dance / Run with me, wherever I go /Just play dumb, whatever you know” was such a powerful sense memory; it was as if I’d been waiting since 1985 to hear that song and personalize it. The way the guy in the song begs the girl to throw it all away and just be with him and forget all the rest of it—that kind of crazy passion, the woman you know is bad for you, but you can’t help it—Ohhh oh oh. Yeah-aaaah. Who hasn’t had one of those relationships? Who didn’t come out of it feeling like they’d been in a car crash?

Flash forward to this year: my friends bought me and Cathy tickets to see Tom Petty in Austin on his 40th Anniversary Farewell Tour. This would be Cathy’s third time to see him. She’s also seen Bruce Springsteen three times. My wife. She likes rock and roll for all of the right reasons. Anyway.

Over the years, I have observed that experiencing a treasured band tends to overwrite my memories of listening to their music by myself and supplant that with memories of seeing them live. This has happened with KISS, The Cramps, Springsteen, Robert Plant, Joan Jett, etc. you get the idea.

As we are enjoying the concert—and it was a fantastic show—the band went back through their catalog in a greatest hits kind of playlist. “You Wreak Me,” by the way, was their first encore number, and it filled me with such joy.

Walking out of the Frank Erwin Center, and for days afterward, I was re-playing the show in my head and I noticed that all of that heartache and heartbreak that I’d attached to these songs over the years had scooched over to make room for that concert, with my wife and my friends, as we jumped and clapped and sang along, and the sense memory of holding my wife’s hand through most of the concert.

The heartbreak had become love. Not healed, so much as refocused. The power of rock and roll, baby.

I loved everything about Tom Petty. His sound, his sense of humor, his genuine love of music, his list of influences, and his dark streak of irony. Naming the band of musical nerds and misfits “the heartbreakers,” man. Self-effacing from the start. I always assumed that he’d be around forever, like Willie Nelson. It’s a darker, lonelier world without him in it. Thankfully, he has a song for that.

Rest in Peace, Tom. Rest in peace. 

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