See, as much as I like to think that the head Heartbreaker and I are cut from the same cloth, share the same undying dedication to rock & roll (no matter how uncool that may be at the time), and walk with the same tenuous swagger that comes from having seen it all and done it all, the truth is that when they made Tom Petty, they broke the mold. And burned the cloth.
How I came to know of Tom Petty is a story I’ve told friends and will now tell you:
When I was a kid, I was already neck-deep in my love for rock & roll. As my twelfth birthday approached, I began dropping a series of not-so-subtle hints that I wanted the new Pretenders album as a gift. Over and over, I mentioned the Pretenders. When they appeared on television, I made sure to turn up the volume and yell, “Oh cool, the Pretenders!” within earshot of my parents. The last thing I wanted was for them to buy me the wrong album.
Finally, my birthday arrives and I rip into the album-shaped present that sits before me. I throw the wrapping paper on the floor and gaze at the – wait a second, this isn’t the Pretenders album. It’s Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Damn the Torpedoes. Not wanting to hurt my parents’ feelings, I feign excitement and, once my birthday dinner is over, carry the album to my room with all the enthusiasm of a pack of Fruit of The Loom briefs.
From the moment I touched needle to wax, though, I was in love. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers could be heard blaring from my room for the next several weeks…then months. Many years later, as my family sat around the table on Christmas Eve, retelling old stories and whatnot, I told about the time I had asked for a Pretenders album and gotten a Heartbreakers album by mistake. My dad flashed me a knowing look and told me that it had, in fact, not been a mistake at all.
That sly bastard.
Of course, the same could be said of Petty himself, who has weaved quite the unlikely path from obscurity to celebrity in a career that now spans four decades. My dad was always fond of saying “I’d rather be lucky than good any day” (along with “If a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his ass”) and I’ve always thought that Tom Petty would recognize and appreciate the inherent truth in such a line.
Petty, of course, is living proof that being good, and working hard, breeds its own special brand of luck. How else to explain a career that includes two Quixotic victories against the major label machine (first, the court battle to get out of a bad contract and, second, the fight to not have his album used to usher in new, higher album prices), a world tour backing Bob Dylan, and membership in the Traveling Wilburys?
In one sense, Petty is the rock & roll Forrest Gump – always seemingly in the right place at the right time when history’s being made. From another viewpoint, though, you can start to see that he was a very essential ingredient in every success of which he’s been a part.
The Traveling Wilburys may very well have done just fine without him. Any band featuring George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne would be guaranteed to create much interest, but it was Petty whose name pricked up the ears of a younger generation. Without him, the Wilbury’s just wouldn’t have been as cool and my hunch is that Mssgrs. Harrison, Dylan, Orbison, and Lynne were well aware of this.
Still, you just had to know that when Petty was in the room with Harrison, Dylan and Orbison, even he had to be pinching himself and that, in my estimation, is part of his charm. For all of his obvious talent, he’s always been one of us. That ski slope nose, the nasally voice, the teeth that seem almost too big for the mouth in which they reside, yet there he is selling out the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, there he is singing a Top 10 hit duet with Stevie Nicks, there he is on MTV, and so on.
Petty has always had a way of fitting in, it seems. Oddly enough, though, he’s always seemed just enough out-of-place that you can’t take your eyes off him – a misfit who speaks to the misfit in each of us, a rebel who speaks to that part of us that tells us to not back down, and, most importantly, a hopeless romantic who speaks to the aching heart within us all. Don’t believe me? Next time you find yourself standing in front of a jukebox (yes, they still exist), play “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and watch as the entire room, regardless of ethnic, professional, or regional affiliation, begins to groove as one.
I’ve always hoped another Tom Petty would come along; someone who embraces tradition, yet charges full speed straight ahead with a distinct voice of their own, but I’ve yet to see anyone come close. Maybe it isn’t so much that he’s one-of-a-kind (although I’m hard-pressed to dispute such a claim), but that the world has changed so much that if another Tom Petty were to come along, there’d be no place for him. This is, after all, a culture that would rather get their idols from a reality TV show and where bad behavior and a complete lack of talent and worth will get you everywhere, it seems.