Graded on a Curve:
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, (s/t)

Tom Petty scares me. Always has. It’s that skull face of his. I always thought he’d be an even bigger star than he is if his face didn’t look like it should have crossbones underneath it.  Yes, I suspect that Petty’s frightening apparition of a face (although he’s improved it a bit by growing hair on it) has kept him from being acknowledged for what he is: namely, a bona fide power pop genius.

Most people think of Petty as a rock’n’roller or a roots rocker or, ugh, a heartland rocker, but I say he’s a power pop genius and goddamn it, I’m right. And he’d be a power pop genius if the only song he’d ever bequeathed us is the great “American Girl,” which I put at No. 3 on my list of all-time favorite power pop smashes behind The Raspberries’ “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)” and Big Star’s “September Gurls.” But since 1976 Petty has produced a shitload of brilliant and deceptively simple-sounding songs, from “Here Comes My Girl” to “Free Fallin’” to “I Need to Know” to “Into the Great Wide Open”—and the list goes on and on.

Petty reminds me of Creedence Clearwater Revival, another great singles band that never—in my opinion, at least—got the respect it deserved. And unlike John Fogerty—who has been reduced to producing ilk of the “put me in coach, I’m ready to play” variety—or Eric Carmen for that matter, Petty just keeps pumping them out, like a machine, or an Android from the Planet Skull. The man is a marvel, a human jukebox, and as much as I love The Raspberries and Big Star—more than I’ll ever love Tom Petty, that’s for sure—there’s no denying the guy has produced as many—or more—great tunes than both those bands put together.

Petty was born on October 20, 1950, a fact I bring up only because October 20 happens to be my birthday too.  But now where do I go? Er, uh, the Gainesville, Florida native (and I mean native—he lived in a swamp as a child, and painted his face and was a headhunter) was a member of The Traveling Wilburys! Who gives a shit, I know.  And recorded with Stevie Nicks! Ditto. Well, let’s just agree that Petty isn’t the most fascinating fellow in rock, and has managed to lead a life virtually free of amusing anecdotes, although he did appear on The Simpsons once, where he managed to lose a tie during a riot.

Yawn. Now if he’d lost a REAL toe during a REAL riot, we’d all have something to laugh about. But no, I’m afraid the only truly interesting thing about Petty is his music. Speaking of which I should probably be reviewing his greatest hits, seeing as how it contains his greatest hits, but I’m reviewing 1976 debut Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers instead because it has some great songs on it you won’t find on the greatest hits LP, songs that, like Petty himself, have never gotten their proper due.

The Heartbreakers, some of whom played with Petty in his first band Mudcrutch, deserve an introduction. Benmont Tench (piano, Hammond organ, keyboards) and Mike Campbell (electric and acoustic guitars) were members of Mudcrutch, while Ron Blair (bass) and Stan Lynch (drums) hailed from the short-lived band Tench formed after Mudcrutch broke up. As for Petty (vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards), he originally intended upon pursuing a solo career, but liked what Tench was doing with his band and picked ‘em up.

Anyway, I’d have never picked this album if it weren’t for “American Girl,” which is great for so many damned reasons I don’t know where to start. Those amazing chiming guitars that open the tune? The cool backing vocals that follow? That fantastic syncopated beat? Or Petty’s insistent and urgent vocals? When he sings, “And for one desperate moment there/He crept back in her memory/God it’s so painful/Something that’s so close/Is still so far out of reach” you can hear the desperation in his voice. And then there’s the fantastic climax, when those guitars and Ziggy Stardust backing vocals come back in, Petty cries, “Oh huh huh!” and a guitar flies in and plays a sizzling solo before the tempo picks up and Petty lets out one final cry. This isn’t song, it’s American myth, and a broken heart given the depth and the gravity and the importance it deserves.

“Breakdown” was the album’s other U.S. hit, but to be honest I’ve never cared much for its slow verses or Tench’s organ work, although Petty’s kick-ass vocals and the back-up vocals that accompany it are A-okay. Nor have I ever cared much for the moody “Luna,” or the Tench keyboard riff that powers it. Petty’s at his best when he puts some oomph into his vocals, and he practically whispers this atmospheric ditty. And where are the fucking guitars? Where? I hear one solitary lick, and that’s it. Which is why I like “Mystery Man,” which doesn’t exactly fly along but features a cool deep-bodied guitar that accompanies Petty’s surprisingly soulful vocals. He grew up in Gainesville, after all, and Mudcrutch played with Lynyrd Skynyrd once, so I guess it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise Petty’s got some southern blues in him. And I love the way he repeats, “And you know I do” at the end, a slur in his voice. Heartland rocker, my ass. The boy’s a Son of the South!

“Rockin’ Around (With You)” was a hit in the U.K., and no wonder—smooth group vocals and some great drumming lead up to Petty singing, “And I can’t stop thinkin’ about you” while the back-up singers go, “Hey, Hey!” It’s a simple tune, like all of Petty’s best, but there’s no denying the power of the ending, when Petty puts everything into, “Oh, I dig rockin’ around/Oh, I dig rockin’ around.” “Hometown Blues” is hardly classic Petty, but his vocals are great—I’ve always thought Petty was an underrated vocalist—and the song is melodic enough, less a blues than a rhythm and blues that kicks along in a pleasant enough manner but won’t exactly blow you away.

“The Wild One, Forever,” on the other hand, is a lost classic, with a fantastically lovely chorus featuring one tortured sounding Petty and slow and pretty verses where Tench’s keyboards don’t just sound good—they rule. And you won’t hear me crying out for guitars on this one, either, although you may hear me crying, that’s how poignant the song is. “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” is one propulsive number, with a classic guitar riff that could be by Keith Richards and Petty sounding tough and calling the boss a jerk and throwing in a “Oh ho ho ho!” and biting off his words in a chorus that goes, “So come baby, let’s go, don’t you hear the rock ‘n’ roll?/Playin’ on the radio sounds so right/Girl you better grab hold, everybody’s gotta know/Anything that’s rock ‘n’ roll is fine.” A little to the left or right, and this could be a terrible Bob Seger tune, but Petty walks the tightrope like a pro and doesn’t even fall off during Campbell’s short but snazzy guitar solo.

“Strangered in the Night” opens with some strangled guitar that opens up into a nice enough tune with a nice enough melody that kinda leaves me cold except for Petty’s drawn-out and slurred vocals, some cool backing vocals, and a turbo-driven guitar solo that runs through the second half of the song while Petty sings over it, the back-up vocalists providing some neat and sweet sounds. “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” is another last great one, with Petty sounding bona fide pissed as he snarls the second half of the title. Tench’s organ drone is nice, and Campbell plays a solo that’s nothing to write home about that Petty saves by shouting, “Look out!” To hear Petty sarcastically bite off the words, “It’s good to see you think so much of me” is a frightening thing, as are his increasingly bitter screams of “I don’t like it!” And at one point he seems to speak in tongues, like some snake-oil revivalist, as Campbell finally kicks out the jams on guitar and the song fades into the darkness of romantic betrayal, where Petty and I hang out on Saturday night crying into each other’s beers.

I used to own this album about a million years ago, and I wish I still had it for Petty’s insolent pout on the cover and all the cool songs on the vinyl within. Lots of people don’t like Tom Petty, the same way lots of people don’t like John Mellencamp, and I think they’re dead wrong on both counts. You could practically stock a jukebox with all the wonderful songs Petty has recorded over the years, and I love his voice so much I’d even listen to him sing the fucking National Anthem.

Petty may never get his fair due, at least from the hipster contingent that throngs Brooklyn and Portland and Littlestown, but hey, it’s their loss. After all it’s a great big world, with lots of songs to listen to, but as for me I’m not too proud to admit that I stand on my balcony while the cars roll by out on 441 like waves crashin’ on the beach, desperate, yes desperate, to be Tom Petty’s American Girl.


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