Wednesday, November 8, 2017

It's Good to Be King: The Best Songs of Tom Petty

I'll just come out and say it: I think Tom Petty is the greatest American rock 'n' roll songwriter we've ever had. Granted, I'm incredibly biased in this—his music has been a constant and important presence in my life since I was a kid, and he's my favorite musician ever—but hear me out. Some of the names that probably came to mind at first (Dylan, Simon, Cash) aren't really "rock 'n' roll" if we're splitting genre hairs (and we are), and his closest competition—Bruce Springsteen—is probably a better storyteller than songwriter. He just doesn't have quite the same ability to crystallize a feeling in the straightforward way Tom could, a kind of plainspoken poetry that can strike you down with its simplicity. His songs always had an off-the-cuff feeling, but he always wrote with his heart on his sleeve. There's never been anyone better able to simultaneously speak to the masses while making it seem like he was writing about something that happened in *your* life. He's indelible, and there's never been—nor will there likely ever be—anyone better.

I'm going to miss him dearly, but he left behind a catalogue that's as extensive as it is ubiquitous (including the greatest greatest hits album of all-time). For every song you've heard a hundred times on the radio, at the bar, in a movie, there's four or five more deep cuts that are almost as good. I mean, I'm still discovering amazing songs as I go through his oeuvre in mourning—"Change of Heart" from Long After Dark just floored me earlier today. So read this list knowing that it's just the tip of the alligator in the expansive Florida swampland. These are my favorite songs from my favorite songwriter of all time.

Honorable Mentions: "Don't Do Me Like That" (Damn the Torpedoes), "Mary Jane's Last Dance" (Greatest Hits), "Southern Accents" (Southern Accents), "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" (The Traveling Wilburys' Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1perhaps apocryphally co-written with Bob Dylan), "You Wreck Me" (Wildflowers)

10) "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around"
Album: Stevie Nicks's Belladonna
Year: 1981

And, of course, we'll start with a song that's not even from a Tom Petty record. But Stevie Nicks was always kind of an honorary Heartbreaker (as there were "no girls allowed in the Heartbreakers")—frequent collaborator, often muse, always friend. The story goes that Petty promised her that they'd collaborate on a song for her debut solo album, Belladonna. That song was supposed to be "Insider," but Petty liked it too much to give up. (It wound up on Damn the Torpedoes.) Instead, they cut "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around"—and I think Petty gave up the wrong song. Nicks and Petty always had a certain vulnerable brashness in common, which is on full display in "Draggin'." Stevie takes the verses, Tom pops in for the pre-chorus, and their considerable powers combine in an absolutely smoking chorus (backed, of course, by the Heartbreakers at their coolest, smoothest best). One of my biggest regrets is missing a Tom Petty show in Glendale where Nicks popped on stage to do this one. But who knows, maybe the Heartbreakers will decide to do a tribute tour with some old friends of Tom—his old Wilburys bandmates Lynne and Dylan, some of the guys from Mudcrutch, perhaps Eddie Vedder... and maybe, just maybe, a certain girl who only ever wanted to be part of the boy's club.

9) "Refugee"
Album: Damn the Torpedoes
Year: 1980

Even if you don't buy that Petty is the best American rock 'n roll songwriter ever, you've got to admit that he's written some of the best choruses of all time—think "Here Comes My Girl," "I Won't Back Down," "Free Fallin'." But "Refugee" might be his best, and it's only eight words: "You don't have to live like a refugee." Of course, that's not counting the epic harmony provided by Stan Lynch (perhaps the most underrated of the Heartbreakers, and an absolute character in his own right): "You don't have to live like a refugee (don't have to live like a refu-geh)." Just try to sing the line without instinctually adding the harmony—you can't do it, it comes unbidden like some kind of verbal tic. That's the mark of a true earworm, and it should come as no surprise that this was one of Petty's highest-charting singles with the Heartbreakers. Speaking of which, this song is an excellent showcase of the band as a whole. Stan Lynch's perfect harmony has already been mentioned, and he's a steady presence behind the kit, as is two-time Heartbreaker Ron Blair on bass. But the interplay between Mike Campbell's lead guitar and Benmont Tench's work on the keys really makes this song—each accentuates the other, almost like duelling lead guitars, and each takes the limelight for a few bars here and there. You don't have to be backed by one of the best studio bands of all time to be considered a great songwriter, but it sure helps.

8) "Walls (Circus)"
Album: Songs and Music from "She's the One"
Year: 1996

Yes, you read that right: one of Petty's best songs comes courtesy of the soundtrack for a freaking Ed Burns movie (and one named after a Bruce Springsteen song, no less). The whole album is great, a kind of lost classic amidst a discography of better-known and -regarded albums—"Grew Up Fast" and "California" are great tracks—but this song especially is an underheralded gem in the Petty catalogue, an almost painfully earnest ditty (yes, ditty) that recalls The Byrds as much as the rosier tracks on Wildflowers, which immediately preceded the She's The One soundtrack. Petty embraced an especially pensive clarity during this period of his career ("You belong among the wildflowers / you belong somewhere you feel free"), which is encapsulated in one of my favorite stanzas in any of his songs:

"Some things are over
Some things go on
Part of me you carry
Part of me is gone"

This is maybe the best example of the "plainspoken poetry" I mentioned earlier—humble words, but they'll make you tear up if they catch you at the right (or wrong) moment. I know I've had to pull off the I-17 because of this song before. This song also merits a shoutout to the one and only Lindsey Buckingham, who provides some memorable backing vocals that buoy your heart (HEART) and the chorus at the same time.

7) "Time to Move On"
Album: Wildflowers
Year: 1994

This song marks the first appearance of Wildflowers, Petty's second solo album and the best of his career—with or without the Heartbreakers officially credited (although they all mostly played on his solo records as well). There are easily half a dozen or more tracks that could have made this list from Wildflowers, from the title track, to enduring singles "You Don't Know How It Feels" and "It's Good to Be King," to marvelous deep cuts like "To Find a Friend" and "A Higher Place." (Not to mention "You Wreck Me" in the honorable mentions.) But "Time to Move On" earns its place here for its winsome weariness, its hypnotic melody (more wizardry from Campbell and Tench), and its insistent rhythm courtesy of new Heartbreaker Steve Ferrone (who replaced Stan Lynch as drummer). It's another song that seems universal but can seem shockingly personal to different listeners (I know people who have related it to the death of a loved one, a breakup, or other various life changes). That it can also help you get over Petty's death is just a bonus. Time to move on, time to get going indeed.

6) "I Won't Back Down"
Album: Full Moon Fever
Year: 1989

I suspect this was the song most people listened to when they first heard the news about Petty's death... and then again when he actually died about 8 hours later. (For the record, the first song I played was "Wildflowers.") I also suspect this will prove to be his most enduring song, even more than "Free Fallin'" or "American Girl." There's just something infinitely timeless and eminently relatable about it—it's been played in countless sports stadiums and political rallies, and it's maybe Petty's most covered song, yet no one ever gets tired of it. (That's probably true of all of Petty's hits though. Who's ever like, "Ugh, this song?" when a Petty tune comes on?) "I Won't Back Down" is his best song to sing along to, perfect for road trips, a karaoke staple, and the soundtrack many a drunken sing-along as the bar is closing. Finally, to me, this is the song that most embodies Petty himself—he never backed down from anything, not early failures in his music career, not record companies, not drug addiction, not even cardiac arrest. I'll always remember Tom as he was in this song—rebellious, indomitable, and inimitable.

5) "Free Fallin'"
Album: Full Moon Fever
Year: 1989

Like a lot of artists who rose to stardom in the 1980s, Petty owes part of his success to music videos and MTV. And, like a lot of kids who grew up in the 1980s, the TV, and MTV in particular, was my part-time babysitter. (I had a real babysitter, of course, but she mostly just turned on MTV and let us watch.) So, of course, some of my first memories of Petty are his music videos. Kim Basinger's dancing corpse bride in "Mary Jane's Last Dance." Eddie and his leather jacket (with chains that would jingle) in "Into the Great Wide Open." Of course the Alice in Wonderland fever dream of "Don't Come Around Here No More." But the one I remember seeing first—and probably the least interesting of the bunch, honestly—was the one for "Free Fallin'" with its cast of SoCal preppies and skaters, and Tom in shades playing his 12-string in an abandoned mall. When I hear the song now—from the gorgeous 12-string strumming to the exultant chorus to all the forlorn characters—I still think of those preppies and skaters, the California sunshine, a sense of youthful carefreeness. Come to think of it, this song is probably the beginning of my lifelong love affair with LA. So does that mean Tom Petty is the reason I went to grad school at USC? Hmmm...

4) "Learning to Fly"
Album: Into the Great Wide Open
Year: 1991

I've seen Tom Petty live four times: once at the hockey arena here in Phoenix, once at the basketball arena, once in Golden Gate Park during Outside Lands (the best two hours of my concert-going life), and once at Wrigley Field in the rain about three months before he died. They were all amazing for different reasons, but one part of them was always the same: the part when they'd play "Learning to Fly" and Tom would step back from the microphone and let the crowd take over on a chorus. There's something indescribably magical about singing and swaying to the song, your arm around the shoulders of your best friends or your girlfriend or both, such undeniable feeling in the simple words, words that carry different meaning for everyone who sings them. It's always a highlight of his live show, and it's incredibly sad that I'll never get to experience it again. I'm so very glad that I made it out to that show in Chicago on his final tour—I'll never forget the roiling sky overhead, the warm raindrops hitting my skin, my favorite people by my side, and singing along to one of my favorite songs by my favorite musician of all time. Thanks for the memories, Tom.

3) "The Waiting"
Album: Hard Promises
Year: 1981

I think a big reason why Petty's death resonated like it did is that a ton of people under 40 associated him with their fathers. I mean, whose dad didn't have the Heartbreakers' Greatest Hits CD in regular rotation in his truck? I know that was the case for me. (And you bet your ass I called my dad the day Tom died to grieve and reminisce together.) It makes a lot of sense because, really, who else was Tom Petty but America's rock 'n' roll dad? He was kind of awkward, magnificently bearded in his latter days, and had that inherent corniness that all dads share. Truthfully, a lot of his lyrics sound like fatherly aphorisms doled out over a beer from the front porch rocking chair. "She's gonna listen to her heart." "Even the losers get lucky sometimes." "Good love is hard to find." And, of course, this song: "The waiting is the hardest part. Every day you get one more yard." Only a dad would sneak a football metaphor into love life advice. I'm going to miss my rock 'n' roll dad dearly, but I thankfully still have my actual dad around for (hopefully) many more years. I know he loves The Byrds as much as Tom did (the opening riff to this song is straight out of the Roger McGuinn playbook), and while I don't think I've ever heard him play "The Waiting," he does a pretty mean "Free Fallin'." I'm sure he'll play it for us soon during our next back porch beer session.

2) "Crawling Back to You"
Album: Wildflowers
Year: 1994

"Crawling Back to You" is, quite simply, the best song on the best album of Petty's career. It was named Best Tom Petty Deep Cut by Rolling Stone readers, but I'll go a step further and say it's one of the best Tom Petty songs, period. It's got all the hallmarks of a Petty classic—briefly sketched (yet still vivid) narrative, shifts from 3rd to 1st person POV, short-but-stirring chorus—and some of the finest work the Heartbreakers ever did (Tench's keys take center stage here, but Campbell has his best solo this side of "Learning to Fly"). It's also got the most beautiful, perfectly wistful stanza Petty ever wrote:

"I'm so tired of being tired
Sure as night will follow day
Most things I worry about
Never happen anyway"

This is the song I've listened to the most since Tom died—yes, even more than the song at #1. It's a sad bastard song by a guy who could write sad bastard songs with the best of 'em, and a perfect song for mourning a legend.

1) "American Girl"
Album: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Year: 1977

Sometimes, it's best to just let the man speak for himself:

"Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn't help thinkin'
That there was a little more to life somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to
And if she had to die tryin'
She had one little promise she was gonna keep

Oh yeah, all right
Take it easy, baby
Make it last all night
She was an American girl

Well it was kinda cold that night
She stood alone on her balcony
Yeah, she could hear the cars roll by
Out on 441 like waves crashin' on the beach
And for one desperate moment there
He crept back in her memory
God it's so painful when something that's so close
Is still so far out of reach

Oh yeah, all right
Take it easy, baby
Make it last all night
She was an American girl"

R.I.P, Tom. Thanks for the songs.

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