I still can’t believe Tom Petty’s dead.
I’ve been living in the aughts. I decided to go to my bootleg site, where I used to live fifteen years ago, after the death of Napster. There was this Jackson Browne concert from Hamburg in ’93 that was jaw-dropping, cut straight to my soul, “Late For The Sky” may have been nearly twenty years old but it sounded as fresh as ’74.
But then I heard Elton John with the Royal Philharmonic and it was so good, SO SO GOOD, that I couldn’t believe it was real. I keep going back to it. Was he really that talented? How could anybody sing so perfectly? I tingled as I listened.
And then I came across Petty.
Now Petty didn’t achieve stardom overnight. As a matter of fact, his initial LP didn’t even make a splash. He was considered a punk when he wasn’t on a label with little traction and he didn’t gain any notice until he went to England and a buzz began.
Then it translated to Los Angeles. That’s right, Tom may have been from Florida, but he’s as L.A. as you or me, the land of transplants, those who grew up listening and watching and just had to get the hell out of where we were and come to the coast to be free, to be our best selves.
And what broke him through was not “American Girl,” but a live version of “Breakdown,” with a breakdown, they played it all the time on KROQ, back when that was a free-format station, probably the hippest station of L.A., before anybody knew Kevin and Bean existed.
But then it started to spread.
To the big kahuna, KMET. And its more corporate dialmate KLOS.
But before that, KWST. The Led Zeppelin station. At 105.9. Up by KROQ. Where those who believed in rock and roll, loud and fuzzy, still lived.
This recording was from a KWST live broadcast, from Capitol Studio A, that breakout year of 1977. And it includes Tom’s cover of “Don’t Bring Me Down.”
Other than that the tracks are from the debut, as well as “Listen To Her Heart” and a cover of “Shout,” but if you lived in L.A. back then, you heard this live take of “Don’t Bring Me Down” on the radio, and it shattered you.
They don’t get no respect. If Eric Burdon O.D.’ed or died in a plane crash forty five years ago he’d be a legend, but he lived on, he’s still here, but that voice, that darkness, that blues-influenced sound, it cuts to the bone.
And Petty knew it.
That was the difference between Petty and what came before him, HE WAS LITERALLY FROM A DIFFERENT GENERATION!
Sure, he graduated, was accepted by the rest of the Wilburys, but that’s like your high school brother taking along your junior high self. Special, but you see Tom was one of us. He’d seen the Beatles. He’d played in bands. He was bitten by the bug. He didn’t give up.
Most of us did. We all played guitar back then. It was like playing Pokemon Go, everybody did it. But most weren’t willing to put in the time, or when it got hard they gave up, went to college, played it safe.
Tom never played it safe.
And that’s what we loved about him. He never sold out. He was a lifer. He was in for good.
Not that we knew all that back when, it’s certainly evident in hindsight, but back in the mid seventies he was just on a journey, one of credibility, faithfulness to the music, when the sound was going corporate and everybody was going for the bucks. And when they wanted him to, he refused. But that’s well-known history.
Anyway, it’s hard to describe sixties music if you weren’t there. The way it swept the nation, most famously the British Invasion. And the bands didn’t all sound the same, and you were addicted to your transistor, listening to the countdown as you did your homework, and EVERYBODY knew the hits, and you loved most of ’em, but then there were some that were special, like “Don’t Bring Me Down.”
This was pre-internet, pre-information age, we had no idea that it was a Goffin-King song. Carole’s another one who stupefied us. A legend even without “Tapestry,” how could one woman be responsible for so much greatness?
Now the Animals’ take begins with that eerie organ, straight out of the Midlands, this is not sunny America, this is a land of darkness that these musicians are praying to escape, based on the back of this tune.
And Eric starts to sing and it’s almost sotto voce, subtle, the antithesis of the “Voice,” if he was on they’d kick him off, but Eric knows it’s all about dynamics, presentation.
And the hook.
And that fuzz guitar. So familiar now, but brand new back then, we had to credit George Harrison. He was the progenitor, an innovator. And then there’s that piano, in an era of electronic music it sounds so FRESH.
And the great thing about Petty was he believed, he paid fealty, he didn’t need to put his own spin on the song, he just needed to pay RESPECT.
Now you can listen to a take from 1985’s ” Pack Up The Plantation,” and that’s great, but this ’77 take is the antithesis of a victory lap, Petty still NEEDS it and he’s gonna PROVE IT!
That’s right, he came all the way from Gainesville, played in a million groups, won at the Battle of the Bands, and now he’s gonna strut his stuff, convince you solely with his music, back when that was enough.
When you complain and criticize
I feel I’m nothing in your eyes
Even the losers get lucky sometimes, but not frequently. Musicians were outcasts, they provided the entertainment at the club, they were not the ones making it rain, involved in the hijinks, they were the other, apart, hoping that their efforts could gain them entry to life’s riches, like women, like sex.
It makes me feel like giving up
Because my best ain’t just good enough
The FRUSTRATION! He’s trying his best, but he’s not succeeding. There’s no more he can do, he’s just gonna tell her the truth.
Girl, I want to provide for you
And do all the things that you want me to, but…
He wants to be her best man, give her all she wants, BUT!
Oh! Oh no, don’t bring me down
I’m beggin’ you darlin’
Oh! Oh no, don’t bring me down
He’s got a LIMIT! He can only take so MUCH! He’s not gonna be a DOORMAT!
That’s what the music did for us, inspire us, to not only be our best selves and stand up for what we believe, but to take no b.s.
And it was all in our heads. This was long before MTV. Production at shows was limited. You bought the vinyl and spun it alone in your room and transcended, you had to go to the show not to shoot selfies, not to say you were there, BUT TO PRAY AT THE CHURCH OF YOUR SOUL!
It’s hard to describe why music is magic. In this case maybe it’s Benmont’s organ, Tom’s sneer, but the concoction releases this sound, this feeling, that makes you feel alive, solidarity in the darkness, that this encapsulates your life.
And the “Plantation” take is just a bit less immediate, a bit more polished, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s slick, but it doesn’t sound so much like a basement club, with no video cameras, where the experience will be one and only and then evaporate.
But trying to find a version close to this bootleg I stumbled on a take from 1985’s Farm Aid.
And of course the first thing that blew my mind was Petty was alive. Even though he’s dead. How can he be dead?
And the organ is not quite as immediate, although the guitar sneers, and then Petty stands up to the mic…
And you feel the relaxation, he’s comfortable, he’s been here before, he’s doing his job, he’s not punching the clock, he’s getting in the groove, he’s bouncing up and down, he’s DELIVERING!
That was the fine line Tom Petty walked, between being a journeyman and a superstar.
And then when he hits the second verse, he’s fully in the groove, he’s got that Burdon sotto voce thing going, he’s dancing around the melody, he’s using body language, and then…
You’ve got a whole band firing on all cylinders, all eight, and they’re so well-rehearsed Tom spins and they hit the change, it sounds like the record but it doesn’t, it’s different, it breathes, it’s alive.
But Tom’s not.
Tom Petty was not only a fan, he was a student. He loved the old songs, played them on his Sirius show. He needed our respect, couldn’t take our neglect, he demanded attention, he needed our love.
That’s the essence of a performer. They’re not whole. They need something from us to complete them. You can sense the neediness in their performance, it’s not bulletproof, it’s not hermetically sealed, it needs us to join in.
And we did this when we heard Tom on the radio, when we went to the show, we communed, we felt like we were in it together, fighting the good fight, despite all the b.s., despite everything going in the wrong direction.
And then he peeled-off, dropped out, and sure, legends have been dying like flies, but not this young, not this vibrant, not someone who refused to go on a victory lap.
That’s right, the scene changed but Tom didn’t. He continued to forge his own path. And you felt if you could just sit down and talk with him, be in his presence, you could learn the essence of life.
But now that opportunity has evaporated.
And we feel so empty.
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