It has been a few months since we had a root around in the 500-strong album time capsule left to us by Rolling Stone magazine. Last time out, we spent some time trudging through the heartbreak treacle of Fleetwood Mac's seminal album Rumours which occupies the list's 26th spot. This time around, we are spending a little time with a contemporary of Fleetwood Mac, the sadly now departed legend that is Tom Petty.
I first encountered Petty's music during Tom Cruise's note-perfect spiral from polite drumming to reckless abandon in 1996 movie Jerry Maguire. Free-Fallin' was merely the cave entrance for me though as I took a Petty pilgrimage through the raw energy of American Girl, the eternal hope of innocence lost in dual-meaning ditty Learning To Fly and the wondrous discovery of all-time greatest ever supergroup Traveling Wilburys (Cream who?). Having never had the exuberance or individuality of Bowie, losing Petty and his music has hit me harder than any previous celebrity passing and I wanted to take a moment to remember the eternally youthful, flowing-locked Floridian whose legacy is so rooted in American rock history.
Taking its, frankly, ludicrously lowball position at number 315 on the countdown, Damn The Torpedoes is Petty's third studio album of a total of twenty one in various guises. It is also his third release with The Heartbreakers, of whom guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench recorded with Petty for his entire forty-one year career. Prior to its release, Petty had a well-publicised falling out with record company MCA as a result of legal action they took against him after he responded unfavourably to their decision to take over his record contract without his consent. The result is an edge not present in his earlier work, a whisper of dissatisfaction and disillusionment that tumbleweeds through the record. It is evident in the album's louder moments but even more vivid in the contrasting visions of a simpler life as Petty allows beautiful glimpses of small town America to seep through the cracks.
The sparkling riffs of second single Refugee draw us into the album as Petty begins his rally cry with a thinly-veiled track about struggling to survive and holding your head up high. Shadow Of A Doubt and its titular Complex Kid feel like a delightfully-rendered microcosm of the relationship he would share across nearly forty years with the turbulent Stevie Nicks as Petty serenades the woman who “when she's dreaming//sometimes she seems depressed//but in the morning//she don't remember it”.
Here Comes My Girl employs a swooning sixties vibe and Petty's gruff inner monologue narration for a track lauding the capacity that love has for conquering even the most desolate of lives. It is immediately followed by what I consider to be a 'part two' track in Even The Losers as a heartbroken Petty laments lost love. This track partnership technique is used to even greater effect with Petty's ode to Los Angeles fame hub Century City and its miraculous power for curing any home town longing. This, however, loses some of its sheen when placed next to closing track Louisiana Rain, a more stripped-back, contemplative song which reinforces the idea that even the smallest of things can bring you back to a place and calls into question whether Century City's sentiments are genuine or just as false as the target of their affection.
I have long thought of Petty during this period as the antithesis to Fleetwood Mac egomaniac Lindsay Buckingham. Despite operating in the same musical surroundings, while Buckingham was strutting around like a cock in a hen house, Petty assumed the role of humble farmer. His music holds a charming lack of pretension from a character who, on the surface at least, was relatively uncomplicated by the industry around him. His voice had an enchanting rough to smooth dichotomy over which he had immaculate control and his musical influences lent themselves well to the nostalgic tales that he was weaving. While Buckingham was hogging the 'bad boy' limelight, Petty was writing with an unmatched honesty, unrivalled groundedness and unheard of (certainly compared to today's oft-flawed musical output) respect for humanity and, in particular, women.
While there are many that will say that Full Moon Fever is the gem of Petty's back catalogue due to its plethora of hit songs, I feel this record gives a far more accurate representation of his character. Released the day before Petty's 26th birthday, this is a snapshot of a man sandwiched between his troubled childhood and an unknown troubled future basking in the glory of realising his dreams as his hard work eventually pays off. If the abuse suffered at the hands of his Father was the mountain's ascent and the drugs and difficult relationships that peppered his career were the rapid descent, then Damn The Torpedoes is most definitely the pinnacle. It is the moment when Petty feels most at ease with himself, standing at the top of the world with nothing but destiny ahead of him. It is how I want to, and will always choose to, remember him.
Then again, I might be wrong. I am a Musical Moron, after all...
Lyric Of The Month
“Louisiana rain is soaking through my shoes//I may never be the same when I reach Baton Rouge”
Remembered at his breakthrough
Taken far too soon
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