Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Heartbroken: Tom Petty’s American Dream

Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty, October 27, 2006, Greek Theater Berkeley, California. (Photo: John Medina)

“The men and women who produced works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a kind of mirror.” – Marcel Proust
Celebrity is s mask that eats into the face. Although it was the novelist John Updike who made that marvelous observation, I’ve always felt it was something that the incredibly well-known musician Tom Petty may have wholeheartedly believed. He seemed to rather enjoy being popular, but he also seemed to absolutely hate being famous.

I have to admit, it really pisses me off that another great talent has bitten the dust as a result of a severely avoidable folly. First Prince, now Tom Petty: the scourge of prescription medications and their intentional or accidental abuse seems way worse than the imaginary threat of psychedelics, alcohol or massive pot use in the musical world ever did.

I mean, those of us who followed Petty's long career of course knew about the challenges he faced as a heroin addict in the '90s, perhaps even across that whole decade, but once the 21st century dawned and he was still here, having achieved a kind of elder rock statesman status, it appeared to the more hopeful amongst us that maybe he had outrun the shadowy demons that had pursued him. But alas, instead it was those industrially legal and insidious substances that took this great one away from us, and nothing nearly as tragically romantic as the loss to junk of so many other rock, blues or jazz titans from Charlie Parker to Jerry Garcia.

This little confectionery essay is partially, but only partially, a review of a great biography of Petty by a close confidant of his for many years, Warren Zanes. Extravagantly titled Petty: The Biography, it already says everything I might want to say about this artist, leaving me free to complain about how depressing it is when creative geniuses depart the world either too soon or as a result of their own foibles. In 2016 I wrote a book called Back To Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece, which examined her deep musical artistry and the evolution of the torch-song tradition, instead of her troubles leading to her hasty retreat into oblivion at the age of 27. That was still a big downer, however.

This November my new book on the late soul singer Sharon Jones will be coming out from the same publisher (Backbeat Books) and is titled Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, about her slow-motion departure due to cancer at the age of 60 in 2016, but more so about the evolution of funk music out of the roots of West African spirit sounds, and religious gospel music. So now, at least I won’t have to write a sorrowful book about the excellent pop-rock music of Petty, since Warren Zanes has done such a stellar job of it already. Lucky me.

The erstwhile Zanes has also approached and fully explored the darker undersides of his subject’s history in a way that might have made me too sad to completely engage with. Why am I always seeming to write about recently-dead or soon-to-be-dead artists, I wonder? Receiving no answer, I can draw the attention of the reader to the fact that this is more an appreciation of the Zanes book than a review of it. Oh. all right, for those scattered readers of my feverish words who actually like to hear my recommendations, here’s my review: Read this book. If you like Petty’s music, read this book, if you don’t like his music, read this book. Either way it will give you deep insights into the behind-the-scenes carnival antics and psychic pitfalls of being a rock star.

Though I’m by nature somewhat melancholy, but hopefully in an entertaining way, I’m glad I didn’t have to plunge into his friend's darker proclivities as passionately as Zanes has, or into the yucky side of the music business as effectively. He wastes no time in introducing us to Petty’s myriad problems, or rather, perhaps, what made him a problematic figure. Right off the bat, he does so in his introduction to the biography, where he quotes Karen Blixen’s excellent observation, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story, or tell a story about them.”

Maybe that also applies to certain pop/rock writers and their ability to write songs about their sorrows that help us bear our own with more fortitude, which was surely the whole context for my own 2008 book that studied the pathology of the greatest singer-songwriters, Dark Mirror. Zanes goes on to double-quote Blixen, however, overlapping her observation with another one, and a most pertinent one, by Stephen Grosz: “But what if a person can’t tell a story about his sorrows? What if his story tells him?” Therein, it seems, lies the crux of the Petty paradox: vast popularity, immense dissatisfaction,at the same time, mingled with a drastically unenthusiastic relationship with the business side of his industry, with agents, label executives, promo people, lawyers, and everyone else in it, with the exception of fellow musicians and a few clever music journalists, with whom he had a generally congenial rapport.

In addition, and in the further interests of avoiding doing any more hard work, I’d like to express my gratitude to my good friend and fellow Critic At Large, Kevin Courrier, who, in 2010, while reviewing the film Running Down a Dream by Peter Bogdanovitch, also managed to express very well anything I would have wanted to say about this great American musician. From his stellar take on the Petty ethos and his importance to American pop culture, I now quote liberally in order to even more effectively situate my angry reactions to losing yet another creative artist to that dumbest of departures. My friend Kevin’s sterling insights, in other words, will now give me a chance to catch my breath and take some time to figure out how else I can express my displeasure with the death of yet another great talent.

Tom Petty performing with Bob Dylan in 1986.

As Courrier so succinctly put it in his Critics At Large discussion of the lengthy and detailed documentary on Petty and The Heartbreakers:
I didn’t realize how much I had taken for granted my love of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. While I have collected and enjoyed Petty’s music for years, I’ve never taken the time to contemplate why his best songs (and there are many) have always brought me such happiness. I now realize in retrospect how Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, for over forty years, have in fact kept some of the idealistic dreams of the Sixties alive. They didn’t, however, do it by showing a nostalgic reverence for the era and its music. Rather, they captured the music’s urgency, its uncompromising demand for freedom which lies right at the heart of all the best rock & roll. Whether it’s in an anthem like “I Won’t Back Down,” plaintive ballads such as “Southern Accents,” or a scorching rocker like “You Wreck Me," Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers created an immediacy that made each song sound both fresh and fully alive with possibility. For those of who still remember the joy they felt when a great song came through their tiny earphone on their transistor radios, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers always brought that same instant delight to the music they played.

I think critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine nailed Tom Petty’s appeal and longevity perfectly when he said that "Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers didn’t break from tradition the way their punk contemporaries did. Instead, they celebrated it, culling the best parts of the British Invasion, American garage rock, and Dylanesque singer/songwriters to create a distinctly American hybrid that recalled the past without being indebted to it." Petty and his group have kept that faith alive despite some definite bumps in the road to challenge its veracity.

The root saga of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is certainly a compelling one to behold and comprehend. Beginning in Gainsville, Florida, Petty had an interest in rock since he was ten years old, when he met Elvis Presley, who was shooting Follow That Dream (1960) in neighboring Ocala. But it was when he saw The Beatles on TheEd Sullivan Show in 1964 that he knew he wanted to be in a band. ...
Kevin continues:
Petty quickly assembled a group known as The Sundowners, which later evolved into Mudcrutch. Although this group would feature future Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, they were fired when Shelter Records preferred Petty as a solo act. Ironically, when hunting for a band to back him up, he discovered that Campbell and Tench had joined with hometown drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Ron Blair.

They would finally make up the Heartbreakers line-up that would go on to record Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976), You’re Gonna Get It! (1978), Damn the Torpedoes (1979) and Hard Promises (1981). Key moments in their career are incisive and plentiful: Petty’s war against MCA Records to win back his publishing prior to the release of Damn the Torpedoes, plus a battle with the whole record industry over the high pricing of LPs in the early 1980’s, and the departure of Stan Lynch when Petty went solo in the late '90s (first in The Traveling Wilburys – with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison – and then later on his own).

The music he made always created familial bonds between members of the group, so much so that we see their very real frustrations as part of their deep shared love for what they do. His close creative relationships with fellow musical artists illustrated the integrity Petty possessed and to what lengths he’d go to protect it. That integrity is one of the key salient features that all of us will remember most in the music of this great American artist.
Handle With Care: the Traveling Wilburys in 1988.

 And I say, amen to that, Mr. Courrier, well played.  Petty conceived something I would call primal pop: whispering in a loud voice. He had a curious kind of humble hugeness: embodying the ironic and charming paradox of shy stardom. Though he attained a gigantic mainstream appeal, he also insisted on going beyond Main Street itself, on taking the back roads of a quiet sort of quirky Americana. Eventually however, he fought against stardom and went way beyond mainstream, embracing a kind of millennial angst in his short, snappy epistles. Later on, he became the laconic elder statesman of pop and rock, a height he achieved by constantly changing up stylistic personas, through practicing some sort of survival of the fastest. And by the end of the game, rock music had become his refuge, almost his church.

By that period, in October 2017, he had proven himself over and over again to be exactly the same kind of brilliant mirror that Marcel Proust was, as odd as that comparison may seem at first glance: through the most magical of alchemies, he had transformed his personality into a mirror of his times. He had found a way to cope with his demons, the secret pathology of all great singer-songwriters, and he was sitting on top of the world. But yes, he fell off.

My, my, how time flies when you’re dead. In a few mere months, a whole year will already have passed by since this great American popular poet left the earthly stage he had commanded for so long. Everyone can easily agree that Tom Petty was probably a pop-rock genius. His songs are ample evidence of that fact. Even he knew it. But it wasn’t only, or just because, he happened to sell over 80 million record albums worldwide. Something else was clearly at work in what he did that seems to have made him a beloved figure, both by his fellow artists and by music lovers and fans, in the entertainment world at large. Sheer stamina and staying power might be part of it; perpetually refreshing his art’s resources might be another. But I suspect the biggest part of his ability to sustain a creative career over almost five decades might have been his superlative skill at appearing to be so normal.

Not as in average, but in the sense of sharing so many traits, quirks and even flaws with his audience that he truly felt like a mirror we were all gazing into in order to see, and hear, ourselves and our innermost feelings, desires or fears. He had succeeded in transforming his personality into a mirror, and what a brilliant mirror it was. All the best singer-songwriters share a few obvious features in common, regardless of the styles in which they happen to express the elements of their craft and deliver the core content of their message. They all manage to reflect everything around them, often seeming to do it effortlessly, while concealing their own essence until, in fact, they almost become magically embodied by the brilliance of their shiny surfaces alone.

Tom Petty, 1950-2017. (Photo: Richard E. Aaron)

He writes (he wrote, that is) the lyrics and composed music in a style that I like to call pop music for adults. It’s what makes great storytellers in this popular idiom of the commercial song so compelling, how the biography of his life experiences was embedded and embodied in his songs as a post-Sixties rock star grappling with the souring of his own American dream, and ours. He possessed an innate ability to mine totally personal experiences, fears and flaws in an almost solipsistic manner and nevertheless still manage to reflect a universal set of themes and issues in his voluminous body of work.

We the listening audience firmly believe that his entertaining sagas are not only about us but also express our own deepest and often inexpressible feelings, much the way his ancestral troubled troubadours did during what used to be called the Middle Ages. Petty was and is precisely the kind of highly accessible yet ironically elusive bard we all needed in the 20th century and still need in this one, maybe even more so now. We can clearly see the song signposts on an obscure road he traveled with his fellow postmodern troubadours. His music and the albums that contain them must be examined as the artistic artifacts they really are; they must be discussed and reviewed in the context which birthed them: from an initially apolitical romantic stance evolving onward to a highly political perspective using the nature of victimhood as a captivating American motif.

Petty never pretended that his songs were about anyone else. Strangely enough, somehow that made them about everyone. Our private victimhood is exactly what allows great songs, with which we identify for any number of varied reasons depending on the individual case, to perform the dangerous task of liberating us from our sufferings, whether real or imagined. And whether a song is delivered by an island, a solo artist such as Bob Dylan, or Tom Waits, or Elvis Costello, or David Bowie, or Joni Mitchell, who largely tell us tales about themselves even if they collaborate with other musicians to do so; or the song is delivered by a continent, a creative team working in tandem such as Lennon and McCartney, or Richards and Jagger, or Townshend and Daltry, or Simon and Garfunkel, or Carole King and Gerry Goffin -- they all share that same rare and exotic ability to transform their own personal pathologies into a reflecting lens of grand proportions. If, that is, they live long enough to outrun themselves. Sometimes it seems that only Dylan has managed to triumph in that lonely long-distance race with himself alone.

As Mikal Gilmore put it so aptly in his 1980 review of Damn the Torpedoes for Rolling Stone, Petty had succeeded by being “angry, anxious and absolutely brilliant.” Two out of three of those is what we all feel every day; the third is what made it possible for him to express our anger and our anxiety, and then continue traveling full speed ahead for five decades, running down a dream.

Along the wavering way relentlessly forward Petty provided us with an ideal but not idealized still-life picture of a broken American Dream. Yet his songs and their messages also offer us a hopeful strategy for reassembling the disintegrated pieces into a more fully functional reality. From the very beginning of his career, he was the perfect anti-pop star, shy, retiring, opposed to any celebrity hocus-pocus. But he was also irony-drenched enough to become the perfect rock and pop star, aggressively sarcastic, caustic and sufficiently articulate to rage against the machine.

Tom Petty on stage in Toronto, in July 2017, three months before dying of a  “cardiac arrest,” which actually really consisted of having about twenty different prescription drugs swimming in his frail system in a toxic cocktail similar to the late Prince’s.

Petty’s earliest records were, paradoxically, poised exactly on the cusp of two suddenly explosive musical and cultural trends: at the center of the storm caused by the1977 arrival of middle-of-the-road FM radio fare exemplified by the shiny and perfectly produced pop of late Fleetwood Mac such as their Rumours blockbuster, and concurrently challenged by the stylistic rage of punk music in the form of The Sex Pistols, among others. 1977 was also to mark the death of one of rock & roll’s legends, and a personal hero of his own, Elvis Presley, but Petty would steer clear of both these new and opposed extremes by producing consistently fine echoes of the classic rock he grew up with. For him, true punk music had always been The Rolling Stones, an ethos he would hold onto for much of the remainder of his long personal and professional journey.

Throughout his initial album outings he sarcastically celebrated a kind of anti-inertia which the 70’s was prone to mollify, exhibiting a scrappy defiance in his lyrics as well as in his business and career choices. Eventually he would almost become the same kind of generational spokesperson that Dylan himself was so reluctant to be, keeping up that same reticent stature throughout each new decade as it swept over him. From the very beginning he achieved a watermark for all his future work: “I turned anger into ambition. Any sort of injustice would enrage me. I couldn’t contain myself.” But being unable to contain himself would in fact become his signature style, though he often let loose in a laconic, restrained and carefully controlled creative storm.

Intriguingly, his later and last album outings marked a personally powerful return to the very musicians with whom he had first formed such a strong bond while they were all still practically teenagers; the band he had assembled in the first flush of passion after encountering the music of The Beatles; the band with whom he had recorded several studio demos in 1970 but no album until 32 years later. That band was called Mudcrutch. Apart from the inevitable upcoming posthumous releases of previously unreleased material by so prolific an entertainer, his last record released during his lifetime would culminate an incredible creative arc and come full circle back to his origins as a youthful rocker.

In the biography of his friend published in 2015 by Henry Holt, his principal chronicler Warren Zanes summed up Petty’s popular appeal and its impressive longevity very well, while also trying to explain why he sometimes seemed not to get the full measure of respect he so clearly deserved: “One reason was that Petty had too many hits. People thought it’s too commercial. The other reason was that this particular rock star emphasized music over personality. He didn’t ever get a trampoline and do a back-flip. No, he goes out and just plays the songs he wrote.” He just played the songs he wrote: what a brilliant idea! That was his simple charm and deep appeal, I suppose, in the end. That and how his meanings simultaneously embodied both the aspirations and the disillusionment of several generations at once.

My many thanks to my good friend Kevin Courrier for his always insightful observations about pop culture and the magic of music. On more than one occasion he has changed the course of my thinking about any number of great musical artists, and one of them was definitely Tom Petty. In closing, since I’ve suggested that Petty’s writing captured some kind of strangely alluring essence of what it means to be an American in the 20th century (and beyond), I feel it’s only proper that I let him have the last word:
“I may not always write the best songs in the world, but…..oh, wait, yes I do. I always write the best songs in the world.” – Tom Petty, Billboard
Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

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