Chasing a Ghost: Tom Petty's Impact on an Indie Music Snob
In 1996, I most likely hated your favorite band. It's not like we made up FAKE band names to sound cool, but you just HAD to hear THESE records and stop listening to that crap if you ever wanted to understand anything about the human experience.
I thought I could say THE human existence then, because the very process of discovering bands and chasing after new music, sounds, and arrangements was at the center of my world. At the time, I had only just begun the process of writing songs and playing guitar. The quest to better one's life towards greater and clearer understanding and enjoyment of art is foundational to a musician. Even as I had only begun, I was beginning to see this essential quest.
Artists are weird, but people who don't know they're artists yet are even weirder.
I thought I knew that music that challenged my sensibilities was somehow better. I think it was merely awakening that artist.
But it was a special time in the late 90's when Pro Tools and digital had not yet fully taken hold of the recording industry yet. It was music for people who were "over it," and felt like they had heard everything.
It helped me to explore arrangement as a way to challenge my preconceptions of beauty. Back then the energy and the feeling were paramount and sonic quality needed to be weird. In fact, the sound usually had to have an edge to it, or something "off" about it. This made it authentic.
Which brings me to Tom Petty. In high school, in the early 90's, I bought Tom & the Heartbreaker's Greatest Hits record, and soon after, Tom Petty "Wildflowers."
I remember being enchanted by SOMETHING about that greatest hits album. As a kid, sometimes you look for distortion, explosions, ear candy. It's an important part of recording, in my opinon. But here was this guy, Tom from Florida. And each verse, I wanted to hear what happened next, lyrically and musically. There was very little in the aesthetic(that I could perceive with my 18 year old ears) to draw me in, because I tended to HATE those old rock and roll styles and guitar tones.
But Mike Campbell changed me forever. He's one of those guitar players who is perfectly driven by the music he's chosen to create. His parts are complete and you can't imagine the song any other way. And he was the Heart'breaker who played on ALL Tom's records.
Guitar World magazine noted "there are only a handful of guitarists who can claim to have never wasted a note. Mike Campbell is certainly one of them."
But "Wildflowers" certainly changed the way I listen to music forever.
I didn't know who Rick Rubin was at the time. Counting Crows "August and Everything After" was another record floating around at the time that had some depth. Love that song "A Murder of One."
But the way Rubin produced brought DEPTH. Tom had his usual bar drinking songs like "You Don't Know How It Feels," and "You Wreck Me," both of which charted. But from the opening song, something special is happening. When you hear the chimey, high-capoed album title track, it can kind of sneak past you. But it has a spiritual quality, like a glare coming off of it. The brightness of that recording is like the sun on wheat in the wind. And it helped me to understand: "Different Music for Different Times and Places." You can hear that song seven times and it will sneak past you. But one time, with the right lighting, and/or situation, and/or companion, and that song will melt you with the kind of love that sees you with the words he sings.
If you look at my teenage, rebellious viewpoint of music, the orientation of stylistic choices is positioned competitively. This music is BETTER than That music because......
"It challenges my sensibilities"
....an ego trap.
"It's not cliche.'"
....they ain't half bad! they ain't half good neither!
"It's pushing the boundaries of the genre/fusion/culture."
...well, ok that's good. But music is supposed to be fun!
I feel as though Tom's gift in the song "Wildflowers," is that he tells you that you belong in your dreams, somewhere you feel free. The sun is glowing, it's literally shining on you from that song. But it's so beautifully understated, the song will literally make you daydream and you'll fail to notice it. But one special moment, that song can catch you and make you cry.
On one level, to know of the existence of such a love; to know that maybe there is a God, or a mother, or a friend who showed such love, to the point that we can recognize the voice behind those words. On another, it is to know the hurt and joy of feeling such a love for another human. That love is a tearful wound that binds you carefully to the fear of loss. That it grows, and that the parts of itself that cling are pruned and lost forever.
Like old bands we don't listen to any more.
But when "Breakdown" comes on in a dark, musty dive bar on a weeknight, suddenly you're right where you're meant to be. The score to reality suddenly is composed right and all is well and poetic with you and your conflict. You can actually feel the beer bubbling in your stomach.
Even speaking of the moment is an intrusion, either as a cheap imitation, or a failure to understand that to use words is to miss it.
And Tom was just a guy from Florida. He probably listened more closely to music than you or I. He was picking up on some deeply laid fundamental qualities. Because Tom Petty didn't have an "awesome" voice. He had authenticity. What is that? When you go to a vocal coach and learn how to be deep and soulful and "transition well across varying vowel/consonant combinations...."
Tom Petty makes that stuff seem like garbage. He is a part of a style that sneaks up on you by appearing common. When his songs do transform your world, there is also a hidden undercurrent: the idea there is SUCH BEAUTY in the mundane. To me, Tom Petty's LIFE represents this, and gets me closer to the nature of rock and roll.
He was also an astute observer. In his song, "Night Watchman," he describes a security guard hired to protect him and his estate. Tom asked him, "Would you shoot somebody for us if you had to?" relating in interviews that "The guy only makes about $12 an hour."
He was honest, funny, and had a way of talking that was common, and yet you could imagine some enchanted twinkle in his eye.
But the chord changes, with many of his songs using multiple keys, the vocal harmonies, and the way his band played together, would also capture your imagination, even if you weren't into lyrics. Being of a conventional aesthetic with a somewhat American folk audience, Tom still was a consummate artist taking tremendous chances (like on his hit "Don't Come Around Here No More," recorded with Jeff Lynne built on top a backing track of sitar and drum machine), and also aligning himself with the likes of Rick Rubin for the game-changer "Wildflowers."
A friend, Mark, turned me on to that record in high school. There were the drinking songs, the dirty but sexy blues sounds of "Honey Bee," and the soulful fingerpicking of "Don't Fade On Me." The whole record feels great, especially on a cloudy day, or around dusk.
Near the end of the album, there are two ballads that changed my life.
My senior year in high school, I was on my way to my best friend's girlfriend's house. I hydroplaned in the rain, and totalled my car. What made it more difficult was that she and I were sleeping together. I got what I deserved, lost my best friend, my car, and broke it off with 'ole girl. I was depressed and feeling like an idiot. I would listen to "Wake Up Time" and "Crawling Back to You" over and over again. I got the idea to plug a digital piano into my stereo and would play along with those songs. I was deeply depressed at the time, and would have probably discovered a much less musical outlet had that album not existed.
Tom Petty has literally been there for me like a friend, even though I'm only a fan.
But authenticity, and aging not only gracefully, but with style, became Tom Petty's hallmarks. You can have a wonderful time getting lost in his records. He is at once beautifully orchestral and lush, alongside tracks stripped down and lean. A widely listened connoisseur with impeccable listening ability and classic storytelling, who surrounded himself with the right people and always made incredible records. Thank you Tom, for so many years of goodness, and hours and hours of music you've left behind for us to enjoy. We love you, and miss you dearly!