Well, shit… Tom Petty

As I type this out I’m listening to Bob Lefsetz’s Tom Petty playlist on Spotify.

I got crap in high school for being a Petty fan. I can even remember on girlfriend of mine recoiling in horror when I admitted admiration for the guy.

Tom Petty wasn’t glamorous. He was goofy looking. And there were *gasp*country inflections in a lot of his songs. That last bit was cancer to a teenager in the 1980s. But along with my secret authoritative collection of disco records were lots and lots of traditional country & western LPs. If my friends were slightly horrified by my love of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers they’d have run me out of town on a rail had they known I was harboring Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash records in my collection too.

Maybe I was hooked as a Petty fan because I could actually sing his stuff. I was, like Tom, cursed with a limited vocal range and a voice that sounded a lot like Bob Dylan. I suspect, however, I was hooked by Mike Campbell’s guitar playing. As I listen to these tracks on Lefsetz’s playlist I’m reminded again that Mike Campbell might just be the tastiest guitar slinger in the past 40 years.

The LP that totally hooked me as a Petty fan isn’t the one most folks my age cite. Damn The Torpedoes is an undeniable masterpiece, but the one that hooked me was Hard Promises. It started with the then ongoing drama between Petty and MCA records. MCA planned to introduce the idea of “superstar pricing” with the release of Petty’s record. They were going to jack up the price of an LP from $8.98 to $9.98 and Petty wasn’t having it. He took the master tapes and went into hiding with them. Threats of lawsuits predictably followed but the music press and radio DJs got the word out and MCA eventually caved. For a kid who struggled to save money for records any bona fide rock star who says, “No, man, sell my record for the regular price or you can’t have it” is a hero. So, when Hard Promises finally came out I bought it immediately and was surprised at how beautiful the whole thing was.

I told my wife earlier tonight that Hard Promises was the first LP with a lot of built in subtlety I bought as soon as it came out. I’d been told to buy stuff that came out before I was consciously aware of bands, LPs and music, like Pink Floyd albums, that I loved, but Hard Promises was the first record that sucked me in that I bought when it came out. It’s been my favorite Heartbreakers record since then.

Tom Petty stubbornly refused to be irrelevant. While most of his peers were phoning in their new albums and engaging in greatest hits and greatester hits collections Petty kept writing and making good records. Not too many folks do that.

Several years ago I was in McCabe’s Music Shop in Santa Monica. I was in southern California on a business trip and took an extra day to do some touristy stuff, which included visiting McCabe’s. I walked in and was soon noodling around with a vintage guitar. I was totally in my own world and not really paying attention to much when this guy said, “Not bad. How long you been playing?” I looked up and almost fainted because the guy was Tom Petty. He was shorter than I’d expected, and grayer, and had a beard, but it was Tom.

I told him I’d been playing since I was 11, but should probably be better because I was lazy about practicing. He laughed and said something about never practicing (bad advice, Tom, it didn’t help me). I told him I was a fan and he actually said, “which record do you like best?” When I told him Hard Promises he smiled big. To this day I like to believe that was the right answer.

66 is way too young in this day and age for a man of means to check out. Thanks for the tunes, Tom. They’re going to live well beyond you.

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