Reflecting on 20 of his most memorable songs
Tom Petty’s death — on October 2nd, 2017 — left a gaping hole in the world of rock ‘n’ roll.
True, we’ve lost plenty of other rockers in the last few years. But there was something special about Petty. Back in the late ‘70s, when many music fans embraced either the corporate rock status quo or the more groundbreaking sounds of punk and New Wave, Petty was one of the few artists who could claim fans in both camps. And the ability to appeal to people of disparate interests and backgrounds never really left him. Petty and his Heartbreaker cohorts were unabashedly influenced by the artists who came before them (The Byrds, The Rolling Stones etc.) but they synthesized those influences into something that was fresh and perfectly in step with the times. And there was always something appealingly “normal” about Petty. He knew he was good but he lacked the arrogance of someone like Mick Jagger. He was Rock Star as Everyman and could be as critical of himself as he often was about the music business.
Likewise, The Heartbreakers were a tight and talented group of “regular guys” from Gainesville, Florida. Mike Campbell was the perfect right hand man for Petty, a lead guitarist capable of casually unleashing great solos and an adept co-writer as well. Keyboardist Benmont Tench was the son of a judge and probably the most intellectual Heartbreaker. Musically, he provided an essential component — which is no mean feat in a guitar-based band. Ron Blair’s rock star looks belied his penchant for stage fright and general shyness but he was a solid musician (check out the bass line in “American Girl”) and has the distinction of being both the first and third bassist in the band, following the sadly departed Howie Epstein. And while Stan Lynch fell out with Petty in the ’90s, there’s no question that he was an integral part of the band early on with his larger-than-life personality and drumming. In this writer’s opinion, The Heartbreakers were probably the greatest American band of the past 50 years.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their self-titled debut at the tail end of 1976. Over the next 40 years and change, they would provide the soundtrack to millions of lives. Some albums may have sold better than others, some may have even been better than others, but Petty never made a bad record — which is more than most artists who have been around for four decades can say. Even the albums that were spotty had their moments. His discography included not only 13 albums with the Heartbreakers, but also three solo efforts, two albums with The Traveling Wilburys and another two with Mudcrutch (his pre-Heartbreakers combo).
I was already in an altered state from the death of my mother two months earlier when I saw a headline to the effect that Petty had been found unresponsive in Southern California. It took a minute to register — and when it did, I assumed it was a mistake. Denial maybe. Some deaths hit you harder than others; Petty’s hit me very hard. But it also prompted me to delve into his back catalog and to discover some gems that I’d missed when he was alive. I read Warren Zanes’ authorized biography and devoured the two box sets (The Best of Everything and American Treasure) that came out not long after his death. I watched Petty’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, which was a blast. (I especially loved when he called The Heartbreakers “the best fucking band in America!”) The fact that three of the four original Heartbreakers were still playing with Petty at the time of his death — in an age when many bands thrive on anger and drama — says a lot about him and them.
So on the fifth anniversary of his death, let’s celebrate Tom Petty with 20 of his essential songs. I’ve arranged these chronologically from the most recent song to the earliest. And I’ve tried to balance it between hits and deep cuts (and likewise between Heartbreakers and solo material).
RIP, Tom, and thanks for the music.
AUDIO: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers “American Dream Plan B”
20. American Dream Plan B (2014)
The opening track from Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Hypnotic Eye album, “American Dream Plan B” is a pumping shot of rock and roll, clocking in at exactly three minutes. Hypnotic Eye was both Petty’s final studio release and his first to debut at number-one on the Billboard charts. He definitely went out on a high note.
19. Scare Easy (2008)
In the latter half of the 2000s, Petty reconvened his first band, Mudcrutch, after more than 30 years. Granted, half of Mudcrutch was made up of Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. But this reunion allowed second guitarist Tom Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh to spend some time in the spotlight. It also allowed Petty the opportunity to loosen up a bit and to play bass.
“Scare Easy,” from the first of the two Mudcrutch albums, is a powerful song, notable as much for what Petty leaves out as for what he leaves in. To wit: “Sun going down on a canyon wall/ I got a soul that ain’t never been blessed/Yeah, I’m a shadow at the back of the hall/ I got a sin I ain’t never confessed.”
18. Saving Grace (2006)
Highway Companion was Petty’s third and final solo effort. It was the most low-key of his solo discs and not quite up to the level of the first two. Still, even Petty’s weaker albums contain some gems. The catchy, mid-tempo “Saving Grace” was one of them.
17. The Last DJ (2002)
The Last DJ, from 2002, got a decidedly mixed reception. While it made the Top 10, it’s not generally considered one of Petty’s better albums and critics in particular didn’t like it. Perhaps this was due to the fact that Petty told some inconvenient truths about the music business. In this writer’s opinion, the disc deserves a wider listen and the title track in particular is on the money (no pun intended!) in its critique of corporate radio giants like Clear Channel. “As we celebrate mediocrity, all the boys upstairs want to see/How much you’ll pay for what you used to get for free,” sang Petty.
As a side note, The Last DJ marked the return of original Heartbreakers bassist Ron Blair.
16. Free Girl Now (1999)
1999’s Echo is generally considered one of the best later albums of Petty’s career. Though it was recorded under dire circumstances — both Petty and bassist Howie Epstein were struggling with drug addiction at the time — it included a ton of good tunes. One of them was “Free Girl Now,” a ragged rocker and an ode to female empowerment.
VIDEO: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers “Room at the Top”
15. Room at the Top (1999)
Another one from Echo — its opening track, in fact — “Room at the Top” ranks as one of Petty’s best ballads. Majestic and (no pun intended) heartbreaking.
14. Waiting for Tonight (1995)
“Waiting for Tonight” made its first appearance on the 1995 box set Playback, but Petty actually wrote it some years earlier. With its rocking arrangement, stream of consciousness lyrics and urban backdrop, the song hearkens back to the Heartbreakers’ early days. Favorite line: “Yeah, I’m wrestling with my overcoat/And I’m fighting with my thoughts/I’m gonna trust my intuition/I’m gonna hope I don’t get lost…”
“Waiting for Tonight” also benefits from The Bangles, who provide the song’s backing vocals.
13. A Higher Place (1994)
Petty always acknowledged that The Byrds were a major influence on him. “A Higher Place” — from his second solo album, the beloved, rustic Wildflowers — shows him at his Byrdsy best. It’s all jangly guitars and subtly apocalyptic imagery.
12. You Wreck Me (1994)
Another popular song from Wildflowers. “You Wreck Me” was vintage Petty: a garage-rock nugget with lyrics that are simple but evocative. To wit: “I’ll be the boy in the corduroy pants/You’ll be the girl at the high school dance.” Has anyone summed up what it’s like to be young and in love in America more concisely than that?
11. Mary Jane’s Last Dance (1993)
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was one of two previously unreleased tracks from Petty’s first Greatest Hits collection, which arrived in 1993. A bluesy song about a girl from Indiana and/or weed, “Mary Jane” became a smash. The accompanying video — which starred Kim Basinger as a corpse — was also very popular.
10. Learning to Fly (1991)
“Learning to Fly” was the lead single from Into the Great Wide Open, the first Heartbreakers’ album of the ‘90s, It was a catchy song, but not necessarily a hopeful one. “The good old days may not return,” sang Petty over uncharacteristically lean production from ELO leader Jeff Lynne.
VIDEO: Tom Petty “Free Fallin'”
9. Free Fallin’ (1989)
Probably the quintessential Petty ballad, “Free Fallin’” is without question one of the most popular songs in Petty’s catalog. It was the opening track and second single from his solo debut, Full Moon Fever. Overplayed? Yes. Still a great song? Absolutely.
8. Jammin’ Me (1987)
Admittedly, 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) was one of the more uneven albums in Petty and the Heartbreakers’ catalog. But the opening track (and Bob Dylan co-write) “Jammin Me” was definitely a fun throwaway song.
7. Southern Accents (1985)
The title track and centerpiece of the Heartbreakers’ 1985 release, “Southern Albums” was a watershed moment for Petty; it dug deeper than any song he’d written up to that point. “Southern Accents” was both a defense of his Florida roots and a tribute to his late mother (and to his childhood in general). Johnny Cash was a big fan of the song and later covered it on his 1996 album Unchained.
6. Straight Into Darkness (1982)
The 1982 album Long After Dark saw Petty and company in a bit of a holding pattern (albeit with Benmont Tench’s keyboards playing a bigger role than usual). The haunting rocker “Straight Into Darkness” was one highlight.
5. Letting You Go (1981)
There were other tunes on 1981’s Hard Promises that were more popular — think “The Waiting” and “A Woman in Love” — but this ballad has always been a personal favorite.
4. Here Comes My Girl (1979)
With the third Heartbreakers outing, Damn the Torpedoes, Petty became a bona fide rock star. Produced by Jimmy Iovine, the album was a critical and commercial smash. “Here Comes My Girl,” one of three big hits from Torpedoes, still sounds both foreboding and exhilarating after all these years.
3. I Need to Know (1978)
Petty and the band’s sophomore set, You’re Gonna Get It!, was generally considered a bit of a letdown after his and the Heartbreakers’ stellar debut. That said, it had its moments. One of them was the short, blistering rocker “I Need to Know.”
2. Anything That’s Rock and Roll (1976)
One of many great tunes from Petty and the Heartbreakers’ eponymous debut, “Anything That’s Rock and Roll” may have been a deep cut, but it was also a rousing testimony to music itself (and a hit in the UK).
1. American Girl (1976)
Also from the debut. The combination of Petty’s and Mike Campbell’s guitars — plus an evocative lyric about a “girl” who wants to transcend her circumstances — make it a classic. “God, it’s so painful when something that’s so close/Is still so far out of reach…”
Oddly enough, “American Girl” did not fare very well when it was originally released as a single (though it did receive a lot of airplay on AOR stations). But over the years, its popularity has grown. Both Billboard and Rolling Stone ranked it #1 on their respective lists of Petty’s best songs. It’s been used in various films and TV shows throughout the years and has been covered by everyone from Green Day to Taylor Swift. Even Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn released a version of “American Girl.” In fact, legend has it that when he first heard the song, McGuinn asked his manager, “When did I write that song?” More than 45 years after its release, it stands as one of Petty’s most popular and enduring songs.
VIDEO: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform “American Girl” at Live Aid ’85