Throughout my life, the music of Tom Petty — both with and without the Heartbreakers — has been influential, calming, inspirational and more. If I had not heard the song “Refugee” on the radio one day and asked about it, I don’t think I would’ve known much about the music. I picked up a copy of Damn the Torpedoes in the ’90s and was hooked. From that point forward, Tom Petty’s music became a constant companion (a highway companion?), along with Oingo Boingo, “Weird Al” Yankovic, They Might be Giants, Frank Zappa and many, many more.
I followed up with buying Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (which contains my personal favorite song, “Mystery Man” and staples like “Breakdown” and “American Girl”). Later, I picked up CD copies of You’re Gonna Get It and Hard Promises and a cassette of Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough). Who doesn’t love songs like “Jammin’ Me” and “Ain’t Love Strange?” I think it’s a highly underrated album, but I digress.
At one point, I owned every album, including the comprehensive boxed set, Playback. The comprehensive (at the time) set contained three CDs of well-known Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers songs. The other three discs were a cornucopia of amazing B-sides, outtakes and unreleased songs. It showed the human side of the band, the fun side of the band and the frustrations they faced through difficult periods in their career. By the end of it, the listener is left with the feeling that this group of musicians – led by the charismatic Petty – simply enjoy making music together.
To say I was — still am, really — a Tom Petty fan is an understatement. I had been listening to quite a bit of his music over the past few weeks, so hearing news of his passing on Oct. 2, 2017, came as particularly sad news indeed. I miss you already, Tom.
My favorite Tom Petty album is probably Full Moon Fever. I realize how cliched that may sound, but let’s be honest with ourselves folks: it’s a great record from start to finish. Fresh off a stint with the Traveling Wilburys, featuring Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison, Petty was riding high. Bringing in the assistance of Electric Light Orchestra front man/fellow Traveling Wilbury, Jeff Lynne, Petty created an iconic album.
Full Moon Fever contains a wealth of excellent material: the hits, “Free Fallin,” “Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” are great, but there’s so much more to the album than that. Tracks like “Zombie Zoo” and “Feel a Whole Lot Better” show Petty’s musical background and interests, in addition to being highly entertaining. Then, there’s the folksy “Yer So Bad” and the spacey “Face in the Crowd.” All of these songs are well written, well performed and fun to listen to. My favorite part of the album is on the CD version. At the end of Track 6, Petty addresses the audience, telling them to take a moment while non-CD listeners flip over the cassette or record. It’s hilarious and truly cements this album as a favorite.
The next album, Into the Great Wide Open, seemed to continue the musical direction of Full Moon Fever, only this time with all the Heartbreakers on board. I remember listening to this one often in my youth, eventually picking up my father’s old Harmony H162 guitar around 1998 to attempt playing along.
I bought a copy of the guitar tab version of Greatest Hits to go along with the CD and learned every song in the book. I used to perform a great deal of them — “Learning to Fly,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Won’t Back Down” mostly — when I played open mics and live shows. I picked up some decent harmonica practice from playing along on some of the records and performing them live. Because of this, I had some success as a semi-professional harmonica player from 2003-2005.
Eventually, I learned to play “You Don’t Know how it Feels” from 1994’s Wildflowers. The entire album is a solid effort, with so many songs that can be played as a soundtrack to my teenage years. Recently, I found a copy of a 2004 performance I did of this song, when I played at the Colorado State Fair with about half of my old band, Travelers. I was 19 at the time. Our drummer and bass player were sick that day, so we played the show as a duo. You can check it out below. The video is missing, but the audio is intact. It’s a bit raw, with a little improvisation, but I hope you enjoy this tribute just the same. That’s me on guitar and harmonica, with the band’s lead singer Dani Boyer on main vocals.
Travelers played Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers songs almost exclusively, when we weren’t playing some of my poorly written folk songs. That is, until we started mixing songs from Paul Simon’s Graceland and various blues numbers into our sets. Eventually, we disbanded, but Tom Petty’s music remained a strong source of inspiration for me. The following year, I played a few gigs – at the Greenlight, the Irish Pub and the State Fair (again) as a solo performer, incorporating several Tom Petty and Traveling Wilbury songs into my sets, interspersed with my own increasingly comedic material. I took up playing the 12-string acoustic – just like Tom did on his solo albums – but eventually lost the desire to perform. As that chapter of my life closed, I nearly forgot about these performances. Most are lost to time, but I’m delighted to be sharing this existing one with you today, even if it is a bit on the amateur side. I can still play a mean version “Breakdown,” though.
Wildflowers meant a great deal to me around this time and I didn’t much care for following albums She’s the One and Echo, though they did contain a few gems. “Walls” and “Climb that Hill” on the former and “About to Give Out” on the latter particularly spoke to me. Echo is a tremendously introspective album, despite my lack of affection for it and I sometimes revisit the record when the mood strikes. When The Last DJ arrived in 2002, it felt like a massive return-to-form for the band. I loved the concept, the flow of the songs and the story they told. Songs like “Blue Monday” were different, to be sure, but they represented something Petty excelled at: song craft. The man could write a song.
The follow-up, Highway Companion is a superb record and another one I probably wore out listening to. I had the fortune to attend a concert for the Highway Companion tour in Denver, CO. The show was amazing. He played all my favorite tunes, a few things I hadn’t heard, including a concert-only piece called “Quiet Eyes.” Most of the band left the stage for “Learning to Fly,” when Petty gave the audience a tender, acoustic performance of the song.
The Live Anthology was an amazing chronicle of everything the band had done up to that point, painting a bigger picture with brighter textures than Pack up the Plantation Live! ever could have. I enjoyed the Mojo album immensely, which came out a scant few years ago. The blues vibe running through the record was welcome and unexpected. I loved the goofiness of the song “Don’t Pull me Over” and couldn’t get enough of the guitar solos throughout. I only recently listened to Hypnotic Eye, finding the band continuing to be in top form.
His music videos are, in a word, amazing. The man had an intense creative vision that suited his music. The bizarre Alice in Wonderland theme for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and the Mad Max-style “You Got Lucky” are only two of many incredible video stories. I still marvel at the role of the mortician he played in “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and look back in wonder when I realize a very young Johnny Depp starred in the video for “Into the Great Wide Open.” The aesthetic he used, combined with the excellent music, truly made the most of the back-when-MTV-actually-played-music-videos era for this Tom Petty fan.
Petty was a genuine, nice guy and showed all of us that anyone can make it if they follow their dreams. The story of how a boy from Gainesville, Fla., met Elvis Presley and eventually formed a band that epitomizes classic rock is inspiring. In interviews, liner notes and even on stage, Petty always seemed like a friendly, genuine guy. I never got the chance to meet him.
For now, I’m going to put my favorite record on my turntable and give it a spin or two. Though Petty’s music helped me get into playing more guitar and performing live, I did eventually abandon any professional aspirations in the field and I don’t play guitar much these days.
When I do, I’ll still play Tom Petty’s songs, even if I’m only strumming them to myself.
— DB, 10/4/2017
P.S. This song NEVER would have happened without the influence of Tom Petty. It was originally written to sound like the early Heartbreakers, but I never got beyond the music stage. Music, Graphics and all instruments played by D. Buck, 2016. This one’s for you, Tom: