Townswoman Citizen Mom sends us the following review of the new Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers collection, Running Down a Dream.
The booklet included in the four-disc DVD set of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream, calls them “America’s truest rock band,” and after some consideration and more than seven hours of watching and listening last weekend, I am not inclined to disagree.
Though it’s worth noting that, whether ironically or accidentally on purpose, the very best moment in the whole package comes near the very end of Peter Bogdanovich‘s superb documentary, as the band winds down a one-off, one-take version of Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway”.
“Isn’t that a great fuckin’ song? It’s just a great fuckin’ song!” Petty exclaims, giddy like he’s just hearing it for the first time. If you plow through the entire four-hour movie, plus the two-hour 30th anniversary concert DVD, plus the hour-or-so long bonus soundtrack cd, you’re pretty much guaranteed a handful of those moments. Go back and listen to “Here Comes My Girl” or “The Waiting”, and thank the Rock Gods for rhythm guitar and men who fall in love.
Consider: By the time they recorded their first live album, Pack Up The Plantation, in 1985, the Heartbreakers had already been responsible for “The Waiting”, “Breakdown”, “American Girl”, “Refugee”, and “Southern Accents” – more “classics” than a lot of bands have in a whole career of chart hits. The film shows how, through the early ’80s, the Heartbreakers and MTV got along like a house afire even as Petty alienated every record label executive from here to Gainesville. It strikes me that they embraced the music video form as enthusiastically as say, Duran Duran did back in ’82-’86, though in a less “pretty” way, but aren’t thought of as an “MTV band.” Through the later ’80s and ’90s, Petty — with the Heartbreakers, solo, and with collaborators — churned out and charted as many radio-friendly rock/pop hits as, say, Aerosmith, but without the hackish self-parody. The Heartbreakers flirted with New Wave sneer, Byrds-y folk flights, and the Lynyrd Skynyrd-y Southern fried thing, but have generally avoided labeling as anything other than “American rock.”
Much of the credit for that goes to Petty himself, pegged for glory by the Powers That Be early on. Bogdanovich, employing a library of vintage clips and home movies large enough for a Ken Burns special, shows us the requisite efforts with a string of early bands, each more badly named than the next (hello, Mudcrutch?) before Petty alone is offered the big contract. Once in the hands of the very corporate rock machine he (rightly) despises, his Look quickly goes from college-town long-hair to Total Package Rock Star, with a perfect cascade of golden layers, skintight Levis and that Cheshire cat grin. There’s a lot of talk of “chasing women,” though no actual women appear in the film save his daughter and Stevie Nicks, who says she pleaded with Petty to let her join the band and was told, quite simply, that “there’s no girls in the Heartbreakers.” Still, seeing the archival footage of them working together during the recording of “Insider” and “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, which appeared on his Hard Promises and her Belladonna, respectively, it’s easy to imagine what could have happened if she’d hooked up with Petty instead of Lindsay Buckingham.
As usual, Philly was ahead of the curve on the Heartbreakers — producer Jimmy Iovine‘s involvement brought the band to big, third-album success, same as he did with “Bruce and Patti,” on Damn The Torpedoes. But if you grew up listening to the radio around here, you know that the first two albums, the self-titled debut and You’re Gonna Get It! were already well-loved by 1979. Thanks to the ever-reliable combination of the city’s FM rock stations and the radio in my sister Terrie’s ’72 LeMans, I feel like I was born with the words to a half-dozen of their songs on my tongue.
“I can tell you we played Tom Petty’s (1976) album from the first day it arrived at the station,” said ‘XPN’s Helen Leicht, who was spinning at 102.1/WIOQ in those days. “We played that album for at least a year before the rest of the world got Tom Petty. We hosted Tom Petty at a small club, The Other Side,” she told me, adding that the staff encouraged Shelter Records not to give up on the Heartbreakers.
Well, as we all know, and as the movie probes in some depth, the label’s desire to hold on to Petty’s work even after they were sold to MCA became a big legal mess that dragged through the courts and threatened the release of Torpedoes. The net result of Petty’s crusade to own his own work, and his later battle against the dreaded $9.98 LP price, means today’s musicians owe him for more than just a catalog of great songs to cover.
Again, that much drama, combined with that many songs entrenched in the late-century rock canon, would be enough to fill a two-hour documentary, but wait! There’s two hours more, showing Petty’s unapologetic capability to be an utter dick and still bend people to his will through a combination of flat-out charm and a pretty reliable moral compass — at least where music is concerned. And from the departure of drummer Stan Lynch (fired by the road manager over the phone), to a profanely gorgeous smackdown of a record executive trying to foist a crappy song off on Roger McGuinn (Petty: It “perpetuates the depths of shit we’re in with pop music”) to swiping Del Shannon‘s bassist, people seem unable to dislike him.
Cool review, CitMom. I just received the AC/DC bits-n-pieces DVD box (“Plug It In”) yesterday, and may have to opine there to keep the momentum going. First impression: AC/DC jumped the shark when Angus’ stupid manic schoolboy supplanted Bon’s charming rogue as the ceterpiece of the band’s persona. Seriously, it’s amazing how many *girls* are in the front row, screaming, during those early years, and Bonnie is clearly the reason why. The lengthy interview segments with the guy are downright charming.
Thanks for the great review Citizen Mom. I’ve heard good things about this elsewhere too. One of my favorite songs of his is “Shadow of a Doubt (Complex Kid)”…I think Townsman Trolleyvox shares my enthusiasm for that particular track too…
I have a soft spot for these guys, but the length of this thing seems a bit much. I hope ample time is given to Benmont Tench!
There’s lots of Benmont (who I believe was at Tulane the same time as me), including footage of him throwing a fit at a recent rehearsal. He looks small and elegant and grey now, but his perspective on the past is helpful. He gets more talking time than Mike Campbell.
The doc is definitely long. I taped it off of Sundance and watched it in bits last weekend. Being a longtime fan, I didn’t find anything especially revelatory, but it was very well done. They deal with the Howie problem head-on. And I do have a new appreciation for drummer Steve Ferrone.
Great review, especially the points about their MTV ubiquity without being considered MTV artists. The whole package is probably way too much Petty/Heartbreakers for me in any one or two sittings. I don’t know what “America’s truest rock and roll band” is supposed to mean – if it means anything – and yet, it kinda sorta sounds right in its overdone, generalized way.
It occurs to me that I really like Petty and the Heartbreakers, but only for their music. I don’t really have any interest in them outside of it. I can’t think of a case where I’d ever turn one of their songs off, but I don’t think I’ve ever had an inclination to read more about them or watch a documentary, and I don’t know why. Perhaps that plays into their American rock truth. Anyway, the middle eight/bridge/what-have-you in “Don’t Do Me Like That” is one of the best in rock.
Akexnagic, what you say about having no interest in Petty beyond the music is right on. I feel the same way. Citizen Mom’s reviw is great, though, and I may have to check this out and see what else is there to the band.
All that talent, all that money, all that charm, all those women, and choking to death on your own vomit = DUMBASS.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Petty lately, courtesy of the Playback box set which one of the list members here (thanks Steve) was so kind enough to trade me. Three CDs worth of consistent singles, three CDs of live and unreleased material that’s pretty consistently good but could have fit on two CDs. It’s a solid set throughout; the man’s music can fill six (let’s say actually five) CDs with next to no weak spots, and that’s saying something.
My main beef with Petty has always been the same though, and I wonder how others feel about it. Isn’t the music finally a little too restrained? Granted, its craftedness is part of what makes it good. But on the whole, isn’t his output just a little too CAREFUL to qualify for greatness? Doesn’t he need just a little more edge? Not endless more, but a little? I enjoy his music a lot, but I never feel blown away by it.
Yes, Mwall, Petty is almost always content to play Craftsman rather than Artist. That’s cool, but I can’t take him that seriously beyond Damn the Torpedoes, when he briefly had it both ways.
I see what you’re saying Mr. Mod, but that’s not quite the distinction I was trying to suggest. Some of the singles, even the later ones, strike me as being the Art of Pop at a very high level. He just seems too muffled in the chances he takes–which I suppose might be a way of saying craft over art, so I don’t disagree necessarily, but I was thinking more caution over daring. Working within limits can be very artistic, but what if the limits seem too consciously limited over the long haul?
Tom Petty really hasn’t been on my radar since 1982 or so, but Citizen Mom has made me feel that I may be missing something. I mean, Petty was a nice soundtrack to sharing the backseat of a car with the right person.
I can totally understand how Petty can leave people a little cold. He seems pretty calculated. To me the whole first side of You’re Gonna Get It sounded like what an A/R guy thought the next Tom Petty album should sound like. Side two really makes Damn the Torpedoes seem like the next logical step.
I saw him tour for Damn the Torpeoes and I was really blown away. I saw him again around an album or two later, and it seemed like we had gone different ways. Actually, I think Tom’s problem is he always stays the same, and I keep changing my mind. But I think Damn the Torpedoes is a really great album and for a little while, TP was certainly top tier caliber.
If you see Petty live he seems to abandon himself to the moment, judging from the recent footage I’ve seen. (The only time I’ve seen him play he was opening for the Kinks, to give you an idea of how long ago it was.) Records are a different animal.
I think he has taken some chances artistically. The collective writing with the Wilburys, for example. Even working with Jeff Lynne was a kind of a gamble. And the angry old man persona on the Last DJ album showed that he could broaden his thematic horizons too.
But as an artist he’s not really the chameleon type. His strength seems to be knowing who he is, and he seems to have always known that. The fact that he’s made such a long career of it without deviating from his vision shows tremendous strength of will. He’s also insanely lucky to have hooked up with Tench and Campbell. And he knows it.
I own that PLAYBACK box set and always enjoy his stuff but MWall is on to something about Tom’s cool soothing taste rock. My impression has been that he is a too well-adjusted guy to ever record anything really weird.
I’ve been thinking more about what’s RIGHT about Petty, and it’s his comfort with expressing DESIRE. Some of you have heard me go on about this before, but although he’s not that daring musically and emotionally, at least not across a broad range of emotions, he is able to very specifically target a sense of desire in his songs about wanting love, not backing down, etc. I think this is what Citizen Mom was getting at with her line about thanking the rock gods for guys in love who play rhythm guitar.
I think I can second that opinion, and I’ll note here that one of the things I like about Petty is that his songs about love (which I think of as slightly different than love songs, because songs about love contain insight into the situations they describe rather than simply saying “I love you” or “love is good” or “love is bad”) don’t make me cringe or laugh. There’s not much music in the pathetic history of rock about love that makes me feel that way.