Tom Petty (illustration by Andy Friedman)
As director Peter Bogdanovich explored with attentive detail in his 2007 documentary opus, the four-hour-plus Runnin' Down a Dream, the history of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is an epic tale of an unassuming man with a genius knack for songwriting and the wisdom to choose some of the most accomplished musicians in the country as his bandmates. Unlike a lot of Petty's male peers, there's been no bombast or preening bravado tarnishing his rock star image — a quieter rebellion seems his motivating force. But for decades this low-key Floridian has been an American rock 'n' roll icon who earned the deep respect of his forebears and heroes, like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and George Harrison.
Petty and the Heartbreakers are in the midst of a 40th anniversary tour and they arrive at New York's Forest Hills Stadium on July 26 and 27. But Petty, now 66, has also told Rolling Stone that this lengthy trek might be the band's last major trip around the country for the group. "It's very likely we'll keep playing, but will we take on 50 shows in one tour? I don't think so," he said. "I'd be lying if I didn't say I was thinking this might be the last big one. We're all on the backside of our sixties. I have a granddaughter now I'd like to see as much as I can. I don't want to spend my life on the road. This tour will take me away for four months. With a little kid, that's a lot of time."
It's surreal to think of this angular blond upstart of the Seventies — who broke through with kinetic sing-along hits like "American Girl," smoothly segued to the Eighties as a sly Mad Hatter and "Free Fallin'" romantic, and was the "kid" of the Traveling Wilburys crew —as a grandfather. But what's far more mysterious is why Petty and his bandmates are often so underrated when assessing their indelible imprint on American rock 'n' roll. Both AOR radio and early MTV owed a lot to Petty's durable hits and sleekly-produced videos, like the dusty Mad Max fever dream "You Got Lucky" or even his yearning duet with Stevie Nicks on "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," on her solo album Belladonna. In retrospect, Petty's artistry far outlived MTV's relevance and still defines classic rock radio. And unlike some of his revered influences, like Dylan, Petty still pushes to record fresh material, with and without the Heartbreakers, rather than just leaning on the laurels of his past.
In many ways, Petty's closest artistic peer hasn't been another American at all, but a transatlantic counterpart, Elvis Costello. Although Petty's first band, Mudcrutch, began in 1970, the Heartbreakers released their eponymous debut album in late 1976, seven months before Costello's debut album, My Aim is True (and Petty and the Heartbreakers broke into the British charts before they did so in the States). Petty and Costello were armed with keening, nasal vocals that dripped with anxiety, self-deprecation and cynicism, especially when pondering the vagaries of love. Whereas Petty strayed towards the shaggy Southern heartland, Costello seized upon London's post-punk elasticity.
But they both offered a refreshing, and similar, purview of male vulnerability in rock and pop: they were sharp-tongued outsiders, bookending their acerbic observations with sublimely catchy choruses. While Costello bristled with more erudite turns of phrase, there was a razor-edged slacker's wit roiling beneath Petty's pain — "Even the Losers," "Don't Do Me Like That" (both from 1979's Damn the Torpedoes), and "Breakdown" (from the band's 1976 eponymous debut) are blunt therapy sessions masterfully wrapped in a four-minute-or-less pop framework. Youthful optimism was never one of Petty's fortes and as he slipped into his thirties, forties, fifties and beyond, his songs swerved coolly between bittersweet confessions (Hard Promises' "Insider," with Stevie Nicks again), melancholy realizations (Echo's "Room at the Top"), and sociopolitical missives ("Power Drunk," from 2014's Hypnotic Eye). If anything, age has made Tom Petty more subversive.
Petty and Costello were attentive students of Bob Dylan too, beyond incisive lyrics and yearning vocals, well aware that the key to any great artist is the expertise of the band behind the man (or woman). Like Dylan's the Band or Costello's the Attractions or the Imposters, Petty's bandmates, the Heartbreakers, are as legendary as the man before the mic: the current lineup is guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair (who returned to the band following the death of Howie Epstein in 2003), multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston and drummer Steve Ferrone.
When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Jakob Dylan in 2002, Petty remarked that he was especially pleased to be inducted as part of a group, not a solo artist: "They're the best f***ing band in America," he earnestly said of his compadres. He continued, thanking his family and the band's longtime manager Tony Dimitriades, who first took on the band in 1976, for his loyalty and noted wryly, "I am not always a summer breeze."
The speech, like Petty, was humble, sincere, and funny. And as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers crosses the world in 2017, celebrating a formidable four-decade juggernaut of brilliant songwriting, FUV is doing the same: Tom Petty, with and without the Heartbreakers, is an FUV Essentials artist.