Funny. I never cared much for Tom Petty until I left the U.S.A.
In response to the excessive experimentation of the Psychedelic Era, American rock did a 180 and went back to more traditional forms. Leading the way was The Band, an American-Canadian group that caught a big break when Bob Dylan signed them up to be his opening act. The Byrds soon made their shift from “Eight Miles High” to a country-tinged sound with the arrival of Gram Parsons, but the movement really picked up speed when Credence Clearwater Revival started topping the charts with John Fogerty’s songs of life in the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana Bayou. The fact that Fogerty hailed from El Cerrito, California, a thoroughly unremarkable burb north of socialist Berkeley, didn’t seem to damage his credibility with an American public longing for the simpler, slower days of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer to take their minds off the historical atrocity known as the Vietnam War.
Eventually The Dead made their conversion (and did it right) and soon “back-to-the-basics” became the American norm, with The Allman Brothers, Little Feat, The Doobie Brothers, The Eagles, Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen keeping the new American tradition alive. And because music critics have nothing better to do, they created a new genre called “roots rock” and a subgenre called “Heartland Rock,” and a 90’s variation called “Americana,” but really, they should have called it “Same Old Shit Rock,” because that’s what it was and what it is. The music is thoroughly predictable and the lyrics say as little as possible about anything that matters. When roots rockers try to get “meaningful,” they come up with superficial crap like “Hotel California” and “Blinded by the Light” that under casual study prove to have no meaning at all. Roots rock is comfort music for the mainstream, a rerun on endless repeat, a style that reinforces belief in the theory that innovative, original American rock died with Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran.
I refer to roots rock as S.O.S music: same old shit.
For the most part, S.O.S. music qualifies as inoffensive. I didn’t mind it when an S.O.S. band popped up on the station rotation; I just stopped paying attention to it after about thirty seconds and found something more interesting to do, like dust the furniture or clean the toilet. When readers suggested S.O.S. bands to cover, I took their requests seriously and did my three-times-through act before making judgments. Those judgments can be summed up in one word: meh. S.O.S. bands rarely do anything beyond what I expect them to do, and I find that a drag. To date, the only exception I’ve made to the S.O.S. rule is Lynyrd Skynyrd, who played with far greater intensity, demonstrated greater musical talent and imagination and wrote richer lyrics than the rest of the S.O.S. bunch.
If you’re looking for daring, boundary-breaking music, American roots rock is not your genre. After the back-to-basics movement became mainstream, innovation in American rock became the sole province of outsiders and those willing to expand the definition of the genre: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Steely Dan, The Ramones, Patti Smith, Prince, The Replacements, Pixies, Nirvana. The most original American music in our decade has come from two women whose styles defy categorization: Amanda Palmer and St. Vincent. Rock ‘n’ roll is in pretty bad shape almost everywhere right now, but no more so than its place of origin, where the music scene is dominated by rappers, hip-hoppers and those horrid American Idol contestants.
Tom Petty’s catalog places him firmly in the S.O.S. camp, so you may wonder why I decided to review his work. It’s simple: it reminds me of home. Although I don’t miss the American obsession with guns and violence, I do miss big juicy hamburgers and thick milkshakes. While I find the selfish greed that fuels American capitalism deeply offensive, I miss the fuck out of Las Vegas. And while I’m appalled by the stunningly irrational and irresponsible operation of the American political system and government, I will always miss going to the ballpark to see the real American pastime and forget about the craziness by losing myself in the delightful intricacies of baseball.
Sigh. I know that American health nazis have turned burgers and shakes into guilt trips, that Las Vegas has no connection to the real world and that Americans would rather spend their sporting dollars watching violent men give each other concussions. The legend of the American rebel will soon pass into history, and eventually the cigarette dangling from James Dean’s lips will be airbrushed into oblivion in the name of “protecting our kids.” The music that began as the music of rebellion is now a highly conformist institution.
I know all that, and though I now live in the culinary center of the universe, there are days when all I want is a hot dog with all the trimmings. For some reason, Tom Petty’s music helps take the edge off that hunger.
I think the reason I prefer Tom Petty to others in the S.O S. category has to do as much with his character as it does with his music. To my ears, he sounds more sincere than the others; he sounds like he’s playing the music he wants to play and has a good time doing it. I admire the hell out of him for standing up to MCA and getting them to reverse on their fan-unfriendly pricing strategy for Hard Promises, and for keeping ticket prices down for his concerts so the folks living from paycheck to paycheck might be able to save up a few bucks each week for a special night on the town. I think part of the reason Hypnotic Eye opened at #1 on the Billboard charts in 2014 is that most of the music coming out today feels astonishingly insincere, and you can always rely on Tom Petty to give you honest music and his best effort. In ancient American lingo, he’s on the up and up, the genuine article, a real swell guy.
He gives the people what they want and it happens to be what he wants, too. Nothin’ wrong with that.
All Tom Petty albums reflect consistent quality, so I could have picked almost any of the albums with The Heartbreakers or his solo career and written the same review: only the titles of the songs and a few nuances would have been different. I chose Long After Dark over the too-obvious choice of Damn the Torpedoes because the songs are a little more interesting, the band rocks a little harder and Howie Epstein’s harmonies give the music more body. As with all Tom Petty albums, there is one song that drives me up the fucking wall, but 9 out of 10 is a pretty good score in my book.
“One Story Town” launches the proceedings, and once I get over my aversion to the excessive reverb and limited bottom that marked most 1980s productions, I find a good, steady beat driving a vignette of the small-town America cherished by old fogy right-wingers to this day. Tom Petty chooses to describe it for what it is: a museum piece trapped in amber, a lifeless dead end that would motivate anyone with an ounce of ambition to head straight for the open road:
Oh, I’m lost in a one story town
Where everything’s close to the ground
Yeah, the same shit goes down
Nothing turns around, it’s a one story town
The performances are solid, and though I would have liked a more energetic lead guitar solo from Mike Campbell, the key change between verse and chorus adds some unexpected diversity.
One of the album’s hits was the Petty-Campbell composition, “You Got Lucky,” featuring another irritating flaw of 1980’s recordings: the overuse of the synthesizer. That obsession would suck the life out of promising rock bands like The Cars, and I find it a terribly annoying distraction here. The basic minor blues pattern of the verse cries out for guitar bends or slightly growling sax; the synthesizer takes most of the soul out of the song, giving it the flavor of the background music to a Viagra commercial. Not my favorite, but not loathsome either.
I’ll take “Deliver Me” over “You Got Lucky” any day, a superb example of a band firing on all cylinders while giving each member a chance to shine. The strong opening combining distorted guitar with clean bass counterpoint and a steady beat is a first-rate intro that gets you into the groove from the get-go. Mike Campbell’s fills make up for his virtual absence on “One Story Town,” and Howie Epstein’s maintains a strong bottom with spot runs and slides that enhance the piece by a magnitude of ten. I love the way they repeat the instrumental intro between verses and on the fade, but I get hot and not at all bothered when they shift to the instrumental bridge with the two guitars playing slightly different rhythmic patterns, each using a different tone (distorted on the left, dampened on the right). Stan Lynch is solid on the drums throughout, supporting the soft-loud juxtaposition of the final verse and chorus with finesse. One of my favorite Heartbreakers’ collaborations, “Deliver Me” is Tom Petty at his best.
I could say the same about “Change of Heart,” a solid rocker enhanced by a syncopated main riff that is to die for. The harmonies and background vocals are outstanding, the rhythm section tight as tight can get and Tom’s phrasing on this song wrings every last emotion out of the end-of-relationship story. I have to confess that when I first heard the song, I thought the opening line was “Well, I fought for you, I fucked too hard,” a mistake guaranteed to endear the song to me forever. Since I believe that it’s impossible to fuck too hard, I interpreted the line to be an unusually frank expression of a man who delivered to the best of his ability but failed to crack the façade of an ice queen. It happens, guys! There’s more to it than a hard one working overtime! Ironically, the interpretation is not that far off the mark, so I’ll stick with my version of the lyrics and affirm my self-identity as a card-carrying slut.
Hey, writing reviews is hard work and I’m entitled to a little self-affirmation every now and then!
We keep rocking with “Finding Out,” another solid driver with equally strong harmonies. Howie Epstein does some damned fine work on the bass, pushing the groove forward with tiny runs at the end of each measure. My favorite part here is the fade, where the band just gets down and lets it rip. It’s a great closer to the intensely rocking Side One, and the dominance of the minor key makes for a nice transition to Side Two.
The flip side of the disc adds a few darker colors to the sound palate, opening with the heavy mid-tempo minor-key sounds of “We Stand a Chance,” where the first verse honestly talks about something men sometimes fear more than anything else: a loving relationship.
Stand back from me honey
Because I don’t know what I might do next
No, I’m surprised by this, frightened by this
Nothin’ ever got me so out of my head
When you first hear the verse, you get the impression that the guy is tempted to batter the broad senseless, but the lyrics that follow clearly eliminate that possibility. This is a man feeling the shock and awe of intense attraction and potential compatibility with a partner that will change his life forever:
I’m so moved, I’m so changed
Baby, my whole world is a fountain of flame
Confirming the shadowy overtones of Side Two, “Straight into Darkness” opens with a simple but intriguing piano pattern that emphasizes the third below the root on the second chord to disguise the actual progression, piquing the listener’s curiosity. The guitar duet that follows is simple yet mesmerizing, a wonderful example of how not to overplay one’s hand and let the music flow naturally. The “darkness” in the lyrics describes the black hole that follows the unexpected loss of a loving relationship, a symbolic death that triggers the grieving process, including denial and remorse. Seeking the words to describe the feeling, Tom Petty followed his instincts and found the metaphor in the best place to look: his own experience.
I remember flying out to London
I remember the feeling at the time
Out the window of the 747
Man there was nothin’, only black sky
I can so relate to those lines after spending a good part of two years in the air, more of it away from my partner than I would have liked. I’d stare out the window at the blackness and feel at one with its bottomless depths. “Straight into Darkness” is a subtly brilliant and moving composition, executed with sensitivity and remarkable musicianship.
“The Same Old You” shifts the mood from existential isolation to bad-ass nasty, dominated by hot guitars and plenty of blue note bends. The song pokes fun at the “presented self,” the images of ourselves we try to peddle to the world to raise status or show how fucking cool we are. Tom encounters a former acquaintance who gave the glam rock scene a shot back in ’72 (“With your David Bowie hair and your platform shoes/Your part-time job, sellin’ fast food”) but has now shifted persona to something a bit more conventional and a lot more bullshit (“Living life like a young politician/Sure of yourself and bullet-proof”). Tom has just the cure for the modern identity crisis:
Oh, we could buy a ’62 Cadillac
Put a Fender amplifier in the back
Drive straight to the heart of America
Turn up to ten, let that sucker blast
That, my friends, is the Holy Grail of roots rock: to find that open road and let the music blast into the skies. I miss that myth! I want America to be that country again!
I really, really wish that Long After Dark would have ended with “Between Two Worlds,” a sexy-sleazy number with a foreplay-friendly intro featuring another hot guitar duet riding the waves of the solid rhythms. The song deals with the male obsession with the female anatomy and the absurd struggle men have between two different aspects of the male psyche: the libido and the left brain; the part that’s horny all the time, and the part that feels there’s work to be done. We find Tom struggling with the fever induced by feminine wiles:
I got a dirty, dirty feelin’
That I just can’t shake
Yeah, my brain keeps burnin’
And my body just aches
Yeah, I know a woman’s body
Is only flesh and bone
A woman’s body
Is only flesh and bone
How come I can’t let go?
I’m between two worlds
I said, oh yeah, I’m out of my mind
I’m between two worlds
Go with that dirty feeling, guys! And stop trying to convince yourself that a woman’s body is “only flesh and bone!” It’s the gateway to your salvation, the path to higher consciousness, and best of all, a woman’s body just fucking feels good! As long as you ask real nice and never touch a woman who doesn’t want to be touched, you can spend all your life fucking and forget about breaking each other’s bones and starting wars! Ride that dirty feeling and save the human race!
Sadly, Long After Dark doesn’t end with “Between Two Worlds.” Instead, Tom gives us “A Wasted Life,” venturing into the sub-genre he should avoid at all costs: the romantic number. Over a mushy synth background best suited for the elevator, Tom goes all soft and mumbly in his vocal, mirroring the emotions of the guy who thought he was a hot stud before he shot his wad twenty seconds after insertion. Once he’s given up on language, Tom breaks into these weird bird calls—“Ow, ow, ow.” I don’t know if he’s responding to nibbles on the ear, a toothache or a sudden cramp, but if some guy started making those sounds in my ear after the passion has cooled, he’d find his clothes tossed out the window and his naked ass out on the street in very short order.
Despite the blah ending, I am ready to make Tom Petty my second exception to the S. O. S. rule and allow him to take his place along with Lynyrd Skynyrd as an American artist who gets it right when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll. Long After Dark is one of Tom Petty’s most thematic albums, with many of the songs dealing with the male fear of vulnerability. Men still cling to the tough guy image to this day, and I think it showed a lot of guts for Tom Petty to share his own vulnerability with the listening public—especially back in the 1980s, when Reagan and Wall Street joined forces to restore the tough guy, man-of-action myth. The fact that Long After Dark rocks like a bitch in heat only makes the display of vulnerability that much sweeter.
And though the America I dream of sometimes is far more storybook than reality, I appreciate Tom Petty’s ability to make it still feel possible.