Classic Music Review: Full Moon Fever by Tom Petty

I may get more than a little emotional in this review, but fuck it.

I mentioned in my review of Long After Dark that I was drawn to Tom Petty after moving to France because he reminded me of home. Whenever I miss my life in the USA, I play the music of three people: Louis Armstrong, Eddie Cochran and Tom Petty. Louis Armstrong represents both the genius of America and the optimism that can overcome even the cruelest obstacles. Eddie Cochran represents the rebel, the guy who continued to dish out great rock ‘n’ roll during a period when those in the know had relegated rock to the status of the hula hoop, a 50’s teenage music fad that had died with Buddy Holly.

Tom Petty represents both the continuing faith in rock ‘n’ roll and a certain set of values that America seems to have lost. As I wrote in the Long After Dark review:

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 because 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.

Tom Petty was the Joe DiMaggio of rock ‘n’ roll. When they asked DiMag why he hustled on meaningless plays in a long-lost game, he said, “Because there’s always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.” Like Joe, Tom Petty was amazingly consistent and always gave his best in a career that spanned parts of five decades.

Full Moon Fever was a liberation experience for Tom, his first solo effort. People who complain that it’s not really a solo effort because most of the Heartbreakers made contributions miss the point. This was his chance to go out on his own and take the risk of having his name and only his name associated with his art. It also allowed him to approach his music from a different point of view, an advantage strengthened by his concurrent work with The Traveling Wilburys and the decision to have Jeff Lynne serve as producer. The choice of Lynne (who also co-wrote several of the songs) partially explains the “British” tone of the record, but Tom had been a fan of British rock since he saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan with millions of other kids. He told Rolling Stone, “I’ve always loved the British rock and pop of the Sixties, and Jeff feels the same way. Within the Heartbreakers, I represent some portion of that sound, but they have so many other influences. If you take me away from them, this is what you get.” Recorded mainly in Mike Campbell’s garage studio (they literally had to move the cars out of the way to begin recording each day), Tom would describe Full Moon Fever as “the most enjoyable record I’ve ever worked on.”

And highly enjoyable to the listener.

Full Moon Fever opens with “Free Fallin’,” a dramatic monologue where Tom takes the anti-heroic character of your average L. A. male slob, a “bad guy” who dumped a “good girl” from Reseda, a Latino-dominated piece of the San Fernando Valley. The opening passage of clean, stereo acoustic guitars establishes a reflective mood that inspires immediate curiosity as to where the song might lead. Still free of rhythmic accompaniment, Tom sings the first verse in a tone of guilty regret, applying distinctly American values and imagery to accentuate the innocence of our anti-hero’s victim:

She’s a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too

“And her boyfriend, too” is a brilliant exposure of the self-pity that underlies the anti-hero’s story and brings into question the sincerity of his guilt. The rock-solid rhythm section enters now, giving our anti-hero a few moments to luxuriate in the glorious act of feeling sorry for himself. He completes his reverie with more self-admission, exposing his true, uglier feelings:

It’s a long day, livin’ in Reseda
There’s a freeway runnin’ through the yard
And I’m a bad boy, ’cause I don’t even miss her
I’m a bad boy for breakin’ her heart
Now I’m free—free fallin’
Now I’m free—free fallin’

Essentially, he manipulated the girl’s naïveté for a few good fucks before re-claiming his uniquely male freedom to sow his oats. Fuck this guy! And hey, if your freedom isn’t all that it was cracked up to be, grow the fuck up and deal with it!

Instead of dealing with it, he heads west to Ventura Boulevard, where the users and hoods who have learned that life in L. A. is an endless cycle of using and getting used hold court:

All the vampires, walkin’ through the valley
Move west down Ventura Blvd
And all the bad boys are standing in the shadows
And the good girls are home with broken hearts

In the next rendition of the chorus, Tom’s voice expresses deeper anguish, communicating more sincere regret than what we heard in the opening verses. The experience of “falling” now begins to outweigh the benefits of “freedom.” A brief instrumental-background vocal passage follows, with Jeff Lynne’s voice coming through loud and clear. Tom then steps in for what we hope is the resolution of the story, but all we’re left with is a ridiculous fantasy that’s somehow going to make everything all right. It doesn’t:

I wanna glide down over Mulholland
I wanna write her name in the sky
I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’
Gonna leave this world for awhile

The last line sounds like more self-pity than suicidal ideation, though it could also mean he’s thinking of doing what every American tends to do when things don’t work out—hit the road for sunnier climes. Of course, he’ll wind up in Florida or wherever and pull the same old shit on another unsuspecting broad. You can’t run away from your problems when you are the problem.

“Free Fallin'” is a lyrical, musical masterpiece on many levels. I read that Tom had been working with Randy Newman on a few recordings around this time and the one thing he learned from the experience was to “say more with less.” I’m a huge fan of poetic economy, and “Free Fallin'” is definitive proof that Tom learned his lesson. How such a sad but insightful song was turned into an anthem is a mystery to me, and Tom found that transformation equally disappointing.

A friend in the U. S. sent me a link to the video featuring Jason Aldean’s SNL performance of “I Won’t Back Down,” and I have to confess I started crying like a baby when I recognized the remarkably faithful rendition of the opening passage. I don’t know shit about Jason Aldean, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful tribute in my life. The inspired decision to connect two traumatic events that cut deep into the American soul—the insanity of the Las Vegas massacre with the death of one of American’s greatest musical artists—allowed us to grieve for the people we lost while rekindling a spirit of defiance in the face of evil and misfortune. It was only fitting that the song Jason Aldean chose also had its roots in a traumatic experience.

I still can’t believe this really happened: somebody tried to kill Tom Petty, his family and his housekeeper by setting fire to his house. Badly shaken, he spent the next three months driving his family between hotel rooms and a rental house, using the driving time to deal with the crisis by writing songs in his head.

One of those songs was “I Won’t Back Down,” but he was reluctant to record it. In an interview with Harp, he said:

That song frightened me when I wrote it. I didn’t embrace it at all. It’s so obvious. I thought it wasn’t that good because it was so naked. So I had a lot of second thoughts about recording that song. But everyone around me liked the song and said it was really good and it turns out everyone was right – more people connect to that song than anything I ever wrote. I’ve had so many people tell me that it helped them through this or it helped them through that. I’m still continually amazed about the power a little 3-minute song has.

“I Won’t Back Down” is a testament to the remarkable healing power of music. For Tom Petty, it was a way of channeling a stew of emotions into poetry that helped him deal with a very traumatic experience.

The recording of “I Won’t Back Down” is marked by a strong, insistent beat, reflecting a determined refusal to surrender one’s spirit to the forces of fear and hatred. Tom’s voice remains calm and confident throughout most of the song, an attitude intensified by the dominant metrical pattern of three stressed syllables (WON’T BACK DOWN, STAND MY GROUND). The most powerful variation in the pattern comes in the bridge, where the band nails a rhythmic kick, Jeff and George Harrison step in with superb background vocals and Tom lets his voice soar as he sings of the freedom that comes with the acceptance of reality (“Hey, baby, there ain’t no easy way out.”) To me, that is the most important line of the song, because regardless of how much fame and money one has, we are all vulnerable human beings, and no amount of wealth and privilege can protect a person from the ugly side of humanity. We are all at risk from one form of evil or another, but the only way we can deal with it is to move forward, remain true to who we are and hope for the best:

Well I know what’s right
I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground

Tightly played and full of powerful dynamic variations, “I Won’t Back Down” is a song you can always rely on for a spiritual boost.

Co-written with Mike Campbell, “Love Is a Long Road” opens with an engaging synthesized pattern reminiscent of passages in The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” before shifting to a more muscular display of the rhythmic power of rock. The strong, simple beat that drives this song is frigging irresistible, underscoring the passionate intensity of lyrics focused on the complexities of coupling:

There was a girl I knew
She said she cared about me
She tried to make my world
The way she thought it should be

There it is again—the age-old problem of trying to make one’s love interest into something that they’re not. KNOCK IT OFF, PEOPLE! If you can’t love a person for who they are, that should tell you it’s time to move the fuck on! Jeez maneez, will you ever learn? Although the problem is as old as Methuselah, Tom Petty’s anguished sincerity makes this one of the better songs about relational entrapment.

Tom eases up on the throttle a bit with “A Face in the Crowd,” a lovely piece about the seemingly magical transformation that takes place when someone emerges from the faceless masses to become the most important person in our lives. I’ve always wondered about the invisible threads that connect people—how two people with completely different life narratives wind up at the same place and same time to solidify the link. Tom doesn’t explain how it works as much as he marvels at the experience, which is good enough for me. I love the guitars in this piece—subtle, clean, and brilliantly arranged.

Speaking of mysteries and fabulous guitars, “Runnin’ Down a Dream” supplies both with the power quotient ramped up to the nth degree. The opening riff defines the word “smokin,” a rough, high-speed phrase that raises the heartbeat in anticipation. That anticipation leads to five minutes of non-stop excitement, facilitated by well-executed variations in dynamics and superb fills that keep this sucker moving at top speed (the high-speed accoustic guitar fills in the chorus are an ass-shaking delight). Phil Jones’ drum work is outfuckingstanding and Mike Campbell’s extended solo in the fade is what rock ‘n’ roll is all about—let it fucking rip all night long, baby!

“Runnin’ Down a Dream” certainly deals with the modern adaptation of the American dream—the freedom to get in your car, hit the highway, jack up the volume on the radio and search for something different. What I love about “Runnin’ Down the Dream” is the clear emphasis on two essential elements of the experience:

  1. You ain’t gonna find no dream sittin’ on your fat ass and watchin’ it on TV: Runnin’ down a dream/That would never come to me. 
  2. Ya gotta believe. There’s somethin’ good waitin’ down this road/I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine. 

And although we tend to romanticize the experience of leaving it all behind for a new life (I’m still wondering what happened to the kids who were abandoned by their parents in Fastball’s “The Way”), a trip down the open road isn’t a trip through Disneyland. There’s some pretty scary shit out there (just ask the guys in Easy Rider), and you must have the willpower to ride through the rough patches:

The last three days the rain was unstoppable
It was always cold, no sunshine . . .
I rolled on as the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time

And while you’re giving it the gas, it sure helps to have Del Shannon blasting out of the radio! There’s something about rock ‘n’ roll that bucks you up, strengthens your backbone and imbues you with the ability to face anything, and “Runnin’ Down the Dream” is one sterling example of the energizing power of great rock ‘n’ roll.

How nice it was of Tom Petty to think of cassette listeners who lacked a two-sided play feature to pause the recording before moving to Side Two! Actually, I think it was a great idea to give everyone a break after the fury of “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and let people shift their asses to a more comfortable position to better appreciate one of the great covers of all time—Tom Petty’s rendition of Gene Clark’s “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.” Tom’s version is intensely faithful to the original, with only a few minor variations—and that’s a good thing! Why mess with a great song with a great arrangement, particularly one that captures the Rickenbacker-driven sound of 1960’s American folk-rock so perfectly? What allows the cover to stand up to the original is a combination of Tom Petty’s deep respect for the song and the higher quality production that provides the listener with cleaner, richer guitar and more rhythmic oomph. I can imagine a hundred different ways this song could have been ruined by less respectful people (a disco version! a progressive rock version! a rap version!), so we can be very thankful that Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne were at the helm.

“Yer So Bad” follows, a humor-spiced piece about an upside-down world where “bad” means “good” and relationships are driven by greed, manipulation and mindless sexuality:

My sister got lucky, married a yuppie
Took him for all he was worth
Now she’s a swinger dating a singer
I can’t decide which is worse

I think “I can’t decide which is worse” says it all, and is one of Tom Petty’s best punch lines. The acoustic-heavy arrangement would have fit nicely on the Wilburys album, but its placement here gives us more insight into Tom Petty’s personal values—more than appropriate for a solo effort. I also love the reiteration of the theme of relationships as a sanctuary (and I’d much rather listen to that theme as presented here than Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe”).

The bouncy “Depending on You” follows, its bounciness contrasting significantly with the story of a very tenuous relationship. The background vocals here are excellent, adding a nice bit of variation to the arrangement . . . but I have a hard time reconciling the upbeat feel of the song with the downbeat lyrics. “The Apartment Song” has the same issue—a hard-driving rocker about loneliness—but the band rocks so hard on this one (especially during the paradiddle drum passage tribute to Buddy Holly) that I couldn’t care less about the lyrics.

There is no disconnection at all in the perfectly lovely “Alright For Now.” The expression of deep appreciation for a partner that fully supports your right to pursue your life goals is sincere and deeply moving. In contrast to the poisonous relationship described in “Love Is a Long Road,” this song describes the essence of true love—the willingness to allow your partner be who they are, even if it means lengthy periods of separation. The verse I find most touching fully captures the need for freedom within the context of a relationship, and the heartfelt appreciation of that rare gift:

I’ve spent my life travelin’
Spent my life free
I could not repay all you’ve done for me

The arpeggiated guitar duet is sumptuous, and the touches of vocal harmony make you want to snuggle up next to your honey right now.

We shift from soft and sweet to Bo Diddley with the all-out rocker, “A Mind with a Heart of Its Own.” The lyrics are absurdist in the extreme, but some of the lines give me the giggles:

Well I been to Brooker and I been to Micanopy
I been to St. Louis too, I been all around the world
I’ve been over to your house
And you’ve been over sometimes to my house
I’ve slept in your tree house
My middle name is Earl

I have no idea why that last couplet cracks me up . . . perhaps it’s the experience of listening to someone’s unconscious thoughts streaming out in a massive mental dump. For whatever reason—the intense rhythm, Tom’s sneering vocals or the joy of gobbledygook–“A Mind with a Heart of Its Own” is one of my favorite songs on the album.

Full Moon Fever ends with an attempt at satire that landed with a thud. As in “Free Fallin’,” Tom was playing a part in “Zombie Zoo”—in this case, an ignorant redneck (Tom was thinking Jed Clampett) who doesn’t understand why the ravers and punks distort their god-given appearances and refuse to follow accepted social norms. Unfortunately, he didn’t leave enough vocal or lyrical cues for people to grasp the satire—the lyrics focus too much on the allegedly irrational behavior of youth and not enough on the desiccated, old fart brain of the narrator. Astonished at the negative reaction to the song, Tom apologized for having offended anyone, showing he had more class than Donald Trump ever will.

Full Moon Fever is many things, but best of all it’s a great rock ‘n’ roll record. The intentional nods to Del Shannon, Buddy Holly and Bo Diddley emphasize the continuity and staying power of rock ‘n’ roll while reminding us of its long tradition. Three of the songs have earned anthemic status, a piece of good news/bad news. “I Won’t Back Down” has been used by several political campaigns, and only one—the Bush II campaign in 2000—earned a cease-and-desist letter from Tom’s attorney (Tom supported Al Gore). People will always take a song with a memorable message and either twist the original meaning into knots or use it to try to sell shit. I’m not sure what Jason Aldean was thinking when he sang “I Won’t Back Down,” but after listening intently to the Tom Petty original, I know what he meant—and that’s what really matters. Tom was on his game during this period in his life, bouncing back from the trauma of the fire to produce one of his greatest and most lasting contributions to music. He did NOT back down.

Earlier this year, I delayed publication of two reviews of The Allman Brothers because of Duane Allman’s passing. Full Moon Fever was on my schedule for January 2018 and my first reaction after Tom’s death was confirmed was to leave it right there. While having dinner with my parents this past Sunday, my dad (a huge Tom Petty fan) asked me if I was going to do a review to honor his memory. I told him I was uncomfortable with that idea.

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want to be seen as capitalizing on someone’s death. It’s ghoulish.”

He gave me a long, hard stare and then burst out laughing.

“Capitalizing? Capitalizing? You’ve been writing reviews for almost six years. How much money have you made?”

“None.”

“Correction—think about all the music you’ve bought, the time you’ve spent and the cost of running a website. You’ve lost money. Then how in the fuck can you capitalize? Where’s the gain? Where’s the profit?”

Then my mother popped in with the line that always shatters my occasional bursts of irrational stubbornness. “You’re being silly.”

“Honor the man with an honest review,” said dad, putting an end to the debate.

So, let me be honest—this was hard to write, but the experience of immersing myself in Tom Petty’s music was both cleansing and uplifting. Full Moon Fever is a wonderful listening experience, a well-produced, exceptionally performed record with some of Tom Petty’s greatest songs and several of his finest lyrical efforts. I remain devastated by his loss, but I’m comforted by one thought above all: we may not have Tom anymore, but he left us his music.

What a marvelous gift to leave behind!

One response

  1. I know of Tom Petty’s work but have never really explored it past the hit singles. Maybe its time…

    Like

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