“American Girl” defined Tom Petty’s writing approach, the idea of staying so “wide open” that he allows “listeners to see themselves in the picture,” Warren Zanes wrote in his definitive 2015 biography. You feel nostalgic, desperate, sad, hopeful and yet you have no idea where or when the action is taking place. Or who exactly it’s about. No “Tommy used to work on the docks” or Magic Rat driving over the Jersey state line.
“Here Comes My Girl” (1979)
It was on the 1979 album “Damn the Torpedoes,” which came out while I was working in a record store in Des Moines — back in the days of vinyl and head shops and adolescent longing and power chords. All of those sense memories are wrapped up in the song, which starts out with a “Rumble”-esque chord worthy of Link Wray, then blossoms into an spoken-sung ode to desire that toes a continual precarious line between rough urgency and lyrical beauty. Those delicious, jangly harmonies. The sweet anticipation. That unapologetic lust when Petty says, “Watch her walk.” The edge and danger and purity of it. Those dumb, fun, lamentably bygone days. So good, so free, so right.
In our 20s, living in a group house on Capitol Hill, “Even the Losers” was our anthem, our motto for our underdog lives and the craving for success, in love, life and work.
Even the losers
Keep a little bit of pride
They get lucky sometimes
It captured a moment in time, an aspiration for what we all wanted. A couple weekends ago, a bunch of us reunited for a party for a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah. You looked around the room and could see everyone had grown up pretty darn well. We weren’t losers anymore, we were lucky, all of us, more than just sometimes. Thanks, Tom.
“A Thing About You” (1981)
For a rush of the known and the unknown, it’s hard to beat “A Thing About You,” a hard-charging love song from 1981 about intense yearning, plus all of the obscure feelings that haunt that kind of desire. “I’m not much on mystery,” Petty sings in the opening line, but it’s already too late. The mystery is all around him. From that point forward, the harder he tried to blast through it, the more of it he seemed to gather.
“Don’t Come Around Here No More” (1985)
Every time I hear it, I see the video that unreeled in my half-conscious head one school-day morning when the clock radio popped on to DC101: A lanky guy with lanky blond hair trudging purposefully through a sunny field, on the start of some journey in cadence with the steady beat. The song was still new — I hadn’t yet seen its actual video, a much trippier Alice in Wonderland dream sequence — but even half-asleep I could recognize Tom Petty.
Which is remarkable, considering how drenched in 1980s production it is. Petty may have been a proud rootsy acolyte of Buddy Holly and the Byrds, but he was no purist. He embraced the fads of the moment here — synthesizers, wailing bluesy female backup singers, little baroque filigrees that sound like something Tears for Fears lifted from Sgt. Pepper’s. That electric sitar comes courtesy of co-writer and co-producer Dave Stewart, of the ur-80s band Eurythmics. Yet it still shines through like a pure Tom Petty song, not an 80s time capsule. All the elements are there: The insistent guitars, the building tension, the bitter breakup-infused lyrics — and a one-of-a-kind voice that could go from sneering to soaring.
Some jerk for the college newspaper reviewed “Traveling Wilburys” and cracked that it was a band of non-singers. Somehow that was always the ding on Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and George Harrison, as if nasality or rasp or quaver or anything less than a Streisand vibrato was necessarily “bad.” After a while you realize a textured voice is a good thing. It’s both distinct and relatable.
This was a magical album. The quirky vocalists blended beautifully with each other but also with the conventional one (Jeff Lynne) and the dynamic one (Roy Orbison). It was a gentler sound than what we’d heard before from Petty, a master of the rock-star yelp and sneer, but he transitioned well to the ballad form. On “End of the Line,” a song that chugs through the choruses like the freight train it evokes, it’s so interesting to hear Petty sing lead on the verses. It’s almost a Sinatra trick: With a subtle press on each syllable, he slows down the melody almost imperceptibly, but enough so that you pay extra attention to the reflective lyrics — Don’t have to be ashamed of the car I drive / I’m just glad to be here, happy to be alive — and imbuing them with much deeper meaning than they have on the page.
“I Won’t Back Down” (1989)
This was one of the first five songs I ever learned on guitar. I was a teenage wannabe punk rocker, so the song’s three simple chords were easy to learn. But the song was punk in spirit too: Spare on words, simple song structure, but revisiting its chorus of defiance like a mantra. It was a great song to cover. Sometimes I’d play it straight. Sometimes I turned it into a punk song. Sometimes I’d vary up the strumming so it sounds like Petty to the tune of Radiohead. The lyrics, like the music, are universal, easy to fit with your worldview no matter who you are, even President George W. Bush. It was also the first song that taught me how to project my voice. Thanks to Tom Petty, I learned to lift my whispering voice to become a roar.
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (1993)
Tom Petty’s fans spanned generations, just as his career did. Thirty-somethings like me were largely introduced to him anew through his 1994 album “Wildflowers,” which included hits like “You Wreck Me Baby” and the aforementioned “You Don’t Know How it Feels,” which mixed it up for air time with songs from younger acts like Green Day and the Offspring.
For my money, though, you can’t beat “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Recorded along with much of “Wildflowers,” it was first released on his 1993 greatest-hits album, and tells the story of an Indiana girl with a good-lookin’ mama who never was around. Or did it? The girl’s name also raised questions whether there were drug references, and Petty and his bandmates left the meaning ambiguous. Like some of Petty’s other big hits, it includes a heartfelt harmonica and a sing-along chorus to waken the sleepiest of souls. Its video, with Petty as a mortician and Kim Basinger as a dead body, beat out the work of numerous younger acts to win an MTV Video Music Award in 1994.
If you want to hear a new rendition of the song, just head down to your local karaoke joint. Like “Freefallin’,” it’ll never fade as a favorite there — present company included.
“You Don’t Know How It Feels” (1994)
Tom Petty’s “Greatest Hits” collection is arguably the peak of the form. It’s a perfect 18-for-18 (being kind on that Thunderclap Newman cover), and if any of those songs came on the radio when you were behind the wheel, you’d immediately twist that volume dial hard to the right. But his first single after that perfect compilation came out just might be his crowning achievement. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” is delivered in an uncluttered, unhurried manner. It’s a sad song, but it’s not depressing. There’s that laid-back self-assurance of someone who knows he just wrote his greatest song after his greatest hits album went mega-platinum.
The song was inescapable on rock radio in 1994, eventually hitting No. 1 on the mainstream rock charts. The songs that hit that top spot before and after were “Interstate Love Song” by Stone Temple Pilots and “Better Man” by Pearl Jam — among the very best by two of the era’s biggest bands. The song established that Petty was nothing resembling a nostalgia act and could go toe-to-toe with new stars. And another thing about hearing “You Don’t Know How It Feels” on the radio — the line “roll another joint” was deemed too controversial and was edited into this warped garble. It was stupid, yet somehow made the song feel even more stoned. So thanks for that, puritan censors.
Tom Petty always kept it simple — chords, lyrics, hair products — but the song “Walls’’ is a masterpiece. Lyrically, it’s mostly a bunch of four- and three-word sentences. “Some days are diamonds,’’ it starts, “some days are rocks.’’
For my money, it’s his most underappreciated song. Maybe it never got the attention it deserved because it was on a soundtrack, or because the single version was full of aural additions that seemed to layer over the song itself. The stripped-down version is far better, and it was best when he played it live and acoustic.
“Walls” appears in the movie “She’s the One,’’ in a scene where a character rides around Manhattan in a cab. It’s cheerful and it makes you think of all the wonderful things in life not usually associated with driving around Manhattan. But really it’s a breakup song, written by someone who doesn’t want to have broken up, and hoping they might find their way back. This song is Petty as a poet, and it’s perfect.