He’s the last rock star.
And he’s finally comfortable in his own skin.
He used to have attitude, a chip on his shoulder. He kept his distance. He needed to express his anger.
Now he knows what he’s achieved and he can accept our love and the end result is satisfaction and transcendence.
I’m not like my fellow baby boomers. I cannot go see the aged acts again and again. I saw them when they were new, when they were in their prime, on the comeback tour, the one after that…
And now I’m done.
Oh, there are exceptions. But when I see the usual suspects at the shed I wince. This is commerce, not art.
But Petty’s different.
What is a rock star?
Someone who doesn’t fit in, who has to do it his way, who labors in the trenches until he finally breaks through.
And refuses to sell out.
That’s one of the reasons rock died. Everybody’s taking money from the corporation, doing privates, hoovering up cash. And that might make you rich, but it leaves you empty inside, and the audience can tell, because those on stage are our hopes and dreams, our best selves, we need not only something to believe in, but something to direct us. We’ve gone off the rails but want to get back on. They kept chugging down the line.
But now the only one left is Tom Petty. The rest have dyed their hair and gotten plastic surgery and are selling nostalgia. It’s no wonder one of the best tracks last night was the new one. Because you’ve got to grow or die. You’ve got to hone your chops or lose them. If you see the tour as an endless grind to make your nut you’re really no different from a factory worker, and there aren’t that many of them left. You can do the same thing night after night, tour after tour, or you can change it up.
Petty’s catalog is so deep he doesn’t have to play “The Waiting.” “Listen To Her Heart.” “Don’t Do Me Like That.” He can dig deep and surprise us.
But this is the first time he looked outward, to the audience, included them, as if he finally accepted it was good to be king.
And a benevolent one at that. Who never gave up his mischief, but wanted to keep his subjects happy.
But L.A. audiences are notoriously subdued. And outside it can be hard to feel the noise, it escapes into the atmosphere. And boomer acts have boomer audiences, with frail knees, who would rather sit than stand.
But Petty was having none of that.
He came out and marveled at the assembled multitude. Insisted the house lights go up so he could see us. Told us we were gonna have a night. Where did this loquacious man come from?
Then he and the Heartbreakers lit into “Rockin’ Around (With You).”
Leon Russell had already peaked. Shelter Records was on the decline. And even the most casual observer knew it would be difficult for an act on that label to break through.
And Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers didn’t. They were seen as a derivative Byrds-influenced act with a touch of punk, maybe since Tom wore a leather jacket on the cover of the debut album, so they went to the U.K. where they gained traction, since they got none here.
But then there was a live version of “Breakdown,” with that inimitable descending riff, with a slow talking mid-section, and KROQ, when it was still a free format station, started to play it and a buzz was begotten.
They were up and coming in a world where the scene was in Los Angeles. More new wave, before that became something different in the U.K., more power pop than the punk of CBGB’s. Petty’s outfit was one of many.
Not the last remaining enterprise it is today.
So I went to see them at the Whisky. And it was not about shenanigans, only the music, and it was good, and the second album delivered but we did not expect the band to become superstars, as they did with “Damn The Torpedoes.”
And then after a walk in the wilderness, they returned with the MTV smash “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” a left field hit if there ever was one.
Then there were the triumphant solo albums, and the two tracks added to the end of the “Greatest Hits” package and that was song number two, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” This was when riff rock was in the toilet, but from “I Want To Tell You” to “Smoke On The Water” to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” it’s what reaches and motivates us most, that line played loudly that eliminates all other thoughts in one’s brain, that makes one feel powerful, that makes one believe one can win.
Yup, our music was optimistic, even when it was pessimistic. It fueled our hopes and dreams.
And much earlier than I anticipated, believing it would be saved for the encore victory lap, Petty lit into “I Won’t Back Down,” which seems to have become the anthem of America. Ain’t it always the truth. Songs by outsiders are misinterpreted and appropriated and misused by the mainstream, like the Boss’s “Born In The U.S.A.,” but the dirty little secret is the less demonstrative, less talkative Petty has even more impact than Springsteen. Springsteen’s got a couple of anthems, Petty’s got a slew, Springsteen’s for a devoted cult, but Petty is for everyone.
And then came…
The Los Angeles anthem.
That’s right, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were formed in Santa Monica, when it was still downtrodden, the burg upon the shore.
But it’s the rest of the city that comes alive in “Free Fallin’.”
It’s a long day, living in Reseda
The Valley is not as downtrodden as it once was, especially now that you’ve got to be rich to live on the Westside, but the truth is Reseda is little different from Gainesville, Petty’s hometown. It’s flat and suburban and youth have nothing better to do than to get in trouble.
All the vampires, walkin’ through the Valley
Move west down Ventura Boulevard
Sunset may be more famous. But these days, more happens on Ventura, the business street of the San Fernando Valley, that’s endless, with restaurants, shops, car dealers, we keep hearing from right wingers how their tiny hamlets are the real America, but if you want to see the U.S. tried and true, drive down Ventura, not that I’m giving it a thumps up, but it’s us, with its mini-malls and nail salons and supermarkets, it grew organically, just like the U.S., it’s a mumbled jumbled mixed up world that needs to be wiped clean and rebuilt.
But this will never happen.
I wanna glide down over Mulholland
There’s no cheap real estate on the road that bifurcates the city, atop the hills, separating West L.A. and Hollywood from the Valley. If you’ve never been here, drive up here first. Wind your machine through the curves. You’ll see why it’s a car culture, as well as seeing the landscape, the mountains, the valleys and the ocean.
And this is everyday life in SoCal. You can read about it elsewhere, listen to the record, but when Petty’s playing it here, you can only stand up, thrust your arm in the air and sing at the top of your lungs…
And I’m free, free fallin’
Yeah I’m free, free fallin’
You know what that’s like, why you go to the show, not so you can shoot selfies and tweet, but so you can bond with the act and its music. The assembled multitude was standing, singing, praying to the god of song and its creator, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
And a slow song from “Wildflower” turned into a rave-up.
And the title track from that album was prefaced by Petty’s comment that he hoped he didn’t screw it up.
He did not. He picked it on his acoustic guitar perfectly.
And here’s where we stop and credit Mike Campbell and lifer Benmont Tench. And newbie Ferrone. And prodigal son Blair. And quasi Heartbreaker Thurston. And the backup singers known as the Webb Sisters. This is strange, not only are the original members alive and kicking, playing their hearts out (except for Stan, of course, all families have one outcast, one member they can’t get along with), Benmont and Tom were kids together. Campbell was playing a Japanese electric in a bad neighborhood when Petty said he was gonna be in his band FOREVER! Most people come to L.A. and forget their roots, shed their friends, become someone different, phony, untrustworthy, but Tom and the Heartbreakers are friends, a gang, and despite Jeff Lynne sitting right by me and getting up with a few numbers left he did not grace the stage, because that would be sacrilegious, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers don’t need no cherry on top, because they are the entire sundae, ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, nuts, they bring their own maraschino, and it’s enough. MORE THAN ENOUGH!
So Tom told stories. Conducted the impossibly tight band. The big screen flashed images from their career, not only their lives, but our own.
And then they turned up the amps and we heard “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream” and the legendary closer, “American Girl.”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is an American band.
Some act from Detroit claimed that title forty odd years ago, but they splintered and could not follow it up.
But Tom and his pickers and players and singers have grabbed that mantle and keep rollin’ down the track, and it’s forty years later, and although they claim they might stop, don’t believe it, they’re stoking the engine and…
Last night we were in the passenger car as engineer Petty turned up the throttle and took us on the ride of our life.
But the stunning thing is he does this night after night, gig after gig.
That’s why he’s the last of the rock stars.