Kids today. The older you get, the more you find yourself starting a sentence with those words — kids today. From me those words do not come from a bitter place, a place about how kids today have it so easy. Actually, I do not think kids today have it so easy. There is nothing easy about an Internet that is forever, helicopter moms, pressure from social justice warriors, and a dearth of unpretentious musical icons like Tom Petty.
Tom Petty never told anyone how to feel, he already knew how we felt — especially when it came to wanting, wooing, waiting, having, and losing the girl. Tom Petty never told you what to do, he merely provided the soundtrack to what you did — whether it was having a good time or nursing something a little more serious.
He mercilessly mocked phonies like Spike and whoever that was with the “David Bowie haircut and the platform shoes,” and he also expressed an extraordinary faith in people — most especially women, including American Girls.
Born in Gainesville, Florida, in 1950, Petty always considered himself a Southerner and never stopped using the fantastic Heartbreakers or his lyric to remind us of the little things that make everyday life lyrical — primarily rebellion, a good laugh, rock n’ roll, and those dogged memories of the one who got away.
In 1979, right on the cusp of the superstardom that came with the release of Damn the Torpedoes, and using just three lines, Petty’s writing talent was such that he could instantly transport us into the wonder and beauty of young love — not in Manhattan or in some fancy restaurant, but out in the middle of nowhere on a pretty girl’s roof:
It was nearly summer, we sat on your roof,
Yeah, we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon,
I showed you stars you never could see.
And then with the next verse, we realize that we have been tricked; that this is not a love story, but the story of a boy haunted by that love story. “It couldn’t been that easy to forget about me,” he says to no one.
And while the song itself rocks your world, the lyrics are as mournful as any Sinatra ever sung.
In 1999, after twenty years of being a superstar (four years after Bruce Springsteen was forced to turn to folk music in order to pose as still down with the struggle), Petty could still write about everyday people and still mess with our heads:
And she said I’m never goin’ back
She said at last I’m free
I wish ma could see me now, she’d be so proud of me
Again it is only in the next verse that we learn that her ending was not a happy one. But at least she went “down swingin'” — just “like Sonny Liston.”
Petty’s catalog of hits, those unforgettable hooks, seems endless, but one of the great pleasures of unwrapping every Tom Petty album (another thrill stolen from kids today) was the deep cuts, was discovering the gems that barely or never charted.
In alphabetical order, here are 11 of my favorites…
- The Best of Everything (1985) – Written by Tom Petty
The closing song to Petty’s Southern Accents is a lament, a guy wistfully remembering a girl from long ago, someone he no longer knows. It didn’t work out between them. He is okay with that. He just hopes it turned out okay for her…
Yeah and it`s over before you know it
It all goes by so fast
Yeah the bad nights take forever
And the good nights don`t ever seem to last
- All the Wrong Reasons (1991) – Written Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne
Including its title song, 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open also produced the fantastic “Learning to Fly,” “Built to Last,” and “Out In the Cold.” But Petty’s warning about the cost of selling out to society’s definition of happiness should not be overlooked.
Well she grew up hard and she grew up fast
In the age of television
And she made a vow to have it all
It became her new religion
- Change the Locks (1996) – Written by Lucinda Williams
Petty composed the music for the pretty good Ed Burns flick She’s the One, and while he did not write “Change the Locks,” his interpretation, which is oftentimes hilarious, is all Tom Petty.
I changed the name of this town
So you can’t follow me down
And you can’t touch me like before
And you can’t make me want you more
- It’ll All Work Out (1987) – Written by Tom Petty
My all-time favorite Petty tune. A total knock-out.
Over and over again he tells himself it will all work out, tries to convince himself that some day he might be able to live with what he did to her… But he does not believe it.
The song is filled with echoes, is haunted, and so is its storyteller. And we feel for him because he is at least decent enough to admit she is better off without him.
She wore faded jeans and soft black leather
She had eyes so blue they looked like weather
When she needed me I wasn’t around
That’s the way it goes, it’ll all work out
- Lettin’ You Go (1981) – Written By Tom Petty
From 1981’s Hard Promises, one of many Petty albums without a single mediocre track.
Baby look out your window, it’s raining
On your summer home
You’re by the fire keeping warm and dry
There’s no one as honest as those in pain
Oh honey can’t you see me? Will you
Let me inside?
- Listen to Her Heart (1978) – Written by Tom Petty
Over 20 years I saw Petty perform live at every opportunity, more than a half-dozen times. Although “Listen to Her Heart” never charted above 59, the impression I got was that this was as important a part of Petty’s line-up as the standards like “Refugee.”
Every single time he played the hell out of it and seemed to revel in the fact that everyone in the stadium knew the lyrics as well as he did.
You want me to think that I’m being used
You want her to think it’s over
You can’t see it doesn’t matter what you do
Buddy, you don’t even know her
- Straight Into Darkness (1982)
One of the saddest songs ever written. If there is a theme in Petty’s best and most mature loves songs, it is that living with breaking the heart of another is much worse than having your own heart broken.
Hearts mend. Guilt is forever.
At the end, when our narrator says, “I don’t believe the good times are over,” is that hope or despair, optimism or fatalism? Great art keeps you coming back looking for the answers.
There was a little girl, I used to know her
I still think about her, time to time
There was a moment when I really loved her
Then one day the feeling just died
- Swingin’ (1999) – Written by Tom Petty
Man alive, what an anthem.
Well, she was over twenty-one
In trouble with the law
And it didn’t faze her none
She called her mother-in-law
- A Thing About You (1981) – Written by Tom Petty
Another gem from Hard Promises.
Baby you hold some strange control over me
Yeah it’s so wild it hypnotizes me
- A Wasted Life (1982) – Written by Tom Petty
Petty’s follow-up to Hard Promises, the following year’s Long After Dark, has ten songs, eight of which could have easily been included on this list, including the hits “You Got Lucky” and “Change of Heart.” The album closes, though, with this sweet and highly original ballad, another lament, this one a farewell.
He loves her. She needs something else. Even she doesn’t know what it is. He will wait until she figures out it is him.
I know you have to feel a little used up
And no one can give you enough
Baby hold on tight
Don’t have a wasted life
- The Wild One, Forever (1976) – Written by Tom Petty
Petty’s brilliant debut album almost sunk without a trace. It was only after his later albums produced some hits that we all went back to see what we had missed, which included nothing less than “Breakdown” and “American Girl.”
Both are unquestionably great pop tunes, but it was this little heartbreaker that showcased Petty’s lyrical brilliance and emotional insight — that promised another 40 years…. 40 years that flew by way too quickly.
Listen to the emotion in that impossibly-young voice; the loss, the defiance. Yes, everyone was right: she hurt him, bad. But he doesn’t care. Because he was right — it was worth it.
I’ll never get over how good it felt
When you finally held me
I will never regret baby
Those few hours linger on in my head forever