This is a pretty diverse list, with some of his big hits, and a few that are pretty minor parts of the catalogue. Eight different albums make it into the top 10 (with one album placing three in the top six). From that you can probably guess my favorite Petty album. But for second favorite: that’s a much tougher call. I am tempted to say Damn the Torpedoes, but I could equally make an argument for Full Moon Fever or Hard Promises or even Echo. The point being: he’s had a long and productive career with a lot of different peaks, but not really any big valleys.
10. Listen to Her Heart (You’re Gonna Get It!)
There’s nothing especially complex here. It’s about a proto-80’s jackass trying to steal a girl with promises of cocaine and the easy life. Which is a nice demonstration of the sort of world that his characters tend to inhabit. Although literally it’s actually directed at Ike Turner who was apparently hitting aggressively on his wife. Anyways, this song makes the list almost entirely because of the guitar. It’s probably the best example of the classic Petty jangle.
9. Keeping Me Alive (Playback Disc 5: Through the Cracks)
This is an unused song from the Long After Dark sessions. That album is among my least-favorite of Petty’s, which makes sense, I suppose, since he inexplicably left both this song and “Turning Point” off of it. And both of those songs are better than anything that did make it.
Petty says this song was him trying to channel the Everly Brothers, which I think is spot-on. Of course, this is the Everly Brothers as interpreted by Tom Petty, so it’s a big more jangly and a bit more countrified. In terms of theme, it’s got a very Springsteen vibe: life may be tough, things may not always make sense, but he’s got his girl, and that’s the only thing that ultimately matters. And, like with Bruce, you can’t help but wonder if any of this will last, but you just have to accept that it might not and that these moments of happiness are enough.
8. Echo (Echo)
This song was written in the midst of Petty’s divorce, and you can really hear the anguish. Still, it’s not so much ‘about’ the divorce as it is about a general feeling of pain and loss. I hear hints of anger and recrimination, but ultimately it’s more about lamentation. Both parties want to make excuses, want to rescue what used to be, but all they can do is repeat the cycles of hope and failure (the same sad echoes). You want desperately to find a way to make it work, but it just can’t…
7. Even the Losers (Damn the Torpedoes)
If Keeping Me Alive is Petty at his closest to Springsteen, this song helps to really clarify the crucial differences between them. Thematically, it kind of fits into the Springsteen oeuvre. The difference is that even Petty’s most heartfelt love songs are told from the perspective of loss. This is a song about young kids in love, and the seemingly endless joy to be found in sharing the world with someone. But it makes no pretension that this love is redemptive. It doesn’t fundamentally change them, and they don’t expect it to. It’s just that ‘even the losers get lucky sometimes.’ What’s more, it’s told in the retrospective. She’s gone, and all he can do is point to the good times in desperation.
In some ways, this is deeply pessimistic. And yet, somehow it doesn’t feel that way. I think it’s in part precisely because the characters in the story are just real folks. Because they didn’t dream the heroic dreams, their love can simply be a moment of joy. A moment of joy which happens within a life equally full of pain. There’s no grand meaning to it all; it’s just life…
And, in a strange way, that’s what sets it free.
6. To Find a Friend (Wildflowers)
I love every single thing about this song, but it’s that little piano interlude after the second chorus that turns this something truly special.
5. Letting You Go (Hard Promises)
It’s a really touching portrait of someone who has lost love, but can’t quite accept it. In a broader sense, it’s about how hard it is to get on with our lives after a great loss. While there is a brief bridge that sounds a little more like the “normal” Tom Petty stuff from this era, the rest of the song is a little bit gentler. The music is warm, and often makes me think of sitting in a big chair with blankets wrapped around me. The keyboard, in particular, helps give the song a firm foundation. And the guitar joins for an occasional bubbly burst to keep you from getting too down. Petty’s voice is emotional, but not overwhelmingly so. He expresses sadness, but is pensive, contemplative more than he is broken apart.
This feeling breaks apart a bit during the previously mentioned bridge when he lets it all out and asks plaintively “What about the broken ones? What about the lonely ones? Honey I’m having trouble letting go.” When the warmer, more comforting sound returns, it eases you back from the edge. As the song fades out over the “oooo, oooo-oh-ohs” you’re left with some feeling of hope that “off in the distance, somewhere up the road” there really is “some easy answers for the tears you’ve cried.”
4. Crawling Back to You (Wildflowers)
Each verse could be connected, or could be seen as a completely different mini-scene. The quick sketches suggest some deep melancholy, some unredeemable sadness that resides in the relationships between these characters. And, the chorus is a simple refrain, “I keep crawling back to you,” which hints even more at the possibility that love, in this instance, is a life-raft where we simply try to weather the storm. Long after the genuine feeling of love has faded, we still return because the terror of facing the world outside is even worse than the dull pain of our lives. And yet, all hope is not lost. Some of the verses suggest happiness:
Hey baby, there’s something in your eyes
Trying to say to me
That I’m gonna be alright if I believe in you
It’s all I want to do
This is to say that “crawling back” can also be the desire to make things right. If he can still see the spark of love in her eyes, then there is still something to believe in. The way he sings the chorus makes me believe that this is the truth. It doesn’t come with a sense of self-loathing or frustration. Rather, there is a hint of wonderment that, after everything, there is still someone there to turn to.
These thoughts are guided along perfectly by the sound of the song. It begins with a long intro, featuring a slow cascading series of notes in a minor key on the piano. To me, this riff sounds like the breaking of a wave. It rises almost imperceptibly and then falls. It glides up the shore and then recedes, pulled underneath the swirling water. The piano is joined by a guitar which punctuates the highs and the lows. Throughout the song, the same basic riff remains the same, though in a number of variations. At times it returns to the feeling of the introduction, like a pond on a still day. At others it is tempestuous and stormy.
Or perhaps it sounds like a breath. As the song begins, it is a long breath, in slow-motion, inhaled and exhaled softly. Then, at the 44-second mark, the drums appear and the pace quickens and the song begins to thump like someone out of breathe from running.
Whichever metaphor you prefer, the general mood of the song remains the same, while the shifts in tone create a great deal of minor variations on the theme. The notes are so downcast that one cannot help but feel that there is a great deal of sadness, but it is never overwhelming. The song is simply too beautiful to believe that there is no hope in the world.
3. American Girl (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers)
Petty once remarked that this song sold thousands of 12-string guitars, which he thought was pretty funny because it’s actually just two regular six-string ones. But you can understand why people would have gone nuts over the sound. Lots of people had done jangle before, but it had never sounded like this.
This has always struck me as one of those songs that basically everyone loves. Old rockers, young dudes, even the punk kids. It’s just a glorious song.
2. Free Fallin’ (Full Moon Fever)
For a significant portion of my young adulthood, this was my absolute favorite song in the whole world. It felt like the most romantic, the most beautiful, the most pure thing I had ever heard. That little guitar riff, so simple and yet so ineffable. And when he sings ‘freeeee fallin’ it literally makes my whole body feel lighter. I can almost feel myself drifting on the breeze. I’m much older now, and hopefully a little bit wiser. But there’s still a part of me that simply cannot believe how good it feels to experience the final minute and a half of this song. I hope I never become so jaded that this song doesn’t make my whole body sing.
And yes, I know that the most direct reading of the lyrics is pretty pessimistic. I appreciate that, and it’s part of the larger meaning of the song. But honestly, I mostly just listen to this because of the way it makes me smile.
1. Wildflowers (Wildflowers)
I’m not sure there is a more beautiful song in the world.
It’s so simple, perfectly intimate. I can still remember how I felt the first time I heard it: full of wonder, and just a little bit scared that if I moved the spell would break and it would turn back into just another song. As I look back, I am starting to realize that it was almost twenty years ago. And I feel like the song has only grown up with me.
You know, in some ways, my top two tracks almost work as mirror images of each other. Free Fallin’ is a song for a young man, full of hope, and just a little bit unaware of the pain in it. He’s a ‘bad boy, for breaking her heart’ but all the implied damage being done is just completely washed out by the deep feeling of love that is embedded in the very essence of the song.
Meanwhile, Wildflowers is an old man’s song. It’s the feeling of love after the passion has gone. It’s a goodbye to someone you care about but know that you can’t hold onto. It’s the sort of song that only grows more poignant with every year that passes. If I had made this list even a few years ago, Free Fallin’ would have topped it. But now…as much as I still love that song, I hear a little more of myself here. I do hold out hope that I will always be able to live in a place where I feel free…
11. The Waiting (Hard Promises)
12. Turning Point (Playback)
13. A Higher Place (Wildflowers)
14. Mary Jane’s Last Dance (Greatest Hits)
15. All The Wrong Reasons (Into the Great Wide Open)
16. Learning To Fly (Into the Great Wide Open)
17. Room At The Top (Echo)
18. Louisiana Rain (Damn the Torpedoes)
19. Southern Accents (Southern Accents)
20. A One Story Town (Long After Dark)