“Like Sonny Liston”: An Appreciation of Tom Petty

By Patterson Hood


Like most people I know, I was already having a terrible day Monday. I awoke to news of the worst mass shooting in American history. How do you wrap your head around that? I could lock myself in my room and cry endlessly (and I might yet), but to what end is that beyond personal catharsis, and an empty one at that?

I feel sad and angry in multiplying layers, with the anger sometimes becoming a seething rage and the sadness manifesting itself as a paralyzing agent, pulling me into an uncomfortable numbness. A numbness that is most likely a coping mechanism to deal with the harsh reality that, once again, nothing will be done.

After Sandy Hook, we crossed a line. If the senseless murder of a room full of schoolchildren doesn’t bring even an attempt at change, we’re doomed to a life of accepting this happening again and again. What will be better now?

With these kinds of thoughts in my head, I had to go to work. Fortunately, I love my job, and Monday, we were mixing a new song. I was able to bury my thoughts there for a few hours while doing something I truly love. Once again, rock and roll music was my great salvation.

That’s when I heard Tom Petty died.

Word filtered in like things tend to nowadays, and there was some initial confusion about the details, but I knew in my heart that he was gone. And that just felt unfathomably weird. Tom Petty has been such a concrete part of my life since I was 12 years old, when I saw him play “Breakdown” in a cameo in a bad movie called “FM.” Petty’s cameo is literally the only thing I can remember about that movie. I went out and bought his debut album as soon as I could find it and have bought every single one since (and sometimes, multiple copies).

Doing what I do, I am often asked about my favorite Southern rock band. It’s a term I always hated (and used it with that in mind as part of a title for one of Drive-By Truckers’ albums). The question is usually prefaced with another, framed as a simple choice: Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd?

The correct answer for me is R.E.M. and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. On any given day, the Heartbreakers could be the greatest band on the planet.

I’m a songwriter, and I’ve studied at the feet of many a great songwriter. Tom Petty was as great as anyone who ever tried to put these feelings we have — as failing human beings trying to navigate this screwed-up world — to lyrics and song. There is real honor in being able to write just one Great Song, and Tom Petty has written dozens of those. But real genius is being able to write one Perfect Song — a tune in which any change would diminish it, a song that is already there in its purest and essential form.

I’ve spent my entire life in pursuit of one Perfect Song. Tom Petty wrote at least 10, maybe more. He was a true master of form, structure, hook, and melody. He always wrote with a sense of humor and a tinge of mystery. No wonder his songs soundtrack so many decades of so many people’s lives.

Petty also had great sound. His records sounded fantastic. Even the ones with dated ’80s production sound better than other records of that era. He had a perfect rock and roll voice and was an excellent guitar player (playing alongside Mike Campbell, one of the greatest guitar players of all time).

* * *

When I was 14, I named my very first band Breakdown, after the Petty song.

I first saw the Heartbreakers play in 1983. I was 18 years old, and they came to my hometown of Florence, Alabama, as part of the Long After Dark Tour. The tour sold out arenas all over the world, but in Florence, Petty didn’t quite sell out our 3,800-capacity Flowers Hall. He wasn’t happy about that, or anything else. This show happened during Petty’s days of heavy cocaine use and bad behavior.

I worked on the local crew and witnessed a tantrum the likes of which I’ve still never seen from anyone over age 3. He cussed out his crew, his band, and all of us during sound check and immediately afterward. Then, during the show (which was excellent, as was every single TP show I ever saw), two guys in the crowd got into a fight. Petty stopped the show, then cussed out the crowd, too. “This is the ’80s,” he said. "We don’t beat each other up anymore. I moved to get away from this kind of shit.” Rant finished, he promptly walked off the stage. This was about five songs in, and the crowd began booing and throwing things.

Backstage, Petty was told that he hadn’t played long enough to fulfill his contract and get paid, so they came back out and played for exactly an hour more. They ended with “Dixie.”

All in all, it was pretty glorious.

A few months later, I saw Petty tell Martha Quinn on MTV that Florence, Alabama, was the worst place he’d ever played.

I ended up seeing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play every decade of my life from my teen years through my 40s. I missed seeing him this summer when he played the Greek in Berkeley, California, by one day.

In 1989, I saw Petty and the Heartbreakers play Starwood Amphitheater in Nashville with The Replacements opening. I took my then-teenage sister. It ended up being the infamous night when Petty fired the Replacements from the stage.

Earlier that day, the Replacements had broken into Petty’s bus and stolen several dresses from Tom’s wife, Jane. They wore them on stage for the set, which was by far the worst and most chaotic of the many Replacements shows I had seen.

At one point, lead singer Paul Westerburg told the crowd, “Last night, Tom Petty said that if we fuck up again, we’re fired. Fuck you, Tom Petty. And fuck you, Nashville.”

Then, they played an instrumental version of Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” for about 10 minutes before leaving the stage 20 minutes before their scheduled time.

The Heartbreakers came out 20 minutes early and told the crowd, “Since the opener didn’t bother to finish their set, we’ll play a little extra. Because we care!” Then, they pulled out a scathing version of The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.” My sister has been a Petty fan ever since.

A year or so after that, Petty wrote a satirical song about a musical screwup called “Into the Great Wide Open” which lifted a line — “rebel without a clue” — from a Replacements song (“I’ll Be You”) for the chorus. A case of supreme assholery, but done just right.

I love Tom Petty.

In 2010, a lifelong dream of ours came true DBT was asked to open for a leg of Petty’s Mojo Tour. We played several weeks, mostly in the Midwest. I made it a point to stand stage-side every night, to learn from the masters how to play that kind of show in those giant arenas. We were treated fantastically by Petty’s crew and bandmates, many of whom had been with him since before I first saw them in 1983.

On the last night of our tour, Tom came to our dressing room to meet our band and thank us, but I was asleep on the bus and no one bothered to wake me up.

I never met him.

* * *

Year after year, record after record, Petty kept releasing great songs. When the ’70s became the ’80s, most of the biggest musical artists dropped off into irrelevancy. Not Tom Petty. He embraced MTV’s visual world and made it his own. He became bigger and better than ever. He battled with his record company, again and again, over a deal that he felt was unfair, about his contract being sold without his consent or compensation, about record pricing. He won the battles, even as they sometimes look their toll. He filed for bankruptcy shortly before releasing “Damn the Torpedoes,” the album that turned him into a superstar.

His house burned to the ground, a fire later found to be the work of an arsonist. He was on the road, and his family were barely able to escape. They lost everything. He references the fire in an offhand way in his song “My Life, Your World.”

He ended the decade by delivering his first-ever solo record, one that his label deemed too uncommercial. It contained “Free Falling,” another of Petty’s Perfect Songs. The album “Full Moon Fever” became his all-time biggest seller, with three huge hit singles.

Petty was a Southerner by birth and temperament, even though he spent most of his life based in Southern California. But somehow, he managed to inhabit both in quintessential ways.

In 1985, he made an album that was his attempt at reconciling his conflicted feelings about his home region, the flawed but much underrated “Southern Accents” album.

For whatever shortcomings that album might have had, it contained possibly the greatest song anyone has ever written about our conflicted home region. “Southern Accents” is in itself a master class in writing. It is another of his absolutely Perfect Songs. The song is both personal, dealing with the then-recent death of his beloved mother, and universal in its portrait of the conflicts and dualities of the Deep South, as it sat on the cusp of a new and (we hoped) enlightened age.

Got my own way of talking, but everything is done
With a Southern accent, where I come from.

His list of perfect songs goes on: You could argue that “The Waiting” is a perfect song. “Even the Losers”? Perfect.

Petty was a master of precision and brevity. He could say more with less than any writer I know. There’s a songwriting saying I have always attributed to Petty (although I can’t find the exact source) that says, “don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” In writing a song, it can often take eight lines for the first verse to set up the chorus. Tom was a master at getting there in four — a technical feat that I attempt with every song I try to write. I’m seldom able to pull it off. “The Waiting,” “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “A Woman In Love,” “You Got Lucky,” “Straight Into Darkness,” and “Change of Heart” are but a few songs that slam into a transcendent chorus at breakneck speed. I’m in personal and professional awe of his ability to do that.

In 1999, he made one of his most troubled and least commercially successful records. “Echo” was possibly injured by his being in the worst shape of his long career, as his depression over getting divorced led him into a deep and crippling addiction. For many years after his recovery, he seemed to disavow an album some of us revere for its unhinged and sardonic delivery. His addiction had caused his bandmates to step up and perhaps play a bigger role in its creation than usual. Mike Campbell has some of his finest moments ever on it. The album also features one of his best later-era songs in “Swingin’.” In it he sounds in pain and angry, nearly defeated, yet still defiant.

“She went down, swingin’, like Sonny Liston.”

Oh, to be able to say so much with so few words.

Tom Petty didn’t just write perfect songs. He made great albums, which meant writing for how it all pieces together. Paying as much attention to the last song on the album as the first. Again, a master. Most of his better albums went out with the perfect final song and none better than his solo masterpiece, “Wildflowers,” which ended with yet another of his Perfect Songs, “Wake Up Time.”

To a cinematic piano swirl and soaring (yet understated) strings, he sings:

Well, if he gets lucky, a boy finds a girl
To help him to shoulder the pain in this world
And if you follow your feelings
And you follow your dreams
You might find the forest there in the trees.

Yeah, you'll be all right, it's just gonna take time, but now
Who could have seen you'd be so hard to please somehow
You're just a poor boy a long way from home
You're just a poor boy a long way from home
And it's wake up time
Time to open your eyes
And rise and shine.

Fittingly, as I ponder my favorite Petty songs, I keep coming back to one of his story songs. It’s not a form he’s best known for, but again, he was a master. “Something Big” manages to be that rarest of all story songs, in that it doesn’t bother to actually tell the story. You never get the specifics of what happened, why or how it happened, yet the listener will inevitably have a story he or she will associate with it. The band plays a sinister progression — while Petty’s delivery goes from offhand to soaring and back again — setting up the scene like a master film director in a classic noir, always leaving the mystery for listeners to untangle for themselves. You meet characters, but don’t know how they fit together. Again, he jumps to the chorus with wild abandon.

It wasn’t no way to carry on, it wasn’t no way to live
But he could put up with it for a little while
He was working on something big.

In the end, you know he’s dead and it’s up to you to figure out the details and pick up the pieces as the bystanders are pondering just who the dead guy was.

Probably just another clown working on … something big.

Monday night, as I was leaving the studio, I was pondering the strange place so many of us were in from such a horrific day. I was on my way to meet some friends at a bar to toast yet another dead hero, this one perhaps the one that’s hitting me the hardest of all, yet still acknowledging that 59 innocent people had just been senselessly murdered in a massacre that injured more than 500 others. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around numbers like that, yet it’s becoming a nearly daily occurrence in this country, which prides itself on being “the leader of the free world.”

My pain and anger at all of this are so out of control and unfathomable that I don’t even know how to begin to process them. I don’t know how to address it. I sure as hell ain’t going downtown to raise a glass about it. I’m hoping that in time, maybe someone will wake the hell up before it’s too late (if it’s not already) and bring about some kind of real change in our bloodthirsty gun culture. I hope it happens before a massacre occurs in front of me or to one of my loved ones. When members of our government say that they are praying for the victims, I say, Save your prayers for yourself and the hell that I’m certain awaits you. Thoughts such as this are not constructive or helpful, but it’s all I have right now.

And Tom Petty has passed away. I can’t really fathom living in a world without him, but I know for a fact that I’ll never really have to. He lived a full life, not long enough, but fuller than most ever dream. He was loved by millions and left us a legacy of music that will live on for decades, perhaps centuries. He touched our lives and made each day, even the darkest ones, a little brighter and better.

To that, I can raise a glass and toast.

And go on swingin’.

Like Sonny Liston.

Rest in peace, Tom Petty. Thanks for everything.

Patterson Hood is a co-founder of Drive-By Truckers, whose album "American Band" placed first in The Bitter Southerner's list of the Best Southern Albums of 2016.