Feeling Sad with Tom Petty
“Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” came out in 1976, the year I graduated from high school, and my love of T.P. started then. The second album had “I Need to Know” on it, and then there was the genius third album, “Damn the Torpedoes,” in 1979—the album that just nailed the Heartbreakers’ sound (thanks, in part, to Jimmy Iovine’s obsessive search for the perfect takes and drums), the way that “Elephant” later defined the White Stripes.
When Petty broke, he was enough outside the rock mainstream to sound alternative, almost punk. Petty himself—a bit snaggle-toothed, with lank hair, blade-like skinniness, and a certain sallowness of skin—was a pleasingly unpretentious rock star, a creature of the seventies like me, without the big boomer causes, a guy just trying to figure life out. I got the poetry of the American girl on the balcony, hearing the waves crashing on the beach but also hearing the sound of old Route 441, and not knowing what to do. I sang along to “Refugee,” “Breakdown,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” mentally addressing various fantasy girlfriends who had done me wrong by not giving me the time of day—but, hey, “Even the losers get lucky sometimes.” Of course, Petty was also solidly within the classic-rock tradition, and had somewhat stealthily assimilated all that Byrds and Dylan stuff. But as a young Petty fan I didn’t hear that—I didn’t want to. I heard the jingle but not the jangle. I was into the jittery, propulsive, gotta-go-right-now feeling of those early songs.
After the third album, I moved on to R.E.M. and Petty moved on to “Southern Accents,” and we lost each other for a while. It was “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” the bonus track on the 1993 greatest-hits album, that brought me back to Petty. It didn’t happen right away. The video made a distinct impression, but, as with the video for “Free Fallin’,” another important song during my second, later Petty phase, the video of “Mary Jane” was a little too abstract for me. But the song got in my head the way no Petty song ever got in there before or after. The strip-mall poetry of “American Girl” had given way to something more like a David Lynch image—a girl in her underwear looking down from a hotel room at the pigeons in Market Square, Indianapolis, as night falls.
“Mary Jane” also brought me back to guitar playing, which I had fooled around with in high school but dropped in college. For years, I practiced the subtle hammer-ons and palm mutes in the intro riff, trying to sound like Petty’s great guitar player Mike Campbell. Later, when I started playing music with friends, and later still when we formed a band, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” became one of our core numbers. We can all get behind it in the way that we can’t get behind “I Won’t Back Down,” which is a little too on-the-nose. “Mary Jane” is also the only one of our songs I seem to be able to sing—who knew how fun it is to sing through your septum?
Nowadays, I am much more likely to listen to the Byrdsier T.P. I like the sweet but meanish feel of his version of “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” employing the riff from “Needles and Pins,” a sound that more or less caused me to get a twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar. And even with the early songs, what I once heard as punk I now hear as Petty taking Roger McGuinn’s plaintive, keening, but ultimately optimistic vocals and adding a sense of feeling left out to them—of feeling sad. Maybe that was what I was always hearing. I’m hearing that now. It’s Mary Jane’s last dance, indeed.