On his 50th birthday, Tom Petty received a birthday card from the great Johnny Cash, with whom Tom and his legendary band the Heartbreakers had recorded an album that won the Grammy for Country Album of the year (more on that later). The card said simply “Happy Birthday. You’re a good man to ride the river with.”
It’s fair to say that Petty was a lot more than a good man to ride the river with, but that identity may ultimately be what drove his life and career. It’s hard to point to many people who came through the ringer of “stardom” and on the other side, were/are able to look back and say they stuck to the principles they wanted to. It’s easy to think we know the songwriters we love because we know their art. That’s not always the case. Vincent Damon Furnier bears little resemblance to his alter-ego and stage show. We want access; we want to know the story behind the story. But with Petty and his songs, you get the sense that everything is upfront. He wrote what he lived.
Some artists stay relevant by morphing with the times. How many disco songs did we have to endure from Rock acts? How many artist have “gone country” in search of relevance? Not Petty. Oh – the sound changed over the years with different producers. A Jimmy Iovine helmed record sounds very different from a Rick Rubin record. And they both sound very different from a Dave Stewart production. But they all sounded like Tom Petty in the end. Again – he managed to stay true to whatever lit the fire inside him.
His principles did not always lead him down the path of least resistance. When his first label, Shelter, was sold to MCA, Petty realized he had no ownership over his own work, so he ended up going to war with MCA over publishing rights. Broke, he tried to declare bankruptcy which would have nullified his contract. MCA fought him, perhaps hoping their endless lawyers and resources would eventually outlast Petty. Refusing to back down, Petty stuck to his guns. All of this while recording Damn The Torpedoes, and hiding the tapes between sessions in order to prevent their legal seizure. Petty famously said to MCA at the time “I’ll sell fucking peanuts before I give in to you.” In the end, MCA relented, giving Petty back his publishing, and setting himself up with his own label, as long as they could distribute the records. Damn The Torpedoes would hit no. 2 on the Billboard Album Charts and go on to be certified Triple Platinum. He wouldn’t write “Won’t Back Down” until some years later, but the sentiment was there from the start.
Other musicians were drawn to Petty. Stevie Nicks said she preferred the Tom Petty’s music to Fleetwood Mac’s, and would leave her band to join the Heartbreakers if she could. She had to settle for Petty and the Heartbreakers backing her, and several duets, one of which “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” was a huge hit for both artists. No less than Bob Dylan took the Heartbreakers on the road with him for over a year. And of course there was the Traveling Wilburys. George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynn. And Tom Petty. When Stan Lynch, the Heartbreakers original drummer left the band, Dave Grohl jumped at the chance to sit in. Petty and the Heartbreakers would later back Johnny Cash on his 1998 release “Unchained”, which won the Grammy for Country Record of the Year. Okay – maybe he did go Country. When Johnny Cash calls, you go.
I could go on about the man, there are as many stories as there are hits – and that’s saying something. If you want to get into it, check out the Peter Bogdonovoch documentary “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin Down a Dream”. It’s just shy of 4 hours, and there’s not a second you’d want to cut from it. If you love Rock and Roll, and that film doesn’t move you… well I don’t know what will.
In the end we’re left with the songs. It’s a vast catalogue that you can get lost in, with bangers and ballads that are equally intense. It’s a rabbit hole I’ve gone down many times, and will again. They don’t make ‘em like Tom Petty anymore. The music industry won’t allow for it at this point in time. He did things the way he wanted to. Uncompromising and with integrity. Committed to the songs, because they mattered. Because Rock and Roll was important.
Put on a Tom Petty record tonight.
Johnny Cash was right. He is a good man to ride the river with.