by Michael Goldberg
Monday, October 7, 2002
Tom Petty Takes A Stand
A stunning concept album about the rock 'n' roll biz
Faced with the constant change and uncertainty that is life these days, it's a relief, on occasion, to be able to count on a band to come through, time and again, with well-written songs, a consistent sound and smartly produced albums. Such a band is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who for over 25 years have been recording wonderful albums of '60s-style rock 'n' roll, indebted to The Byrds, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, among others.
From Tom Petty, one doesn't look for experimentation or a new sound. And yet on his best albums and there are a lot of them, beginning with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976) and including You're Gonna Get It (1978), Damn the Torpedoes (1979), Hard Promises (1981), Wildflowers (1994) and, most recently, Echo (1999) Petty makes his jangly guitar-fueled rock 'n' roll sound absolutely of the moment.
Little of his music is actually retro. In fact, you could slip a track like the country-flavored "Blue Sunday" onto a mix tape with songs by Wilco, Ryan Adams, Neko Case and Death Cab for Cutie and it would fit right in. Call Petty and the Heartbreakers timeless or classic, it doesn't matter. They deliver albums that still sound good after repeated plays, year in and year out.
And yes, what I'm saying is that you're not going to be surprised by the sound or tenor of Petty and the Heartbreakers' latest, The Last DJ. Tom Petty has a clear idea of what rock 'n' roll should sound like, and no producer or industry bigwig is going to get him to try adding a DJ or rapper to his crew, or replacing guitars with samplers. Nothing wrong with any of that (in fact there's plenty that's very right about it) it's just not right for Petty.
For his latest album, Petty co-produced with Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and George Drakoulias, a producer particularly skilled at bringing the best out of a band with an established sound. The result is a near-perfect album that holds together thematically and sonically.
Petty is known for taking a stand in the past regarding record prices (in the mid-'70s he battled his former record company, MCA, over a price increase for Damn the Torpedoes, back when record stores were full of vinyl and the CD was yet to come). For The Last DJ he takes on the music business, targeting the corporate takeover of radio, ruthless music-business executives, and artists who sell themselves short.
In a song called "Joe" ("My name's Joe/ I'm the CEO"), he plays the role of a crass music exec: "Go get me a kid/ With a good-looking face/ Bring me a kid/ Can remember his place/ Some hungry poet/ Son of a bitch/ He gets to be famous/ I get to be rich."
The Last DJ could be called a concept album, the concept being loosely defined as what choosing life as a rocker entails. This allows for a few songs about relationships ("You and Me," "Blue Sunday"), some character studies/sociology ("The Man Who Loves Women," "When a Kid Goes Bad") and the songs that form the cornerstones of the album: "Money Becomes King," "Joe," "Have Love Will Travel," "Can't Stop the Sun" and the title track.
With a thrilling descending 12-string guitar riff, Petty rips into "The Last DJ," which uses trad rock 'n' roll instrumentation a couple of guitars, bass and drums as a platform for Petty's tribute to the days of real rock 'n' roll radio. "Well, you can't turn him into a company man," he sings, an echo of Dylan in his voice. "You can't turn him into a whore/ And the boys upstairs/ Just don't understand anymore."
"The Last DJ" is a perfect setup for the rest of the album. It establishes that things have gone sour, even as it reminds us that there actually was a time when things were different (better). The Beatlesque (by way of ELO) ballad "Money Becomes King" lays out the co-optation of the artist as Petty details the story of an idealistic rocker named "Johnny" who loses his way. In the beginning, Johnny "loved to play and sing." Sings Petty: "We'd go to hear him play that music/ It spoke right to my soul/ Every verse a diamond/ And every chorus gold/ The sound was my salvation/ It was only everything/ Before money became king."
"Money Becomes King" is an epic piece. Set to a melody that may remind you of "On Broadway," the song uses piano, organ and strings to communicate the pathos of Johnny's moral decline, which itself is a metaphor for the decline of popular music. Petty sings about how "they'd double the price of tickets to go see Johnny's show." The audience was different now, he sings well-heeled folks sitting in "golden circles" where "waiters served them wine" as they "talked through all the music." Johnny, too, has changed. The song's narrator arrives early and witnesses a rehearsal where "Johnny came out and lip-synched his new lite beer commercial." I'm sure you can relate as well as I can to the final, devastating verse: "There was no use in pretending/ No magic left to hear/ All the music gave me/ Was a craving for lite beer."
The timing of the album's release is good; it comes out as the Rolling Stones, who epitomize much of what Petty sings about here, have begun yet another of their mega "oldies but goodies" tours. Unline Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Rolling Stones haven't released a decent album of new material in over a quarter century. (The Stones' last OK not great, but good enough album was Some Girls, released in 1978, not long after Petty and the Heartbreakers scored their first hit with "Breakdown.")
For whatever reason, music critics for the New York Times, Rolling Stone and other publications have been going all out to make the case that the Rolling Stones still matter. In a review headlined "Staying Steadfast and True, With Bravado at Full Tilt" that ran in the New York Times, Jon Pareles wrote that the group isn't "just selling nostalgia," then continued, "The Stones' job nowadays is to provide immediate pleasure and fondly recollected dangers, and to remind listeners that it is still possible to be absolutely professional while staying wayward.... Yet if the narratives are not being refreshed, the music is."
Perhaps Pareles is right. I wasn't there. But the last time I saw the Rolling Stones (in 1994, I believe), the show was a total exercise in nostalgia. The group played mostly their old songs from the '60s and '70s, only they didn't sound as good as they do on record, on live recordings from those decades. It reminded me of the time in the early '70s when I saw tired performances from Chuck Berry and Little Richard at one of those oldies shows. In both cases, what I saw had nothing to do with rock 'n' roll; no one was putting anything on the line. It was just a job.
You could say that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have lived a charmed life. Here they are, going strong a quarter century after they had their first album released, able to record albums of new music that are embraced by fans. And their new music matters. Petty still has something to say, and his band can still deliver music that makes his words come alive.
The album ends with the one-two punch of "Have Love Will Travel" and "Can't Stop the Sun." "Have Love Will Travel" (which opens with a musical reference to "Like a Rolling Stone") includes the wonderful verse: "How about a cheer for all those bad girls/ And all the boys that play that rock 'n' roll/ They love it like you love Jesus/ It does the same thing to their souls."
"Can't Stop the Sun" is a musically ethereal ballad that references The Beatles (it sounds like something off Abbey Road) and conveys the optimism that has run through much of Petty's music through the years. "Well you may take my money/ You may turn off my microphone/ But you can't steal/ What you can't feel," he begins. The final verse ends like this: "And you may think it's all over/ But there'll be more just like me/ Who won't give in/ Who'll rise again/ Can't stop a man from dreaming/ On and on and on."
But that's not the end of the song. This album, like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, is about the power of music to triumph over "Mister Business Man," as Petty puts it. So it ends with an extended rock coda that builds insistently heavy, churning music cycling a groove with a strong improvised solo (played, I assume, by Heartbreaker Mike Campbell) on top. It ends in feedback that seems to get lost in radio frequencies, perhaps implying that this rock is beaming out to the cosmos.