Mr. Petty famously broke his hand in a fit of pique during the recording of the Heartbreakers’ 1985 album “Southern Accents.” That’s a high price for the music that resulted, but it was mostly worth it. “Rebels,” the ballad that opens the album, is uncharacteristically explicit about his ties to the American South — at times the lyrics read like his version of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” — but, true to form, any pride that’s there is undercut by darker notes of doubt and shame. It’s an unusual song, worth listening to if only for a fuller understanding of where he felt he came from.
‘End of the Line’ (1988)
On a break from the Heartbreakers, Mr. Petty ended up jamming in L.A. with his friends George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. Their 1988 debut as the Traveling Wilburys is mostly a curio for completists, but this gently swinging country tune is a gem that would have been a highlight among any of its participants’ solo releases that decade. The best part is the chorus, where a nonchalant Mr. Petty teases a former flame or friend: “Maybe somewhere down the road a ways / You’ll think of me, wonder where I am these days.”
‘Free Fallin’’ (1989)
“Full Moon Fever,” the solo album that Mr. Petty released in 1989, is his second front-to-back classic LP (the first was “Damn the Torpedoes,” a decade before). Several of its songs, including the pleasantly defiant “I Won’t Back Down,” the delightfully bizarre “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and a spot-on cover of the Byrds’ “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” are among his strongest work. But the best and most important song on “Full Moon Fever” is “Free Fallin’,” the Top 10 hit that jump-started the second act of Mr. Petty’s career. It’s essentially an update on “American Girl,” veering between awe-struck longing for the narrator’s dream lover and biting sarcasm toward the same. But it’s a much kinder song: This time, he’s self-aware enough to acknowledge his own role in breaking her heart, and to admit he misses her. “Free Fallin’” marks the moment when Tom Petty proved he could handle the ’90s.
‘Into the Great Wide Open’ (1991)
Mr. Lynne, who formed a close working relationship with Mr. Petty in the Traveling Wilburys and on “Full Moon Fever,” came along as a producer when the singer returned to the Heartbreakers fold in 1991. He’s the reason the group’s next album, “Into the Great Wide Open,” has that refreshed glow. The title track is an affectionate parable about a “rebel without a clue” named Eddie, who moves to L.A. and becomes a rock star. Everything seems to be going swimmingly, at least until the last verse, where our hero hears the words every major-label artist dreads: “Their A & R man said ‘I don’t hear a single.’ ” Mr. Petty makes you feel bad for the poor kid even as you laugh at his wry delivery.
‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ (1993)
Tastes change, but by this time it was clear that Tom Petty is forever. If “Free Fallin’ ” got Gen Xers listening to Mr. Petty, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was the THC-laced cherry on the intergenerational sundae. With its winking drug references, surreal humor and macabre music video — not to mention its instantly hummable chorus, given added punch by the producer Rick Rubin at the height of his powers — the song slid into Billboard’s Top 20, appeared frequently on MTV and handily reaffirmed Mr. Petty and the Heartbreakers’ place at rock’s forefront.
Mr. Petty worked with Mr. Rubin again on “Wildflowers,” his next solo album. The hit from that LP was “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” a strong entry in the ongoing list of Tom Petty songs about feeling misunderstood and messed with. But the album peaks with its acoustic title track, one of his most tender and heartfelt love songs.
‘Walls (Circus)’ (1996)
Recording a full-length soundtrack for director Edward Burns’ romantic comedy “She’s the One” probably seemed like a great idea in the mid-90s, when Petty peers like Bruce Springsteen and Elton John were taking home Oscars for their own Hollywood work. The association with the film arguably just confused matters: The album the Heartbreakers made in 1996 is one of their strongest late-period releases, with no knowledge of the movie necessary to appreciate it. It’s fascinating to hear Mr. Petty and his bandmates adjusting to the eccentricities of the alternative-rock era, notably on their cover of an unprintably titled deep cut of Beck, as well as on this gorgeous psychedelic ballad. The chorus features some of Mr. Petty’s finest lyrics on the subject of romantic ambivalence: “You got a heart so big, it could crush this town / And I can’t hold out forever, even walls fall down.”
‘Free Girl Now’ (1999)
“Echo,” released in the period after Mr. Petty split from his first wife, is often short-handed as his divorce album, and while that’s a bit of an oversimplification, it’s a fascinating filter through which to view the album’s lead single. “Free Girl Now” is addressed to a woman who has just gotten out of a deeply flawed relationship: “I remember when you were his dog / I remember you under his thumb,” he notes. Now the woman is on her own, unbound, starting over. Mr. Petty sounds happy for her. (Is she the same woman from “American Girl” and “Free Fallin’,” whose titles this song cleverly riffs on? Maybe.) You get the sense that whatever the details of this possibly fictional breakup, and the role the narrator himself played in it, it means a lot to him that someone is living free.
‘American Dream Plan B’ (2014)
The music that Mr. Petty made in the new millennium — including a 2006 solo album, three Heartbreakers LPs, and two more with his pre-fame band Mudcrutch — are all worth exploring for devoted fans, as are any number of bootlegs from Mr. Petty’s masterful live shows in these years. “Hypnotic Eye,” the final Heartbreakers album, is of particular note. On songs like this opener, he revisits the kind of hard-luck stories he wrote about through his entire career, with his balance of bitterness and hope more or less intact. “My success is anybody’s guess,” he grumbles here over a lowdown garage-rock crunch, “but like a fool, I’m bettin’ on happiness.”Continue reading the main story
1. American Girl (1976)
Is there any point starting anywhere else? American Girl was the closing track on Tom Petty’s first album with the Heartbreakers, the group who stayed at his side until the very end, and it became the irreplaceable set closer, the song that encapsulated the very point of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
It was once said that Petty’s entire career was an attempt to rewrite the Byrds’ Feel a Whole Lot Better (he eventually just covered it), and on American Girl he created a song to rival that earlier sound of California. Petty said it dealt with one of his favourite themes: the small-town kid searching for something bigger. This American girl “couldn’t help thinkin’ that there / Was a little more to life / Somewhere else”, yet the song was no lament. For all that she was left feeling “God it’s so painful / Something that’s so close / And still so far out of reach”, the song itself was a flowering of joy.
Tom Petty: the rock star who was a music fan as much as a musician
The radio DJ Mark Radcliffe once affectionately characterised Petty as one of American rock’s great lightweights, and that shouldn’t be taken as a pejorative: if Petty was never quite the equal of Springsteen or Young or Dylan, it meant his best songs had a lightness of touch that made them as simultaneously tart and sweet as a sherbet lemon.
2. Don’t Come Around Here No More (1985)
Forgive the skipping of nine years – no Refugee? No The Waiting? No Listen to Her Heart? No Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around? Madness! – but we have only five songs, and there needs to be room for later Petty.
What’s remarkable, though, is that it is possible to skip nine years to the second song in a list like this: Petty’s reputation might have been as a straightforward, heartland rock’n’roller, but he endured because he was able to create album after album of unerringly high quality. The lead single from the Heartbreakers’ sixth album, however, was far from straightforward heartland rock. Cowritten with Dave Stewart, it added electronic effects, a sitar and synthesised bass to create a piece of updated psychedelia that sounded half pastiche and half brave step forward.
One doesn’t often associate mystery with Tom Petty, but Don’t Come Around Here No More still sounds mysterious and drugged and dislocated (the title itself was something Stewart heard Stevie Nicks say to her then boyfriend, Joe Walsh, at the end of a cocaine-addled party). It remained the weirdest – by far – singalong in the Hearbreakers’ live show.
3. Free Fallin’ (1989)
Petty shelved the Heartbreakers in 1989 for his first solo album (on which some of them appeared, of course). They must have been kicking themselves that they weren’t the full backing band, because Full Moon Fever – largely cowritten with ELO’s Jeff Lynne, who would become Petty’s bandmate in the Travelling Wilburys – turned out to be one of Petty’s strongest sets.
It opened with the song that became an anthem of liberation when Tom Cruise’s conflicted sports agent used it as his singalong in Jerry Maguire, but it’s also one of the great Los Angeles songs: Petty journeys from the suburb of Reseda (“There’s a freeway runnin’ through the yard”) along Ventura Boulevard (“All the bad boys are standing in the shadows”) before he decides he wants to “glide down, over Mulholland”.
But you don’t need to know the city and its geography to feel the sense of Free Fallin’: it’s one of those perfect rock songs in which meaning is conveyed not by any one part of it, but by the combination of lyric, melody, arrangement. It’s the place where joy, nostalgia and melancholy meet, a combination that’s incredibly easy to misjudge in song; Petty nailed every element. Standing in the midst of a vast crowd at a Petty show when he kicked into Free Fallin’, and tens of thousands of people sang along to the chorus was a profoundly moving thing. There would be tears, and it was impossible to tell whether they were tears of sadness or joy.
Runnin’ Down a Dream (1989)
Full Moon Fever’s hardest rocker also gave its title to Peter Bogdanovich’s epic documentary about Petty (if you haven’t seen it, do so – even non-fans will enjoy it). Its inclusion means no room for I Won’t Back Down – a song Petty was unsure about, but which came to be indelibly associated with him. Sorry about that, but Runnin’ Down a Dream is here on merit: that magnetic, snaking, descending guitar line that any one of Petty’s 60s heroes would have been proud of, the fierce strums of acoustic guitar in the chorus that add pepper (and which sound like an idea taken from the country-rock staple Queen of Hearts, a song Petty had to have known well).
Heartbreakers frontman Tom Petty – a life in pictures
Lyrically, it’s another of Petty’s outsider quests, he’s “runnin’ down a dream / That never would come to me / Workin’ on a mystery, goin’ wherever it leads”. It’s also the sound of something purely American: the open road. The riff unfurls like an engine opening up on blacktop, and never stops motoring. Petty’s music was almost always the sound of big skies and the heat shimmering on the tarmac; close your eyes when listening, and what you see is a vast, empty landscape. It doesn’t have the same effect when you’re driving in the drizzle on the A406 (insert your own local ring road of choice).
Tom Petty just carried on, and on. Sometimes he didn’t hit the spot (I was scathing in this paper about the 2010 Heartbreakers album, Mojo). But there continued to be gem after gem. In 1996, he threw away a perfect little pop song, Walls, as the theme to the movie She’s the One, which didn’t deserve a song that good on its soundtrack. Wildflowers, the title track of Petty’s second solo album, was a song I hadn’t thought of in years, until Petty and the Heartbreakers performed it in Hyde Park in London in summer 2017. It’s a dandelion clock blowing away in the wind, a song so gentle and beautiful it seems to have been not so much written as plucked from the ether. And it contains the lyric that might serve as an elegy for Petty: “You belong among the wildflowers / You belong in a boat out at sea / Sail away, kill off the hours / You belong somewhere you feel free.”