Friday, July 22, 2005

Ode to the Great Tom Petty

I saw Tom Petty live in Des Moines Monday night and left just as inspired as the last time I saw him, in Devore CA three years ago.

His self-awareness, business acumen and leadership coupled with his ability to write true and distinctive rock radio hits have made possible his thorough enjoyment of rock-stardom.

He's been a viable commercial force on the rock scene -- both among serious afficionados and casual radio listeners -- for over three decades.

He's recorded and toured with largely the same musicians his entire career (including his keyboardist, the Great Benmont Tench, who came with him to L.A. when they were both teenagers and who took a 15 minute concert-grand piano solo Monday on a brand new song and garnered a two minute standing ovation.)

He's kept an open marriage with the Heartbreakers, he recorded with everyone from Stevie Nicks to the pinacle of rock aristocracy (the travelling Wilburys) while they (especially Tench) have been free to develop their careers. Yet he kept the Heartbreaker's homefires burning enough to keep them all around when he needed them.

He showed how much emotion and poignancy can be effortlessly conveyed in three guitar chords in the pop masterpiece "Free-fallin." Not since Rossini has a composer done so much so simply.

His hits span three decades, yet all of them could have been written yesterday or in 1970; none of them sound dated or particularly modern.

He kept a $20 million record contract with Warner Brothers secret for four years while quietly and professionally fulfilling his contract with MCA.

Before he was a rich man, he organized a fan protest and threatened to withhold the album "Damn the Torpedos" because MCA wanted to charge $9.98 for it instead of the standard $8.98. MCA relented. If more artists did that, perhaps there would not have been a Napster revolt among music fans tired of paying too much for albums with one good song.

The strength and steadiness he displayed throughout his career is best expressed in his songs. He "won't back down," he trusts the people he loves to "listen to (their) hearts," and he's willing to wait for things while noting that it's "the hardest part." He's also able to be inspired by the social dynamics of the sterile San Fernando Valley ("Free-fallin" again) and give a gentle yet unflinching look at the particularized teen male angst of that area. (at least I think that's what he's doing, I don't particularly care what he meant; I know what it means to me, a displaced Californian). He's the kind of guy you can depend on. He knows what he wants and is clear about it. He's not a baroque pop music genius like Brian Wilson or a spiritualist too good for rock and roll like George Harrison. He's not an out-of-control prima donna who revels in his destructive edges like every rock star cliche. Fame and fortune were not too much for him, he enjoys them as only a strong-willed person can.

He's a radio rockstar, who loves what he does and will be touring and recording as long as health and finances permit. While as a Christian, I can only take this so far; in my artistic/professional life I will always ask "what would Petty do."

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