(The Heartbreakers * Rock & Roll)
Matthew A. Cicci
Citation: Cicci, Matthew A.. “Tom Petty.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 23, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/023.r11
Abstract: Matthew A. Cicci examines Tom Petty’s songwriting process. Cicci’s juxtaposition of Petty's insistence that his songwriting is mystical against the artist's own back catalog of alternate takes reveals a musician who diligently revised, experimented, and understood the writing craft. Cicci sees in Petty’s dichotomy an approach to composition that is honest regardless of medium.
Keywords: Tom Petty, De Certeau, Bricolage, Revision.
So, I’m in junior high, it's summer, and I’m sitting in my mom’s pickup truck when the radio plays “Don’t Do Me Like That.” It sounds like nothing else I’ve heard. For a moment, it doesn’t seem like it should be on the radio: a nasally voice that growls, whines, and sneers; direct, conversational lyrics; a rolling jingle-jangle mesh of guitar and piano...but, by the second time I hear the chorus, I’m already singing along. That was the first time I ever took notice of music, the first time I ever asked “Who is THIS?”
The answer was, of course, Tom Petty and his erstwhile Heartbreakers. Once I found that out, the deep dive was officially on: purchased every album, attended multiple live shows, read any article about the band, etc. I was a Petty fan. In a sense, not an odd thing to be. Here was a wildly successful artist--ubiquitous one might say. His audiences spanned ages; he was on classic rock radio AND his videos were in heavy rotation on MTV. While my cohort of friends became enamored with hip-hop and metal, all of them could sing along to “Free Falling;” all of them grooved to “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” But, in spite of that easy popularity, or because of it, I found myself thinking him underrated…under-appreciated.
While his voice is as distinctive as few others, his musical stylings have varied from album to album. He’s been labelled new wave AND punk; he’s been seen as a link to blues bands of yore AND an artful imitator of the British invasion; as mentioned earlier, he was a music video innovator AND a staple of FM rock. Simply, put, the band contained multitudes. No doubt, these were points I impressed upon my friends over and over. And, while that defensiveness might be the heart of being a dedicated fan, that ever-evolving-yet-ever-familiar nature of Petty’s work (that decades later I’m still apparently going on about) is what makes Petty an excellent Rocktalog candidate.
Tom Petty, by all accounts, was a prolific songwriter. Drummer Steve Ferrone recalls being in awe of how Petty would just show up to recording and hit the band with “song after song after song. And, then he would throw away other songs,” because, while good, they covered ground the band had already trod (Greene). Apocryphal tales abound: ELO’s Jeff Lyne wowed by Petty writing the mega-hit “Free Falling” while just goofing around on the piano. Famed producer Rick Rubin’s astonishment at Petty penning the heartfelt “Wildflowers” in just a few moments between takes. Industry heavy Jimmy Iovine begging Petty to keep a hold of the exceptional “Don’t Do Me Like That” instead of selling it to the J. Geils Band.
Apparently, songs came easy to Tom Petty. And, he often validated this take in the many, many responses to his being asked about his songwriting process; to paraphrase, Petty often made himself out to simply be the vessel for whatever type of magic music is. In the career spanning documentary Running Down a Dream, Petty frets delving into the mysticism of songwriting too much saying, “I hesitate to even try and understand it for fear it might go away.”
But, it is only when juxtaposed against the larger truth of Petty’s persistence the full view of the songwriter can be seen. Despite the tales of magic, muse, and inspiration, Petty was clearly a thoughtful, deliberate practitioner of revision.In between an almost spiritual gratitude and reverence for the music as it comes to him, he also inadvertently acknowledges the tireless work of songwriting. In an early 80s interview, he discusses the song “The Waiting.” In true fashion, he says that he “just hit” the iconic guitar lick intro which he goes on to play for the interviewer.
“But, that’s all I had, see,” Petty tells him while still strumming. “I did that for weeks,” Petty says, “Then finally I hit (sings the chorus).” Petty stops strumming and scratches his head “So I’d get to that and then I’d go ‘Well, now what?’”. He picks the guitar up again, “And then I’d be like all week (begins playing it again)...You eat dinner, you come back, sit down pick up your guitar (starts playing it over)...People start banging on your wall, “Don’t play that anymore!”
While showcasing his humorous side, the story also belies the juxtaposition at play: the muse and the work, the inspiration and the revision.
This becomes heartbreakingly clear in Petty’s latest posthumous release Wildflowers and all the Rest (2020). Here are alternative versions of songs and unreleased gems in variable states of readiness. And, scattered amongst these never-heard-before songs are dozens of lyrics that would eventually find a home in Petty’s widely released work. This scrapbook setting puts me in the mind of the French scholar Michel de Certeau and his use of the term “bricolage,” albeit on a much smaller scale, for it see’s Petty engaging in the recursive practice of “making innumerable and infinitesimal transformations” of his own work. It is proof that Petty’s songwriting, while to him mystical, is also a thoughtful process of rewriting and finding the right words for the right song in the right order.
But, it is that clash that seems so pertinent to a discussion of rhetoric and composition. That fervent belief in the arcane gift of creativity butted against the ceaseless work of the craft. It’s the serendipity of hitting upon the perfect riff and then playing that same riff for weeks on end until the chorus comes together...then playing them together for a few more weeks until the piece is finished. It’s writing “Wildflowers” by “taking a deep breath and it came out. The whole song. Stream of consciousness: words, music, chords. Finished it.” while simultaneously struggling to separate lyrics meant for other songs from one’s he’d record but never release.
Petty once said, “Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There's not some trick involved with it. It’s pure and it’s real.” And, I suppose right there he’s conceding that both matter...songwriting is like magic, but it’s not an illusion, just honest work.
Tom Petty’s Opening Statement
Oh, man. I don’t know where it comes from, you know? Like, it’s Rock & Roll; it is not supposed to be deep. It’s just supposed to rock and then roll. Kind of pull you along with it.
But, I am thankful, so thankful that it does come from somewhere though. That I am open to it. Because, when it hits...oh, boy, when it hits, it feels like something bigger than you is moving through you.
And, it is all real, too. It all comes from a place of joy, of being thrilled. I don’t write sad. I might write about being sad, but when I pick up the guitar that is joy and happiness. That’s a high. Being receptive means being upbeat and tuned in.
I’m not one for sitting down and thinking about what direction I’m putting things in. Not really. I’m just going with what’s working. It’s allowing for a feeling. Capturing that first and foremost. I don’t want to overthink it or lose it. I just want to capture that groove, right? That groove is everything because then I know I’m in it. I’m tapping into something. If I can wrestle that groove down and play with it, I have a firm belief it will become something.
And, if I have that groove and I know I’m on to something, then I know its worth fighting for. To be honest, without the song, without one you know is good, this is all a moot point. The Heartbreakers aren’t going to let me do a bunch of takes on a bad song, and I won’t let them either. But, usually, when that groove becomes something I believe in, then I know I have something to share. Like, if that’s there, if I’m lucky enough to be feeling it, to get hold of that moment or that magic, then I know its going to lead me, yeah, it might take a while, but if I follow it, we’re gonna get somewhere that is going to be good. And, a lot of times that trip can be circular. You don’t want to lose that initial feeling. So it becomes a delicate thing...trying to respect that moment the song came on to me while also making sure I can do it justice and make it what it is supposed to be.
Bogdonavich, Peter, director. Runnin' Down a Dream, 2007.
de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, 1988.
Petty, Tom. Interview. “Tom Petty Exclusive.” q, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), 2014. youtube.com/watch?v=CIJc3HQBUEI&t=791s.
Zollo, Paul. Conversations with Tom Petty. Omnibus Press, 2005.