Anyone reading this who knows me – and that’s a given because those who don’t know me never read this blog – knows I’m a Tom Petty fan.
Who am I kidding? I am a shameless, obsessive and thoroughly insufferable bozo of a Tom Petty fan. Two framed, autographed album covers adorn my office walls. I’ve downloaded pretty much every song the guy’s written, sung, played, produced or mentioned in passing. I’ve bought his autobiography, Conversations with Tom Petty. I’ve seen the Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary multiple times. I’ve even gone down numerous YouTube rat holes searching for prizes like this one from 1976, when his label mate Dwight Twilley needed a bass player to stand behind him while he lip-synched songs for a long-forgotten TV program – fast forward to 1:42:
I am also one of those saps with a paid membership in the Tom Petty Highway Companions fan club. There are two reasons I pony up the dough every year. For one, I get to listen to “Buried Treasure,” his weekly XM Sirius program featuring “the best in rock, rhythm and blues,” which has introduced me to a number of great records over the years. And for another, I can buy concert tickets several days before they go on sale to the general public. I don’t get any discounts, mind you; I just get to buy sooner and have better seats to choose from … all while paying an annual membership fee on top of it.
My high-velocity fandom only began a few years ago, and I may never completely understand why this man overran my musical receptors so completely. It’s like Nick Hornby’s description of the bond between a musician and his fan in Juliet, Naked:
You speak to him. For him. He connects. You plug right into a very complicated-looking socket in his back. I don’t know why, but you do.
Tom and the boys released their 13th album, Hypnotic Eye, a few weeks ago. New material from a classic rock band is often not a reason to celebrate. They may just go through the motions; vocal power may wane and songwriting can get stale. Or, the band may decide there’s no time like the present to release that experimental album they always wanted to do, even if their audience doesn’t want more than their hits from a generation ago. (Even I didn’t care much for their 2010 release, Mojo, a bluesy psychedelic saga of an album that gave guitarist Mike Campbell permission to jam in any direction he wanted to, breaking their cardinal rule for success: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”)
Petty acknowledges as much. As he said in an interview in Men’s Journal recently,
[S]uccess is a dangerous thing. What great band hasn’t done some absolute shit? So I’m kind of to a point where, if I’m going to do it, I want it to be good. Otherwise there’s no point. Who needs another Tom Petty record?
Let me tell you: we needed this Tom Petty record. Hypnotic Eye is honest-to-God rock-and-roll, which is surprisingly rare these days. Its lyrics are timely and the melodies have grit. Petty’s got a gift for portraying downtrodden men who hold onto hope. At this point in his life, though, his hippie optimism has gotten hammered, and sometimes he’s just grateful to be noticed. My favorite song on the new album is “Forgotten Man,” with a Bo Diddley beat driving lines home like, “I feel like a four-letter word”:
Leading off their concert at Pine Knob (aka, DTE Energy Music Theatre, whatever) was the phenomenal Steve Winwood, who still sings like a teenager and can fill in for Eric Clapton in the Blind Faith songs with ease. By the time the headliners opened their set with the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” I was vibrating with glee. Tom Petty was in fine voice and good humor, exchanging licks with Mike Campbell on some of the most beautiful guitars on the planet. They even included some older material they don’t play at every show: the redneck howler “Spike” and “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me),” one of the best breakup songs ever written. Even the group of exceedingly tall, exceptionally drunk people who kept filing in and out of the row in front of us didn’t diminish the experience.
My favorite musician and his crackerjack band played some of my favorite songs in the world less than 50 feet away for a crowd of 15,000 … and also just for me. It was magic.
See you at the final stop on my summer Concertpalooza tour: The Black Keys at Joe Louis Arena with special guests Cage the Elephant on September 12.
P.S. Is your book club gearing up for the fall? Want to chat about reading, writing and rock and roll? I’d love to do a reading of Love and Other B-Sides in person or via Skype for you and your book-loving friends. Just reply to this post.