Tom Petty, Roaches, and the WWF
It was the summer of 1995. The setting: Rancho Cucamonga, California, home to inordinate amounts of collected smog and several quality Carl’s Jr. and Del Taco restaurants. Three college buddies and myself were only days into our job hocking pest control to half-naked retired men in Palm Springs and had already learned to say “spiders, ants and cockroaches” in Spanish. We were set up in a posh two-bedroom condo, with a wide array of hot tubs to choose from each evening and a wee little exercise room to boot. Within the complex, bikini-clad womenfolk tanning by the pool served as eye candy and, once night fell, we had HBO and consistent Beavis and Butthead Moron-a-thons on the tube. The lap of luxury was there for the sitting as we looked forward to bronzed tans, easy California women and making fat wads of dough in four months’ time. All was well.
My first mistake was lending Scott my copy of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers. It was one of many lapses of judgment on my part, but one I dreaded over and throughout the summer months. He could only claim one other CD as his, the reggae-tinged Mr. Labah-Labah himself, Shaggy’s Boombastic. Every morning, without fail, Dave and I were subject to either a cranked “In the Summertime”, “You Don’t Know How It Feels” or the sound of yelling coming from the other bedroom, which he shared with his very large brother.*
*(A sidenote: This was before WWF’s Smackdown seeped into the heads of the TV-watching mainstream, mind you. My roommate and I listened with sick fascination to the two of them scream obscenities while taking turns hurling one another across the room like human shot puts. There were no fake punches. No trampolines to break their falls. No menacing face paint to speak of. Much more entertaining than anything Hulk Hogan could pull off.)
It was all I could do to clamber to my own stereo system to blast any album I could get my hands on to drown it out (unless they were doing some of that high intensity wrestling I spoke of, which had us clambering to our walk-in closet, ears pressed to the walls like excited voyeurs). But that was then, this is now. While anything Shaggy still makes me wince, I remain a faithful stalwart of Tom Petty. He is one musician I have such a high amount of faith in, I purchase his albums as they are released, sometimes without hearing so much as a song off them beforehand. And, while the critics foamed at the mouth over “Full Moon Fever”, I hold my ground when I proclaim Wildflowers to be his strongest album out there.
Not because it’s modeled after those vinyl records of yesteryear, with a “Side 1” on its golden top to boot. Not because it’s got all the words to all the songs printed in its liner notes, leaving no question in the mind of his groupies (c’mon, he’s got to have at least a couple!) as to what he’s singing. It’s the music. Good music. Songs that could have been emblazoned all over the radio, but hedged on the song that could have been a Grateful Dead epic, the lightly countrified, drug-friendly ditty “You Don’t Know How It Feels”. If you haven’t heard it on the radio, you’ve heard it played at a NBA game during a time-out.
Nobody knows just where to place Tom, largely because he doesn’t look the part of the airbrushed musician (suppose he ever hangs out with Elvis Costello or Barry Manilow?). He still looks like the shaggy, blonde-haired boy who once worked the graveyard shift in a . . . graveyard. While he writes all of his own songs and consistently makes good albums—both with and sans Heartbreakers—it seems his ho-hum, aw-shucks type personality and look cause him to be passed by the wayside almost regularly.
Anybody care to pass on to the mainstream that he’s not going away?
Wildflowers, while criticized as being uneven and even a bit on the produced-sounding side of things, is a fun album, one that is gleefully scattered across the board. Every one of its tracks—save the somber “Wake Up Time” perhaps—could rest comfortably among the peanut shells of a seedy bar, whether its customers see fit to wear cowboy hats or Birkenstocks.
Petty’s oddly pleasing, nasally voice transcends across folk, pop, country, and blues—kinda like Dylan does if you’re one for comparing. While delivering his almost-expected light folk rock fare, barely skipping along—“Wildflowers”, “Time to Move On”, “Don’t Fade on Me”—his ripping blues are each welcome surprises. I could have sworn “Honey Bee” was a ‘60s blues cover the first time I heard it but, alas, ‘tis a creation of his own. It putters along like an easier-on-the-ears, guitar-heavy Thorogood number.
She like to call me king bee
she like to buzz ‘round my tree
I call her honey bee
I’m a man in a trance
I’m a boy in short pants
When I see my honey bee
You almost wonder if Petty ever cracks up while he’s writing his songs. I’d bet on it.
Some songs are just too good not to have been discovered by the public, but they seem likely to stay that way. The ballads “Only a Broken Heart” and “To Find a Friend” are both gems, both facing unlucky-in-love subjects with a smile. And, hey, you have got to give Petty credit for the latter—Ringo Starr shows up to play drums on it, though he never reappears throughout the rest of the album. Way to give an out-of-work Brit a job there, Tommy.
“You Wreck Me” and “A Higher Place” also rank high on listenability. Petty is at the top of his game, but even he knows his place in the grand scheme of the music world, evident in the chorus of “It’s Good to Be King”. When he sings “Yeah, the world would swing if I were king / Can I help it if I still dream time to time,” you can’t help but think he’s singing from his own experience.
I skipped town a month before my contract was up in the grand Inland Empire. I’d met one girl the entire summer, I had an impressive farmer tan and I fell way short of making my expected $40,000. With $400 in my pocket and my two bags stuffed in the back of a friend’s truck, I headed back to Utah and breathed a sigh of relief. Even played Wildflowers on the way back, no doubt leaving Scott’s brother subjected to all things “boombastic” for the remainder of the summer. And leaving was the best idea I’d had in three months.
// Notes from the Road
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