Tom Petty and George Harrison Were Two Sides of the Same Bicentennial Coin

Megan Volpert

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Thirty Three & 1/3, and self-destruction in the Spirit of '76.

Tom Petty saved my life. From my grandfather, I inherited two things that will never go away: a lively, curious mind and a debilitating GI disease. The intellect was evident before I could even walk; the ulcerative colitis didn’t show up until my mid-20s. It’s a painful thing to be shitting blood 30 times a day. Drop somebody in the desert for two or three days and they could probably retain more water than I could during a flare.

Most people don’t know that the body’s automated processes have their own nervous system with a direct link to the brain that remembers to perform them. This includes your entire GI tract. The mind and the gut are two parts of the body that have no off switch. Curiosity is a hunger and hunger is a curiosity, but you can burn out on both. You want to feel a type of pain that you have literally never felt before, just jack up your GI real good for a little while. You can go blind; you can taste colors; you can die. Worst trip I’ve ever been on and it took a long time to come down. "Coming down is the hardest thing," as Petty would say. He knows and he puts it simply. That’s why his music ultimately put me back on the right road for a good trip.

We could spend a couple of pages drawing out a solid simile from the White House to autoimmune diseases. Hell, the American idea of independence in 1976 is nothing if not the excruciating devotional song of a body under attack from itself, eating the imagined enemies within until the whole body vanishes. Petty’s first album came right on the heels of the Bicentennial, when a nation still haunted by the specters of Nixon and Vietnam decided that maybe Jimmy Carter had some answers and that punk rock threatened to stomp the manicured lawns of the suburbs. The kids and the war needed sweeping under a rug on which Uncle Sam could proudly stand. That autoimmune response is in our Founding Fathers’ genes.

Let's not dwell too long on literal and cultural self-destruction, here. Rather, in the vein of peace, love and life, let's examine the philosophical propositions for the practice of everyday living within Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ self-titled debut, because when I was laid low by my liquifying insides and found no respite but in the ugly honey of my own death, this fucking album was there for me and it kept me from doing the dirty deed. This first volley of Petty’s, released on the 9th of November, compares to an album released by Petty’s one true hero on the 19th of November: George Harrison’s Thirty Three & 1/3. Beyond the synchronicity of their albums dropping at the same historical moment, my love of Petty runs parallel to Petty’s love of Harrison.

Everybody knows Harrison ran deep. He took no end of shit on behalf of Krishna. Still, most people think the album title refers to a record’s revs per minute, that it’s all just rock 'n' roll in the end. It isn’t. The title refers to the age he was when the album was released. It’s at this point I should mention that it’s also my own current age. Petty had just turned 26 -- the age I was when I first came down with the fever from which only his album gave my gut relief. Personal experiences aside, similarities between these two men are easy to come by at this numbers game.

They’re both notoriously private and crabby people with an ax to grind against the music machine and they both have a keen enough sense of humor to do it with a little poise. Petty wrote an entire album, The Last DJ, to make fun of corporate music, and a surprising number of people still don’t know that Harrison put together a film company expressly to executive produce Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Petty doesn’t ever say much about religion, but that doesn’t mean there’s no church in his songs. He uses road metaphors a lot to disguise it, as in "King’s Highway", or his tribute to late band member Howie Epstein, who died of drug-related complications, in "Running Man’s Bible". Harrison regularly eschewed metaphor during his solo career, often fielding criticism for his overtly preachy lyrics on All Things Must Pass and Living in the Material World. And a dozen years after the Bicentennial, Petty and Harrison will be performing in the Traveling Wilburys together, joining forces with Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, and Bob Dylan, who is himself universally agreed upon as one of music’s best philosophers.

Petty and Harrison met briefly for the first time in 1974. Harrison was doing some things over at Leon Russell’s place and Petty was helping out around the house -- because Lord knows, as all roads through politics lead to a Kennedy, so too do all roads through rock music lead to Leon Russell. Petty reports that Harrison was very nice to him.

Two tracks on Petty’s debut album were actually first cut by Petty alone, both playing and producing, just fiddling with the boards in Leon’s studio when nobody else was home. Russell helped found Shelter records with Denny Cordell, though Cordell did the legwork for Petty’s first album. Russell had known Harrison forever, doing the Concert for Bangla Desh and so on well past the Beatles and well into the Traveling Wilburys. The other guy Harrison and Petty had in common was poor Jim Gordon. Gordon did a bunch of Harrison’s solo work and then played drums on one of the tracks for Petty’s debut. An improperly diagnosed and mismanaged schizophrenic since at least the late '70s, he’s now serving life in a mental health facility outside Sacramento for stabbing his mother to death in 1983.

The recording of Thirty Three and 1/3 was stymied by Harrison’s bad case of hepatitis, but in his case it would seem to be more about sobriety than autoimmunity. It’s well-known that his most immediate previous album, Dark Horse, was fueled by excess and abuse as Harrison attempted to cope with the critical backlash against his moralizing lyrics and move on after his divorce from Pattie Boyd. He also came down with a bad case of copyright infringement, initially resulting in a huge debt for "My Sweet Lord" to The Chiffon’s "He’s So Fine", but ultimately raging on for more than 20 years as one of the longest litigations in US history, only to conclude what everyone already knew: Allen Klein managed the Beatles like a scumbag. So Harrison had all this ill to shake off while Petty was lighting a fire under himself and at the end, each delivered unto the huddle masses in November a truly spiritual triumph parlayed through ten tracks of unerring guitar.

Clocking in at a mean 2:29, the first track on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is "Rockin’ Around (With You)". This song is one of two that co-credits guitarist Mike Campbell, because Mike’s riff with the long singular note at the beginning of each line is what structured the lyrics Petty wrote. At first listen, it sounds like whining. That long note draws out a hold on the first word of each line, which is almost always "why", "I" or "you". But the longer I listened to it, the more open the vowel sounds became and the wider my mouth got trying to sing it loud. And coming out of Petty’s nose the way it does, it begins to sound like a mantra. I mean, this song has a total of 30 unique words in it, and this long note occurs fully 11 times. Its entrancing tones begin to sound like Harrison’s "Wah-Wah" a little bit.

Meanwhile, track one on Thirty Three and 1/3--whose fraction at the end there is transformed into an "Om" on the cover art, by the way--draws out the ends of the each line, leaving "Woman Don’t You Cry for Me" as a sort of oppositional mirror image of Petty’s opening track. Petty is latching onto a lady while Harrison is aiming for detachment from one with a whopping 59unique words in an equally tight 3:18.

Indeed, they both search for the same level of spiritual connectivity on their second track. Petty wrote "Breakdown" in one quick sitting on a break between sessions at Shelter’s Hollywood studio in the middle of the night. The band played it the next day, with some versions stretching out past the seven-minute mark. Petty had every intention of stripping it down to whatever lick worked best, but Mike hadn’t played that famous descending riff until near the end. The band woke up in the middle of the night, came back in and played a tight take around Mike’s one perfect lick, and that was the 2:43 cut that went on the album.

Petty reports that he was going for the drum beat on one of the Beatles’ records from 1963, but he explained it to the band wrong and "Breakdown" was the result. "All I’ve Got to Do" was a Lennon-McCartney job, but the quietest Beatle picked up that nasal chant from Petty’s opening track and ran it into a proper devotional. That’s the constant question in Harrison’s lyrics: is it Krishna or Olivia? He's writing about god and/or about a woman with equal reverence in the same language. Petty says, "something inside you is feeling like I do", and Harrison says, "my feelings call to you now". The urgency of this "now" requires some emotional permission to break down, to say "now I’m standing here / can’t you see" or to say "move me toward thee with each pace" because these two men are two sides of the same coin.

Petty’s third track is "Hometown Blues", which owes everything to the famous Duck Dunn sessions bass for Stax, who backed up everybody from Albert King to the King. The demo track for this song was recorded at Russell’s house, probably just because Dunn was hanging out and Petty wanted to harness some of that Memphis for a moment. He called in two Mudcrutch guys and the Heartbreakers dubbed over later on. So Petty had Duck Dunn while Harrison was using the great Willie Weeks for the third time in a run of six albums for his third track, "Beautiful Girl".

Petty and Harrison were both desperate to get the girl, but achieve varying levels of success. Harrison had begun writing the song several years before about his first wife, but by the time the song was released, they were filing for divorce and he was writing the lyrics about Olivia, instead. Petty would remain with his first wife for 20 more years, almost double the length of Harrison’s first marriage. His ode to scene queens and screaming girls is actually a sort of a keen portrait of Harrison’s first wife, whom he met on set for A Hard Day’s Night while she was between modeling gigs. It also wonderfully downplays Petty’s own career, commenting to the surviving members of Mudcrutch and Duck Dunn playing with him at Russell’s that night that it "might not last, but it’s no big deal", referring to either their improvised jam session or his big chance at a strong debut or both. And both did last, as did Harrison’s love for Olivia.

Sometimes it seems the stakes are high and sometimes it seems they’re low, but Petty and Harrison agree that the outcomes are no surprise in either case. Petty forgives his flaky lady, because hey, everybody’s trying to beat those blues. Harrison, meanwhile, is shaken to his core by this grand love.

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