Tom Petty and George Harrison Were Two Sides of the Same Bicentennial Coin
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Thirty Three & 1/3, and self-destruction in the Spirit of '76.
The Legacy of That Commemorative Coin
Petty knows that feeling, too. He runs with it in "The Wild One, Forever". There are only a few hours to share with the girl, but capriciousness has ripples that affect a lifetime. There are two odd things about this song. For one, Ron Blair played the cello on it. But Blair’s a bass player; he doesn’t know a damn thing about the cello. Still, there it is if you listen very closely to the track, giving the whole thing a resonant shimmer it otherwise wouldn’t have -- that odd little through-note a mere inch away from dissonance that Harrison brought back with him from India many years before. Though it only runs 3:03 on the album, I’ve seen bootlegs from live shows that double down on it with ease.
That may not sound like a lot for a former Beatle, but it's about much more than the money. It’s the principle of the thing, which Petty would also come to know too well. While Harrison battled endlessly over a single song, Petty would have repeated smaller skirmishes with the recording industry over the same number of years. First ABC Records transferred his song rights to MCA Records without so much as asking him, then MCA Records wanted to raise the price of his next album as soon as he got a good bit of height on the charts, and finally, he wrote all of The Last DJ about the greed of the industry -- no doubt bolstered by Harrison’s previous outspoken compositions on this same subject.
Harrison did his best to laugh about it, even though it’s clear he also wanted to ice-pick MCA Records in the eye. He was running around with the Monty Python people and asked Eric Idle to produce the video for "This Song". It appeared on Saturday Night Live just before Thanksgiving, and charted in the US because Americans love a good ice-picking. Only two tracks on the album are longer than "This Song", because once Harrison got riled up to something truly funny, it was hard to get him to "cheer down", as Olivia was fond of saying.
Side one, final track. That’s the anchor bit there, you know. This is an LP you’ll have to flip over, so the last track on the front side had better be good enough to get your ass out of that chair. It’s on a serious mission. Petty’s goes for a slight 2:24 and Harrison’s goes just :27 longer, neither of them interested in the three mark because the principles here are sweet with brevity. Petty judges that he can no longer play "Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll" because the voice is so juvenile. He was aiming for Chuck Berry but ended up closer to Buddy Holly.
First verse: we partied all night and I quit my job. Second verse: parents suck and school does, too. Chorus! Third verse: I am emotional about this and am going to assert myself. Chorus! It peaked at #36 in the UK and wasn’t even issued in America as a single, despite representing everything that Americans stood for at that moment in history: the disdain for responsibility and authority explicit in the rise of punk rock, the yearning to fly free into something a little cooler implicit in the defeat of Gerald Ford, and a fierce sense of self that supplants everything else broken in grand patriotic style.
But you can’t say its rebellious spirit is proto-punk. Nope, part of the problem for this band was in the brand -- they weren’t punk or new wave or alternative or anything else specific enough, and thereby they must be commercial genre. Because seriously, as the song states right there in the chorus: anything that’s rock ‘n’ roll is fine. Petty is agnostic on the cornucopia of sub-compartments lining the belly of the beast that answers to the name of rock ‘n’ roll. And Harrison, in his slightly older and infinitely wiser way, agrees on "See Yourself". He ends side one with a series of simple juxtapositions like killing a fly or turning it loose. He’s all for doing the harder work of letting go of those little annoyances. After all, "it’s easier to criticize somebody else / than to see yourself".
The boss, the school, the parents are all little annoyances to Harrison. Petty is still green and focusing there, doing his best to seem chill through his dismissiveness of everything. Harrison says that’s the easy way out. Petty eventually comes around to this understanding, so he doesn’t play the song live anymore because it’s endorsing a teenager’s cowardly rebellion.
The tougher rebels hold out for self-awareness or as Harrison clarifies on track six, "It’s What You Value". This song appears to be about cars, playful in its honkey-tonk and sax appeals. Harrison is making fun of people who drive souped-up autos, who value that kind of speed and style. As the quietest Beatle has often made plain, particularly in his mockery of McCartney, he doesn’t value a show stealer.
Let it be known that Harrison was a collector of fine automobiles, the clearest motorhead among the four Fabs. He once wrote a hilarious three-page letter to one of his buyers about the proper seven-step way to wash his car. He had a Benz, a Jag, a Ferrari, an Aston Martin, and a custom McLaren F1 that was built to race. It could do 230mph and was chassis #25 out of only 100 manufactured. So this song really cuts either way--the title being both what the driver would say about his car and what an enlightened person would reply to the driver about his car--and is all the more funny if you grant that Harrison knew full well the pose he was striking, holding up his own hypocritical fantasy of being a race car driver. Harrison is both dudes in the conversation.
Petty’s opening track on side two is also a conversational blame game. "Strangered in the Night" takes on race relations, first as a confrontation between a black man and a white man, then through the white man’s wife confronting the black man for shooting her husband, who dumbly brought a knife to a gun fight. Seems the black guy had an ancient beef with the white guy, where the beef was significant to the black guy but the white guy may not have remembered it. There was a scuffle, a crowd gathered, the white guy dropped his knife, the black guy shot the white guy’s head off, everybody ran, then the white widow cursed at the shooter. The chorus just rhymes "light" with "night" repeatedly, also a black / white thing.
The story is less than clear and our judgment of the crimes perpetrated has no reasonable basis in either direction. Petty’s title says it all, the two sides were strangered--a verb meaning the grieved parties’ complaints were made foreign to each other. We don’t know if the white guy deserved it or if the black guy went to jail afterward. It’s just a violent incident, caused by our failure to understand what other people value.
I bet this song isn’t on too many of Petty’s set lists because some of those sets are played for some who’ll read it as precisely the opposite of what Petty intended. That’s the terrifying joke of striving for ambiguity; you might be misunderstood. Petty got a good dose of that touring the Southern Accents album, where a lot of southern audiences wanted to gloss the ironies in Petty’s tone and keep to the lyrics’ perceived literal message of heritage pride.
Of course, shooting straight for clarity holds horrors all its own, which Harrison constantly experienced during his solo career. Harrison’s seventh track is a cover of Cole Porter’s "True Love". Lots of other people did it first, from Bing Crosby to Elvis to the Everly Brothers. Harrison’s version is an uptempo pop devotional, expressing gratitude for the guardian angel watching over him and Olivia.
Petty’s seventh track also involves a third man in a romance. The other lover in "Fooled Again (I Don‘t Like It)" isn’t exactly a welcome addition to his relationship. This was the only song Petty recorded in the old Warner’s studio, because the place was run by iron-fisted grown-ups who took proper lunch breaks and closed up shop every day at a reasonable hour. In a song of 29 lines, nine of those lines are Petty just howling "I don’t like it" over and over again. The third man of the studio got in between him and his music that time, no doubt. It’s hard to shoot straight with a third man between yourself and your target. Sometimes you have to rise above the fray to see more clearly.
Harrison and Petty become myth-builders on their eighth tracks. "Pure Smokey" marked the second and more soulful time that Harrison paid tribute to Smokey Robinson. Interestingly, this song was one of the few instances where he chose to ditch the slide in favor of electric soloing, which was overdubbed later. Harrison's guitar work grew momentarily more precise, while Petty’s got more slippery and resonant on the deceptively country jam "Mystery Man". It was recorded live, no dubs, at the A&M studio where Charlie Chaplin used to film. Petty would go around poking his nose into everybody else’s studio. He saw Johnny Mathis there, and Mathis would later be doing Smokey Robinson covers while Petty and Harrison were rehearsing together as the Traveling Wilburys. Harrison attributes mythic status to Robinson for his musical accomplishments. Petty imagines mythic status for himself as the anonymous sideman on the arm of his lady love.
Again we have two sides of the same coin: a legacy based on one’s own success and a legacy based on everyday support for someone else’s success, and eagerness to serve a legend in either case.
There are the legends we package as people, and then others we cement through place. Harrison’s penultimate track on Thirty Three and 1/3 is "Crackerbox Palace", the affectionate nickname given to the Los Angeles home of surreal, proto-Kesey performance artist Lord Buckley. Harrison was given an opportunity to visit the house of his comedic idol, but once the song was written and he could film a video for it with comedian Eric Idle, he chose another house in which to shoot: his own. Harrison’s Friar Park has legendary gardens, lovingly maintained by Harrison himself for a long time. The house previously belonged to oddball attorney Sir Frank Crisp, who also adored gardening and was a prominent figure in the Royal Microscopical Society. They were men of like mind, and Harrison once cribbed some lyrics from an engraving Crisp had put on the property, "ring out the old, ring in the new / Ring out the false, ring in the true".
That song charted and so did "Crackerbox Palace". The tone and tempo are light-hearted, but the video reveals something more sinister. The mansion is filled with vampires, surgeons, cops, priests, stern-faced nursemaids, lurking elves, skeletons, razor wire, gargoyles -- you get the idea. It’s ultimately depicted as a gothic menagerie or an insane asylum, really creepy to watch and then impossible to forget the next time you’re hearing the song on your headphones.
"Luna" is the song that Petty, trapped inside the oppressive and ever-watchful circus of Crackerbox Palace, might sing to alleviate the burden of being imprisoned there. The original demo was cut live in a church in Tulsa, just a basic chord progression and totally improvised lyrics. It was Shelter’s other studio and they were ripping it out, so Petty went down there at the last minute to squeeze in a free session. But it reads like a meditation visualization: white light cutting through the sky to pool around the singer, gliding and floating and freeing into weightlessness the mind of a trapped man. It’s a tossed off little song, dreamy of setting, Petty just absolutely falling back on first instincts for a quick minute. And his gut goes to the same type of images that would ground Harrison’s peace of mind for the better half of his life.
The final song on Harrison’s album was the one song that he felt was as good as "Something" that’d been done for the Beatles. Indeed, there’s something in the way "Learning How to Love You" is written that attracts me like no other song on this album. It’s the first three lines: "While all is still in the night / and silence starts its flow / become or disbelieve me". Let’s unpack what that means.
The first line refers to the type of tranquility sought and found by the singer in Petty’s "Luna". It’s the hour of the wolf, everything unmoving but clearly present, prime time for Transcendental Meditation technique. The second line forms a twin set of koans, briefly casting great doubt on the validity of the first line. For one, to flow requires action while all being still implies the opposite. The lyrics therefore posit an unmoved moving, which is a performative contradiction.
For two, within the second line itself, silence cannot start to flow because silence is an absence and flow requires presence. The lyrics therefore posit a present absence, another supposed impossibility. These are no more or less guiding ideas than Linji’s famously scary one, "if you meet the Buddha, kill him". Why would you murder what you worship? These are mysteries of essence. Your two options in the face of this entirely gray area, according to Harrison, are to "become or disbelieve me". If you are willing to become him, you will be left alone with your heart (another space for contradiction), learning how to love. It’s such an interesting pairing of verbs. Become is to grow. Disbelieve is only to think.
Moving on to meditations of the final song of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "American Girl", Petty reports that this song has nothing to do with a college girl who jumped out the window in Gainesville. He wrote it in Malibu while listening to the highway noises and mentally transforming them into ocean sounds. Another classic meditation visualization. This American girl was "raised on promises" and still "had one little promise she was gonna keep". Wondering what it was? Because most of the fans believe it was suicide, not exactly the American Dream. "It was kind of cold that night", she was "alone" and "desperate", but above all, "she was an American girl". And that’s it, man, with the present absence of that twisted little annoying pause between "she was" and what exactly she was.
The song didn’t even chart in the United States and now Petty’s got to play it at every show for the rest of his life or suffer the angry mob. There’s a whiff of nihilism in there somewhere. Rolling Stone said it’s one of "The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time". In fact, this gem of the Spirit of ’76 is ranked #76.
More than 20 years later, the Strokes plainly stole Mike Campbell’s gorgeous "American Girl" riff for their pretty lame hit single of 2001, "Last Nite". Petty thought the fact that they admitted it in print and in public was so funny, he didn’t even sue them for copyright infringement. Indeed, not only did he not seek to ruin them, he asked them to open for him and the Heartbreakers a few years later in 2006. Cheeky bastard. At the end of that tour, Julian Casablancas announced that the Strokes were going to take a long break. The break lasted a little longer than Jimmy Carter got to be the President.
The Bicentennial year was a unique moment, presided over by a pair of musicians whose mutual best instinct was to shepherd listeners to higher ground, away from our self-destructive tendencies. Petty and Harrison had some smart recommendations that didn't ever quite take in the mainstream. By the time the '70swere over, Carter's military hadn't dropped a bomb or fired a bullet, but he was not going to win reelection. Harrison would be on the brink of releasing his self-titled album, so close to his favorite ideas that he gave his own name to it, but it was going to be one of weakest chart showings of his entire solo career. Petty would be riding high on the incredible success of Damn the Torpedoes, but he had to fight tooth and nail to make it the way he wanted.
By 1980, everyone was exhausted. But in 1976, it felt like curious minds stood a real chance at a better way of life. And today? Perhaps we need Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Thirty Three and 1/3 more than ever.
Megan Volpert is the author of six books on communication and popular culture, including two Lambda Literary Award finalists. She has been teaching high school English in Atlanta for the better part of a decade and was 2014 Teacher of the Year. She edited the American Library Association-honored anthology This Assignment Is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching. Read more at MeganVolpert.com.