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An appreciation of Tom Petty: A dozen classic cuts

One of the best ways to remember Tom Petty, one of the greatest rockers of a generation, is to celebrate some of the amazing music he created.

by John M. Borack

 Tom Petty, 1950-2017

Tom Petty, 1950-2017

With the tragic loss of Tom Petty still fresh in the minds of music fans worldwide, it seems that one of the best ways to remember one of the greatest rockers of this generation is to celebrate some of the amazing music he created, both solo and with his Heartbreakers. With that in mind, here’s a quick look at twelve classic Tom Petty sides that are not always mentioned when discussing his finest work.

The tunes that follow are from all periods of his fruitful career and showcase the versatility that Petty consistently displayed as he moved easily between bluesy musings and heartfelt ballads to propulsive power pop and his own brand of straight-up rock ‘n’ roll. Bear in mind that this is by no means a “best of” list – no twelve-song list could possibly contain all the wonderful music Petty produced, and besides, does anyone really to read how timeless and engaging Petty’s hits such as “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Free Fallin’,” “American Girl” or “I Won’t Back Down” are?

“I Need to Know” (From You’re Gonna Get It, 1978) – Just missing the top 40 when released as a single in ’78, this fast-paced, insistent ditty is a power pop classic. This would have been a career highlight for many artists, and it was certainly a highlight of Petty’s sophomore release.

“What Are You Doin’ in My Life” (From Damn the Torpedoes, 1979) – Sort of a musical son of “I Need to Know,” it’s the tale of a pesky groupie that Petty and the Heartbreakers deliver with typical aplomb as he spits out hilarious couplets such as “You’re the last woman in the world that thrills me/now you’ve got my girlfriend trying to kill me.”

“Kings Road” (From Hard Promises, 1981) – In which Petty ruminates about being lost somewhere in England among “some boys, some girls, some I don’t know.” It comes off like the Byrds with a little more of a kick, and provides each member of the band with ample opportunities to shine. Check out a great 1981 live version from Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show, available on YouTube, as well as a guffaw-inducing interview where Snyder refers to Petty as “the leader of the Heartbreaks” (twice) and “Thomas.”

“You Got Lucky” (From Long After Dark, 1982) – An uncharacteristically synthesizer-soaked number, also notable for Petty’s lyrical evisceration of an ex. The Mad Max-themed music video for the song was pretty…ummm…out there (in a good way), and garnered tons of MTV airplay back in the day.

“Jammin’ Me” (From Let Me Up [I’ve Had Enough], 1987) – Featuring a memorable riff, one of Petty’s most spirited vocal performances and typically great ensemble playing from the Heartbreakers, this tale of media overload still rings true (sadly) thirty years after the fact. Co-written by Petty, Mike Campbell and Bob Dylan.

“The Apartment Song” (From Full Moon Fever, 1989) – A great little pop song that is highlighted by some Stonesy guitar licks and a palpable Buddy Holly vibe, particularly during the brief instrumental break.

“You and I Will Meet Again” (From Into the Great Wide Open, 1991) – With a smidgen of Jeff Lynne’s trademark production style (he co-produced it with Petty and Mike Campbell), this one takes on a deeper meaning after Petty’s death, with lyrics such as “I won't say goodbye, my friend/for you and I will meet again.” The minute-long instrumental build at the close of the song helps send it into the stratosphere.

“Honey Bee” (From Wildflowers, 1994) – A stinging, blues-based mid-tempo number with gloriously loud guitars, the insistent main riff drives this five minutes of primal, snarling garage-rock. Some wonderfully nonsensical, non-sequitur lyrics that reference juju beads, the King of Pomona, a Rambler sedan, and Honey Bee kissing Petty’s third cousin (twice!) are the icing on the cake.

"Swingin’” (From Echo, 1999) – A mid-tempo, harmonica-laced, bluesy romp of a story-song, the five-and-a-half minute track finds Petty singing about a girl who “went down swingin’,” and name checks Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, as well as Sammy Davis and boxer Sonny Liston in the process.

“Free Girl Now” (From Echo, 1999) – Set to a slammin’, four-on-the-floor drumbeat, Petty’s tale of a girl emancipated from a less-than-rosy relationship rocks quite righteously. Fave lyric: “I remember when you were his dog/I remember him touching your butt.”

“Square One” (From Highway Companion, 2006) – A gorgeous, fragile tale of redemption that may or may not be autobiographical, Petty sings this one so delicately (backed by just a sparse guitar) that it’s quite moving.

"Damaged by Love” (From Highway Companion, 2006) – A low-key winner that uses the title of a Byrds tune for its opening lyric (“She Don’t Care About Time”), “Damaged By Love” evokes sadness and heartbreak through abstract imagery in a way that only the greatest songwriters can. Mike Campbell’s brief guitar solo is simple and elegant and the devastating final verse – “Eyes down at my door/and she holds out her hand/I love you so deep/but you can't understand” - caps off the emotionally charged number perfectly.

A vinyl memoriam to Tom Petty