Friday, October 06, 2017
Tom Petty: "He was happy to be upstaged..."
But think of the staying power.
I started thinking of all the times in my life I've listened to "Runnin' Down a Dream" and how with each listen, the thrill of the song never fails to catch me. If it's on the radio or on shuffle, I never fail to turn it up as loud as it will go; certainly louder than is healthy for these 57-year old eardrums. Then I think of the other songs for which the same thing is true: "American Girl." "Here Comes My Girl." "I Need to Know." "Jammin' Me." "Free Fallin'." "Into the Great Wide Open." "Swingin'." "Learning to Fly." "You Wreck Me." "Out in the Cold." Many others.
People who know me know how important music has been to my life. I've always had a test to measure a song's true greatness - for a song to be truly great, it has to sound just as great on the 500th listen as it does on the first. Not every song meets that test. But Tom Petty had enough of them to fill up an entire album; perhaps a double album. Probably more than that.
But as Greil Marcus noted, "he was happy to be upstaged," whether it be while backing up Roger McGuinn at Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert, or setting the stage for what might have been Prince's most legendary performance, on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" during George Harrison's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. (Sheila O'Malley also nails this aspect of Petty in her great tribute).
Those weren't the only times. Think of all the songs when the thing you remember most about a Tom Petty song is the Mike Campbell guitar solo, or a gorgeous piano or organ line from Benmont Tench. I absolutely love this story from Petty, about playing with Johnny Cash during one of his sessions with Rick Rubin:
"Rick Rubin called me and said, "Hey, would you like to play bass on this Johnny Cash record I'm doing?" I said, "Aw shit, yeah, I love to play the bass." I started out as a bass player and did that for years before the Heartbreakers, where I switched to guitar. And of course any time I could work with John I'd be right there. To my surprise I turned up and Benmont Tench was there and Mike Campell and within a couple of days all the Heartbreakers were there, so we were pretty much Johnny Cash's backing band. And you know what? We've made a whole lot of records but I really think that was the truest Heartbreakers record I've ever heard. And it's still really one of the only ones that I just absolutely put on and listen to. John brought something out of this group that kept on amazing me day to day. I don't know how he did it."
Honest modesty is a sign of true greatness, and Tom Petty was modest even though there's no doubting that he deserved to be right up there with every one of those legends.