Good to Be King

Tom Petty's everyman act.

Elvis had Memphis, Dylan will always have New York City in the '60s, and the Boss has the Jersey Shore. No matter what corner of the globe each member of America's male musical pantheon turns up in, their music maintains a sense of place—roots to their varying strains of rock.

Tom Petty, on the other hand, suffers no such burden. Beyond a smattering of hard-core devotees, hardly anyone knows he's from Gainesville (Fla.) unless they're from Gainesville, too. And aside from incidental mention, neither that city nor its matron state plays a central role lyrically for Petty. By declining to tether his songs geographically (save for an ongoing affection for Southern California, which is transient at its core), Petty has attempted, consciously or otherwise, to speak to America at large for the past 30 years—a daunting task in a nation where every county has its own particular cultural abnormalities. Herein, he's managed to slip through the cracks and, in so doing, succeed spectacularly.

Great musicians typically share one thing in common: boundless creative range. They can serve up the high hard heat as well as paint the corners delicately with off-speed stuff. Yet in nurturing his everyman act, the notoriously humble Petty has religiously and apolitically pitched to the middle of the plate, perhaps explaining how he's managed to keep a relatively low profile in the midst of selling over 50 million albums.

Exempting the pioneering Presley, Dylan and Springsteen have chosen to genre-jump liberally, all the while plying the peaks and valleys of their emotional experience. Meanwhile, Petty's songs, while topically dynamic, seem more even-keeled. Petty never appears fit for a straitjacket, just a little bent out of shape at times; and his compositions are the portrait of consistency and intimacy—never any bigger than the listeners themselves.

While these are attributes that tend not to break an artist from the pack, they also serve as a lake cabin of sorts for those who've been led down a perilous path. As sometime collaborator Stevie Nicks once told Billboard magazine: "Tom Petty's songs are like a great book that you revisit when you need help."

Conversely, Petty is also one of the few performers who can sap the uncertainty out of psychedelic drugs. Anyone who's seen Petty live knows that the mind- blowing "Don't Come Around Here No More" can turn even the brownest acid bright yellow. This complex, deliciously layered track is something of an anomaly for Petty—a kaleidoscopic wink at the sunshine daydream. But by and large, Petty's left the Haight-Ashbury set to itself. Someone's got to carry the red states, after all.

There have been rampant rumors that the current run Petty's on with his Heartbreakers may be the band's last full-bore tour. Meantime, Petty's released a charmingly melancholy new solo album, Highway Companion, that's as evocative as 1994's splendid Wildflowers. The two strongest tracks on the new release are ballads: "Damaged by Love," which explores the passionate pitfalls of young love; and "Down South," which pays lyrical homage to the late Warren Zevon ("Gonna see my daddy's mistress/Gonna buy back her forgiveness/Pay off every witness") while melodically resembling "Walls," the hit single from the 1996 She's the One soundtrack, an Ed Burns–helmed chick flick for thirtysomething guys that Petty scored all by his lonesome. Yet when Petty lets the gasket blow midalbum with "Big Weekend," he does so sans nuance. Hence, the very literal weekend-warrior chorus: "I need a big weekend/Kick up the dust/Yeah, a big weekend/If you don't run, you rust." Mike Reno only wishes he could achieve such lyrical grace.

Still, Highway Companion is a deliberately small album, which is de rigueur for Petty, who's never been one to make any grand proclamations about the state of the union. Rather, his songs might focus on a wayward couple in a town, population 30,000, hashing out their differences at twilight over buck-fifty Buds in a basement saloon a block off State Street. If and when they kiss and make up, maybe they wander down the hill to the fairgrounds to dance, drink, and strip in the bushes. Or maybe they end it once and for all, then and there. We can all relate, which is what Petty presumably wants us to do.

mseely@seattleweekly.com

 
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