By: Mike Gastineau
I pulled into Seattle for the first time on June 23rd, 1991, the day before I started my new job as a producer at KJR. I stayed at a hotel in Southcenter and the next day I drove into Seattle and began what would be an amazing journey.
As I steered my car onto I-5 that morning I was listening to one of the local rock radio stations. The DJ mentioned that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had a new album coming out in about a week. He then played a song off the album called “Makin’ Some Noise.”
The song tells the quick story of the rise of a musician who starts out so poor he’s working a day job to supplement his music habit, then fights the good fight to stardom, and by the third verse is sitting (presumably in a nice home) on his deck listening to someone far away play a guitar. The song ends with the protagonist jumping in and accompanying his unseen and unknown guitar playing friend from “across the canyon”.
I loved the song and was excited to hear about the new album. Like many people I had burned a hole in my Full Moon Fever disc over the past two years (including almost daily playing in my Dodge Daytona on the two week trip from Virginia to the west coast).
The new album was titled Into the Great Wide Open and featured lots of great songs about taking chances, saying goodbye, putting things behind you, and traveling to take on new challenges. I didn’t realize it at first but it was an appropriate musical metaphor for where my life was at the time.
Soon, I had procured an apartment in Ballard. After paying first, last, and a deposit, I had about $500 to my name. I used $10 of that to buy a lawn chair from Ernst which was my only furniture for about two weeks while I waited for my things to arrive. I had a beat up old portable radio/cassette player which became my only companion as I spent four or five hours a night listening to music. By this point I’d heard several other tracks from the new Petty disc and resolved to buy it when I had the money and (more importantly) when my stereo finally arrived.
Like many people of my age who love songs, Tom Petty was an integral part of my personal music heritage. His first album came out my sophomore year in high school. His second came out a few weeks before I graduated. The next two were released while I was in college. These are formative years in the development of anyone’s musical taste. When you’re young, music is more personal and it seems to matter more.
I’m lucky in that I never outgrew those feelings.
I’d be lying if I said I always ran right out and bought every new Petty release but that didn’t matter because his music was always around. His songs, new and old, were played incessantly on road trips and at parties, in dorm rooms and on the radio, on dates and with the fellas. Looking back now what strikes me most is how his music resonated with just about everyone.
I don’t ever remember hearing anyone say they didn’t like Tom Petty. I’m sure, somewhere, someone fitting that bill exists. But for the most part Petty’s music was played loud and lovingly by just about everyone.
Like a warm, strong wave in the ocean, Petty’s music washed over me and gently sucked me in over the years. I always liked him, but I didn’t come to fully appreciate what a talent he was until the past decade or so. The sheer volume of his work and the quality of everything he did was mind-bending. The hits are epic and will be listened to as long as music is played. But his songwriting was about way more than hits.
Find a copy of Nobody’s Children and put it on. The album is a career-spanning group of castaways and leftovers from recording sessions. None of the songs ever got radio airplay and they’re all great. I’ve got a playlist I’ve built that features 27 Petty songs that are obscure deep cuts or B sides of singles or bonus tracks on international releases. Every song like that, the songs he did that didn’t get a lot of light shined on them, are well written and typical of his work contain interesting stories about interesting characters out on the edges of American life.
The song “Home” (attached to this story) is an example. It was a bonus track on a release of a deluxe edition of his solo album Highway Companion. It’s got a mysterious vibe to it and the protagonist is in some kind of trouble from the jump (“left town in a hurry, blackmailed a judge and a jury”). It’s an obscure nugget of work that’s not currently available except through posted digital editions. But it’s a fantastic song.
Petty was a musician’s musician. The list of people who sought him out as a collaborator is proof of that (Dylan, Harrison, and Cash to name three).
Another thing to add to his legacy is the phenomenal work he did as a curator and disc jockey on his Sirius XM station. He was so clearly passionate about the music being played there and telling the stories behind the songs. The suits in the radio business have to a large degree stifled their announcers to the point that the great American disc jockey barely exists anymore. If you want to hear how almost every disc jockey sounded like in the 60s and 70s, listen to an episode of “Buried Treasure” on Tom Petty Radio. The Last DJ, indeed.
It’s interesting to note that Petty released so much great music but never had an album reach number one on the charts until his final release, Hypnotic Eye. That disc was part of a great late-career creative flurry that included the Heartbreakers album Mojo as well as both Mudcrutch discs.
There’s a song on Hypnotic Eye, called “Shadow People”. Recently on his Sirius XM radio show I heard him talking about the song. He mentioned that it’s a dark song about people who you cross paths with in life and how you never really know what’s going on with the person in the car next to yours. He laughed and said the song was so dark that after he finished it and heard it back he decided to add a new last line to give the song a more upbeat conclusion.
That’s a nice way to think of him moving forward. He lived an amazing (and at times very difficult) life and wrote great, honest songs. But he wanted those songs, even the darks ones, to contain some element of hope for the listener.
An American classic. The best singer/songwriter/bandleader/musician of my lifetime. And a guy who, in the end, was always willing to find a way to give a little extra to the people listening to his music. It’s easy and appropriate to mourn his passing. But we’re also fortunate he did so much good work for as long as he did.