Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “Nightwatchman” (In Memoriam)
Damn. No, not “the torpedoes,” but damn the fact that my first Tom Petty song post on Reselect is an “in memoriam” post. He was certainly not who I would have guessed to be the next big one to leave us — there’s a whole raft of increasingly rickety rockers who began in the Sixties who you’d think would have gone ahead of him (not that I wish that on any of them, of course). Tom didn’t hit the big time until the mid-Seventies — he should have had all sorts of time left. But such is the unpredictability of life, I suppose. So it goes.
Petty was one of that small group of artists I considered something like the “muscle” of rock music — he operated at a level that seemingly helped to power the whole operation and anchor it. All he had to do was flex, so to speak, and great rock would happen. There was little there in terms of superficial, cosmetic appeal — I mean, Tom certainly didn’t go in much for appearances — and he was one of the least pretentious of the major names in rock. He was all about the music — and was a truly decent guy on top of that — and even if he came up with a lesser album now and then, as he had more often in his post-’90s career, you knew he was just following his heart, which always seemed to be in the right place. Except last week, when that heart made the really poor decision to stop working.
Oh, that heart was known to go off in errant directions, and when that happened, it was more than once the result of coming under the influence of a less-than-ideal svengali/producer. It first happened with Southern Accents, produced by Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame: sure, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is fine and all, but the album truly suffered under it’s slick veneer of ’80s pop polish. Unfortunately, Petty didn’t quite learn his lesson, because it wasn’t long before he joined forces with Jeff Lynne of ELO, who tends to make everything he touches sound like a Disneyland version of rock and roll (see the Traveling Wilburys, the band Lynne formed with Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan). Heck, he even made the Beatles sound like the Traveling Wilburys (see “Free as a Bird”). It’s to Petty’s credit that Full Moon Fever was nonetheless a great album — his songwriting for the album was too good for even Lynne’s over-polished production to keep down. But I always wish we could have heard what that album (and Into the Great Wide Open, also produced by Lynne) might have sounded like if produced by Rick Rubin, who produced the later Wildflowers, or maybe T-Bone Burnett — any other good producer known less for leaving their own imprint on everything they work on.
But even by the late ’80s, Petty was already a legend — in fact, I’d say that most of his status today derives from the music he created between 1976 and 1982. Those 1989-94 albums (both of Lynne’s productions, plus Wildflowers) merely helped to seal the deal (and provide additional Petty fodder for classic rock stations). The sheer greatness, in particular, of the 1976 debut album (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, and 1981’s Hard Promises guaranteed him a place in the rock pantheon. He was a rocker’s rocker who was cool enough to even be respected by the punk movement that was emerging around the time of his debut. There’s a lean, tightly wound energy that drives Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, making it seem like a reaction to the increasingly bloated rock of the ’70s in a way that was similar to punk. The difference between Petty and the Heartbreakers and most punk bands, though, was the musicianship — the Heartbreakers were a tight band, great musicians all, whereas punks reveled in their amateurishness. But I’m sure Petty got what the punks were doing as well and respected it in return.
I admittedly lost track of what Petty was recording over the past 10 or so years, and from what I understand, there may be good reason for that, although he apparently made a return to form on 2014’s Hypnotic Eye. But even if his best songs were behind him, Petty could always be counted on to put on great shows. The Heartbreakers were one of rock’s best bands, and putting on a lackluster show was not something they knew how to do. I saw them a few times and was never disappointed — they were particularly good while touring with Bob Dylan in 1986 (during which they served both as his opening band and his backing band).
One of my favorite Petty songs is “Nightwatchman,” the third song on Hard Promises — it harkens back to that sinewy sound of the debut album unlike anything else they were doing by 1982. It’s a slinky song featuring a cool, little guitar figure and Petty in full-on Petty voice (you know, that high, Roger McGuinn-inspired nasal tone) — one of the last times on record that they would sound as stripped down as they had on their debut. In some ways it epitomizes for me everything cool and great about Petty and the band.
Whether Tom Petty would ever again have written and recorded songs as good as his most classic ones is really beside the point — when Petty’s heart stopped last week, it took a chunk of the heart of true rock ‘n’ roll with it.