It’s the birthday of Tom Petty, one of the last men standing in terms of classic rock in these times. Today’s song, therefore, comes from his most recent album, released back in the summer, just to show he’s still with it.
Petty burst on the scene in the late Seventies and by 1979 had released his definitive album, Damn the Torpedoes. Thereafter came a succession of albums, none of them bad, none of them great. Probably Hard Promises (1981) was the best, while Southern Accents (1984) was the most diverse, and Long After Dark (1982) and Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough (1987) had their moments and their filler. His better work than the latter album was in joining up with the Traveling Wilburys, 1988, which meant he wrote and recorded songs with the likes of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne. He and his band also backed Dylan on tour in 1986 and 1988. In 1989, he came out with a “solo album”—which meant it wasn’t billed as with The Heartbreakers—called Full Moon Fever and it was one of his more satisfying albums. In 1991 Into the Great Wide Open built on the fact that The Heartbreakers had weathered into a mainstay of rock. Then came Wildflowers, made with Rick Rubin in 1993, Petty’s second great record, and second “solo” record (though the Heartbreakers are the main musicians on it, except that Stan Lynch, the drummer, was gone). It was followed by the soundtrack for She’s the One (1996), featuring songs written for Wildflowers and also produced by Rubin. The Petty-man was on a roll that culminated with Echo (1999), the third Rubin release, and which suffers a bit from the CD-based need to pan an album out to what would be a double-album length, but which has some great later Petty numbers, not least its title track.
Next came Petty’s jaded with turn-of-the-century music biz rant The Last DJ (2002). Then followed another “solo effort” Highway Companion (2005). Recorded with only Petty, his faithful axeman Mike Campbell, and fellow Wilbury Jeff Lynne, it was another stand-out record that found Petty moody and aging well. In 2010, MOJO was a rousing “live in the studio” effort with his great backing band working out at a bit more length than they tend to do, and then Hypnotic Eye, this summer, which is streamlined to the ol’ two-sided long-player format and is therefore more focused and, in some ways, more satisfying. It’s also the first Petty album to top the charts, which shows, I guess, what I’m saying: that his longevity makes him the go-to rock act.
Today’s song is the track that immediately appealed to me. It’s moody, as if Petty’s been listening to his sometime bossman Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. Or maybe it’s just that Petty, 64 today, is older making this record than Dylan was making that one. Which is a way of saying that when he mentions “sins of my youth” he could be harkening back a good long ways. It’s not like Petty is down-in-the-mouth on the song. In fact, most of the songs on the album are rather in-keeping with Petty’s usual rocker stance. He’s seen some, he’s lived some, he’s reflected, he’s grown rueful, but, in the end, he’s too sure of himself to fall under any fatal spells. Petty’s songs are for survivors, and he’s good at now and then twisting a phrase to show that he’s got someone sussed. I always loved the line in “Refugee”—his first major radio song—“tell me why you want to lie there and revel in your abandon.” No slacker could come up with a line like that.
In today’s song, the nice hook of a chorus gives us “Let me tell you the truth / I love you more than the sins of my youth.” That’s one for the books. It’s a mature reflection, y’know, when someone realizes that all that great past he’s supposed to be so full of, all that rabble-rousing hell-raising adventure, the sex-drugs-rock’n’roll lifestyle, etc., isn’t really all that. He’s here to tell this lady of his latter days that she’s worth more to him than all that legend-making balderdash.
He also risks a nice little spin with “All those things that were hidden away / Ain’t so bad in the light of day”—again, a mature viewpoint, or the song of a man who has come clean. Confess your sins and be on your way. No need for secrets, honest.
And yet . . . Petty’s final verse is almost in Cohen territory, when Leonard decides to be flippant and cool: “You say you love me / Wish you’d like me more”—so maybe those things in the light of day aren’t so likeable and they’ve cost him something. Then: “Said you forgave me / Each time I was caught / But you still paint me / As something I’m not.” I hear ya, Tom. We all know that “he who is without sin” number but there are any number of people ready to cast their stones when the truth is told. And Tom’s line here reminds me of Costello’s “I don’t like the color that it paints me”—that letter you wrote. Seems these guys are on the receiving end of some bad images, some tarring and feathering all in the name of righteous indignation. Like Nixon said, “I am not a crook.” A traitor, maybe, but not a crook.
The song has a nice, easy, hypnotic vibe, and Petty, as usual, doesn’t seem too down or too riled. It’s meant to be a statement of the need for trust and for candid reflection, but there’s a rueful unease there too, which suits me fine.
And what about the sins of youth? What are they? For myself, I can admit to Anger, a state of mind that makes you fed up with things too quickly, and that Anger had a lot to do with Pride, with not wanting to make an effort I felt was beneath me, and Envy of those who could coast past those unprepossessing tasks, but, really, the aversion to effort stemmed from Sloth, which I’ll cap myself with as the principle sin, whereas, of the appetitive sins—Greed, Gluttony, and Lust—I’ll go with the latter as the one that can still overwhelm attention, though these latter days—sins of my dotage?—Gluttony might be worse, if we allow that to cover bottles of wine, and Greed for more and more records? So sure, all those sins of my youth are probably still just as present now as ever. Fuck me.
I'm worn and wounded but still the same.