In Memoriam: Tom Petty

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Oct 202023

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

Tom Petty

Tom Petty (10/20/50 – 10/2/17) was clearly one of the good guys, with little but praise of and for him following his untimely death, 18 days shy of his 67th birthday. Possibly going a little too hard celebrating the end of the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour, he took that one toke over the line and died of an accidental drug overdose. What a waste, just say no, etc etc. (To be fair, intractable pain from a fractured hip and his emphysema were each also weighing heavy at the time.)

Petty was no stranger to cover versions, over his lengthy career, initially with the later revived Mudcrutch, but predominantly with his own band, 13 albums as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and 4 under his own name alone, there are a few, mainly across his myriad live albums. Today, though, we are to celebrate covers by others of his own songs, but it would be churlish not to take at least a nod at his rendition of Lucinda Williams’ “Change The Locks” or his version of the UK one hit wonder “Something In The Air,” originally by Thunderclap Newman.

A Tom Petty song was seldom comparable to the work of others, or transferable, that much, to other styles, mainly down to the idiosyncrasy of his vocal style, a high pitched nasal whine. My apologies to anyone put off by that overly clinical description of his voice, for, in full flight, it was a rousing and rallying instrument of power and promise. Still is. But it would somehow be remiss not to comment on the one very similar singing style, especially given the reception of the debut single from Petty and his team…

Roger McGuinn – American Girl (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers cover)

I and, in truth, most first time listeners thought the original “American Girl” actually was Roger McGuinn, given the tenor of the voice and the jangletastic construction. Not a hit at home, it took the UK to first appreciate the strength of this song, it attaining a reasonable #40 in the British chart. That giving Shelter Records sufficient reason to try again, re-releasing an earlier flop, “Breakdown,” to hit that same number on the Billboard ratings. (Kudos to good old Leon Russell, recently here on these pages, for running the label that signed Petty in the first place!) McGuinn can’t have failed to pick up on comments; “When did I record that?” he is famously said to have asked, and was first in line, a year after Petty, to bring out his own version, a slightly more elegant and modulated version. The two swiftly became friends, working and writing together many a time.

Another way of hammering home how strong the the link is: Investigate the work of the band Starbyrd, whose name gives a fair old clue as to their influence, with it being, thus, no huge leap that one of their albums should be 2019’s Listen to The Wind, a tribute album of Petty covers. (If you can find how to get hold, let me know!)

Lucinda Williams – Runnin’ Down A Dream (Tom Petty cover)

Lucinda Williams and Petty were equally fulsome about the other, both staunch backslappers for the material of the other. It was little surprise that Petty was one of the artists given an especial place in Williams’ run of lockdown garage production, “Lu’s Jukebox,” devoting one of the albums solely to Petty and his songs. Sharing the same laconic slow drawl of delivery, Williams gifts the seldom ever overly polished Petty with a gritty and scuzzy coat that draws out the best/worst of her vocals and the best of the tunes. This, the title track, sounds way dirtier than the original. Forgive YouTube for adding the superfluous “g,” anathema, I am sure, to both artists.

Johnny Cash – Southern Accents (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers cover)

Lets stick with giants and legends, why don’t we? The late Johnny Cash is another frequent returner to the Petty songbook, and another individual to work with him. One of the more reflective songs in Petty’s canon, it is good in the original version, but few will argue that Cash’s faltering baritone makes it great. From that singer’s late and golden years, it is a highlight of Unchained, the second in the Rick Rubin series of 6 such American discs. Petty had been very much part of the project, appearing as a backing musician on couple of the discs at least, with Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Belmont Tench on more. (I could have included “I Won’t Back Down,” from the next in the series, but Petty sang additional vocals alongside Cash for that one.)

Reel Big Fish – I Won’t Back Down (Tom Petty cover)

Won’t back down, did you say? Petty’s most covered song was actually a co-write with Jeff Lynne, his sometime buddy in the Traveling Wilburys, Otis to his Charlie T. Jr. Most of the covers of this one touch on either the reverential or go intuitively for the rocking role that is embedded with it. I like it that Reel Big Fish invest it with neither. Many dislike the ska punk movement, with all of the jumping up and down and spilling beer vibe, but there is more to it than that, and many of the bands contain excellent brass players. I don’t know whether trombonist Dan Regan is technically any good, but here he sounds excellent.

J Mascis – Don’t Do Me Like That (Mudcrutch cover)

Needing to acknowledge the pre-TP&tHB existence of Mudcrutch, Petty’s earlier band, this great track, reprised for Damn the Torpedoes, eventually seeing the original light of day several years later, and is a classic TP construction. J.Mascis was/is the leading light of semi-grungers Dinosaur, Jr, and, without really knowing what slacker-rock is, this is how I imagine it sounds, all a little half-arsed sounding, masking the clear commitment and talent required to make it sound so stoned. (Am I right?) No faint praise, I’m a slacker myself, if without any of the inhaling required.

Melissa Etheridge – Refugee (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers cover)

Damn, don’t we need another hit from Torpedoes, it being my LP entry drug for Petty, and this version really cuts my mustard. I was always a little immune to the standard rock chick schtick of Melissa Etheridge, but this was the track to turn me> Whilst it becomes fairly generic, the initial acoustic opening, near spoken, is little short of superior. Etheridge is a bit of a grower, once let in, and her later work is full of surprises.

Chatham County Line – You Don’t Know How It Feels (Tom Petty cover)

Aren’t these all sounding a bit same and like the original, Seuras? Are you saying that? Well, apart from clearly having not listened carefully enough, what are you expecting? I’m sure there are some Cajun or afro-pop iterations out there, but if there are, I haven’t found ’em yet. Or good ones. But, and this is important, what there certainly is, is a whole slew of country-bluegrass versions, underlining the fact that, under all that gee-tar, there is a solid southern states country feel to a lot of his songwriting. As Chatham County Line well know, transforming this bluesy harp stomper into hayrick central, maintaining all the swagger and impetus, just with a bit more country gentleman respect.

Chris Hillman – Wildflowers (Tom Petty cover)

Who better than Chris Hillman, old Byrd buddy of R. McGuinn, to pick out every last hillbilly shine from one of Petty’s more laid-back moments? Hillman takes what’s already a beautiful song and adds and polishes it up a treat, a highlight from his 2017 album Bidin’ My Time. As well as the masterful chops of veteran singer and player Hillman, along with ever faithful sidekick, Herb Pedersen, this fabulous record also had an ace at the production desk. And who might that be? Oh, one Thomas Earl Petty! Possibly even better is this live version, with the dedication flagged first, and true to the mast.

Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby – Walls (Circus) (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers cover)

Lets go a bit off-piste, to see if there is anything to dilute the core American-ness of Petty. This song, from his soundtrack excursion She’s The One, once removed from the slightly more upmarket feel of the original, becomes a lovely low-key and slightly ramshackle meander in this rendition. Which is entirely the MO for UK post-punk urchin Eric Goulden, better known by his “Wreckless” soubriquet. Now long resident in the U.S.A., and married to country chanteuse Amy Rigby, he shows you can take the boy out of Newhaven, a channel port near Brighton, UK, but you can’t take it out of him. It is gloriously shabby and endearing. As is he, playing and touring his wasted wastrel persona to this day, despite years of being sober.

Puddle Of Mudd – Stop Dragging My Heart Around (Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty cover)

WTF? Yeah, I know, but, honest, really, it’s cleverer than it seems. Plus, we really need to acknowledge the part Petty had to play in the other-than-Mac career of Stevie Nicks, co-writing and taking a shared credit for this, a Mike Campbell song where the Heartbreakers provide the instrumental heavy lifting. Petty was also a co-producer, with Jimmy Iovine, of the Belladonna record it came from, as well as the next. You might think this just a karaoke copy, but it is better. It reproduces the wallop that Torpedoes-era Heartbreakers might have gifted it, had there not been Iovine’s mainstream eye on the ball, to extract just a little of the venom. OK, feel free to bail before the end, but see my point? It is a BC Jean adding the female vocal, here slotted into a secondary role.

Susanna – Don’t Come Around Here No More (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers cover)

Finally, to close this butcher’s dozen, here is something quite unlike anything offered thus far. This song was always a bit bonkers, an outlier on the Petty palette, presumably courtesy the influence of co-writer, Dave A. Stewart, the oddball foil to Annie Lennox in Eurythmics, and who must have been the one to suggest that a Tom Petty song needed sitar. Susanna, once of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, is one Susanna Wallumrød, from Norway, and has a reputation for covering “difficult” songs, as exemplified by her earlier record with the Magical Orchestra, Melody Mountain, which tackles AC/DC, Scott Walker and Prince, for whom a dinner party involving all would be quite something. Now nominally solo, this comes from her 2008 album Flower of Evil.

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  2 Responses to “In Memoriam: Tom Petty”

Comments (2)
  1. love your work but I really do have to correct the opening of this otherwise generous tribute: yes Tom died of an accidental drug overdose but this was not a case of “he took that one toke over the line and died of an accidental drug overdose. What a waste, just say no, etc” That’s really too glib. “Tom had been prescribed a fentanyl patch to help with his pain; in addition to that slow-releasing patch, two other, more dangerous, derivatives of the drug were also found in his system.” He underestimated the power of these painkillers – like Prince and thousands of others. he was, in his own way another victim of the American opioid epidemic. More than just a toke . . .

    • Yes, I get that. I was sort of trying to balance the initial reaction many may have had to acci OD, ahead trying to balance it with associated factors to be taken in consideration. Any drugs death is a disaster, whether deliberate, accidental or just unexpected/unanticipated.

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