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Beyond The Hits, Beneath The Surface: How 'An American Treasure' Re-Shaped Our View Of Tom Petty

Monday, 10 December 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

Illustration: Sam Davies

Whether it’s through their work, the magazine articles we devour or—these days—social media accounts that bombard us with the daily minutiae of their lives, it’s very easy to form the belief that we know everything about our favourite artists. But, while the mediums might be ever-changing, that’s nothing new. Released earlier this year to commemorate the first anniversary of Tom Petty’s death, ‘An American Treasure’ was a bountiful box set that delved deep into the rock ‘n’ roll icon’s work, revealing a journey where the musical and personal were forever intertwined.

Anyone hoping for an archival windfall in the vein of Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1995 bonanza ‘Playback’ would have been disappointed to learn there were only a handful of previously unreleased songs in this package, some of which had already appeared in various forms. As such, it was bulked up by live offerings, lesser known album tracks and largely inessential alternate takes.

Yet it wasn’t supposed to be a posthumous treasure trove. ‘An American Treasure’ was compiled by those close to Petty—his daughter Adria and wife Dana, long-time Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, plus collaborator Ryan Ulyate—to show that there was more to him than the 20 or so radio staples that cemented his reputation, and often overshadowed the rest of his work. The fact you can repeatedly play all four hours of this largely hit-free set without once yearning to hear American Girl, Refugee or Free Fallin’ speaks volumes about the strength-in-depth of the catalogue Petty left behind.  

If that was hardly news to seasoned die-hards, then ‘An American Treasure’ truly came into its own, and offered fresh insight, when absorbed as a complete, immersive listening experience. If we think of every song here as a snapshot of a distinct moment in Petty’s odyssey, we have a photo album that traces his evolution as a songwriter and human being.   

It’s fascinating to witness how the energetic aura of Petty’s music changed over the years. It’s almost like hearing the soundtrack to someone’s aging process. The early cuts here—the likes of Listen To Her Heart, Anything That’s Rock n’ Roll and You’re Gonna Get It— fuse snotty east coast swagger with Californian cool. They are fresh and direct, exuding the kind of fiery confidence that can only come from fiercely determined youths who still believe in the magic of dreams, real love and music as the ultimate form of salvation.

At the same time, and particularly when compared to latter day gems like Fault Lines, Lonesome Sundown and an exquisite reworking of You and Me, those early songs—although delivered with utter conviction—feel very naïve and simplistic, melodramatically running through generic themes without the emotional complexity that only years on the clock can provide.  

Early ‘80s numbers such as Straight Into Darkness, You Can Still Change Your Mind and powerhouse live takes on King’s Road and Woman In Love (It’s Not Me) find Petty exploring life and love in a more adult way, while exhibiting a triumphant sound born out of his and the Heartbreakers’ growing abilities and the confidence success breeds. After this phase, however, we can hear the major turning points that saw him slowly but surely morph into more of a melancholy, introspective and poetic Americana singer-songwriter.

The mid-late 1980s found Petty struggling to adapt to the synthetic musical climate of the day. Songs from 1985’s ‘Southern Accents’ and its 1987 follow up ‘Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)’ are presented here without the anachronistic drum effects that were slapped on the originals. They sound much more organic and characteristic of the Heartbreakers’ sound as a result, and with hindsight it was a big mistake not to present them in this way.

More to the point, Rebels, The Best of Everything and an early demo of The Apartment Song (with Stevie Nicks on harmony vocal duty) indicate what a great conceptual album ‘Southern Accents’ could have been if Petty had been wise enough to hold his nerve. Initially intended to reflect different facets of Dixie living through each track, the songwriter compromised his own vision by mistakenly worrying such an approach was a creative backward step.  

Its title track may have foreshadowed the artist he’d become further down the road, and a live performance from 2006 offers a fittingly weary tone, but Petty simply wasn’t ready to pull off such an ambitious idea back then. The more recent material on ‘An American Treasure’ suggests that, had he attempted to make it instead of ‘Wildflowers’ a decade later, ‘Southern Accents’ would have been a masterpiece.

Out of such adversity, though, came an epiphany that had a significant impact on the songwriter’s musical trajectory. After punching a wall in frustration and breaking his hand during the making of that record, he knew things had to change. “In therapy and in the hospital I started to realise that I had taken intensity about as far as it could go in my personal life and with the guys in the band and business people and everybody,” Petty told Q magazine in 1989.  

As a result of that revelation, and surviving an arson attack on his home, he (temporarily) adopted a calmer, healthier mindset that saw him relax, enjoy himself and make some telling connections. Collaborating with the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn on King Of The Hill, featured here in a wonderful wild west style, as well as his supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, boosted Petty’s confidence and led to two albums produced by ELO's Jeff Lynne that stack up as pillars of his MTV era.

The sun-kissed, seemingly unburdened, mainstream aesthetic of Petty’s late ‘80s solo album ‘Full Moon Fever’, and early ‘90s Heartbreakers effort ‘Into The Great Wide Open’ successfully melded his classicist hit-making approach with a slick contemporary sheen. Being a hit free zone, ‘An American Treasure’ serves up songs from that hugely successful era in a way that gifts us something of a lightbulb moment. A slowed down, delicate and harmony-rich live rendition of I Won’t Back Down, and similarly stripped Two Gunslingers, provoke the realisation that all Petty’s songs, even the combustible likes of What Are You Doing In My Life, possess a lyrical duality that makes them equally effective as either charging rockers or rootsy Americana tunes.  

Tench once stated that, as a writer, Petty “walked in this strange penumbra between the shadow and the light.” It was almost inevitable that, after the ups and downs of his 40 plus years, which included childhood violence at the hands of his father, the frontman’s emotional scales would eventually tilt away from angry attitudinal kid towards a world-worn man who needed to express his traumas with a different musical voice. In that regard, Petty’s stylistic transition feels more natural and obvious than it may have appeared in real time.

The songs to emerge after his time with Lynne, regardless of the Americana avenues he went down and his subsequent personal problems, retained all the melodic panache of earlier Petty tracks, only allied to a more thoughtful, nuanced, expansive and subtle approach that gave his heart-on-sleeve storytelling the requisite room to breathe. Crawling Back To You, Find A Friend and Don’t Fade On Me, taken from 1994’s beautifully eclectic and bittersweet ‘divorce album’ ‘Wildflowers’, not only showcase artistic development, but also manifest the kind of crushing heartache, loss, struggle and confusion the inexperienced guy who penned No Second Thoughts could never have mustered.

It’s often been stated that the quality of Petty’s late ‘90s and early ‘00s work doesn’t match the calibre of his early releases. There are no anthemic chart smashes on the Gainesville native’s latter-day records and they’re certainly less immediate and accessible, but ‘An American Treasure’ reveals this period, which was unsurprisingly the most difficult of his life, was perhaps musically and lyrically more interesting than anything that had preceded it. You don’t need to know about his crumbling marriage, nor that he was battling mental health problems and heroin addiction during the ‘90s. Just listen to I Don’t Belong, Grew Up Fast and Accused of Love to behold a soul screaming out in desperation. Songs from that era are almost painfully difficult to listen to, yet they hit hard because of the unvarnished truth we can hear.

After recovering from such a bleak season, Petty’s twilight material, whether with the Heartbreakers or his reformed early ‘70s outfit Mudcrutch, became even more vulnerable, unfiltered, caustic, stylistically ambitious and instrumentally expressive. Possessed of a genuine need for redemption, while quietly seething at the way the world was heading, Hungry No More, Money Became King, Saving Grace, Down South, Good Enough and Something Good Coming find him looking backwards and forwards, taking trips in search of answers and, eventually, putting the past to rest and moving onwards with cautious optimism.

Once the musical and emotional rollercoaster of this release is over, the thought occurs that losing Tom Petty was a cruel reflection of what’s currently happening in the United States. ‘An American Treasure’ depicts a fully rounded, flawed man bursting with integrity and authenticity: a straight talker, compassionate, free of ego and real to a fault. Those overlooked characteristics are present in every sweet note of this delightful memorial and, although everything he stood for currently feels like it’s under attack, there’s comfort in knowing such values will, to reference his song from ‘The Last DJ’, shine forever through the music they inspired. 

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