Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – The Live Anthology

January 01, 1970

(Warner Bros.)

 

www.warnerbros.com

 

Writers whose roots extend below the Mason-Dixon
line have long dwelled on matters of heritage. Even those who
preach the occasional necessity of getting out in order to make a life for
oneself understand how roots run deep, and you can no more escape that heritage
than you can declare your back yard a sovereign nation and secede from the
Union. So to speak.

 

Tom Petty’s a writer, of songs, and while he’s a textbook
example of a southern boy who got out and, in the parlance, done real good for hisself, in those
songs there’s always been a lyrical tension between the past and the present that
gives his material an autobiographical undercurrent, an ambiance, a vibe, peculiar
to southern writers. I’m a writer, too, and the longer I do it the more I
discover my own regional idiosyncrasies creeping in to my work; I suspect they
were always there and I just didn’t recognize them as such. Finding parallels
between Petty’s life and mine isn’t particularly hard, either. Both of us came
of age in the sixties, he in upstate Florida
and me in a textile mill region of North
Carolina, right at the NC-SC line – which, if you know
much about those two regions, suggests a distinct lack of cultural opportunities, so a person was usually
left casting a wide net utilizing whatever resources could be found.

 

“Well she was an
American girl

Raised on promises

She couldn’t help
thinkin’ that there

Was a little more to
life

Somewhere else

After all it was a
great big world

With lots of places to
run to…”

 

As Petty pointed out in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, his best-known song
“American Girl” is not about a specific girl: “I was creating a girl like I
knew in Gainesville,
the kind who knows there’s more out there than the cards she’s drawn.” But he
was also subliminally sketching himself into the character, articulating what
he had felt growing up in Gainesville.
This is why the tune strikes a chord regardless of whether you’re a male or a
female; the yearning is universal, and it’s not necessary limited to teenagers
either.

 

In our mutual quests to find a little more to life Petty and I both eschewed high school sports
for books, movies and, most particularly, music, and because of that our role
models tended to be a few years older, typically long-haired and
liberal-tilting types (and with good weed connections) who gave us the kind of
encouragement we didn’t necessarily get from our peer group. Both of us took a
lot of grief when we began growing our own hair out, including thumpings from local good ol’ boys who took exception
to our appearance, and such incidents fueled streaks of anger, defiance and
righteousness. Petty, for example, told Rolling
Stone
that during his early years as a musician he was harassed by rednecks
and even refused service at truck stops and it helped him understand and
sympathize with what African-Americans went through on a daily basis. Those
angry, defiant and righteous feelings continue to manifest in us as adults.

 

And Petty and I both finally got out, too: he traveled far,
to L.A., and
embarked upon one of rock’s more storied careers; I made it to college, and in
a roundabout way, not always financially fruitful but still aesthetically
satisfying, to a life in music, too. All along, although the two of us have met
just once and then only very briefly, our southern heritage has continued to
link us in ways that gives his music a resonance that is deeper and more
enduring than that of pretty much any other artist I admire.

 

***

 

One day in late 1979 I wandered into a Chapel
Hill, NC, record store. Spying among the new releases a copy of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, I
wondered who this leather-jacketed guy on the sleeve was. The shoulder-length
blonde hair painted him a traditional ‘70s rock type, yet the jacket and
half-smirk/half-sneer creasing his face suggested he was more aligned with punk,
which by then I was already enthusiastically embracing. The guy behind the
counter played a couple of songs, notably the Byrdsian raveup “American Girl,”
and I was sold. It would be over-romanticizing matters for me to claim I
converted, on the spot, to fan-for-life status – it was only Petty’s first
album, after all – but I can confess,
in all sincerity, that the net result was the same.

 

Other albums would similarly floor me – 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, 1985’s Southern Accents, 1994’s Wild Flowers (billed as a solo Petty
release), even 2002’s The Last DJ,
which did well commercially but took a drubbing from critics – while songs from
all of Petty’s releases would find their way into regular mixtape rotation in
the car, on the home stereo, and eventually on the iPod and smartphone, too. I
recall buying the 45 of “Refugee” because it had a non-album B-side, “Casa Dega,”
a spooky-sounding slow-burn number that referenced a strange little Florida town (it’s
actually spelled Cassadaga) populated by psychics. The lyrics, mysterious yet
open-endedly romantic, have always gotten under my skin, like a
partially-remembered dream that lingers and haunts you long after you’ve
awaken:

 

“She said to me as she
holds my hand

And reads the lines of
a stranger

Yeah, and she knows my
name, yeah, she knows my plan

In the past, in the
present, and for the future…

‘Baby fools pay the
price of a whisper in the night

In Casa Dega

Time rolls by, night
is only night

Can I save you?'”

 

Of course it was the live Petty experience that would cement my fanship. I’ll never forget squeezing down
front at an outdoor amphitheater in Charlotte in the early ‘80s to watch the
Heartbreakers blaze through a set in the summer’s heat; I was surrounded by so
many gorgeous, sweat-drenched, dancing, screaming females that I got a first-hand
sense of what Beatlemania might have been like. Later that evening at the
nearby hotel, who should I run into at the elevator but keyboardist Benmont
Tench; upon learning that we had a close mutual friend, he paused to chat a few
moments then invited me up to say hello to Petty, as the band was about to
check out early and drive through the night on their bus to the next gig. Starstruck,
I wound up mumbling at them something about “owning all the records” and “when
are you going to start making better music videos,” thus ensuring that Petty
and Tench quickly found excuses to go finish their packing before I could get
around to asking for an autograph. But hey, at least I got to shake their
hands.

 

Another time was in Phoenix in the mid ‘90s, at a point when
the Heartbreakers had skillfully merged both their own songs and Petty’s solo
material to craft what was unquestionably one of the most dynamic stage shows
by one of the most formidable live acts in the business. In particular, they
brought down the house with “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which had earlier
been an MTV staple thanks to the goofy Alice
In Wonderland
-styled vid, but in concert was transformed into a psychedelic
epic complete with an eye-popping, potentially seizure-inducing, lights and
strobe production.

 

But the Petty concert I’ll always remember most vividly was
in 1989, once again in Charlotte.
In April of that year Petty had released his first solo LP, the Jeff
Lynne-produced Full Moon Fever, so he
was spotlighting a good chunk of that record even though with the exception of
guitarist Mike Campbell the members of the Heartbreakers only had cameos on FMF. The band was also doing a lot of
the Southern Accents album, from
1985, and much of the same stage design (plantation mansion columns, assorted
antebellum/southern touches, etc.) from the Southern
Accents
tour was still being used. It was during the “Southern Accents” song
itself that something totally out of the blue happened.

 

A certain yahoo element had already been making its presence
in the crowd known, emitting whoops and raising beer cups whenever Petty would
make a regional reference. It was starting to feel like a NASCAR rally in the
arena. Now, as the band eased into the song’s signature piano intro, somebody
tossed a folded-up object onto the stage. Petty walked over, picked it up, and
started unfolding it: a rebel flag, symbol of the Confederacy – and of a whole
lot more. He froze, uncertain as to what he should do. Well, wave it proudly at all your fellow Southerners, you could
almost hear the collective thought ripple through the air. Instead, while the
band continued vamping on the intro, Petty walked back to the mic, still
holding the flag, and slowly began to speak, talking about how on the Southern Accents tour a few years ago
they’d included a Confederate flag as part of the stage set, but since then
he’d been thinking about it and decided that it had been a mistake because he
understood maybe it wasn’t just a rebel image to some folks. As a low rumble of
boos and a few catcalls came out of the crowd, Petty carefully wadded the flag up
and concluded, “So we don’t do” – nodding at the flag – “this anymore.” Chucking it back into the audience, he started to
sing, softly, gradually building in volume:

 

“There’s a southern accent,
where I come from

The young’uns call it
country, the Yankees call it dumb

I got my own way of
talkin’ but everything is done

With a southern accent
where I come from…”

 

Driving home from the concert that night I still could feel
the combined chill and thrill I’d gotten earlier. A lesser performer wouldn’t
have been able to pull off a simultaneous refutation and affirmation, and in
the unexpected duality of sentiment and expectations of the moment, Petty and
his Heartbreakers had gone on to perform the song with a visceral resolve imbued
equally with grace and grit I hadn’t detected at previous concerts.

 

Turning on the radio, I heard the local classic rock deejay
talking about the incident in disparaging terms and inviting listeners to call
in and “let Tom Petty know just what we think about him.” In that moment, I
felt the anger and defiance of my younger self return, and I wanted to punch
the dashboard.

 

***

 

It’s these memories that steer me to The Live Anthology (Reprise), a five-CD, three-DVD, Tom Petty &
the Heartbreakers box. Arriving as a kind of two-year coda to 2007’s Peter
Bogdanovich-directed TP&THB documentary Runnin’
Down A Dream
and the accompanying book and multiple-DVD/CD set, it’s a
dream date all on its own terms, stuffed to its 12″ x 12″ x 2″, Shepard
Fairey-art-adorned gills with all manner of goodies and memorabilia. There are
facsimiles of tour posters and backstage passes; a thick LP-sized booklet
boasting detailed track annotations and commentary plus extensive liners from
Petty, Warren Zanes and a host of music journalists; a pocket-sized TP
“notebook”; and a reproduction of the 1977 promotional-only 12″ EP Official Live ‘Leg that Shelter Records
distributed to radio stations (the repro even duplicates the way the original
had the same four songs pressed on both sides; incidentally, the nine-minute
“Dog On the Run” is a must-hear). In short, pure collector catnip.

 

Sound- and vision-wise, Petty’s not just fucking around with
a high-ticket item suitable for holiday shopping, either. One of the DVDs
contains all of the live audio material in the high-resolution Blu-ray format,
meaning that if you have a Blu-ray player and harbor an audio geek side, you’re
in clover. Meanwhile, the two video discs nicely complement the other Petty DVDs
in your collection (there have been quite a few, including RDAD, to date). Live at the Santa Monica Civic
Auditorium
was professionally filmed at the Heartbreakers’ Dec. 31, 1978
concert, and it’s every bit as intense and celebratory as a New Year’s Eve show
should be. That it captures the band on the cusp of – but not quite there yet –
huge international stardom, a good nine months before the release of Damn the Torpedoes, therefore giving you
a long-form look at a group still hungry and fueled by an almost punkish combativeness,
makes for a revealing and rewarding viewing experience. Several
as-yet-unreleased songs were already in the setlist at the time, notably
“Refugee” and “Casa Dega,” and the closing Isley Brothers cover “Shout”
completely smokes the version that appeared on 1985’s concert album and film Pack Up the Plantations: Live!

 

The third DVD is titled 400
Days
, a documentary film directed by Martyn Atkins. Atkins had been
introduced to Petty by Rick Rubin during the making of Wildflowers, and he accumulated footage of Petty and the
Heartbreakers in the studio and on the subsequent 1995 tour – essentially a
chronicle of 400 days in the life of an artist and a rock band. It’s an
engaging portrait, necessarily less comprehensive but in places more intimate
than the Bogdanovich film, with a number of the performance clips in particular
demanding repeated attention.

 

Everything circles back to the live CDS, however. And while
the thought of over five hours’ worth of concert material is daunting by any
standard, as a live album in the
truest, most classic sense – think the Who’s Live at Leeds, the Stones’ Get
Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!
, the Allman Brothers At
Fillmore East
, Gov’t Mule’s Live…
With a Little Help from Our Friends,
etc. – this surely ranks high. Petty
told Rolling Stone that he put a lot
of effort into sequencing the material in order to make each disc represent “a
whole program,” like an individual concert set. Acknowledging the fracturing of
artistic intent that iTunes represents and how people will undoubtedly
cherry-pick the individual tunes they want to hear, he added, “But there’s
somebody out there who will sit down and take it as the work it is.”

 

And what a work it is: a series of five emotional journeys
(four, if you opt for the standard, budget-conscious 4CD edition, but I
encourage you to be brave, hock your kid’s bike at the nearest pawn shop, and
go for the full unexpurgated Kahuna), arranged not chronologically but in order
to reveal, as Petty writes in his liners, “mood first… a band capable of
thinking on its feet… one moment leading to the next.”

 

If you’ve had the patience to read this far you’re obviously
a Petty fan and probably don’t need me to sell you on the music. I will say
that, given the sheer quantity here, 62 songs in all, it’s damned remarkable
that there’s nary a shred of excess on display. Even at their most
demonstrative, say on a 2001 wig-out on “Don’t Come Around Here No More” or the
extended boogie/raveup/anthem that is 1993’s “Drivin’ Down To Georgia,” the
Heartbreakers demonstrate a cool restraint that keeps the focus on the actual
songs. They also, via a healthy sampling of cover material (my faves: Peter
Green & Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” from Bonnaroo ’06, and Bo Diddley’s
“Diddy Wah Diddy,” from the famed 1997 Fillmore residency), open the doors wide
to an in-action view of the band’s roots, influences and inspirations.

 

And for a collection of tapes that spans three decades, the sonic
consistency and flow across the discs amount to an achievement that’s equally
remarkable. For example, the aforementioned “DCAHNM” is followed immediately by
a 1978 recording of “Too Much Ain’t Enough,” but they sound like they could
have come from the same show. Another memorable pairing juxtaposes “Southern
Accents” with Wildflowers standout “Crawling
Back to You,” confirming a notion I’ve long held, that the Southern Accents and Wildflowers albums, though separated by a decade, are linked musically and thematically in
Petty’s mind. And in one of the most striking sequences, one that almost
singlehandedly sums up the Petty musical and thematic aesthetic, you get “Even
the Losers”/”Here Comes My Girl” (1980) followed by “A Thing About You” (1981),
“I’m In Love” (1982), “I’m A Man” (2006) and “Straight Into Darkness” (1982) –
an entire lifetime’s worth of defiance, bliss, celebration, swagger and
heartbreak rolled into a 25-minute mini-set.

 

In the latter tune, originally from 1982’s Long After Dark, Petty sings:

 

There was a little
girl, I used to know her

I still think about her,
time to time

There was a moment
when I really loved her

Then one day the
feeling just died…

I don’t believe the
good times are over

I don’t believe the
thrill is all gone

Real love is a man’s
salvation

The weak ones fall,
the strong carry on…”

 

It’s a telling number that, like “American Girl,” has a
universality sunk deep into its sonic and lyric hooks, and it’s emblematic of
the many musical riches contained on The
Live Anthology
. Listening to the box is like immersing oneself in a sea of
sense memories. Indeed, as a songwriter Petty’s sometimes been accused of
having an unvarnished nostalgic streak. (You could make a similar case for
Springsteen.) But there’s a difference in nostalgia for the sake of cheap,
fleeting emotion, and nostalgia that seeks to extract something that’s true and
pure from a previous life in order to find clarity within the present one. The
present’s never quite as clear-cut as we like to tell ourselves it is.

 

I reckon that’s something else Petty and I have in common. We
both realize that to survive and move forward you often have to escape your
current circumstances – after all, it’s a
great big world, with lots of places to run to –
but only a fool would try
to erase the past. Luckily, I’ll always have my southern accent to remind me of
mine.

 

Standout Tracks: You seriously don’t expect me to pick just 2 or 3 from a 6-CD collection, now, do you? FRED MILLS

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