Tom Petty living up to promise
By Plain Old Feej
The Sou'wester - November 20, 1981
If I had not, as a young girl, seen a grainy snapshot of Chuck Negron singing "Pieces of April" with a Samoan priest my attitude toward contemporary rock would probably not have become so stand-offish. In fact, I -- wait, forget I mentioned that.
Me, I'm a woman in love... and you will be too, after you rush out and buy Tom Petty's latest (and fourth) LP, "Hard Promises." This latest effort, and his recent collaboration with Stevie Nicks on her solo album "Belladonna," has placed "the Heartbreakers" in the higher echelons of rock society, with Petty himself emerging as an extremely accomplished and capable producer. Even more precision has gone into "Promises" than his last smash album "Damn the Torpedoes." Surely Backstreet Records must be counting their chickens, and believe me, they've hatched -- with this effort, Petty turns a cult following into mass adoration.
The first side opens with "The Waiting," also first to be released as a single. Right away, Petty's continuing worship of the Rickenbacker 12 string electric comes prancing out of the speakers. He seems to have a habit of writing songs that are always best after the fifth time in a row, and "The Waiting" is no exception. "Promises" boasts an increased use of Benmont Tench's keyboard expertise (who also, incidentally, worked extensively on "Belladonna") and his work here is especially apparent in these first two tracks, the second being "A Woman In Love," which could arguably stand as Petty's most personal statement to date. I almost bawled the first time I heard this song. "She laughed in my face, told me goodbye/Said 'Don't think about it, you can go crazy.'" I mean, that's how the song starts. This is brutal frankness at its best ... and realistic, too. No wimpiness at all. Hell, just think what Barry Manilow would have done with stuff like this. In fact, "A Woman in Love" reminds me of Petty's previous smash "Here Comes My Girl." Petty can mumble with the best of 'em. He makes Bob Dylan sound like Boris the Spider. Only someone who's experienced as much sexual rejection as, say, the editor of this newspaper could have power-penned something of this type.
I can't help but think that "Nightwatchman," the next track, is about Petty's struggling years as a nobody -- "I got potential, I could be just what you need" -- Hey, we dig. Some of us are still trying to get out of this damn school.
"Something Big," doesn't, I'm afraid, live up to its sexual connotations. I think. But it is one of the best slow songs Petty has offered yet (knocked out by the classic "Breakdown," which appeared on his first album). Some critics have called it hollow, but heck, I like this song so much, I'm gonna buy it some dinner.
Side one finished with "Kings Road," which exemplifies one of Petty's problems -- repetition. For some unknown reason, Tommy occasionally deems it necessary to prove he is kin to Chuck Berry, which, if he wasn't so fairskinned, I might be inclined to believe. Like the second side of "Torpedoes," Petty begins to apply late 50's early 60's leads to everything in sight.
Aside from this, however, side one emerges unscathed.
Side two presents us with "Letting You Go," and some really vintage Petty lyrics. "There's no one as honest as those in pain." Hey, this guy is really troubled!
Stevie Nicks could have written "A Thing About You" for pal Petty (although sharing vocals on "Insider," Nicks claims no literary responsibility) judging from her public statements concerning him. "I've never felt any sexier than when I was on stage working with him (Petty)," she said in Rolling Stone Magazine. Of course, it could just as easily be the other way around. "Baby, you hold some strange control over me/Yeah it's so wild it hypnotizes me." Hell, if you really want to get interpretive, you could say that the word "hypnotizes" denotes dedication to Fleetwood Mac's smash hit "Hypnotized." Of course, we could also start another "Paul is dead" rumor, but let's not be ridiculous.
"Insider" is beautiful -- belongs with "Old-Fashioned Love Song" as a classic. Nicks is just as individualistic a singer as Petty, and their voices are surprisingly compatible. Unlike "Gold," her last effort with singer/songwriter John Stewart, Stevie is placed more in the background, and adds instead of detracts. And Petty outdoes himself here -- "Insider" is the best she-ditched-me-my-face-is-in-the-mud-I-feel-like-an-asshole-God-I'm-in-pain song I think I've ever heard. Speculate on the kind of experience that could produce lyrics like "it's a circle of depression/it's a hall of strangers/it's a cage without a key/you can feel the danger/and I'm the one who ought to know/I'm the one left in the dust/yeah I'm the broken-hearted fool/who is never quite enough." This man needs some love.
"The Criminal Kind" sucks as a song, and would as a movie, an off-Broadway play, a trashy novel, and a senior thesis also. BZZZZ. Next contestant.
The album closes with another crooner (what's happening?!) albeit the Star Trek beginning had be looking at my speakers for signs of nuclear radiation. "You Can Still Change Your Mind" has Petty complaining again, but at least it's for the whole world this time, and not just himself. "It's going to be another hard night/you wanna take it all alone." Martyrdom at its best.
I think in time -- perhaps by the conclusion of their aborted tour -- that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers may become as greatly a touted in-concert experience as The Stones, The Who, Springstreen and The Kinks. From what I can tell, they may be candidates already. Earlier this year, Petty exhibited an extraordinary understanding of what it takes to please a crowd. After three encores, Petty and friends excited, leaving a capacity crowd to scream for ten minutes after the lights had been turned on. A sweat drenched Petty returned to mass hysteria, announcing his intention to do one more number. It turned out to be a ten minute version of "Breakdown," which ended with Petty on his knees, eyes closed, head thrown back whispering, "It's all right - it's all right... I love you." I don't know about you, but I'm waiting.