The Petty Archives

Review: Tom Petty's Surrealistic Visions
By Peter Watrous
The New York Times - February 4, 1990

Of all the rock-and-roll stars from the mid-1970's who are still working, Tom Petty seems the least dated and the most eccentric.

Mr. Petty writes with a gorgeously creepy leer that infects even his happiest songs with a touch of paranoia and misanthropy. Combined with nicely stagnant tempos, his lyrics make his songs surreal. And his videos, which are inseparable from the songs, add to the surrealism by borrowing imagery from "Alice in Wonderland," using grotesque close-ups and capturing the already surreal pastel blankness of southern California.

But Mr. Petty can be other things, too, and on Wednesday night at Nassau Coliseum he and his band, the Heartbreakers, managed to bring the natural good-time sounds of a bar band to an auditorium show. That is hard to do.

Mr. Petty, looking pale to the point of invisibility and surrounded by a stage set that included a huge stuffed bear, a stuffed alligator, lots of animal horns and a suit of armor, talked to his audience without condescension and possibly without a script. He divided his set between acoustic sections and harder electric-rock sections, including "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" by his pianist, Benmont Tench, and an untitled percussion piece on what looked like an electronic zither by the drummer, Stan Lynch. He also cheerfully played many of his hits.

Singing in an adenoidally declarative way that owed much to Bob Dylan and to the Byrds' Roger McGuinn, Mr. Petty offered "Free Fallin'," "I Won't Back Down," "Pray Tell" and other songs that had the audience singing along. The Heartbreakers were terrific. The quartet played some Petty songs at dirge tempos that let silence pour through the tunes, and at others times the drum and bass let loose together without the encumbrance of guitars.

Mr. Petty was at his best on "Don't Come Around Here No More," a nasty song directed at a woman no longer desired by the narrator. He repeated the title over and over, turning the words into a weird mantra that was miles away from the standard rock chant about love. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers made the case for rock's ability to convey meaning, which is also hard to do.