Petty's Rocking The Joint (joint?)
By Roger Catlin
Hartford Courant - March 30, 1995
He's an elder statesman now, a revered figure in rock. Alternative rockers respect him; classic rockers are thankful he's still around.
So it's a little strange to see Tom Petty, at 44, in a little hubbub involving drug references and censorship.
Petty received a Video Vanguard award, recognizing lifetime achievement for his work in rock and video, at the MTV Video Music Awards last year. His hangdog mug is one of the most familiar on the music channel. His career predates MTV by a few years, yet he has been a constant on the network, boasting a longer staying power than other onetime video stars, like Ric Ocasek.
More recently, Petty has become a hero among the slightly older viewers of the VH1 video channel, which played a lot of specials in conjunction with the release of his current album, "Wildflowers." VH1 first sold tickets to Petty's sold-out current tour, which plays the New Haven Coliseum Saturday.
Yet, with all his video savvy, Petty finds himself in a controversy usually reserved for rappers who extol things like "chronic," a high-powered marijuana. The issue arises from what seems like another good-natured, wry video by Petty in which, according to his press agent, we should be looking deeper, where "repeated viewings unveil a myriad of mysterious events -- some carnal, some criminal -- taking place in the background as Petty deadpans his performance." But it's there, in the dull sheen of the deadpan, that the controversy begins, in the very first chorus of "You Don't Know What It's Like":
Let me get to the point,
Let's roll another joint,
MTV advised Petty that, Video Vanguard or not, it would not broadcast the video with the slang reference to marijuana.
"Standards and Practices at MTV told Warner Bros. they would not show the video with the word 'joint' in it," Petty's press agent, Mitch Schneider, said in a statement. "Tom is aware of this -- and he's not pleased with this -- but there's no other information to report beyond this. The record company altered it for MTV."
Listen to the song on MTV, and Petty says: "Let's hit another joint." The word joint, of course, remains, but the context shifts. In slang, "joint" has a long and colorful history. First it referred to a place, then to marijuana and now, in the hip-hop world, it has come to represent some kind of production: A Spike Lee film is called a Spike Lee joint, for example.
Hip-hop culture has been most affected by a drug crackdown on the airwaves. Peripheral elements in rap videos by Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre have been "fuzzed" over to obscure marijuana-leaf necklaces or marijuana-leaf emblems on baseball caps. In most cases, such electronic smudging calls more attention to the items than they otherwise would have gotten.
But Tom Petty! This avuncular figure, now comfortably middle-aged with teens of his own, couldn't be more harmless. And here he is, getting his lyric reworked as if he were that twisted Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails or that addled young man named Beck (who does look like a nephew, come to think of it).
Even on VH1, where the viewers are presumably older and less impressionable, the word is slurred. Changing lyrics for TV is a grand tradition, of course; its most famous example is when the Rolling Stones were asked to change "Let's Spend the Night Together" to "Let's Spend Some Time Together" for the Sunday night "Ed Sullivan Show" in the '60s.
For those who want to paint Petty as a pothead, there's plenty of fodder. A line from his new video goes, "It's good to be high." And there are other recreational-drug references. The flip side of the "You Don't Know How It Feels" single is "Girl on LSD." And what about all those years of videos in which he dressed like the Mad Hatter character from those Lewis Carroll tales that have served as psychedelic touchpoints?
"I don't want to be seen as some advocate for dope," Petty said in brief comments about the matter to Musician magazine's Bill Flanagan. "It just seemed like something the character in that song would say."
Other writers, novelists especially, have gotten away with writing in the voice of a character for years, of course. But it's still something new for rock audiences to separate first-person comments by a singer/songwriter from the figure himself.
This was not the case, apparently, more than 20 years ago, when Harry Chapin was allowed to speak through the voice of his character in the song "Taxi," telling millions of listeners, "I go flyin' so high when I'm stoned."
"They let us sing it on 'Letterman,' " Petty said of his own single, which is hanging in on the Billboard Top 30 after 18 weeks.
But he rankled at the hypocrisy inherent in any further censorship, pointing out, "They run beer ads all night."