The Petty Archives

On the scene: Petty's superpowered critique
By Debora Shaulis
Youngstown Vindicator - October 10, 2002

What's that draped across Tom Petty's shoulders -- Superman's cape?

It'll take super-human power to permeate the gray matter of members of the music industry, but that's what Petty and the Heartbreakers want to do with the new CD, "The Last DJ." Petty wrote every song, and no one escapes his X-ray vision -- not the money-grubbing record company executives (the focus of the cynical song "Joe"), the power-hungry radio station owners (the reason for the title track), the stars who allow their talent to be superseded by marketing strategies, nor the folks who sit in the most expensive concert seats.

A sample of Petty's lyrics from the song "Money Becomes King":

If you reach back in your memory
A little bell might ring
'Bout a time that once existed
When money wasn't king
If you stretch your imagination
I'll tell you all a tale
About a time when everything
Wasn't up for sale.

That would be the days before corporate support of artists, ballparks and concert spaces became so important that, in many cases, the sponsors get top billing on tours.

If you think Petty's criticism translates into boring, depressing music, think again. It's actually refreshing to listen to someone of Petty's stature bemoan the very things that irritate me about today's music scene.

Farm Aid
Exactly what bothers me came into focus last month during Farm Aid 2002 at Post-Gazette Pavilion near Pittsburgh. The goal: to use the power of music to remind consumers that the nation's family farmers are going hungry while trying to feed the rest of us. What could be more noble?

Still, I left the event more annoyed than inspired. Stars were plentiful, but statements of support were few and far between. What most performers sad during a preshow press conference were variations of the same theme (with co-founders Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young and alt-country singer Gillian Welch offering the most personal observations). Most of them spoke briefly, if at all, about farming during their short sets. It wasn't until Dave Matthews and Young took the stage that farmers' issues were discussed at any length.

Were these artists at Farm Aid simply because their managers thought it would be good exposure for them? After all, the show was sold out, CMT cable TV covered most of it live, and hundreds of journalists were on hand.

(Mind you, the stars did use their press conference time to demand that critics focus on the farmers, not on the performers' song lists or wardrobes.)

Crowd reactions
Did they think the audience would tire of the pro-farmer message after a while? That's a well-founded fear. I was jockeying for a better viewing position from the lawn during Young's superb set when a young woman walking behind me made the loud, somewhat slurred declaration that Yong had "been on this farm s--- all night." A female friend tried to tell her that the farmers' plight was the reason for the concert. "Yeah, but he's been on this farm s--- all night," Ms. Broken Record replied.

In so many ways, people treated Farm Aid as just another concert. There were scores of people who were slumped over picnic tables and curled into fetal positions on the grass; they had partied too hard. There was at least one fight on the lawn. For every walkway display about Farm Aid or farming, there were two more stands where you could buy jewelery or consultĀ  a fortuneteller. That's not counting the food concessions.

Yeah, I know. A benefit concert is still a concert, and people just want to have fun. I guess Neil Young should have written a melody to go with his "shop with a conscience" message.

Petty has put his point to music. Don't avoid it like kryptonite. "This record is dedicated to everyone who loves music just a little bit more than money," Petty wrote in the liner notes.

That's like choosing between the Hall of Justice and the Legion of Doom.