The Petty Archives

Pop Review: A Rock Rebel Who'll Never Give In
By Kelefa Sanneh
The New York Times - December 16, 2002

Let's start with the bad news: it seems Tom Petty has fallen in love.

It gets worse. The object of Mr. Petty's affection isn't a woman, or a drug. It's an ideology. His new album, "The Last D.J." (Warner Brothers), is dedicated to the rather banal proposition that rock 'n' roll is good and big business is bad. His concert at Madison Square Garden on Friday started with the album's title track, an easygoing rock song with lyrics attacking radio stations that "celebrate mediocrity."

When he announced, "This song's about living in corporate America," that meant it was time for a ludicrous bit of protest-pop called "Can't Stop the Sun." Mr. Petty dropped to a murmur to sing about how "There'll be more just like me who won't give in, who'll rise again." (Did he borrow the words, along with the quiet delivery, from a Steven Seagal movie?) Then the guitars hit, loud and blissful, as Mr. Petty crooned, "Can't stop the world from turning round and round and round."

Now for the good news: when he's not overcome by anti-mammonist ardor, Mr. Petty remains one of rock 'n' roll's great skeptics, which is to say one of rock 'n' roll's great conservatives. On Friday night he kept wondering why things couldn't stay the same. Why pursue a beautiful woman, when you know how it's going to end? Why experiment with new styles and tunes, when three chords sound fine?

Consider one of Mr. Petty's most popular songs, "Free Fallin'." It's a midtempo ballad, built around acoustic guitar, and people swayed and sang along. Yet the lyrics were defiantly unsentimental: "I'm a bad boy, 'cause I don't even miss her." And the tune was just as stolid as the narrator: the chord progression doesn't change when the chorus comes around.

Mr. Petty was accompanied by the Heartbreakers, his longtime band led by the guitarist Mike Campbell. More than once Mr. Campbell upstaged the singer: during one song the guitarist used exaggerated tremolo to turn virtually every note into a wild projectile. When Mr. Campbell played solos, Mr. Petty often approached the edge of the stage and posed like a guitar hero, even though he was only strumming chords.

Near the end of the night, Mr. Petty bragged about forgoing corporate sponsorship, as if to say that he had forged a more honest relationship with his fans. But like any good conservative he knows there are limits to the power of love: he treats his fans with respect, but he declines to satiate their appetite for intimacy. "You don't know how it feels to be me," he sang, and one got the sense he liked it that way.