The media and fans have often considered 1999’s Echo to be Tom Petty’s “divorce album,” but after Warren Zanes’ book Petty: The Biography, it was clear that Wildflowers was the true divorce album. So then, what does that make Echo? Echo came out a full five years after Wildflowers.
“I’ve read that Echo is my ‘divorce album,’ said Petty, “but Wildflowers is the divorce album. That’s me getting ready to leave. I don’t know how conscious I was of it when I was writing it,” (Zanes 253). Howie Epstein was doing heroin as far back as ’85, and Petty, struggling with depression from his divorce, started using around ’96. Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s soundtrack for She’s the One was mostly Wildflowers outtakes and complied when Petty was “mostly isolated” and “not working at full strength.” It wasn’t promoted and was swept under the rug, (Zanes 260).
“I probably spent a month not getting out of bed, just waking up and going, ‘Oh fuck.’ Lying there,” said Petty. “The only thing that stopped the pain was the drugs. But it was stupid. I’d never come up against anything that was bigger than me, something that I couldn’t control. But it starts ruining your life. It went for a while before Dana and my family got involved. And Echo come in the middle of that mess. I’m lucky I came through. Not everyone does,” (Zanes 260).
During this time, Mike Campbell became the ship’s captain. Petty was only “halfway there, you know,” (Echo). Rick Rubin didn’t like the distance between Tom and the record. He left before it was mixed to work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
For Tom and the Heartbreakers, it was just easier to forget Echo because it reminded them of the darkness. Not only just in Tom, but also in watching Howie slip away: he wasn’t there for the photoshoot of the album cover. They waited for hours, but he was fading away.
Tom had been able to get clean by the time they toured for Echo. It’s likely that without the help of Dana, his family, and rehabilitation, that he may have died in his mid 40s. The band members, Howie’s friends, tried to push him into rehab multiple times. Drug counselors convinced the Heartbreakers that they were enablers and that they should let Howie go. During the tour, they struggled with keeping Howie from going into withdrawal. The only time they really saw him was during the show.
Adria Petty said, “It was a rocky moment near Echo. I think that record says a lot. It tells you everything that was going on in his head. I always laugh, because he’ll say ‘Oh, I divine these songs. They’re not really about anyone or anything.’ He’ll try to deflect the sentiment that’s right there in the albums. But they’re very autobiographical,” (Zanes 271).
Tom Petty told Dean Goodman that there are several songs on the album he didn’t remember writing at all; when he looked at the track list, he was completely unfamiliar with them.
With all of this in mind, perhaps Echo is the “Fighting for Hope” album.
“Wildflowers,” being the self-described “divorce album” was the decision to leave. It was the liberation and declaration that it was “Wake up Time” and “Time to Move On.” Echo was the after effects. It was the depression, the heroin, and all of the hope and love the Dana brought to him.
The opening song, “Room at the Top” is often one of the songs, (Like “Walls” from She’s the One), that is regarded as an obscure favorite by fans. In 2004, Ron Blair admitted that his favorite Heartbreakers song was “Room at the Top,” a song he didn’t even play on.
Like “Room at the Top,” many of the songs on this album struggle with the guilt of feeling happy during such a dark time. Tom was alternating between these good, happy moments with Dana when she would come to LA, and the dark seclusion living alone out in his “chicken shack” near Will Rogers State Park.
“Free Girl Now” was a higher energy song about Dana and her boss who was sexually harassing her. Petty convinced her to leave her job there. It is interesting that he chose to write a song about her situation with being harassed; Tom was coming out of a relationship with his wife that was often abusive and it’s possible he saw Dana’s situation as worthy of a song, not only calling her “free” but in a sense, trying to convince himself of his own freedom.
“Lonesome Sundown” has a similar vibe to “Room at the Top” in that it inspires hope, despite the darkness. “Lonesome Sundown” and “Accused of Love” have similar themes which may be inspired by the rumor that Tom left his marriage to be with Dana. This rumor was perpetuated by his ex-wife, Jane, who had been suffering form mental illness for many years, perhaps even struggled with some elements of mental illness her whole life. Although Tom met Dana for the first time many years ago when Tom and Dana were both married to their previous spouses, they were never a couple until after Tom was separated from Jane for some time. Tom met Dana again by chance at a Johnny Cash concert after he left Jane. These songs, in a way, could be an artistic response to feeling judgement for trying to find some light in the darkness. One could also look at “Lonesome Sundown” and see the distance and hope for acceptance from his daughters. At the time, Adria was living on the other side of the country in Greenwich Village and taking care of her younger teenage sister.
Even the single, “Swingin,” is about a young woman fighting, changing, and struggling with hardship. In a detached way, this song also serves as a poignant, representational struggle.
The title track, “Echo,” is a transitional song which allows the listener to feel the repetition of pain through the years, but it operates as a lyrical jumble between current, past, and future. Lyrically, it is written like a stream-of-consciousness. There are lines which could be described as talking to his kids, his ex-wife, his future wife, and about his struggle with depression and addiction: “Well, I woke up right here / In a pool of sweat / With a box of pills and you / Yeah, and I'm gonna keep my head / I'm gonna keep my cool / Oh, I'm so in love with you / Yes and in another world nothing was like this / There may have been a girl / There never was a kiss.” The last two lines of this verse reflect the absence of love he felt in his first marriage, as seen in Wildflowers, the divorce album: “There's someone I used to see / But she don't give a damn for me.” (You Don’t Know How it Feels).
“Won’t Last Long” could be called a direct message toward his ex-wife. It’s easy for Petty to claim the songs are divine and aren’t particularly about anyone or anything, but often this kind of writing comes from our subconscious and we can look back at our poetry years later and the true meaning staring us in the face. As the saying goes, hindsight is always 20/20. “Won’t Last Long” seems like a raw, open wound, but in the face of the pain, it’s a message of reassurance. Tom Petty’s therapist once told him that “Wildflowers” was a subconscious effort to convince himself he deserved freedom and happiness. “Won’t Last Long” is a more direct voice of “reassurance” likely needed in this dark period of his life.
“Billy the Kid” functions quite like “Swingin.” It’s an upbeat song with detachment. Often, people may use detachment as a way to explain things without facing the rawness of it. An example of this is saying, “You know when you are feeling really low, and you just lay in bed for days,” rather than the raw, personal version: “I have been feeling really low, just laying in bed for days.” Often, detachment allows us to say things we otherwise might not say. In “Swingin” the speaker of the song is explaining the situation of a young girl. In “Billy the Kid,” the speaker likens himself to the infamous Western gunfighter. This allows Tom to sing, “Well, you caught me in the bedroom / Cotton fever in a sweat / I was fighting for recovery / But I wasn’t giving up yet / You offered no assistance / Yeah, you looked at me and you lied / Oh, it really stunned me / When you went to the other side,” without explicitly admitting to heroin abuse. Again, Tom’s incredible strength, determination, and hopefulness infiltrates the song: “Yeah I went down hard / But I got up again.”
“This One’s for Me” is a great example of trying to strive for inner happiness. We know that Tom was not happy in his first marriage and that it was not sustainable. Although leaving his marriage may have pushed him into a deep depression, he fought for a reason. There is a phrase that goes, “You cannot pour from an empty cup.” It means that you need to take care of yourself so that you can take care of others. Sometimes, we have deep fissures in our life which need attention. It isn’t selfish to put yourself first in order to heal. Although Tom’s oldest daughter, Adria, initially resented having to take care of her younger sister on the other side of the country, looking back on it, she realized that she took some of the burden off of Tom to help him heal. It was mature of her and there are always times in life when we must give and take in order to restore balance. It could be said that Petty was emotionally spent from giving so many years of his life to a relationship that was ultimately abusive and toxic. This is not to say that his first wife was a bad person (on the contrary, it doesn’t seem that she was), but everyone goes through their own personal struggles and everyone heals in a different way. Tom needed to heal from not only the abuse he sustained in his marriage, but from the childhood abuse of having a verbally callous father who physically struck him. In Warren Zanes’ biography, you can see the weight that slowly grew on Tom’s shoulders and then eventually erupted. “No More” feels like an extension of the sentiment in “This One’s for Me.” It’s a stance for his personal needs and a desire to see the weight lifted away. Similarly, the outtake “I Don’t Belong” shows a resistance to his old life and a need for freedom: “And it’s time that I stopped kiddin’ myself. I don’t belong. I don’t belong. I don’t belong to you.”
“Rhino Skin” is an open reflection on the sheer determination that it takes to live in the world, let alone a world like the one Petty was experiencing at the time. Sometimes, if you know the armor you need to fight, it can help you begin to push through. “Rhino Skin” is, in a sense, this declaration of strength and an admission of weakness which is often required to grow and move on: “If you listen long enough / You can hear my skin grow tough / Love is painful to the touch / Must be made of stronger stuff / You need rhino skin / To get to the end / Of the maze through this world.”
Of the whole album, it is perhaps the last song which is the most emotionally poignant, open, and representational of his struggles: “One more night, God I've had to fight / To keep my line of sight on what's real / One more day I fear I've lost my way / I don't know how to say what I feel / Someone better hurry I'm all alone / And I keep breaking down / Breaking down, you know? / No one ever taught me to be on my own / And I keep breaking down / Breaking down, you know? / One more night my eyes reflect the light / In the distance something bright appears / One more day it's too hard to explain / What goes on in my brain is not clear / Someone better hurry I'm all alone / And I keep breaking down / Breaking down, you know?” This song is an open, honest plead for help. But again, the sense of determination, strength, and resilience (possibly just plain stubbornness) of Tom’s ability to fight and remain hopeful shines through once again… one final time on the album: So hold on one more night / Hold out one more day / Hold on one more night / Hold out one more day / There'll be one more night and things will be made right / Again I'll hold you tight my dear / One more day and I'll collect my pay / And soon be far away from here.”
Often, depression is described as “the absence of hope.” But for all of the times Tom felt alone, hopeless, and broken, he got through it because he held out hope. He was able to find the strength to ask for help. He had the strength to be vulnerable and fight for hope.
5/4/18 UPDATE: I bought an old Pulse! magazine on eBay from 1999 where Petty is interviewed by Alan Di Perna who writes, "Despite its dark overtones, Echo isn't really a depressing album. The mood is more one of triumph over adversity..." (Page 36, Pulse! April 1999). Read it here. -Liberty