Even The Losers Get Lucky Sometimes

A program director at a radio station I used to work at let me in on the great secret of music radio – which let me in on an even greater secret of psychology.

People tend to be most attached to whatever music they were listening to when they were going through or immediately after puberty.  Chalk it up to hormones; the same motivation that makes every little slight or setback into a dramatic battle royale also gives music – the most emotionally-direct of the arts – a special place in most peoples’ perceptions.  It’s why for any given generation, “Oldies” music tends to focus on the music that was current when the listener was between 12 and 21 years old; the part of their life when lifelong emotional buttons get put in place, ready for the pushing.

And if you do the math, it was about thirty years ago that a slew of music came out that, thirty years later, fits that bill for yours truly.  I think there’s a fair case to be made that each of them is an extraordinary record.  A few of the records are on the list because they are extraordinary, whether I cared for them much at the time or not.  But most of them are there because they stuck a flag in my psyche thirty years ago, and I can still see why today.

It was thirty years ago today that Tom Petty’s Damn The Torpedoes was released.

We’ll come back to that.


It’s hard to explain to people who weren’t there exactly what music was like in the late seventies.  There was great music, to be sure; and a lot of the music I turned my nose up at at the time, I’ve softened on over the years; Fleetwood Mac doesn’t bore me as stiff as it used to; bits and pieces of the treacly corporate pop of the era have grown on me since I was a pissed-off teenager.  And the bits and pieces of pop genius that leaked back out to me after years of sleeping on ’em have occasionally made me shake my head and wonder what I was thinking.

But still, with all that, the mainstream in 1979 was a dismal place.  Linda Ronstadt was the mainstream.  Billy Joel was edgy stuff.  A generation of nebbishy California singer-songwriters – Robert John, Sammy John, Roger Voudouris, Alan O’Day, Rupert Holmes and a slew of other pre-MTV fodder – sold millions upon millions.

But most of it was dreary stuff; formulaic, mechanical pop treacle.  “Rock is dead”, sang The Who, and it kinda showed; and while rock may have lived on via the dinosaurian touring machines that dominated the industry of the day, rock and roll – the danceable, three-minute song you could dance to or sing along with or pump your fist to – was on the ropes.

Oh, sure – there was Springsteen – who had roared back from three years’ legal limbo the previous year with Darkness on the Edge of Town, the second installment in “The Holy Trinity” that started with Born to Run and would end with The River in 1980 – but he didn’t exactly light up the Top 40 singles charts.  Bob Seger was hitting on all cylinders – Night Moves was a huge smash as an album and as a single, but Seger was a palpable outlier.

And then, thirty years ago today, came Damn the Torpedoes.

I hadn’t personally had much of an opinion of Tom Petty; I only knew of him through a lukewarm review of his second album, You’re Gonna Get It, a sophomore slump that shamed many artists’ debuts.

So, truth be told, the Halloween release date passed without my noticing.

But a little less than two weeks after the album’s release, on November 10, 1979, the band appeared on Saturday Night Live.  Buck Henry hosted that night, and he introduced “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers!”, and I watched as a scruffy, Strat-slinging Petty counted Stan Lynch into the opening drum kick to “Refugee”. by four counts into the song, as Ben Tench’s howling Hammond B3 led the band through a dark, edgy reading of the soon-to-be classic, I muttered to myself “Damn.  I love this”.  In as many words.  Mike Campbell played the interlacing lead guitar parts like God and Chuck Berry and Keith Richard had created them to be played; sparely, economically, not a wasted note or a dropped impact.  And Petty bit off every word, every teeth-clenched yelp, like it was now or never.

Or that’s how I remembered it.

Via the miracle of YouTube, I actually found that performance; it’s the first time I’ve seen it since that chilly night  thirty years ago:

(NBC Universal, curses opon them, blocked the video)

(Update 2 – someone else posted it)

Youtube has the potential to deflate an awful lot of adolescent memories; things that seemed so amazing back then often ring a little duller today.

Not this one.  Oh, Petty sounds a little hoarse; he has a little trouble hitting the high notes.  The band drops a note or two here and there.  The drums are badly miked; it sounds like Stan Lynch is playing on empty Cap’n Crunch boxes. I watched it, and thought “this ran into me like a runaway supertanker thirty years ago”.

But I can see why I reacted the way I did.  I still do – thirty years and a whole lot of music and not a little jading later.   It was raw – like one of the garage bands I was playing in – yet it sounded polished.  Beyond that?  It had an emotional “snap” to it that, up to then, I just didn’t year on the radio.

The next morning, between Sunday School and church, I took $7 from my paycheck at the station, ran over to the record section at White Drug and grabbed the only copy in stock off the rack.  And four or five of us – Mike Aylmer and Matt Anderson and Keri Kleingartner, I think – sat in one of the classrooms and skipped church and listened to the whole thing on a cheap turntable, all the way through.

And it blew me away – but I didn’t know why until maybe ten years ago.

For many Americans educated in the public school system, Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers were the first real explanations of why Americans fought in World War II, and what they did.  And it served that purpose because they were among the first vehicles to make history accessible to people.

Damn the Torpedoes was similar.  It was a 37 minute and 36 second trip through the best of American rock and roll since the Beatles had come and gone, without filtering it through all the baggage of the concept of the Rock Star.

Refugee sounded like The Band with the twang beaten out and the grit pounded in.  “Here Comes My Girl” was the Byrds via the bayou.  “Louisiana Rain” sounded like an outtake from Exile on Main Street, replacing Mick Jagger’s verbal posturing with Petty’s laconic backwater drawl. “Don’t Do Me Like That“, with its pulsing piano/organ attack, and “You Tell Me” with its dark, slinky refrain, both sounded like Stax/Volt songs that had gotten lost on a Gainesville backroad on a muggy night, wandered into a redneck roadhouse, grabbed a guitar and a bottleneck slide and a Budweiser, and stayed for the after-hours party.  (The simile is even better than I thought when I first wrote that last passage; Stax’ house bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn sat in on “You Tell Me”.  Can I call ’em or what?)

As to “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)”, “Century City”,and “What Are You Doin’ in My Life?” – well, they’re all Petty; little bits of every nook and cranny in the history of rock and roll, from Chuck Berry through the Stones, jumbled into Petty’s own supercharged pop-via-Memphis sensibility.  And unlike just about every other “album” of the era, there was not one second of “filler”.

The highlight, of course, was Even the Losers – long since my favorite song on the album, and in fact one of my favorite songs ever.

Is it possible that there was an American teenage boy of that era that couldn’t not only relate to the song, but know what it was about without needing to know the lyrics?

Well, it was nearly all summer we sat on your roof.
Yeah, we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon.
And I’d show you stars you never could see.
Baby, it couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me.

Damn.  That was me.  Well, if I smoked.  And had a girlfriend.  One that’d let me take her up on the roof.  Otherwise, just like that.  Someday.

Baby, time means nothing, anything seemed real.
Yeah, you could kiss like fire and you made me feel
Like every word you said was meant to be.
No, it couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me.

Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes.
Even the losers keep a little bit of pride.
They get lucky sometimes.

And amid Ben Tench’s howling B3 and Stan Lynch’s muscular, aggressive beat and Petty’s hard-chewed delivery, you could only pray to yourself “good Lord, yes – maybe we will get lucky sometime”.

It all led up to the bridge; Tench drops the Hammond to a lower register, and Lynch switches to the highhat:

Two cars parked on the overpass,
Rocks hit the water like broken glass.
I should have known right then it was too good to last.
God, it’s such a drag when you’re livin’ in the past.

It’s the kind of passage Springsteen wrote all the time.  But he wrote it through the lens of his crew of characters; Zero and Blind Terry, Mary with the waving dress, Crazy Janey and the Mission Man, Puerto Rican Jane, the visionaries in the parking lot underneath the Exxon sign – the whole cast of wild-eyed misfits with their ’69 Novas and their boardwalks.  And damn, it was good.

Seger?  Yeah, him too; “I woke last night to the sound of thunder/how far off, I sat and wondered.  Started humming a song from 1962…”.  Of course, I was born with two weeks left in 1962.  It wasn’t about me.  It was about a guy, Seger, who wrote a lot of great music, and it’s only resonated more as I’ve gotten older.

But Tom Petty’s secret?  He wrote that bridge about Mitch Berg, age 16, of Jamestown North Dakota.

And about you, fella, whoever you are.

And as I sat in that church classroom on November 11, 1979, as the chill fell outside and the congregation sang in the background, I thought it was a pretty neat trick.

And I still do.

28 thoughts on “Even The Losers Get Lucky Sometimes

  1. The thing about Damn the Torpedoes is that it sounds even better now. Petty was an ace Roger McGuinn imitator when he started out but by then he’d done what all the great rockers had done — taken the influences of his predecessors and synthesized them into something else. And Petty has had a hell of a career — he’s been consistently good, which is really hard to do.

  2. Imitator, you say? Outright stole, he did.

    On Full Moon Fever, Petty included a near note-for-note xerox duplicate of The Byrds “Feel A Whole Lot Better” without ever being accused of being a copycat.

    Petty is also the only one living that can play a 12-string Rick without being accused of sounding “just like The Byrds,” buttressing your “synthesized them into something else” point, Mr. D.

    Proving again: the good ones imitate, the great ones steal.

  3. Look at the characters Springsteen sung about in the 70s: you could pretty much guarantee they were Jersey or East Coast types. That’s what he did.

    Petty took those angsty characters and made them more generic. The Boss didn’t realize he was singing for a wider audience until later.

    To say the late seventies was bad is putting it mildly. It was closer to searching for a diamond in a septic tank. There were nuggets, but you really had to search for them.

  4. I know this is going to date me, but they had the best B-sides of 45 records. INXS had some interesting B-sides, but “Nightwatchman”, “Gator on the Lawn” and my personal favorite “Heartbreakers Beach Party” are all sweet.

  5. Wow – I remember Gator and Beach Party! Great songs!

    And I always preferred the flip side of “Hungry Heart” (which was “Be True”, for those who weren’t keeping track) even to the A-side!

  6. According to your theory, my tastes were formed in the seventies, and the popular music of that time had an enormous influence on my musical tastes. In exactly the opposite sense of what you suggest.

    The Beetles broke up. The Brothers Gibb started singing falsetto. KC and the Sunshine band started winning gold records with the most gawdawful crud.

    And on my 12th birthday my parents gave me a multi-disk set of the great violin concertos – and I sat down and really listened to Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins for the first time.


    Only once, in the next ten years, was I forced to listen to popular music again, when a date dragged me out to see “Saturday Night Fever”. When the eighties came along, I dipped my toes in the water, again, so to speak. Cindi Lauper, Madonna, the Bangles?

    So I skipped out for another ten years. I’d thought the music of the 70’s sucked, and of the 80’s sucked. Come the 90’s and it was even worse. So I finally gave up.

    The music “industry” is dying. And good riddance.

  7. J,

    It’s not my theory; it’s a theory that radio programmers have lived and died by for almost sixty years. And not only has the market largely borne it out, but psychology largely agrees.

    And there are plenty of exceptions. You’d be one of them, as you conscientiously remind us every time the topic turns to pop music :-), at least as re the pop music industry.

    Me? I have one foot in and one foot out. I started playing cello probably 2-3 years before I got my own radio or bought my first record. There is plenty of classical music that’s just as imprinted on me from that age as the pop stuff; Tchaikowskii, Haendel, Chopin, Beethoven and Bach, Mahler, Hayden, and for whatever reason lots of Corelli.

    And Tom Petty, and the Who, the Kinks, Springsteen, Richard and (until 1982) Linda Thompson, Emmylou Harris…

    …and the first Bangles album, now that you mention it.

    Look, J – and I say this with a nudge and a good-humored wink – if you want to harrumph and declare yourself above it all, by all means do (and I certainly do the same with other genres of art). I could point out what you’re missing…

    …but I’ve got what I like, and that’s all that really matters to me.

    And yep. The music industry is dying. For better or worse.

  8. Fleetwood Mac?!?! Let’s see, in the 70s they made “Kiln House” and “Penguin” and “Future Games” and “Bare Trees” and “Mystery to Me” and “Heroes are Hard to Find.” Some of the most memorable music of the era.

    Oh. What’s that you say? You’re talking about that OTHER Fleetwood Mac?

  9. I’m trying to remember how long it’s been since I ran into a Fleetwood Mac snob.

    Reminds me of the good ol’ days, when the Danny Kirwin fans would go mano a mano with the Bob Welch fans, or when the Jeremy Spencer and Peter Greene fans would slug it out with each other until one group or the other would run for their lives.

    Fleetwood Mac – the only group in any performing art with more turnover than “Law and Order”.

  10. I was 12 in 1979, and Damn the Torpedoes had a similar impact on me.

    Never could get the Rick sound, but then again, all I played were Les Pauls.

    Petty was great for me through Hard Promises, and for some reason, especially Long After Dark, then, just too far from the formula I guess (although I enjoyed “Runaway Trains”). I understand that all artists evolve, but all that Alice In Wonderland imagery was a bit much. The Wilburys were fine, because of the American influence of Orbison, but after Orbison died, more of the British influence of George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne left me unsatisfied.

  11. For better or worse, my musical awakening came in 1979, sparked by Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, ELO’s Discovery, Styx’s Cornerstone, and, for reasons unknown, Dionne Warwick’s single “I’ll Never Love This Way Again”

  12. Juanito,

    I also absolutely loved everything through Long After Dark – in fact, “Straight Into Darkness” is another of my favorite songs. I don’t know if I started losing interest around “Southern Accents”, or if my interests were just getting pulled into too many directions.

    But I did absolutely love “Pack Up The Plantation”. And lately, I’ve been listening to Southern Accents a lot more; the title cut and “Rebels” resonate with me in a way they didn’t before (although I did pretty brazenly kype the riff to “Rebels” for one of my own better songs…)

  13. Jeff,

    Oddly, that was the stuff I kinda rebelled against at the time – although I’ve started appreciating Supertramp and ELO a lto more in recent years.

    Styx and Dionne Warwick, not so much.

    (Always loved that Dennis Miller bit – “If Dionne Warwick’s psychic friends are so good, how come they didn’t tell her her career was going to head into the toilet faster than [insert one of Miller’s opaque-yet-hilarious pop culture references for “utter failure”, which I can’t remember at the moment”])

  14. My appreciation for Styx improved a bit after hearing Ted Nugent and the Damn Yankees cover some Styx songs. Specifically Renegade was nice after being roughed up a bit by Nuge, with a garage feel to it. But you haven’t witnessed music appreciation until you’ve heard the Damn Yankees sound check Babe, Come Sail Away and the chorus of Mr. Roboto. All performed with deadly serious intent – NOT.

    Honestly, Tommy Shaw is a talent. If you check in on 1995’s Shaw Blades’ Halucenation with its country twang, or Shaw Blades’ quick follow up (2007 – only 12 years) Influence you’ll find some stunning harmony, and some significant 12 string playing. Never could figure out a 12 string myself, and can’t really be bother to invest much in Styx, but Shaw’s projects are worth a listen.

  15. Juanito,

    Yeah, I always figured Shaw was better than Styx at large. Never listened to much Shaw/Blades (although both of ’em are pretty unjustly maligned), but Shaw was always a great guitar player. And if Styx ever had songs I liked that didn’t suck – “Blue Collar Man”, “Boat On A River” and a few others – chances were good (like, 100%) that Shaw wrote ’em.

  16. James “JY” Young from Styx ain’t too bad, but Tommy’s the really heart of it all.

    Unfortunately, a number of JY’s songs are the same. Still fun, but not too much variation.

  17. JY could play the guitar. In fact, I”ll grant ’em this – all the guys in Styx could play. Really good.

    But once you put Dennis DeYoung and his preening voice and his five hundred songs fixating on how awful it was to be a rock star and what dupes we were to lust after it (even if we, like, weren’t) and his friggin’ robots, it’s all over.

  18. Did I miss the part about Led Zep?!?!?!? Old Aerosmith? Skynard?

    Other than that, mITCH, good post. Petty keeps on rockin’. Great stuff.

    Long live rock!

  19. Dennis DeYoung is touring with some, I dunno, roadshow, and has had my old friend and fellow Sacramento native, former Night Ranger Guitarist Jeff Watson out with him. Jeff is an amazing player, and has significant Classical chops as well, but everything I’ve ever heard about DeYoung is that he’s just an overbearing ass. Jeff’s quite the lefty, and I’d love to see him play some different pieces, but there is no way I’d ever pay to listen to Denis DeYoung.

    Shaw and Blades together hit some fantastic harmonies. More so on the Hallucination CD from 95. Blades’ solo CD from 2004 was nice. Basically pure Blades crafted pop with a rock edge. Kind of an aggressive Beatles sound. He had a ton of Northern California guys sitting in, which is probably why I enjoyed it. He really doesn’t get much credit for his bass work, which is disappointing, and his voice is unique in that he can loiter in those high registers with Shaw, yet growl out a cover of AC/DC live (which is fun). I guess everyone gets pigeonholed. I just enjoy the heck out of that combination of Nugent, Shaw, and Blades. When most people I knew heard about the Damn Yankees back in 89 their reaction was invariably “what?!”

    What I failed to mention in my previous comment was that all of the Styx covers in the Damn Yankees sound checks where DeYoung songs, with lead vocals provided by Nugent. Such elegant taunting!

  20. Mitch, I’m still cracking up over your “Fleetwood Mac snob” comment.

    Personally I always liked Welch the best of the interregnum guitarists (between the mighty Green and Lindsay Buckingham), but Kirwan, Spencer, and Bob Weston all had their moments. And you’ve got to be a blockhead to think that the Mac sucked the minute Greenie ran off with his marbles.

    Anyway, I have appropriated your comment for the masthead of “Schmaltz und Grieben.” Cheerio!

  21. Alois – that comment on your masthead has been making my day for, what, six years now? Hah!

    And I’ve been broadening my horizons as re a lot of music from the era for a while now. I used to be kinda dogmatic about it; not so much these days. I have one of my patented long series’ on the topic coming up soon – but I may wait until I’m done with my “Albums of Thirty Years Ago” series before I bite that one off.

  22. I’ll be looking forward to it.

    It’s obvious from your passion for music (we’re both guitarists, BTW, although I have never touched a bagpipe) that Petty, Springsteen, the Houserockers, Seger et al. mean as much to you now as they did, um, “back in the day.”

    For some reason, none of those guys strike the nerve in me they used to–the sole exception being Seger’s “Live Bullet” album. (And maybe Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love title track.)

    I’m several years older than you, though, and cut my teeth on Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service.

    All of which I listen to a LOT these days.

    –Hey, wait a minute!

  23. Tom grew mightily in my estimation when he played “Won’t Back Down” in the concert for NY after 9/11.
    And I think “Into the Great Wide Open” deserves to be on anyone’s list of Great American songs.

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