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)/
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.