American boy

The art of channel surfing is underrated. To the inexperienced, it can be a cornea-scorching exercise in futility. But for those of us who donate a goodly amount of our paycheck to the cable company — and have done so ever since music television became a reality — there's a surefire way to resist the urge to wander endlessly though the ocean of bad TV. It's a channel called VH-1 Classics and, hey, kind of like sex — even when it's bad, it's still pretty good. Sometimes it's fantastic.

A few years ago, while listening to the hum of the TV from the other room, an episode VH-1's casual living-room session concert Storytellers came on. The episode featured Tom Petty, who provided a steady stream of reliably good background noise, but when the song "Room at the Top" came on, something clicked. What was this song? Why hadn't I heard it before? Turns out it was a single from 1999's Echo, one of Petty's worst-selling albums. So-called flop or not, there was no denying the song's palpable magnetism — it was more than the tune, it was imagery of the most devastating kind. And it was new.

Every lyric brought you closer to some dark, used-to-be-swanky-30-years-ago restaurant-bar that rotates just above the smog near Disneyland. You could see Los Angeles in the distance, and wanted to keep it that way.

I got a room at the top of the world tonight /I can see everything tonight/I got a room where everyone/Can have a drink and forget those things/That went wrong in their life

I wish I could feel you tonight, little one/You're so far away/I wanna reach out and touch your heart/Yeah, like they do in those things on TV/I love you/Please love me, I'm not so bad/And I love you so

The triggers-memories-that-still-hurt affectations are usually left to the the Mark Eitzel, Vince Guaraldi, Tom Waits, Paul Westerberg or Elvis Costello varieties of modern music, but Petty, when you least expect it, can rip your heart out with the best of them. And yes, the unlikely messiah, in all his scrawny adenoidal grandeur, makes it feel good to be hit hard.

It's safe to say that Petty has consistently reminded us that we should be grateful for a good song. He has never fallen off the radar.

Fast forward to this summer's coolest gig: There's got to be a reason why Frank Black, the Strokes, John Mayer, Pearl Jam and Trey Anastasio took time out of their own summer schedules for a chance to warm up Petty's lawn ticket-holding early birds. Let's be honest, no one is paying pavilion prices to see Julian Casablancas kick out the jams in broad daylight at DTE. People want to hear the Heartbreakers level the joint with "Refugee"; they want to air-guitar their way through "The Waiting"; and — if the rumors are true — they want to shed a tear during the "Leather and Lace" duet with Stevie Nicks. Unlike most summer concert-goers, they actually want to hear the recent stuff. Bust out the Bics.

So clearly it's time to stuff that moldy oldie classic rock designation — the Heartbreakers might be celebrating their 30th anniversary, but Petty's brand-new album Highway Companion is proof that knack doesn't diminish with age. Companion finds Petty answering questions born of years of hard living, and catching up with himself and his place in life. After spending the past few years recovering from a debilitating breakup and rumored heroin use, the new songs wax autobiographical. They're about finding purpose amid chaos and are as earthy and poetic as anything Petty has ever written before. Like all of his records, Companion embraces the lost art of pacing a record from start to finish.

The song, "Square One" — which also appeared on Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown sound track — says it all:

Square one/ my slate is clear/Rest your head on me my dear/It took a world of trouble, it took a world of tears/It took a long time to get back here

It's a dark victory/You won and you are so lost/Told us you were satisfied/But it never came across

He swears he's done giving interviews and pimping records to the media, and yet the buzz is strong. Petty recently received Billboard Magazine's Century Award; he's now making a documentary about the band with Academy Award-winning director Peter Bogdanovich; the Heartbreakers headlined last month's Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee; Petty has his own satellite radio show on XM; and he's still doing voiceover work for his recurring role of Lucky on the fantastically subversive TV show King of the Hill.

It's hard to imagine where Petty even finds the time to write music at all, let alone one of the most prolific catalogs in rock 'n' roll history. And at this point, it's just a matter of holding off between records.

Until then, we'll see you in the lawn seats. The waiting is the hardest part, anyway.


Tuesday, Aug. 8, at the DTE Music Theatre, Clarkston. Call Ticketmaster at 248-645-6666 for tickets.

John Liccardello is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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