Better Than: Having one foot in the grave.
Imagine Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers drop a new LP, and it’s just killer. Not just “killer” in that Echo or Mojo way, as in a killer document of a killer band doing what it was hatched to do. I mean in that Wildflowers or Full Moon Fever way, that damn near universal way, the songs so urgent with defiant life they could haul you up out of a coma. Imagine Tom Petty puts out a new record so vital and affecting that it would be adored by anyone who has ever before liked a Tom Petty song, even just “Free Fallin.'”
Now ask yourself, “How would anyone ever hear it?”
There’s nothing new about rock and rollers touring on long after they’ve outlived their hitmaking potential. What is new is the bewildering fact that still-significant artists like Petty or Springsteen have somehow outlived their own radio formats. You can still hear “Wildflowers” on Classic Rock, on those playlists that the wooly mammoths grooved to as the tar bubbled up around them, but if there were a new song that sounded like “Wildflowers” the only stations on terrestrial radio that might possibly play it would have to label it country. In fact, country already has a “Wildflowers”: Brad Paisley’s “Ticks,” which cops to ripping off Petty right there in the chorus.
Petty made sure nobody mistook anything in the first of his four Beacon Theatre shows (we’ll be back tonight, too) for Nashville. He opened with a good hour of album tracks as swampy and fucked-up as the Northern Florida he hails from, searching, bruised-up rockers like “Love Is a Long Road,” “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” and “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It).” Maybe he figures if radio won’t play him now, he may as well play the ones it wouldn’t even play back in the day. What would you do if in 15 years you somehow went from top-of-the-world rock star to Wynton Marsalis-like practitioner of an un-commercial art?
Deep cuts that cut deep, last night’s long run of dirges laid bare the early Heartbreakers’ true place in rock history: the exact middle ground between the ’70s studio-slick southern rock and the desperate blurt of the punk to come. “I don’t like it!” Petty yowled, on record and at the Beacon, the words hocked up out of his chest. Folks hoping for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” might have shouted the same.
And all that was before lead guitar hero Mike Campbell uncorked the soaring hurt of his lead line on “Good Enough,” off 2010’s cock-rocking Mojo, the swampiest of all this swamp rock, a strangled White Album-style blues as soaked though with humid misery as the cottonballs my St. Louis grandmother used to wedge into the holes in her screen door each summer. Like much of that first hour, this was superb if you like this kind of thing.
Three songs in Petty half apologized for all the heartache, and he even offered up an ace “Won’t Back Down” as a sop to the Greatest Hits crowd. But make no mistake: There was no oversized novelty Mad Hatter headgear coming. During a soupy space jam deep into “Mr. Tweeter and the Monkey Man”– yes, the Traveling Wilburys slog he co-wrote with Bob Dylan — there was plenty of time to wonder at the impossible number of fucks that Petty does not give. You know all that dark matter scientists can’t find even though it makes up most of the mass of the universe? It’s nothing but those fucks.
Petty’s in fine voice — he still sounds like a cartoon sheep imitating a southern Bob Dylan — but even finer iconoclasm. The mood lightened, at last, 11songs in with a tempered, unplugged “Rebels,” a new arrangement touched with Sunday morning, followed by low-key string-band charmers “To Find a Friend” and “Angel Dream.” (Plus a hymn-like cover of Little Feat’s “Willin,'” honeyed up by Scott Thurston’s back-up vocals.)
Those were grand but topped by “Melinda,” a better Dylan song than the one he wrote with Dylan. Powered along by Campbell’s electric mandolin, this spare, rollicking, haunted original (only available on Petty’s excellent The Live Anthology) could pass for a cover of some long-gone folk song — a cover that builds into Bad Plus-style piano/drums not-quite-jazz ensemble-jamming mayhem from Benmont Tench and Steve Ferrone.
Hits “Refugee,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” and “American Girl” seemed to win back crowd members who had drifted; the Heartbreakers bashed out the latter two songs with speed and fire enough to convince us that they still find something new in them, that the music is something these guys still make together rather than something they just perform night after night.
Gnomic, cheerful Petty didn’t say much. His run of Beacon Shows won’t be for everyone, but they are for him, and his band, and for anyone eager to be reminded that the genial stoner of “Last Dance With Mary Jane” is still that same scrappy, indomitable Gainseville kid, the one with a screaming guitar and a world to defy.