It has always been difficult for me to choose favorites. I like lots of stuff, and I have rarely been able to say without-a-doubt that my “favorite” something-or-other, is definitely so-and-so.
Recently I created a new playlist on my Zune (whatever, I love my Zune) with the intent of creating one of the greatest of all-time. Once I hit “shuffle” and started listening to said playlist, I had a bit of a personal realization.
After all these years I think I finally know who my favorite band is.
I am a music FAN. I love all kinds of music from blues to bluegrass, from rock to hip-hop, and everything in-between. I’m always thirsty to find new music, or just old music that is new to me, but I always end up finding my way back to what-I-now-know-is my favorite singer/songwriter/rhythm-guitarist, lead-guitarist, keyboard/pianist, bassist(s), drummer(s), and multi-instrumentalist of all time- I’m talking of course, about Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers (or TPATH for short), from Gainesville, FL.
I’m not here to tell you about their story, but you ought to check out Runnin’ Down A Dream (2007), a fantastic documentary (It’s on Netflix right now) that chronicles their history.
I’m here to tell you why (TO ME) they are the best ever.
It all begins and ends with the man himself, Tom Petty. As a songwriter his songs are perfect. Melody. Catchy choruses. LYRICS. For me the hardest part of writing a song is the damn lyrics. His seem effortless. They paint a vivid picture in the listener’s head, and are the perfect combination of storytelling and imagery. Here are lyrics from the song “Square One” from the 2006 album Highway Companion:
Had to find some higher ground
Had some fear to get around
You can say what you don’t know
Later on won’t work no more
Last time through I hid my tracks
So well I could not get back
Yeah my way was hard to find
Can’t sell your soul for peace of mind
Square one, my slate is clear
Rest your head on me my dear
It took a world of trouble, took a world of tears
It took a long time to get back here
Tried so hard to stand alone
Struggled to see past my nose
Always had more dogs than bones
I could never wear those clothes
It’s a dark victory
You won and you are so lost
Told us you were satisfied, but it never came across
His songs also tend to have an air of simplicity, but are also filled with thoughtful subtleties and restraint. All while still maintaining the raw and powerful essence of pure ROCK & ROLL. At this point you might be saying, “But Tom Petty has a weird voice, he isn’t a great singer,” but that’s where you’re wrong. Go back and listen to any of those early records (or THIS amazing live recording from 1982 of a song called “I’m In Love”), and he was hitting some crazy, hard-to-hit notes- with more precision and SOUL than some of the best singers in history. His voice has aged over the years for sure, but it’s still as soulful today as it ever was, if not more so. His ear for melody is unmatched. Something that sometimes gets overshadowed because of the lead-guitar, is that to have a truly great rock band you gotta have some solid rhythm guitar. TP is one of the absolute best rhythm guitarists I’ve ever heard- not-to-mention his sweet, sweet TONE! Once-in-a-while he’ll even bust out a really nasty lead that will make those hairs on the back of your neck stand straight up.
All of this, wrapped up into a guy who’s appearance doesn’t at all fit into the typical mold of what a”rock-star” should look like (let’s face it, he isn’t going to win any beauty contests), but if you’ve ever seen him live you know that he absolutely oozes sexuality. His masterful stage-presence completely captivates any and every audience worldwide, both big, and small. He has the crowd in the palm of his hand from start to finish- leaning in on every chord, and every word. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I think he might be magic.
Long before I started writing songs, I was a guitarist first. I still consider myself more of a lead-guitarist than anything else I do musically. My electric guitar heroes are some usual suspects like Hendrix, SRV, Freddie King, Duane Allman, Warren Haynes, and so on, but I’m here to tell you that if I had to choose just one electric guitar player for all eternity it would be Mike Campbell. His tone, his grace, his delicate- yet confident touch, his colorful rhythm, his restraint- and of course his face-melting distorted solos- whatever he does, it always fits PERFECTLY in the song without EVER overplaying. And those riffs! You can always tell the songs he co-wrote with TP by the rock riffs that sound so magical that it feels like there was never a time when they didn’t exist. Here is a perfect example on this track from the 2010 album “Mojo,” called “Good Enough,” co-written by Campbell.
They wouldn’t be a Heartbreakers without Mr. Benmont Tench. His skills on the keys are unmatched. Whether he is playing a slow-burning-then-escalating-to-a-huge-climax piano solo, (like THIS epic performance of a song he also co-wrote with TP called “Melinda” from 2003) or a simple- yet powerful Hammond B-3 organ part to add texture (check out THIS track from 2014’s “Hypnotic Eye” called “Shadow People” where Benmont gets to show off a little bit of everything- such a great track!)- his contributions are purely essential, and undeniable. He is also a great songwriter/producer, and has played with literally everybody. He released his first solo record in 2014 called “You Should Be So Lucky,” and it’s loaded with great songs, and some of the best players in the business. He is also a member of Watkins Family Hour, a bluegrass outfit with Sean and Sara Watkins, Fiona Apple, Don Heffington, Greg Leisz, and Sebastian Steinberg. Their eponymous debut came out in 2015, and it’s so good! I have to mention that Benmont is also the only one in the band that is active on Twitter, and Instagram, and is a great follow!
It’s impossible to talk about the two bass players without talking about the band’s timeline a bit. Ron Blair was the original bassist, playing from 1976 until 1982, and then again from 2002 until now. His rock-solid bass lines are powerful, and easily recognized. He had begun getting weary from non-stop touring, and decided to quit the band in 1982.
Blair was replaced by Howie Epstein. He hadn’t even been playing bass for very long when he joined, but then began studying it seriously, and became one of the best bassists of all-time. He was also a talented songwriter/producer in his own right, producing albums by John Prine, Eric Anderson, and Carlene Carter. Epstein found a natural style, which he said, “Emphasized simplicity, playing in the pocket, getting into a steady groove. I’ve always considered myself a good team player and that’s the way that the Heartbreakers operate. Everyone listens to what everyone else is doing musically.” Sadly he battled with drug-addiction for much of his adult life, and by 2002 had really deteriorated. He couldn’t physically play anymore, and was replaced by the man whom he himself had replaced 20 years earlier, Ron Blair. Tragically, the following year Epstein died from complications due to his chronic heroin use.
Side-note: Fuck heroin. I admit I have experimented with many different intoxicants in my life (most of which weren’t for me), but I have never, and will never touch the stuff. It’s pure evil.
Tom Petty said this about Ron Blair:
“It’s great having him [back] in the band. It reminds me of the old days just seeing him around… We hung out. We knew each other. And he was always the best bass player in town.”
There’s no Rock & Roll without drums. The Heartbreakers have had not one, but TWO of the best Rock drummers ever.
Original drummer Stan Lynch was (and I’m sure still is) a force-of-nature. I would call him a power-drummer- very precise, full of intensity, on-top of the beat- combined with an incredible singing voice (he sang all the harmonies until Epstein joined). Check out THIS 1978 TV performance of “Listen To Her Heart” that showcases Lynch’s drumming/singing throughout. Tom Petty said this about Stan Lynch:
“Stan was a little younger than us. But he was a very good drummer and he was really conscientious, and he worked really hard. And he sang as well. He sang harmony. He was like our main harmony singer in the days before Howie. He was a powerhouse onstage. He reminded me sort of [like] Keith Moon in a way. He was so powerful I used to say he had this fifth gear that he could go into and just really make everything explode. He was really good at that, and he knew the songs really well. He and I had incredibly good communication onstage; he could read the movement of my shoulder. He could go anywhere I wanted to go. He never took his eyes off me. Anything I did was accented on the drums. Any movement I made. We had great eye communication where I could turn around and look at him, and he knew just exactly what I wanted to do.”
Lynch and Petty famously fought quite a bit over the years, which culminated in Lynch’s decision to leave the band in 1994. Since, he has been a successful songwriter/producer, working with countless artists like The Blasters, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Scotty Moore- the list goes on and on.
Enter Steve Ferrone. What can I say, I love Steve Ferrone’s drumming. It reminds me of how my uncle used to play- just as deep-in-the-pocket as can be. He had an amazing career prior to joining, and still finds time to play in non-Heartbreaker projects as well. He has played with Average White Band, Chaka Khan, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, etc. Ferrone joined for the “Wildflowers” (1994) sessions, and has been in the band ever since. Check out THIS track from “Echo” called “Room At The Top,” that showcases Steve Ferrone at his best.
Last, but in-no-way least is multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston. Thurston plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, lap steel, ukelele, keyboards, harmonica, and since Epstein’s departure has taken over almost all of the harmony-vocal duties. He joined as a touring member in 1991, and Petty decided to keep him on for-good thereafter. Before that he had played with the likes of Iggy & The Stooges, Jackson Browne, and Bonnie Raitt among others. I LOVE his contributions to the band- he can fill any need musically for any song, whether it’s a subtle acoustic part, or the occasional fiery electric dual-lead with Mr. Campbell, or of course his many perfectly-placed harmonica solos. Said Petty, about Thurston:
“I was trying to get him out of the corner over there, because he always saw himself as a sideman—’I’m a Sidebreaker’—and he tried to stay over to the side. But we love him, he sings great with me, and we want him out there with us. He’s a good buffer between the rest of us. When we’re fighting or have some cliqueishness, he’s good at getting in there and saying, ‘Let’s look at it this way,’ because Duckhead [Thurston is from Medford, OR- land of the University-of-Oregon Ducks] as we call him, is neutral. He doesn’t come from Florida, wasn’t there when this or that happened.”
Put it all together, and you’ve got one of the greatest Rock & Roll bands ever, but to me they’re perfect. I don’t mean to say they aren’t human, and don’t make musical “mistakes,” they absolutely do. It is that humanity, that pulse, that breath that fluctuates, that potential for human error- that makes great music well, GREAT. Imperfection is beautiful.
I would be doing an injustice if I didn’t also talk about Mudcrutch. Tom Petty formed Mudcrutch back in 1970 with Campbell, Tom Leadon, Randall Marsh, and then added Tench in 1972. The band ended up being broken up in 1976 by Petty’s newly-found record-label Shelter, which was followed shortly thereafter by the formation of the Heartbreakers that same year. In 2008 Petty, Campbell, and Tench decided to reunite with Mudcrutch, and they released their first full-length album (Mudcrutch) that same year. What an album! A perfect blend of country and rock- and of course incredible songwriting by Petty, AND amazing contributions from all the other members. In 2016 They released their second album (2), and it might even be a tiny, teensy bit better than the first record! It just expands on the themes from the first album, taking the lyrics & melodies even further. I love this album so much I’ve worked up my own versions of more than half the songs already!
This past summer my wife Rachel and I were lucky enough to take a road trip down to San Fransisco to see Mudcrutch play at the legendary Fillmore in front of a sold-out crowd, and I have to say it might be the best show I have ever seen. I had seen the Heartbreakers twice already, but both times were at much larger venues, and much less intimate. The Fillmore also holds a special place for me since I got to play there back in 2008, and this was the first time I had been back since then. The history there is so special you can literally feel it’s power. If those walls could talk…
Of course you can’t talk about Tom Petty without talking about perhaps the-most-super Supergroup ever formed- The Traveling Wilburys. Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Petty. They only released 2 albums (only 1 with Orbison), but their impact on music as a whole (and little ol’ me) is immeasurable. I love those records so much.
So, back to that playlist I mentioned earlier. I’m almost 40- do people even make playlists anymore? Doesn’t matter. They’re basically just a digital mix-tape (remember those?)! I combined the entire TPATH catalog with the entire TP solo catalog (most of which were still with the band members), added both Mudcrutch albums, and both Wilburys albums. Then I put it all in chronological order, because why wouldn’t you do that?! Now with almost 22 hours of pure Tom Petty, I have quite possibly (definitely, in my book) the greatest playlist ever made- featuring my favorite Rock & Roll band of all time.