Tell me you’re a guy who doesn’t admit to playing the drums on his steering wheel when a really great song comes on the radio and I’ll quickly call “bullshit!.” Ever since I was a kid growing up in a 400-square foot garden apartment in Queens I’ve banged on things to great songs. Banged on my workbook in class while those new Beatle songs filled my head in 1964. So much so my twitchy 6th grade teacher Mrs. Newman screamed at me to stop. I’d fill coffee cans with coins and create a poor-kid’s kit, keeping time to Tony Bennett and Charlie Spivak and the Stones and the Doors and even to my parents’ extensive collection of Broadway show tunes. You can’t help it. When an irresistible beat gets hold of you there are a few choices of what to do next: snap your fingers, sing along, dance, tap your feat…or bang something.
In the 1990’s I finally had enough dough and room in my house for a real set of drums. Without a band to play with, I set up between two Pioneer speaker towers and blasted tunes to play to. Rock, jazz, the blues and always, always Tom Petty.
The reasons are simple. For a basement banger like me, the beats are easy and take hold of you like stew spiked with sriracha. The guitars are clear and to the point using three or four basic chords. The lyrics make sense and hit home. And, well, you can’t help just wanting to find a way to play with Petty. That old early 1990-s Pioneer rack unit has a six-disc changer and Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s Greatest Hits always occupies one slot.
My neighbors may quickly tire of it, but I can play along to “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “I Won’t Back Down” over and over again at full volume so it rocks my house..and their’s too…and maybe the guy’s around the block I haven’t yet met but expect to see at my door any day now. One time while I was chatting over the fence to my next door neighbor a car backfired. “Sounds like your basement,” he cracked.
I don’t wanna play those songs with a band. I wanna play with Petty and the boys…some of whom have been with him for 40 years. In 1978 when my wife and I quit our jobs and took off from Central New York to Tucson, Arizona for our next adventure Petty was blasting on the radio and then again when we quickly moved to Atlanta in 1981 for a job opportunity and once more in 1989 as we fought traffic all 700 or so miles when work took us to our final stop, in Detroit. He was just always there with straightahead rock…no BS..no flowery, overwrought, self-conscious, egotistical declarations. Just stories. Wonderful stories. Simply told.
As a journalist, that’s what I always seek to do. Just tell a story. Try to tell it well with lean language that paints a picture, makes a point, is hopefully memorable. That’s what Petty did. Using lean language Tom Petty was as much a mentor to me as anyone. I call your attention to something he said in Dave Grohl’s wonderful film “Sound City.” Referring to the film’s namesake recording studio, he said when he made a record it couldn’t just be good, it had to be great. When I sit down to create something, that simple but clear statement steps forward in my head. Not just good, but great. Who’s to say if something is great. I use my own criteria and let’s be honest, I would be hard pressed to count on one hand or a toe or two anything I’ve done that I would label as such. But having greatness as a goal, prevents you from settling for just OK or good, or mediocre. It counters complacency. There’s that one tweak, reconsideration of a phrase, clearer explanation or technical refinement that can make the difference.
Mr. Petty’s body of work is testament to a man who practiced what he believed, but never preached. I thank him for that lesson, because it’s helped me be a better person. I also thank him for his music, because I love banging those drums till the walls shake, and I maybe meet a new neighbor. I’ll tell them it’s Tom’s fault…and my name’s not Tom. It’s just my attempt to be better than good. RIP Mr. Petty. It’s time to play.