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A Perfect 10 by Tom Petty

Tom Petty standing in front of a brick wall lighting a cigarette

When I signed up to do A Perfect 10 article—a perfect 10 songs from Tom Petty—I thought “That’s easy.” But I quickly learned about the errors of my ways. See, the thing is Tom Petty never made a bad song. I could easily drop here the entire catalogue of all the songs Petty made and be done with this. But the headline states it clear: perfect 10 songs. So picking these 10 songs was easy and incredibly difficult at once. So in no way am I picking just 10 perfect songs from Petty’s catalogue. I think of this as a nice introduction to those who are not that familiar with him, or as 10 songs that define him as a person and tell you about who he is. Or as a list of songs that people/fans should know. 

Tom Petty is that kind of a figure in culture, that artist/musician who everyone felt that he’ll always be around. My dad would turn on the radio and sooner or later Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or Traveling Wilburys would come on bursting through the speakers. The man was always there to give advice, not preaching anything, just to give a caress on the head and tell you what would be best. You didn’t have to take that advice. Tom Petty’s songs have always been there to lift you up and make you feel better and to sort your feelings. 

I was lucky to finally see him live at a concert (The BST Hyde Park, London) on 9th July 2017. Tom Petty didn’t tour outside of the U.S. quite often, so this was my first chance to see him. It was also advertised as one of their last tours. So me and my dad had decided to jump at this chance. One of the greatest concerts of my life. Stevie Nicks had a set before Petty’s and then joined him on stage during his set for a couple songs. Petty played all the hits. And capped it off with American Girl

Apparently this was the last time Stevie met with him. A few months later he passed away. No other musician death has ever hit me so hard. I was devastated and going over the Wildflowers album on repeat. His music and his words have always been with me. Even when I didn’t understand English and the whole language was just utter gibberish to me when I heard “Into the Great Wide Open” I still got the gist of it. As Petty said: “Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life.”

Last year I put on a short play on stage as a tribute for Tom Petty. This year my some kind of a tribute is this article.

What exactly defines Tom Petty? For one, it’s the sense of American freedom. That feeling that you can go anywhere, get in your car and just drive and you feel like you can do anything. It is the ultimate Americana. The ultimate rock ‘n’ roll. That’s Tom Petty. 

The soundtrack of my life. That’s Tom Petty.

Tom Petty’s songs have gotten me through heartbreaks, unrequited loves, loneliness and the fear I would never have friends. His songs keep me hopeful. They give hope above all. They are of course a damn good time to listen to. That’s Tom Petty for me and so much more. 

Do you know any other artist who has an album and every single song on it is a gem? You don’t skip one or several songs on it, every track on the album is priceless. That’s Tom Petty. 

I recommend the four-hour documentary by Peter Bogdanovich Runnin’ Down A Dream. I didn’t even realize it is four hours long when watching it. 

Without further ado, here is my Perfect 10 for Tom Petty.

Track 1: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”

One of the band’s greatest hits that is surprisingly not on any studio album but on a greatest hits compilation. 

There is a lot of debate about what the song is about (a reefer anthem? A goodbye love song?) but nevertheless it is another showcase for Petty as a storyteller. There are only few storytellers like him, and one of them is his friend Bob Dylan. The song paints the picture of small-town dreams and the freedom to get out of it, no commitment to anything—“I’m here on my own, fighting for myself.”

The song took years to make. It was first conceived during the Full Moon Fever sessions and it was originally titled “Indiana Girl.”

The music video is a classic. A morgue assistant (apparently that was a job Petty had done in his life) takes home one of the corpses and plays house with her. As if she was alive. Kind of to bring back a memory of someone lost. It features an amazing performance by Kim Basinger (As Tom said: “You have to act a bit to be dead. It’s not easy.”) Of course Basinger enjoyed the whole thing, as she revealed in an interview.

Track 2: “Walls (Circus)”

She’s The One is a forgotten 1996 flick by Edward Burns (actor/writer/director). It’s a film boasting the talents of Burns, Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz so you would expect it to be a little more popular. The film features a soundtrack by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (which is why we’re here). 

The album is kind of forgotten/underrated/underlistened as well, but it features some of the band’s greatest songs. The album features perhaps Petty’s favorite song he’s ever done. One he’s written for his wife Dana—“Angel Dream.”

“Walls” is the song that you can listen to on bad day, and on a good day too. It is the song that will cheer you up when you feel down, it is the song that will assure you that life is great when you are having a good day. Because it is a good day when you can listen to Tom Petty. And Lindsey Buckingham does the backing vocals.

Track 3: “Crawling Back To You”

The whole Wildflowers album functions as a therapy session. Petty was going through a divorce at the time so this is his divorce album. There were so many songs recorded during these sessions that we actually never heard the whole Wildflowers as Petty intended it. (Apparently some of the outtakes from those sessions are on the She’s The One soundtrack. Tracks “Climb That Hill,” “Hope You Never,” “California,” “Hung Up and Overdue,” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” were also worked on during these sessions. Petty once called the She’s The One soundtrack as Wildflowers: Volume II. “Lonesome Dave” from American Treasure is also originally a Wildflowers song. “Leave Virginia Alone”—a song given to Rod Stewart—originally was also a Wildflowers song.)

Before Instagram and the internet there was Tom Petty to tell you that everything is gonna be alright, that you matter and that you deserve a good life. That is Wildflowers. It starts with the titular track, then it goes on about how difficult it is to find a friend, that no one knows how it feels to be me. This album covers so much from the human experience. All various themes are here in this album. I always say if you feel it, if you’ve experienced it, I am sure there is a Tom Petty song about. So far I have been proven right. (Kind of a less nagging rendition of The Simpsons and Stephen King have already done it.)

The album clocks in a little over an hour and the big crescendo of it all comes with the second-to-last song “Crawling Back To You.” This is Petty at his Petty-est, at his pettiest, at his most romantic, and at his most Bob-Dylan-esque. 

These two verses:

It was me and my sidekick
He was drunk and I was sick
We were caught up in a barroom fight
Till an Indian shot out the lights

I’m so tired of being tired
Sure as night will follow day
Most things I worry about
Never happen anyway

There is so much wisdom in it, such poetry, and the truth of the world and the modern anxiety. Most things we worry about never happen anyway. We should believe in people and each other. 

Track 4: “Climb That Hill”

So you got that important job interview today? And you failed. Or you want to impress someone that you like? They don’t like you, only see you as a friend. Or you gotta do that workout/run a marathon and you don’t want to? You can punch a wall in anger or you can listen to a song and think things over. This is the song to push you forward to. Doesn’t matter what struggle you have, every day there is gonna be a new one, a different one. There is always a new hill waiting for you. Only standing in the way for you, only you can see it. What you gonna do? Gotta get up and climb that hill.  

Track 5: “Grew Up Fast”

This is very intense song. It’s angry, there is a lot of angst, some quarrels. Someone has been mistreated and that someone wants to be treated normal. Like he used to be. Things should go back to normal but they…probably won’t. 

People grow up, siblings grow up and change, or evolve into who they are, and relationships are broken.

Petty was always close to his mother but his brother and him had a difficult relationship with their father who was verbally and physically abusing them. Escape from that was music. And his idols Elvis and The Beatles. And then one day Petty’s uncle invited little Tom to an Elvis Presley film set back in 1961 and the rest is history.

Track 6: “Supernatural Radio”

A theme of pride being hurt runs throughout the work of Tom Petty. And it is something important in the human culture. People’s feelings being hurt.

The storyteller here is very sensitive. A term highly sensitive person would be appropriate. Someone who analyzes everything, overthinks and processes things more deeply. That would be fitting to describe Tom as well. Someone who can pick up signals from people and feels things deeply. A supernatural radio. Someone who cares and wants others to feel good as well. Tom Petty, a supernatural radio. 

Track 7: “Runnin’ Down A Dream”

“Runnin’ Down A Dream” is a staple of Tom Petty’s. It also importantly features a Mike Campbell guitar solo that is one of the reasons to live for. This is the song you put on when you are winning. This is the song when you need a win. The song when you know you can do anything. ‘Cause look! There it is, your dream, chase it down, run it down. Catch it. 

I have no idea how many times I have heard this song in my life but the number will be big. 

Track 8: “Love Is A Long Road”

Another of Mike Campbell’s solos that are on the list of reasons to live. 

Full Moon Fever is the album where Petty collaborated with Jeff Lynne for the first time (apart from the Traveling Wilburys). This is the album where Petty fully came into his own, in my opinion. 

Simple story, simply told. That was one of Petty’s strengths: to tell a full-blown story in just a few lines. Perhaps this is a story of first love, the two want it to work but really can’t and some things take time. Love is one of them. 

Runner-up from the same album: “A Face In The Crowd.” (You know what, again just listen to the whole album.)

Track 9: “Two Gunslingers”

First off, the entire Into The Great Wide Open is an absolute gem of an album and the whole thing along with Full Moon Fever, Wildflowers, and She’s The One is baked into my memory. 

The whole album smells of Americana. 

Did anyone tell Tom Petty how to live his life? Nope, siree. He had control of his life. If someone did or told him something he wasn’t fond of, he sure would tell you or fight it. He was selfless, he would always fight for the right thing. He would always stand his ground. (I think he’s got another kickass song about that—apparently written after that arsonist burned down Petty’s home.)

Also he liked cowboys. The whole aesthetic and guitars. Guitars are a cowboy thing. Cowboys would play a guitar and that would be their only escapism. One of the reasons why Tom picked up guitar as his weapon of choice.

Perhaps the reason Petty was so relentless, so prolific is his constant support of his personal heroes—be it Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash or Roy Orbison. 

Track 10: “Learning to Fly”

The ultimate feel-good song. This is life. We are all learning it. It is the first song my Mom names when you ask her for a Tom Petty song. This is a song that shows there are worries, struggles in life, but that is all a natural part of it and we should learn that and enjoy it. Sometimes we don’t stick the landing (“Coming down is the hardest thing”). Life is full of uncertainty.

The song also feels very breezy, courtesy of Jeff Lynne’s influence.

Perhaps the album is tailored for a younger audience—teenagers and adults alike. For those setting out into the world, and putting their mark on it. And they get this guide to help them through. Oh, what a guide it is. 

Disclaimer: This is in no way a definite list. There are a lot of songs that are ostensibly missing and I would love to have them here—so a short list for those of you if you want an encore: “Refugee” (Damn The Torpedoes), “Swingin” (Echo), “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” (Live at The Forum, Inglewood, CA, 6/28/81) (American Treasure), the entire The Last DJ album, The entire Hypnotic Eye. Mudcrutch—Scare Easy, Waiting for Tonight, the entire Mojo album, Turn This Car Around (Highway Companion), Flirting with Time (Highway Companion), those two Traveling Wilburys albums…and so much more. 

Disclaimer II: Thank you again for being part of 25YL and that we can all write here about what we love. 

Written by Jan Kalina

Jan is a huge movie buff, lives for films, stories, music and pop culture. Or if you would like to fancy it up he is a film connoisseur. If you have a question about films, he is your guy. If you have a question about Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel or Fleetwood Mac he is your guy.

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