It is quite apparent that the mythical holy grail of ‘making it’ in music is only partially reliant on talent. The people who rise to the top are clearly not the most talented in their particular field. You could see better musicians and songwriters down the pub on open mike night. There are astonishing talents, Prince being a notable example but the Dave Gilmour’s, Mark Knopflers and JJ Cales of this world (to name three that sprung to mind) are generally OK players singers and writers who produce entertaining work that falls short of genius.
The overriding factor in success is luck, you can increase or decrease your chances but luck is a huge factor. Linked to this is being in the right place at the right time. Starting a shit hot country rock band in Doncaster in 1977 would never had led to fame and fortune although strangely enough, forming a heavy metal band in the same place and time would have yielded far better results.
Charisma can play a huge part although it’s not enough. Just go on YouTube and look up surviving footage of Vince Taylor. The man who wrote ‘Brand New Cadillac’ and not much else was a phenomenal performer who ended up working at an airport. In London Jesse Hector was a well-respected dynamic performer in the mid 70’s .who in theory could have been as big as Ian Dury..but he isn’t.
The thing that’s really underestimated in the star artiste is the work ethic. The ability to go on stage with a temperature of 100 and still deliver the goods knowing that the next day will be spent travelling and doing the same thing. The ability to do yet another world tour even though you’ve already done six. The ability to be bored senseless waiting around for things to happen, to sit on a tour bus for 18 hours listening to the same old shit from your band mates. The ability to do the same interview 20 times a day. The ability to leave your children behind while you disappear for another nine months.The ability to keep on going when your record company fucks you over.
It’s this grunt work that gets overlooked but for me it’s far more remarkable than talent, I wouldn’t last a month in that lifestyle and it takes an extraordinary person to weather that storm.
Which brings us to the loss of Tom Petty at the tender age of 66. The most tragic deaths for me are when someone takes their own life but the next in rank is when a performer is snatched from us at a time when we could expect them to make another album or release more tour dates, the sense of loss is all the keener for the sense of a loss of more music, songs that we might have heard but now never will. For me it’s always Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
To be honest I never really got Tom Petty. The Travelling Wilburys for me are inextricably linked with the 80’s, a time of mullets and rolled up jacket sleeves. His solo career was too tainted by the hand of Jeff Lynne to raise any interest from me. On the other hand having played in roots type Americana bands for a few years it’s fairly inevitable that someone will come up with the idea of trying a Petty number so I have soaked up a fair number of his songs through osmosis.
As far as us Brits were concerned Petty struck it lucky from the start. In 1977 Petty and the Heartbreakers were a popular act in the UK. Not everyone wanted punk but Petty was untainted by any past associations, he was a new act. The Heartbreakers were accomplished musicians but they weren’t really old farts, a bit like with Dire Straits enough new wave energy rubbed off on them to make them a bit more acceptable, and as far as I remember they never wore flared jeans either.
Petty and his band had been supporting pre E Street Band Nils Lofgren and had themselves been supported by faux Irish punksters The Boomtown Rats. The bands UK debut was ‘American Girl’, to this day the only track I really love by the band and one of the few that they failed to write themselves (it’s a Roger Mcguin tune). Listen to The Strokes ‘Last Night’ and compare and contrast.
Unfortunately for me there were too many minor key bluesy dirges on their early records to encourage me to part with my money, but the weirdest thing happened. Unlike most bands The Heartbreakers actually got better. As they relaxed and mellowed some of the rather overwrought early songs were replaced with more thoughtful musical contributions. If you were sit me down and suggest forcefully that I listen to some Tom Petty I wouldn’t go straight to the early records, to be honest I would quite happily listen to his latest, whatever that is.
And how many artists could you say that about?
There was a journalist on Channel 4 a couple of nights back who said that Petty had spent all his life trying to write the Byrds ‘Feel a Whole Lot Better’. I thought that was a bit unfair although if he had stuck a bit more to the Byrd’s jingle jangle rather than the bluesy rock I might have liked him more in the early days. I’ve recently been watching one of his recent stadium gigs live from Gainsville and jolly good stuff it is too, an impressive set of songs played by a cracking band with Stevie Nicks thrown in for good measure. I know at no point am I going to break into tears or want to get up and dance but I am going to be entertained and really that’s what the rock business is about.
Here for me is the best of Tom Petty from 1978.
PS last night I watched a ‘classic albums programme about ‘Damm the Torpedos’ and realised that I had missed some great music. Truth be told, there was so much going on musically late 70’s that it was possible to miss complete artistic careers, by the mid 80’s I had lost interest in contemporary music for a while and I just missed Petty almost completely. His music falls short of genius but in retrospect he possessed the rare ability to communicate. Like Dylan any basic singer/ guitarist could cover his songs but only Petty could write them .