Saturday, July 27, 2013

Track of the Week: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "Even the Losers"

I've always thought Tom Petty has never ascended to his rightful place in the rock pantheon, and that the Heartbreakers have been a criminally underrated band.  Much of this probably has to do with timing.  Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' first album came out in 1976, at the point that 60s-originated classic rock music had shifted into terminal decline.  The Stones, Beatles, Kinks and Who had been swept aside in favor of Journey, Kansas, Boston, REO Speedwagon, and Styx.  Metal and punk soon pushed things into radical new directions that made the old school, blues-based rock look pretty stale.

Petty was a throwback, trading Byrds-inspired chiming guitar licks with the great Mike Campbell, and backed by a band of Southern rockers who remembered rock's R&B foundations.  The Heartbreakers did have some of the intensity and edge that drove punk, but no one was mistaking them for the Ramones.  Even though they were successful, they really didn't fit into any of the established categories of the time.

Listening to that music today, it's hard to think of anything from the late 1970s and early 1980s that matched Tom Petty's output.  Even the non-hits still shine.  "Even the Losers," from the 1979 blockbuster Damn theTorpedoes is not one of Petty's best known tracks, but is one of my favorites.  There's the usual bright, jangly guitars and Benmont Tench warm organ accompaniment, but also some of Petty's better lyrics.  The catchphrase on the chorus, "even the losers get lucky sometimes" has always stuck with me, especially now after I survived years of rejection in the academic world only to find unexpected contentment.  In the verses there's some great imagery, like "two cars parked on the overpass/ rocks in the water like broken glass/ I shoulda known right then it was too good to last/ God it's such a drag when you live in the past."  When he sings "even the losers get lucky sometimes" on the chorus, it's not triumphal (despite the soaring guitars), but a hopeful prayer that things somehow will work out the next time around.

There's no virtuosic playing, no distorted guitar, no screaming vocals, no anything reminiscent of prog, punk, or heavy metal.  The music serves the song, and isn't there to posture or beat the listener into submission.  It's a kind of smart minimalism that makes Petty great, but often leaves him forgotten when lists of the "greats" are composed.  He's still high up in this loser's book, though.


Lee Roberts said...

In concert, Petty demonstrates his straight up gratitude through gesture, banter, and song. Grace itself.

Guessing you've seen Running Down a Dream, Peter Bogdanovich's paean to Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I did see _Running Down a Dream_, and loved it. It helped rekindle my Petty fandom, which had lapsed over the years. _Full Moon Fever_ was the first album on CD I ever bought (rather than cassette.) Nowadays I wouldn't say it's his best, but certainly much more interesting than the other stuff of the radio 1989-1990.