Damn the Torpedoes is the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album we’ve all been waiting for — that is, if we were all Tom Petty fans, which we would be if there were any justice in the world, live shows for all, free records everywhere and rockin’ radio. Mostly justice. Songs like “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart” from 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It and “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl” and others from this year’s model are bedrock — they will endure. Petty & Company have mined some solid veins: you can hear traces of the Byrds (sweet silver flights of twelve-strings, but without the moonshine) and the Band (though citified and sexier).
I don’t mean that Petty turns rock & roll into ancient history, something to re-create and ironically allude to. In “Louisiana Rain,” there’s a touch of Jesse Winchester in the verses, a slide guitar from the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations,” some Bob Dylan in the rhyming (“refugee” with “beanery,” say) and a hum-along chorus that would make a Nashville outlaw proud. Also, night scenes from the highway and tales of the hitchhiker as poor wayfaring stranger, last of the unbiased observers. A Reader’s Digest condensed version of the Sixties, right? Wrong. The familiar riffs are just there because they belong: old stuff too fine to waste.
“Louisiana Rain” is a convincing slice of American gothic. Petty takes a middle position between rock’s romantic visionaries and urban nihilists — his observations are as flat and down-to-earth as his heartland twang. Bobby McGee may whistle up a ride from Baton Rouge straight through to the Coast, but Petty’s road, like yours and mine, is a series of long waits and short hops, bad weather and weird scenes in four-in-the-morning restaurants.
An innovator or an ironist only half as good might be easier to write about than Petty and his middle ground. Believing in a lover and expecting her to succumb to temptation at any minute (roughly the situation of “Listen to Her Heart”) is so crushingly normal that it’s hard to sell. But, for Petty, rock is neither a cash crop nor a code of honor, not salvation or a cultural neutron bomb. The Heartbreakers haven’t duded up the music with myth. In their book, playing rock & roll doesn’t need this or any other justification. It’s what we’d all be doing if we could.
A viewpoint that matter-of-fact is simultaneously arrogant and self-effacing, which is part of Petty’s charm. Who, you wonder, is going to feel sorry for a guy who looks like a Lutheran angel on Avenue A — in other words, maximum street-pretty — when he complains about girls not leaving him alone? Except that in “What Are You Doin’ in My Life?” Tom Petty never takes the attention for granted. And, better yet, the girl’s shameless persistence is working: Petty sounds more helpless in every verse. Still, he sings “I didn’t ask for you” with enough of a gulp to suggest that he knows he sort of did. Low-slung guitars and all that jumping around with a microphone — after all, ladies get ideas.
Obviously, matter-of-fact doesn’t have to mean humdrum. Petty and the Heartbreakers avoid the curse of craft and the Creedence Clearwater-Dave Edmunds trap of faintly dowdy classicism. They’re eager enough to dress for success and hungry enough to show their teeth. In the past, they’ve flirted with black leather and bombast, intimations of tough-guy, flower-power pop and an occasional nervous New Wave beat. And carried off a lot of it. But what makes Damn the Torpedoes their best album yet isn’t so much its sound (though that’s clearer and punchier than before, thank heaven and coproducer Jimmy Iovine) but its assurance. Mechanical rhythms are hip, but something more fluid makes better time with the flowing organ and guitar surges Petty uses so well, and Damn the Torpedoes glides like a supertanker. What starts out tough (“Someone must have kicked you around some”), and might have stayed there, turns tough-minded (“You don’t have to live like a refugee”) — certainly a more durable attitude.
Best of all, sparks fly. “Here comes my girl,” Tom Petty sings, and it might as well be Christmas and heaven and summer vacation all at once. Maybe it’s the way the chorus soars into harmony after the spoken introduction, maybe it’s the way the phrase comes simple and straightforward after the self-conscious swagger of the verse. Whatever the case, “Here comes my girl” sounds like a line you’ve heard a thousand times before — and the only one that will ever say it all.