- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2008

So, you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star? Tough luck, kid. They don’t make them anymore.

Close approximations pop up every now and then. But popular music these days is mostly all about American idols, pop divas, hip-hop moguls and superslick country music chicks.

Perhaps the last genuine, 24-carat-classic, blue-suede-shoes-worthy American rock ‘n’ roll band to arrive on the scene was Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and that was 1977, about five years after the end of rock’s golden age.

Before then, they must have been spiking the water with something because it seemed as if great rockers were growing on trees. After about 1972, however, most mainstream rock became uninspired. It just got kind of … tired. Maybe all the good riffs simply had been taken.

Yet Mr. Petty and company found a new mother lode of righteous riffs, infectious hooks and chord combinations. The lead guitar still took you places worth following, and the drums still moved you with their thunder.

Most of all, they still wrote songs that could hold their own with the best of the previous decade. Mr. Petty delivered them with one of those perfectly imperfect rock voices, hovering somewhere in the cross hairs of the Byrds’ Bob Dylan.

Even the lyrics were interesting and made you sit up and listen.

Somehow, down in Fla. - a college town that still had a Southern accent and rural influences in the 1970s - the Heartbreakers had gotten hold of the last piece of the sacred cloth of great 1960s rock music, and they’ve worn it proudly ever since.

Mr. Petty, who was considered weird in high school because he liked 1950s rock, just had the music coursing through his veins. You could hear it in 1977 on the group’s first album. “American Girl” still rings out like polished silver, and the slightly quirky “Breakdown” remains a concert favorite. It was even more apparent on the follow up album, “You’re Gonna Get It!” with the 12-string Rickenbacker-propelled “Listen to Her Heart” and equally driving “I Need to Know” scoring.

For anyone who still doubted them, Mr. Petty and the boys nailed it to the courthouse door in 1979 on their third outing, “Damn the Torpedoes.” “Refugee” and “Even the Losers” were the biggest hits, but virtually every song on the album got heavy FM airplay, and deservedly so. These were songs that hit a universal chord few newcomers could reach in that era, other than perhaps Bruce Springsteen.

With every subsequent album, solo and with the Heartbreakers, Mr. Petty created a discography that’s an embarrassment of riches. “Full Moon Fever” in 1989 seems destined to remain his masterpiece. However, Mr. Petty has never produced an album that didn’t have at least a couple of great tracks on it.

What a fitting tribute it was when Mr. Petty was asked to join Benmont Tench] walk into my life, and who got what I wanted to do.”

Mr. Campbell, in particular, has been Mr. Petty’s right-hand man on all his Heartbreakers and solo albums. In addition to playing lead, Mr. Campbell often co-writes and co-produces with Mr. Petty. He’s a wonderfully versatile player who has an innate ability to “play the song” without calling too much attention to himself, making him perhaps one of the most underrated musicians in rock.

On the recent “Runnin’ Down a Dream” documentary, producer Rick Rubin says Mr. Petty is “more of a craftsman than anyone I’ve ever worked with.” Mr. Petty is beloved by fellow musicians and fans for frequently standing up to the music-industry powers, such as when he went to war with MCA records, forcing the label to void a rip-off contract, and later for staring down the label bosses who wanted to use his “Hard Promises” record to ratchet up the price of albums.

Humor and fun are in the music, as well, evident when homage is paid to the roots and early rock music that inspired the band. This can manifest in concert as a salute to the British Invasion (the Searchers’ “Needles and Pins,” the Animals’ “Don’t Bring Me Down”) or the stupid genius of mid-60s American garage rock - the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” or the Music Explosion’s “Little Bit O’Soul.” This reverence for their roots also can take the form of a gorgeous reading of the country-folk classic “Shady Grove” that opens the new Mudcrutch (the band that evolved into the Heartbreakers) reunion album.

In these ways, Mr. Petty embraces tradition while expanding on its best qualities.

Just as when he sang “The Last DJ” to mourn the passing of independent American rock radio, Mr. Petty may need to write his own epithet: “The Last Classic Rock Band.” The footsteps, however, are still there for those who choose to follow and add to them.

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