Warner Bros. 1999
Producers: Tom Petty & Mike Campbell with Rick Rubin

Side one:
Room at the Top
2. Counting on You
3. Free Girl Now
4. Lonesome Sundown
Side two:
2. Accused of Love
3. Echo
Side three:
Won't Last Long
2. Billy the Kid
3. I Don't Wanna Fight
4. This One's for Me
Side four:
No More
2. About to Give Out
3. Rhino Skin
4. One More Day, One More Night


Proof that aging gracefully is possible


I can’t remember when I first became aware of Tom Petty, possibly because he is one of those musicians who too many of my generation take for granted. By the time I was born, Petty was already a rock veteran: by the time I became a fan, he’d been recording for more than twenty years. I always relegated his albums to background noise, writing them off as the sort of thing my parents played at dinner parties. But that was before I recognized that wisdom sometimes does accompany age.

Petty’s album, Echo, seems to prove that, while people are still inclined to make mistakes as they age, they are also capable of reflecting on them with previously unattainable insight. Despite being a group project with the Heartbreakers, Echo seems like personal commentary on Petty’s divorce and subsequent depression. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Petty said the opening track, “Room at the Top,” is “one of the most depressing songs in rock history.” And, of course, he’s right, though he gives himself a run for his money with the title track. Crooning into his nasal cavity, Petty imparts a dismal message:

And I don’t seem to trust anyone anymore
It could be faith; I’m just not sure
It’s the same sad echo every day
Yeah, the same sad echo another way
When you call
It’s the same as the same sad echo most of all.

In Petty’s own words, “If anything will make you want to kill yourself…”

One of the things that has made Petty so phenomenally successful is his transparency. Instead of keeping secrets, he lets you know what he’s thinking in a way that so rarely happens in real life. Most people need a confidante in order to unload their secrets – Petty warbles on the shoulder of the American public. After the anguish on the first LP of this double disc – melancholy clings to the songs like gauze to a wound – side three begins with some much-needed reassurance. The album’s songs have been chosen with glaring delicacy, ensuring that the second half lifts the listener out of the gutter they were initially shoved into.

I’ve seen Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers twice now, with mixed results. It seems anticlimactic to listen to such intimate songs in an impersonal venue, but the band’s fan base has made any other viewing impossible. I saw them once at an enormous outdoor show in Mansfield, Mass. in 2005 and at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2006 – both times with crowds immense enough to render big screen viewing necessary.

There is something impossibly alluring about the ineluctable big-ticket summer concert. It is one of those classic past times, a replacement for county fairs and small-town parades, where you can stand outside and drink cheap beer, flirt on a field of browning grass and asphalt, watch the sun fade, and dance in the dimness. Bonnaroo sounded like it would be a full weekend of that same character, and I drove from Massachusetts to Tennessee with the kind of anticipation usually reserved for young men about to use their first condoms. Which might explain the intense disappointment I felt upon arriving at Bonnaroo. It was as though that same young man realized he had prematurely unloaded his ammunition before his ribbed-for-her-pleasure condom ever left its foil. Or, to put it less graphically, Bonnaroo was a little slice of hell in an already saturnine locale: a Tennessee cow pasture.

It wasn’t that the music wasn’t good, or even that there was no showering to be had for several days. It was that I was trapped with 100,000 people I did not care for, none of whom had showered in several days, and we were all sleeping together in a field full of cow manure landmines. I spent most of my time at Bonnaroo reflecting on why people harbor so much hatred for hippies, and finally coming to an understanding. And I also recognized, dismally, that my carefree days were over. I no longer enjoyed the kind of irresponsible debauchery I witnessed. I had things I would rather be doing than wasting my time in the pseudo-South, listening to tinny, bastardized sets by some of the best musicians performing today. I had to realize that I was, (whisper it now, it still aches), too old.

But then Tom Petty went on.

Listening from inside my tent, desperate to hide from nitrous glazed eyes and jiggling, male weed-bosoms, I suddenly realized that everything was going to rebound. Tom Petty was still tearing through good old-fashioned rock and roll despite being in his mid-fifties, and I was able to see that age had nothing to do with living life. My advancing years weren’t preventing me from being relevant, they were giving me the acumen to understand that gorging on ganja balls was not necessary to have a good time if you were really doing something worthwhile.

Trust Petty to let your heart get broken before he salvages and mends it for you.

So, with the benefit of all of your age and wisdom, put Echo on your turntable. This is one of my favorite albums because it functions on so many levels. Echo is both a lift and a fall. It can be your dinner-party background music, or the record that makes you think of your parents. But it can also be the record you listen to in the dark when you need a little reassurance that the bad times will get better, and that sapience will come with time.

Jan. 29, 2008

E-mail Rachel Tavares at

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