Until about 18 months ago I only knew Tom Petty as the mad hatter and the youngest dinosaur in the Travelling Wilburys. That’s when I saw the awesome documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream on BBC 4. The running time of this epic portrait by Peter Bogdanovich is four hours, but I enjoyed every minute of it and at the end I was a huge fan of Tom Petty. The rise of Tom Petty ran parallel to that of punk and even though musically and fashion-wise there weren’t a lot of similarities between the two, Petty had the same do-it-yourself-without-compromises spirit as punk did. It’s no coincidence that he was the only American mainstream artist that punks didn’t view as the enemy. The same spirit was still very much around last Sunday in the Heineken Music Hall, Amsterdam.
It says something about the changing image of beauty that in his heydays Tom Petty was not only an esteemed musician, but also something of a sex symbol. With his curtain hair, lipless mouth and nose that looks like Michael Jackson stage 2, I don’t think he would nowadays be a regular on teenage bedroom walls. Then again neither would fat-bottomed Rod Stewart or squinty eyed Brain Ferry. This was the seventies after all. Nevertheless, Petty possesses a certain timeless coolness which makes him about the only artist I can watch on TOTP2 without ending in a fit of laughter. Even last Sunday in the HMH, I think that there are few 62 year olds that can get away with wearing a shiny red shirt and high heels. He makes it look natural.
The same timeless coolness befalls Petty’s longtime crony; lead guitarist Mike Campbell. He is both Keith Richards and Ron Wood to the Heartbreakers. Listening to Campbell’s elaborate solo’s in the HMH it seems ironic that he’s known for non-virtuoso approach to playing the guitar (‘never wasted a note’ Guitar world stated). Again, this was the seventies. Timelessness hasn’t been so kind on the rest of the Heartbreakers, they are there for musical purposes only. It’s good thing because the band play supple and flawlessly. The sound quality is the best I’ve heard in a long time.
Petty’s success wouldn’t have spawned five decades if he were the kind of artist who refuses to play crowd-pleasers and who claims that his last album is his best (Mojo, 2010). The set list is made up mainly of greatest hits, supplemented with the odd cover (Oh Well by Fleetwood Mac) and some lesser known album tracks which are the band’s personal favorites. I prefer Petty’s rockier stuff from the early albums to the folkier and glossier material, mainly from Petty’s solo album Full Moon Fever. So when he’s handed his acoustic guitar it’s my turn to get a beer. I return just in time for the surprise performance by Eddie Vedder. The former front man of Pearl Jam sings along to The Waiting and American Girl which is the last song of encore. Even though I’ve never understood Vedders talent or appeal, he’s a celebrity and his appearance ads glamour to the show so like the rest of the HMH I go crazy as if 2pac has just entered the stage.
‘They’re in good shape for seniors.’ I conclude after the show that lasted two hours and 20 songs. ‘Do you think they’re still on drugs’ my companion, who is only old enough to remember Petty from the single Into the Great Wide Open (1991), wonders. I want to be belief that it’s all natural. What is certain is that the audience leaving the HMH look more satisfied than those who chose to see Marco Borsato open the Ziggo Dome just 300 meters down the road or those that stayed at home to watch two nation teams play each other for a chance to be beaten by the Germans later on. It’s another fine tradition originating in the seventies. Still, even the losers get lucky sometimes.