“The Perfect Beat” is The Flyover’s ongoing series discussing our favorite moments in the history of recorded music.
This week marks three years since the world lost one of its greatest rock and roll songwriters and performers, Tom Petty.
Like Prince, whose untimely death sent similar shockwaves through the music world a year earlier, Petty’s musical gifts never waned, releasing great albums until the very end (“Hypnotic Eye,” released in 2014, is an underrated, late-career gem, showcasing everything he and his fabulous Heartbreakers do so well).
Of all his legendary albums, from “Damn the Torpedoes” to “Full Moon Fever,” none quite captured the imagination of his audience, or the artist himself, more than “Wildflowers.”
“Wildflowers” is more intimate, relaxed, and musically diverse than any Tom Petty record that came before it: the hushed folk of the title track; the sheer beauty of “It’s Good to be King;” and the all-out rock of “You Wreck Me,” “Honey Bee,” and “Cabin Down Below.” It’s an album that influenced the next generation of Americana and indie-folk rockers, its reach still felt on something as recent as Taylor Swift’s “folklore.”
Petty was bewildered by “Wildflowers,” keenly aware that it was his best work, but unable to understand why, or how, it had presented itself. Like Prince in the 1980s, or Bruce Springsteen in the late-70s, Petty had hit a creative stride unlike any other, tossing away songs other artists would kill for almost as quickly as he was writing them.
Despite being a solo album, “Wildflowers” feels as much a Heartbreakers record as any that came before it, showcasing the talents of Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Howie Epstein, and new drummer Steve Ferrone.
Together, under the production of the legendary Rick Rubin (the choice signaling a drastic shift from the shiny, layered style of previous producer Jeff Lynne), they would work on the album for nine months, recording an astonishing 61 hours of music.
Petty initially submitted a tracklisting of 25 songs to Warner Brothers, and while the label admitted the songs were great, they ultimately told Petty he needed to cut it down to a single album. Surprisingly, the notoriously defiant Petty capitulated.
The result was a 15-song masterpiece that reached number eight on the Billboard charts, selling three million copies. The 44-year-old Petty had hit a new artistic and commercial peak in an era when most of his contemporaries were struggling to find their way.
While we await to see what greatness lies among those unearthed gems in the upcoming “Wildflowers & All the Rest,” none could possibly match the restrained, gentle beauty of the song that opens Petty’s most impressive work.
The song “Wildflowers,” like the rest of the album, is a meditation on the artist himself, a man in the midst of a troubled marriage, writing and singing about things in a way he’d never really done before.
It’s all right there in the lyrics, the music so restrained and austere as if to make sure the listener hears every word:
Run away, find you a lover
Go away, somewhere all bright and new
The playing on the record, as well as the lyrics, is simple and direct, a complete emotional experience with just an acoustic guitar, a piano, and the lightest touch of brushes on the drums. Petty’s slightly more mature voice, a man with his own troubles and worries, finds its own perfect place in the mix, reporting on the sadness of his newly understood reality.
Like Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours,” Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” or Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love,” “Wildflowers” is the ultimate lovers’ lament, painting a portrait of a man who knows he has lost the love of his life.
Surprisingly, Petty does make one last little stand to keep his relationship alive, sneaking it in as he sings the chorus for the final time:
You belong among the wildflowers
You belong somewhere close to me
Far away from your trouble and worry
You belong somewhere you feel free
If you weren’t paying attention, you could have drifted away in the familiarity of the chorus; previously, his love was seeking happiness all alone. Now, just before the music fades, Petty seems to say, “Hey, why not try once more with me?”
As he repeats the final sentence one last time, however, even he knows the impossibility of that plea. Petty’s love has never waned, but he can’t hold on forever. Like the saying goes, if you love something, set it free:
You belong somewhere you feel free
After hearing the song, and the entire album, for the first time, Petty’s daughter Adria asked him, “So, are you getting divorced or what?”
Indeed he would, just two years later.
“Wildflowers” remains a perfect song, not only musically, but also for how it continues to speak to people all over the world.
In an interview for the upcoming box set with The Los Angeles Times, Adria once again sums it up best:
“‘Wildflowers’ has always met people where they are, when they need it. Marriages and births and divorces and births and funerals, people play ‘Wildflowers’ for every occasion.”
And they always will.