Tom Petty, who died unexpectedly this week at the age of 66, wrote timeless songs even when he was a young man, and had a soul old enough to fit effortlessly into a supergroup with Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne, despite being the youngest member of the group, by far. He made it all look easy, which might have had the paradoxical effect of downplaying his greatness. But even if you never took much notice of Petty during his life, it's almost certain that at some point you've seen one of the brilliant music videos he made over the years, either alone or with long-time collaborators the Heartbreakers.
The videos range from clever to surreal, but never lack Petty's effortless cool, singular taste, and imagination.
Tom Petty's career (and certainly his period of greatest success) dovetailed with the birth of the music video as a mass art form, and he steadily released videos through the '80s, though it was his run from 1989 to '94 that brought him critical acclaim and commercial success like he'd never known. While working with different directors, in disparate styles, Petty's clips all possessed the loose-limbed, effortlessly cool attitude that was a trademark of everything he did. It certainly didn't hurt that he had an iconic face, too, made for the video age: his exaggerated features and singular appearance helped set him apart in a new world, where musicians had to do more than play their instruments well to "make it."
Tom Petty made videos in which music and visuals combined to complement, rather than overpower, the former. And MTV acknowledged their importance when they presented Petty with a Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award in 1994. NB a young Billy Corgan presiding at the lectern:
Petty realized, early in his career, that music videos were the wave of the future, and his clip for 1982's "You Got Lucky" is the first video to ever feature a non-musical introduction to a storyline. His first foray into more daring artistic possibilities of music videos, though, didn't come until his sixth album with the Heartbreakers, 1985's Southern Accents, which produced the single "Don't Come Around Here No More," video directed by Jeff Stein, who during his career also helmed clips for Warrant, Billy Idol, and Jermaine Jackson.
While these are all quality clips, to be sure, it's "Don't Come Around Here No More" that is arguably the most quality of the bunch, as well as the most unique, and it's this that leads to the conclusion that Petty was the chief intelligence behind his videos (here, in collaboration with the song's co-writer, Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame); "Don't Come Around Here" presents us with a weird, sinister riff on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, a book that is, despite its defanging by Walt Disney, a pretty nasty piece of work, and Petty's appearance in the video as the (perhaps mellowest ever) iteration of the Mad Hatter became an instantly iconic image.
It wasn't until 1989, though, and the release of his first solo record, Full Moon Fever (though the videos are, oddly, now credited on YouTube to Petty and the Heartbreakers) that he would begin to really make a dent in video history, with his clips for two of the album's four singles, "Runnin' Down a Dream", and, most famously, "Free Fallin'" (though the grimly funny story video for "Yer So Bad" is also worth mentioning, along with the performance clip that accompanies "I Won't Back Down," which features Ringo Starr.) "Runnin' Down a Dream"'s clip, directed by long-time Heartbreakers' lighting director Jim Lenahan, is a real funhouse ride full of visual and cinematic quotes, managing to reference, among other obscurities, turn of the 20th century newspaper comics, Del Shannon, and the 1933 Faye Wray version of King Kong, aka the only version.
But it was "Free Fallin'", a song Petty apparently, and ironically, wrote with the intention of amusing collaborator and producer Jeff Lynne, with its relentlessly simple structure and basic chords, that has endured as a classic, Library of Congress-worthy artifact (something Lynne, to his credit, recognized when he heard it). The lyrics were partly inspired by the view from Petty's car during his daily motoring (the track references several famous, and not-so-famous, L.A. locations, along with local cultural phenomena such as bad boys, good girls, and the legendary westward moving vampires of Ventura Blvd.); its accompanying video was similarly L.A. to the max, i.e. full like a half-full, rose-colored glass with glossy, super youthful, and yet strangely melancholic visuals, all of which worked perfectly with the song's mood of and helped send the album to #3 and give Petty his most successful release (it also made Middle America more aware of skateboarding, or at least more aware of pretty girls who are kind of endearingly awkward at skateboarding.)
Petty's next triumph was, like 1982's "You Got Lucky," a precedent setter for the music video genre. In this case, it was the presence of a real-life Hollywood star, one Johnny Depp, playing the role of Hollywood overnight success/failure Eddie Rebel in the clip for the title track from his next record, 1991's Into the Great Wide Open. The Julian Temple-directed clip also features Faye Dunaway as Eddie's landlady/manager/witch, Chynna Phillips, and ironically, one-hit-wonder Terence Trent D'Arby, who shows up for .5 seconds outside a hot nightspot, because this was 1991, when Terence Trent D'Arby briefly straddled the narrow world like a colossus. Oh, and a pre-Friends Matt LeBlanc shows up at the end, playing the new Eddie.
The video for "Wide Open" was one of the first videos to feature actors, and stars at that (though, coincidentally, Michael Jackson's "Remember the Time," which starred Eddie Murphy, Iman, and Magic Johnson, was also released in 1991.) Depp had personally requested to be in the video, and "Wide Open" is, in fact, both in its lyrics and its execution, a straightforward narrative, albeit a cruelly ironic one about the dangers of getting what you wish for when you have no idea what you want. Depp's presence, along with Dunaway's layered turn and the spot-on visuals, make it less a music video than a silent film; even without the lyrics spelling out the story, it would be immediately clear what sort of cinematic tradition the video is working in, and it's remarkable how effective the whole thing is.
Like many of his videos from this time period, "Into the Great Wide Open" features Petty's behatted narrator persona, who literally opens a book at the beginning of the clip, announcing the story we are about to hear; it's a literary device, more than a visual one, in the sense of a disinterested, omniscient narrator who can only smirk at the cosmic ironies unfolding. What is cinematic is the way that the character provides a loose thread of continuity from video to video, giving the viewer a sort of visual reassurance that what we're seeing is all of a piece. The narrator was missing from his next video, but Petty had another movie star, this time, Kim Basinger, who literally played dead for the majority of the creepily magisterial "Mary Jane's Last Dance," with Tom Petty playing a morgue worker who steals her because of her beauty. Aspects of the video were inspired by, among other sources, a scene in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, as well as a Charles Bukowski short story.
From 1989 to 1994, Petty released classic videos at a mind-boggling rate, especially when you consider that music videos as a whole were originally intended by record companies to be mere "commercials" for the songs they were paired with, and this paradigm of slapdash quality still held true for many acts, even hugely successful ones. Petty's videos were paragons of the form, full of wit, concision, and visual storytelling. His last video from this remarkably prolific period, "You Don't Know How It Feels," appeared on 1994's Wildflowers album, and it is the most dissimilar to the others, ditching big narratives and open sky for the transparent artifice of a closed set, where Petty sings the song to camera in one continuous shot, performing on an oversized lazy Susan that keeps rotating throughout the song, and highlighting changes in lighting, focus, actors, and sets; the video quotes Buster Keaton's legendary Steamboat Bill Jr., specifically the bit in which the frame of a house falls around the silent comedian, but not on him.
After one more single, "It's Good To Be King," in 1995, Petty was quiet for a few years, though who could blame him, taking a break following a run like the one he had just had? It's a very elite group of artists who have one iconic video in their career. And yet, Tom Petty has so many really good videos that I'm just linking to the really great ones, and not even mentioning some of the early super good ones, for lack of space (though they're all available to watch on his VEVO.) Music video greatness also seems to run in the family; his daughter, Adria Petty, is herself a director who has helmed music videos for, among others, Rihanna and Beyonce, which is not too shabby.
As Petty is mourned in public and remembered as a fantastic musician, but his contributions to the art of music videos are almost as important, especially considering the era in which he came to prominence. This is a sad day, but I, for one, am finding it harder to be downhearted when I've just spent the past day digging through Tom Petty's audio/visual crates; his videos are better than a lot of first-run movies, and he also wrote "American Girl," which, as a song? C'mon. If that were the only thing I did with my life, I'd be the most insufferable and arrogant human ever, and yet Tom Petty did way more than he would even have time to brag about, and still maintained a grace and good humor through his career.
For info on even more cool stuff Tom Petty did, like take on the record industry numerous times, and win, check out the 2007 Peter Bogdanovich documentary on the man and his band, Runnin' Down a Dream, which is available on Netflix.