Echoes of Past and Present

In Randall E. Auxier & Megan Volpert (eds.), Tom Petty and Philosophy. Chicago, IL, USA: Open Court Publishing. pp. 16-25 (2019)


The album Echo was produced in a depressed, drug-riddled phase when Tom Petty’s first marriage was ending and his physical condition so degraded that he took to using a cane. Petty filmed no videos, avoided playing the album’s songs on the follow-up tour and reported little memory of its making. The thoughtfulness and self-reflection that traumatic circumstances spur distinguish the album. So too does the tendency to look backwards in times of crisis, whether in hopes of finding solidity in the past or just out of exhausted inability to cope with the present. While melancholically creative, the album might be regarded as an echoing of past musical fragments. The sprightly mix of acoustic and electric guitars, the backing vocal harmonies and the stories of loss in songs such as “Won’t Last Long” and “This One’s for Me” harken to Petty’s albums from the late 80s to mid-90s. “Accused of Love” similarly contains echoes of Petty’s more upbeat work, but with depressing lyrical undertones. The production qualities and lyrics of “Rhino Skin” recollect “Asshole,” a Beck cover from Petty’s previous album. “I Don’t Wanna Fight”—a Heartbreakers performance composed and sung by Mike Campbell—returns to the hard driving rock of Damn the Torpedoes. The lyrics, straight-laced drums and layered drones of electric guitars of “Free Girl Now” go back further to “American Girl,” which itself was influenced by psychedelic music. At the same time, all of this typifies Petty’s oeuvre. Throughout his career, he made music steeped in past rock traditions. He was also a seminal figure in Southern rock, with its emphatically nostalgic character. The crisis that Petty was experiencing echoes throughout the album in more specific ways, with many songs repeating the theme of being up or down, high or low. The theme of fighting or not wanting to has an especially strong echo, showing up in “Swingin’,” “Billy the Kid” and “I Don’t Wanna Fight.” These songs, in turn, exhibit nostalgia for past icons, with protagonists going down hard like Billy the Kid; or going down swinging like Sonny Liston; or again like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Sammy Davis in a punny reference to the swing era. The retrospective feel of the album is one of looking to the past for the sake of self-preservation in the present, along lines discussed by Nietzsche. While symptomatic of illness, Nietzsche maintains this movement “springs from the protective instinct of a degenerating life which tries by all means to sustain itself and to fight for existence.” This seeming denial of growth can, as Nietzsche continues, be “among the greatest conserving and yes-creating forces of life.” Petty clearly associated Echo with personal grief, refusing to listen to it for years. As with many other examples of art, however, the album was also a way of surviving and growing beyond a present trauma, and one more specifically that compelled him to overcome an important part of his past, namely, his wife of 20-plus years. One can speculate that clinging to fragments of the past—musical and otherwise—was a way of coping with a difficult present and a fading past.

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Matthew Crippen
Grand Valley State University

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