Ten Tom Petty Songs You Should Know

Warren Zanes, the biographer behind Petty, selects a playlist of the musician’s lesser-known numbers

Editor’s note: Tom Petty died October 2, 2017. This article was written in late 2015, just as Warren Zanes’ Petty biography was published.

Tom Petty and his biographer, Warren Zanes, initially bonded over one thing: Dusty Springfield. Several years ago, Zanes wrote about the impact of Springfield’s classic album, Dusty In Memphis. According to Zanes, Petty read the book and the two began a friendship and correspondence that has now culminated with Zanes’ book, Petty, a frank biography of the iconic Southern rocker’s life. “We shared a passion for the imagination and an investigation of the South,” says Zanes. “It’s a place of mystery, of quiet, and violence. No matter how much we find out, we still don’t know quite enough.”

The book is a meticulous, lengthy gaze into Petty’s world of ups and downs—from his tortuous upbringing in Gainesville, Florida, to the births of his daughters, bankruptcy, his divorce, and struggles with heroin addiction in the mid-90s. The one thing that always was consistent: his band, the Florida-formed Heartbreakers.

From left: Dan Zanes, Tom Petty, Woody Geissmann, and Warren Zanes.

Though he’s an unabashed fan, Zanes makes a reasoned argument for putting Petty next to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen as one of the greatest American songwriters. “His songs are so well built and they have such an integrity to their emotional center. He makes it look easy,” Zanes says. “But he’s just not a self promoter, and I think his legacy has suffered because of that,” he says.

While classic Petty tracks like “Free Fallin’” and “American Girl” (the latter done with the Heartbreakers) have become canons of popular music, some of Petty’s best songwriting can be found in lesser known numbers. Here, exclusively for Garden & Gun, Zanes assembles a playlist—along with his own notes—of Petty’s deeper cuts.

“The Wild One, Forever” (1976)
“This song has never stopped working for me. It has all of Petty’s romanticism-in-the-face-of-impossible-love. That line, ‘She could love no one if she tried,’ always got me.”

“When the Time Comes” (1978)
“Petty talks about being knocked out by Cheap Trick, but the second Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album has this and ‘I Need To Know,’ both of which are tight, short, melodic blasts. It’s Heartbreaker power pop.”

“Don’t Do Me Like That” (1979)
“This was written in the Mudcrutch days (Petty’s band in the 1970s and a forerunner of the Heartbreakers), a cast-off “discovered” by [famed producer] Jimmy Iovine. It had been offered to J. Geils, rejected, and then became a top five hit from their album ‘Damn the Torpedoes.’”

“Nightwatchman” (1981)
“Recorded for Hard Promises, this live version opens ‘The Live Anthology.’ It makes me think of Tom Petty out walking around the grounds of his home late a night, having ‘a little smoke.’”

“Stories We Could Tell” (1985)
“Written by John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful fame, this song concludes the ‘Pack Up the Plantation album.’ It’s about the traveling life, the musician’s life, which is a lot of monotony combined with a little euphoria. And the stories they can tell.”

“Waiting For Tonight” (1995)
“This could have been a single. But, to producer George Drakoulias’s regret, Petty was worried that he was beginning to saturate the market. He’d been on a roll. I think the market could have handled it. I love the mood of the song. He knows how to capture longing.”

“Somewhere Under Heaven” (2015)
“A recently released ‘Wildflowers’ outtake, this recording had been forgotten. For other artists it would have been a single. In Petty’s world it got lost amidst a pile of beautiful songs. For ‘Wildflowers,’ he made three records worth of material, all of it compelling, even stunning.”

“I Want You Back Again” (live anthology) (2009)
“The band cut this Zombies cover live. I love the changes in feel. Petty has great taste in covers and often lifts the material beyond the original.”

“This Old Town” (2006)
“Too few people know how good the ‘Highway Companion’ album is. And this track, a slow, remarkably spare recording, is remarkable. ‘This old town is a sad affair / You’d be glad you’re not there / it ties your hands, spikes your drink / I’d say more, but I can’t think.’”

“Forgotten Man” (2014)
“The Heartbreakers got their first number one with their last album, ‘Hypnotic Eye.’ And it came as a reminder that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are at the top of their game as record makers. Tom was sixty-four when they made it. I think sometimes, yes, he feels like a forgotten man.”