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“Breakdown” Day – That quasi-annual event when Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers rule my internal radio for 24 hours

December 18, 2011

Fans of the Hold Steady are affectionate towards a tune called “Certain Songs”. I’ll allow singer/lyricist Craig Finn to expound upon his free-verse:

Tad (Kubler, the band’s guitarist) called this song ‘Kramer vs. Kramer rock’. It’s what you listen to in your mid-life-crisis sports car while you are driving through Long Island to your divorce proceedings. Ellen Foley is the woman who duets with Meat Loaf on “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”. She also dated Mick Jones from the Clash. And when I say, “D4 is for lovers,” I mean Dillinger Four, not that embarrassing band from New Zealand.

I’ll definitely toast the big ups for the Dillinger Four – whose Fourth of July shows at beloved local venue the Triple Rock are right up there with Replacements hootenanny night, Curtiss A’s Tribute to John Lennon, and the Ike Reilly Assassination’s pre-Thanksgiving show on the Twin Cities’ “You Have to See This” event calendar – and corroborate the slag of D4, as New Zealand has several great bands, just not these guys. And Finn’s tale of “kids out on the east coast” and “warm beer to the summer smoke”; “harbor bars” and “the kitchen workers” hits all the Springsteenian beats, down to the “Jungleland” rise-and-fall piano. For ’80s kids from the Inland Empire who spent what felt like half of their lives on long rides to and/or from soccer games, swap meets, and the “newest” mall, he could’ve switched the imagery to “warm root-beer floats”, “post-game pizza parties”, or “stacks of clothing with no sizes on them” and it would have really nailed the zeitgeist. Certain songs get so scratched into your soul, sure – but for those with a musical awakening at a young age, and an inability to ignore the ubiquitous soundtrack emanating from busted passenger-side woofers, it would be far more apropos to say that they get carved, spot-welded, or deep-water drilled into your soul.

Tom Petty’s “Breakdown”, from the Heartbreakers’ self-titled debut, is one of those songs – or, to be fair, the song.

I never really understood how or why it happens. For one day during almost every year of my life, this song will enter my head, and I will be completely unable to get it out. It always confounded me, because Tom Petty, either as a Heartbreaker, a solo artist, or a Traveling Wilbury, has about 40 songs which I like on a greater level than “Breakdown”. Petty’s clever music videos in the 1980s aided his rise when most of his contemporaries from the previous decade became mere footnotes. Even if there was no classic rock on your radio dial, anyone that watched MTV obsessively from 1982 through 1994 will recall the finding-a-boom box of “You Got Lucky”, the Alice-in-Wonderland of “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, the Dogtown-esque skateboard pyrotechnics of “Free Fallin'”, and the noir of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”. “Breakdown”, a moody, late-70s pre-video warhorse, is not on this list. While never completely omitted from the idiom’s playlists, it neither cracked the echelon of consistent radio airplay in the late-1970s (peaking at #40 in 1976), nor reached the classic status of “American Girl”, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, or a slew of other more well-known Petty tracks. Essentially, “Breakdown” resides in that rare territory where infrequent-but-regular appearances on your radio lead to a response of “Hey, I haven’t heard this one in a while, nice!” (in addition, the song is especially aided by its spot on the FM soundtrack, which is a must-own, and not just for Steely Dan obsessives). It’s not that I’m tired of his more popular tunes, rather I’m not provided enough time to actually miss them. “Breakdown” is unique among his more well-known songs for specific musical elements – there’s a slow shuffling beat, electric piano chords with enough sustain to lead Nigel Tufnel to not let you touch the instrument, and a simple-but-addictive scream-along chorus, which is followed by that simple-yet-perfect descending utilization of a four-note guitar motif. You know it, whether you think you know it or not. It essentially created its own genre – moody mid-tempo radio-friendly rock – heavily influencing several tracks that became favorites for late-night DJs to spin along to your midnight drives across the country, like Journey’s “Who’s Crying Now?”, Lionel Richie’s “Running With the Night”, Robert Plant’s “Big Log”, Rick Springfield’s “Souls”, Cutting Crew’s “I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight”, Death Cab For Cutie’s “Soul Meets Body”, and Laura Branigan’s “Self Control”.

Thirty years ago, Petty was informed by Backstreet Records, a subsidiary of MCA (no, not Adam Yauch), that he was chosen as one of the “select” artists for use of a new “superstar pricing” system, raising the standard cost for an LP to $9.98. Petty did not want his fans to be guinea pigs in a marketing exercise, and threatened to name his record The $8.98 LP if the rise went through. Backstreet, not wanting to face a PR disaster, relented on their proposal, and Petty used the cover of the newly-named Hard Promises to pay homage to his fans amidst this kerfuffle (and the physical record itself to display the band’s love to recently-murdered John Lennon). The image depicts Petty wondering around a record store, subliminally offering the same pro-fan sentiments he’d later explore in greater detail on 2002’s The Last DJ. His bad-ass moves are not limited to expressions of solidarity with rockers; as his many appearances within benefit events like No Nukes and Farm Aid are well-documented, as are his contributions to albums aimed at financing musical instruments for low-income youth. When a tire company lifted Southern Accents track “Mary’s New Car” for a commercial, Petty’s legal team went all Tom Waits on their arses. Tom Petty won’t back down – if he’s not fighting the man, making sure his fans aren’t gouged in their purchasing of his records, or advocating for small farmers, he’s taking mega-corps to the cleaners for large, undisclosed out-of-court settlements, and – most importantly – scratching his songs into your soul.

When that happens, you just accept the fact that you’ll be humming “Breakdown” for the rest of the day, regardless of what else you hear. So just go with it – “BREEEAAAAK DOWWWWN!!!!!…..”

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  1. Craig Finn: New Tour Dates + In-Studio Video

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