Part One : Southern Accents
“It’s sort of hope amongst the ruins, I think. To me we’re all in the great wide open. I think life is pretty wild; I really want to like the world, but at the same time I have to write about what I see.”
– Tom Petty
A Perfect Cup of Coffee
“I got my own way of livin’
But everything gets done
With a southern accent
Where I come from”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,
Enter Warren Zanes, the author of Petty : The Biography. The research interviews for the book, which took place over years, were reaching its final sessions.
Walking into Tom Petty’s Malibu home, Zanes would always find the same tray of two overturned ceramic mugs, sugar, spoons, milk, and a large Thermos of coffee on the table. Only this one time, they weren’t there.
Knowing that they were nearing the end of working together, Zanes felt compelled to mention about the great cup of coffee that Petty had always prepared for their sessions. Petty not being big on small talk, not every thought that Zanes shared would get a response. But it seemed that his comment on the coffee really caught his attention. Petty stared at him with his pale blue eyes and said, “You know, Warren, you’re not the first person to say that”.
Petty then told a story about being in a diner, somewhere not far from home with his wife — The coffee there, was perfect, he said. Overcoming his shyness, he asked the manager about what kind it was. The secret, which wasn’t much of a secret, was that it was a Maxwell House coffee — “Maxwell House : Good to the Last Drop”.
“Can I see how you make it?”, Petty asked.
The manager walked him into the kitchen, where a Bunn Automatic coffeemaker was getting the good job done — A standard fixture in diners across America. And after his visit, that was what Petty installed in his home.
But the following Christmas, he was again met by another great cup of coffee, one that was made by a private chef during his family gathering. The chef was using the same things : a Maxwell House and the Bunn Automatic.
Again, Petty went straight to the source, and as the chef explained, before he placed the coffee into the machine, he would use a knife to level off each and every cup that he measured out — This way, it would be not a close, but an exact measurement. From that moment onwards, that was how coffee was prepared in the Petty home. That was what Zanes had been drinking.
Petty then looked at Zanes, as if to make sure that he understood what was said in between the lines, as if he was trying to leave a mark in him to remember. Zanes couldn’t think much but to take a sip of the coffee and say, “It’s good. It’s really good coffee.” to which Petty responded, “You got that right”.
The coffee conversation continued with Zanes talking about how coffee cultured had changed over the years, and asking Petty how he felt about a quality espresso.
Petty looked at Zanes as though he had missed the whole point of the story. But he still responded, yes, he had tried espresso before, made backstage by one of the Heartbreakers.
Zanes then asked, “Should a cup of coffee be over that quickly?” and “Is what’s good for tequila good for coffee?”, to which Petty didn’t respond, and only looked at him in a way that said, “No, Warren”.
Petty explained that what he was after in a great cup of coffee was something that he found in a diner in his hometown of Gainesville, Florida, where he could hang around for hours, get refills, and warm his hand around a cup that kept on getting replenished.
The story ended there, but just like Tom Petty’s songs, the story didn’t really end there. Petty’s part of the storytelling was done, and now it’s our turn, or in this case, Zanes’s turn to tell the story.
Zanes could hardly remember a time when he saw Petty without a cup of coffee. After a show, there was coffee. On the plane, coffee. At the Heartbreakers studio, there was always coffee waiting.
The story, Zanes came to believe, wasn’t about coffee. At least not exactly.
It was about that Gainesville diner. It was about the place and time. It was about being a young Southern kid smoking his first cigarettes, drinking seven cups of coffee, talking about Elvis, the Beach Boys, and Cream. It was about no one throwing you out for not having the money to eat and drink. It was where you built plans for your life and dreamed about being in a rock and roll band, filling stadiums and playing sold-out shows.
In every perfect cup of coffee that Petty had served him on Malibu afternoons, he could almost experience, almost feel in his bones something that he couldn’t completely return to. That coffee, Zanes believed, was Petty’s Rosebud. It was something to remind him about a moment in his life when the world was still in front of him, when he could feel the closeness of that kid who was obsessed with rock and roll music, before the disappointments, before the heartbreaks that came into his life.
It was a time when he was just a rebel, just a person with a guitar and a voice, doing what he loved to do. It was how, “Back then it was almost like admitting that you were never going to make any money and realizing you probably were not going to have a professional life but saying, ‘This is what I love, so I’ll do this’ “.
It wouldn’t be wrong to think that it was Petty’s sensitivity to life around him, his attunement to human emotions that made him a great songwriter.
As Zanes reflected, they were “talking about a cup of coffee, but a cup of coffee into which a world could be poured”.
Only a week before Petty’s death, Zanes had a dream of walking with him near his Malibu house. They were talking about Elvis’s ’68 Comeback Special. Petty was always the happiest, most comfortable and open when the artist in discussion was someone other than himself. They were talking about Elvis, and in that, Petty “could be what he’d been at the beginning, before it all went down, before he became Tom Petty…just another kid crazy for rock and roll”.
Life in Tracks
“You don’t really hear songs about friendship too often. Most rock records I hear now are about how tough (the performers) are. Well, if you’re really tough you’re going to have to deal with that someday. They’re fairly old-fashioned values, but important ones, things that still matter in people’s lives.”
In a previous article, we’ve discussed that literature can be defined as how we relate ourselves to written works. We’ve also argued that songs may qualify as literature as they have a defamiliarizing effect — They bring us out of our ordinary responses to life around us.
Tom Petty’s songs would make a great expansion to that subject of discussion. His songwriting has that great ability to make the listeners feel as though they are not walking along the path of life alone.
In this article, I hope to celebrate his legacy as an amazing songwriter, as a musician.
Petty once said that, “I’m just trying to make good quality music, ’cause I do realize this music is going to be around much longer than me. I do know that now. If I’m gonna get it together to go make a record, I want it to be something that does feel timeless and honest.”
He understood what songs, if done right, could do for people. He understood human nature, and he knew that the wear and tear of life is not something that anyone would want to go through alone.
Petty, like all great songwriters, had always “cast down the bucket where he was” — He had always written songs from where he was standing in life, never tried to take on a dye-job approach to his songwriting.
If he happened to face a particularly tough situation, he wrote songs about it, even though it happened unconsciously. There were a lot of times when he wrote songs that he didn’t truly understand what they were about, until he came to reflection years or decades later.
To quote Warren Zanes, “(Petty) had faith in rock and roll’s ability to go wherever it was needed, to age with the people who made it and listened to it and lived by it”.
Life, and remembering that at some appointed time, you’re going to die, and the not-so-romantic yet inevitable parts of being alive — Rock and roll didn’t talk much of those things. But there’s always a need, not only for poems and movies, but also music, to speak of life’s ups and downs, of life’s end.
That’s one of the reasons why Petty was, and is a giant in rock and roll. He crafted his music into something that we could relate to, no matter who we are, no matter where we are in life.
He made it all work somehow. And that’s what we’ll be delving deeper into.