Originally created 10/15/02

Petty's new album has a message



NEW YORK - Cue the first few cuts on the new Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album and you may wonder why they're still making music.

The songs - from the perspective of a musician whose career started "when money wasn't king" - scald the music business from several directions.

Here are disc jockeys with hands tied by corporate owners, cynical executives getting rich off disposable pop stars, and a singer performing for wine-sipping poseurs while his real fans look on, disheartened, from the cheap seats.

Is this a career suicide note from an act only seven months removed from induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Keep listening.

The concept album, The Last DJ, is actually a broad indictment of American culture - using the music business as a metaphor. It ends on a hopeful note, arguing that marketers and moneymen can't bottle what's in the heart.

"I really have dedicated my entire life to this music - not that I didn't want to, or even have a choice," said the 51-year-old Mr. Petty. "It overcame me at an early age in a big way. I care about it, and I don't want to see it reduced to a silly caricature.

"Maybe that's what inspired me to write this album. I really care about this, and I don't want rock to become irrelevant."

Mr. Petty is careful to deflate pretensions that often surround concept albums; he joked on the Today show this month that listeners could still "dance around the house naked" to the songs.

But he says he's never seen a more vapid time in pop music. He became immersed in the topic and liked the challenge of writing a story that wove characters throughout the disc.

Making it simply about the music business would be too easy.

"It's more about corporate America," he said. "There's a lack of truth in entertainment and a fading morality among all of us, man to man and woman to woman. I think the point I tried to make with the album is that the music is the redeemer in the end."

The key lyric for Mr. Petty is the last one: "can't stop a man from dreaming." The song, Can't Stop the Sun, envisions like-minded musicians joining him.

Releasing the album's title cut as the first single was itself a challenge to the music industry: he's asking radio stations to play a song that says radio celebrates mediocrity and lacks the human touch.

Angry when they first heard it, programmers at New York's influential WAXQ radio tossed the song aside.

"My first reaction was, 'What is this guy doing?"' said Eric Wellman, the station's music director. "How can he expect us to put a song on the air that basically says we're (junk)?"

But Mr. Petty and his record company worked them. They explained the album's concept, and Mr. Petty recorded a spoken intro for The Last DJ specifically for WAXQ. The station's listeners were given passes to see a concert performance of the album in theaters on closed circuit television.

WAXQ eventually added The Last DJ to its playlist.

"It's probably the best thing he's done in a long time," Mr. Wellman said. "For us not to put it out there when he is one of our core artists - we had to find a way to do it. And with his help, we could."

A handful of stations across the country passed on the record, but enough are playing it to make it a hit on the heritage rock charts, said Sean Ross, group editor for Airplay Monitor magazine.

Radio stations that won't play The Last DJ fascinate him, Mr. Petty said, because, "I've never heard a more pro-radio song in my life. I think that just illustrates my point. There are no naughty words in it. That just shows that they're afraid of an idea."