CONFESSIONS OF A ’90s SURVIVOR
Tom Petty – You Don’t Know How it Feels
Does anyone else remember how big Tom Petty was in 1994 and 1995 and wonder why/how the f*ck that ever happened?
I mean it’s not as if Tom was ever that much of an outsider — if a formidable run of even-handed rock singles from the late 1970s through the early 1990s (although, seriously, about “Don’t Come Around Here No More”… what was up with that?) hadn’t already positioned him to be a working man’s favorite and something that both serious and passing music fans could agree upon, surely his position alongside George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in the Traveling Wilburys meant he was worth a shake.
But even with a backlogue of songs like “Refugee,” “The Waiting,” “Free Fallin'” and “Learning to Fly,” Petty always threatened superstardom, but never brazenly embraced it as he did in the wake of 1994’s Wildflowers. Heavy rotation on MTV, VH1 documentaries about his career, Rolling Stone cover stories and heaps upon heaps of praise from the new breed’s brightest stars (Billie Joe Armstrong’s outspoken fandom in a Rolling Stone profile of Green Day, Dave Grohl becoming a temporary Heartbreaker for Petty’s 1994 SNL appearance) — Wildflowers was an album for everyone that year, no matter what your taste may have been.
And fortunately, it was an album that deserved the attention it got. Trading in Jeff Lynne’s shimmering production work for the more earthy tones of Rick Rubin, Petty got a more in-your-face sound that made songs like “Only a Broken Heart” and the title track seem all the more intimate and straight-ahead rockers like “Honey Bee” or “Cabin Down Below” seem all the more ballsy. And whereas “It’s Good to Be King” should have been a throwaway on any other album (and would have been, I bet), such was the dominance of Petty and Wildflowers at the time that it instead yielded a hit single and had fathers and their Nirvana-fan, flannel clad sons singing along in harmony.
Technically, Petty started bridging the generational gap with the 1993 single “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” which he recorded as the obligatory new song for his first Greatest Hits compilation. But it was Wildflowers‘ lead single, “You Don’t Know How it Feels” that really pushed the man into the center of the spotlight.
And 15 years later, I can’t say I’m completely sure why. It’s a good song, but it’s far from his best. It’s a cool video, but it’s not the most eye-catching thing ever to befall music television (even if the ridiculous edit of “joint” in the bridge made it a little more legendary). Hell, even “You Wreck Me” might arguably up it for the best single off the album. “You Don’t Know How it Feels” is really just Tom doing his “Look, if Bob Dylan’s not going to do his thing anymore, I’ll do his thing” schtick to a T.
It might be no coincidence that when Dylan indeed did start doing his thing again with 1997’s Time Out of Mind, Petty’s career ambled off track for awhile. The She’s the One soundtrack had it’s moments, but they were fleeting, Echo‘s were even fleeting-er and if you’re a fan of any part of The Last DJ, well, we have nothing more to say to each other.
Then again, if any chorus perfectly personified an individual’s mindset in 1994 (whether you were aged 12 or 72), what better sentiment was there than “You don’t know how it feels to be me”? Didn’t matter if you thought the rest of the words were nursery rhyme-style cringe worthy (“People come, people go, some grow young, some grow cold”) — that chorus made Tom Petty everyone’s spokesman for a good while. Don’t believe me? Then why the hell did you think it was so poignant when Tom Cruise barrelled down the road in Jerry Maguire visibly losing it as he screamed along to “Free Fallin'”? Simple. Because you’d probably screamed along to it too.
And you’ll probably scream along again to “You Don’t Know How it Feels.” After all, John Lennon once said the best songs are always the simplest ones. It didn’t get much simpler than this in the 1990s.