This week, we will continue with the theme of fear. Last week was about the fear of the dark; this week we will talk about not letting your fears get the better of you. There are instances in life, when we must stand our ground regardless of how scared we are, instances when giving in is far worse that deciding not to back down come what may. And there’s no better artist to use as an example of this type of resilience and bravery than Tom Petty.
Petty is one of those figures in rock music that you can’t help but admire. He had integrity and if he believed he was in the right, he was never the one to give up without a fight. The story that comes to mind very often when I think about the importance of not giving in is the famous legal dispute Petty had and ultimately won with the industry giant MCA.
This dispute arose when Petty’s label at the time, Shelter, was sold to MCA in the late seventies. By 1979, Petty had become increasingly dissatisfied with the terms of his contract. The bottom line was that he wasn’t making any money. Shelter had released two hit albums by him and yet Petty had very little to show for them financially. For this reason, he seized upon the sale of Shelter. This was his chance to become a free agent.
So hell-bent was Petty to be free of MCA that he was willing to bear the cost of his new album, Damn The Torpedoes, personally, which left him some $500,000 in debt and forced him to file for bankruptcy. The master tapes of the new album were hidden and Petty was adamant of not giving in. Said Petty in a Rolling Stone interview in 1980:
It was the principle: the idea of being told to report to those guys [MCA] really pissed me off. Plus it was the knowledge that we would remain under that old deal, which wasn’t worth shit. I could work my ass off for the rest of my life, and for every dime I saw, the people that set me up would’ve seen 10 times as much. And at that point, MCA’s attitude was, ‘We know your next album’s going to be bigger than your last, and we got you, son: the deal’s done.'
Ultimately, MCA gave in and signed Petty to a brand new subsidiary label. Petty had stood his ground and as our track of the week points outs: he hadn’t backed down.
“I Won’t Back Down” is one of the hit singles off Petty’s fabulous 1989 solo album Full Moon Fever. Produced by Jeff Lynne, this track is gorgeous in every possible way. And while most of my personal Tom Petty favorites come from his first seven albums with the Heartbreakers, Full Moon Fever definitely has its moments and “I Won’t Back Down” is certainly one of them. And really, what is there not to like? The song features great vocals, awesome harmonies, an incredibly cool slide-guitar solo, and great lyrics throughout. In this song, Petty preaches what he practiced time and again in his life.
Well, I won't back down
No, I won't back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won't back down
No, I'll stand my ground
Won't be turned around
And I'll keep this world from dragging' me down
Going to stand my ground
And I won't back down
The fabulous guitar solo of “I Won’t Back Down” was played by the late George Harrison. However, George contributed to the track in other ways as well. As Petty explained in quite a few interviews over the years, without George, he would have had to postpone the vocal session for a few days.
At the session George Harrison sang and played the guitar. I had a terrible cold that day, and George went to the store and bought a ginger root, boiled it and had me stick my head in the pot to get the ginger steam to open up my sinuses, and then I ran in and did the take.
To end on a pensive note this week, I want to say that while finishing what you started and not backing down are commendable, you do need to know when to pull the plug on things when they are clearly not working. I once knew a guy who didn't know when to quit. In fact, he was so hell-bent on not quitting and finishing what he had started that it actually more or less ruined his life. In high school, he soldiered though advanced math just to prove a point: He wasn’t going to quit when things got tough. The upside was that ultimately, he did learn and actually became rather good at math, some claimed even brilliant. In music, he kept banging his head into the wall until finally, after 20 years of trying, he got his first big hit. In marriage, he went the extra mile for his wife long after the thrill was gone and by doing that he was able to keep his family afloat. So in a way, the fact that he didn’t back down and admit defeat served him well. The down side of it was that all his victories came to him at a great cost. He admitted as much once after a few glasses of wine. He told me that it probably would have been smarter to focus on what came naturally as opposed to forcing things to work. You could tell by the dark circles under his eyes and his nervousness that the stress of it all had taken a huge toll on him. I knew that he had lost much of his health worrying over the state of his marriage. He was as funny and entertaining as ever but it was easy to detect that his spirit was gone. We had been friends for a long time but there was something about that night, his manner, the things he said that got me worried. “Why did you do all that if it didn't make you happy?” I asked, not knowing what else to say. His answer was: “I was afraid, afraid of change, afraid of failing, afraid of loneliness.” Well, things didn't end that well for my friend...but that's a story for another write-up.
You can learn more about Tom Petty here:
About the curator - Tommi Tikka
Tom Tikka is a linguist, poet, professional songwriter, recording artist and a music aficionado. He started playing guitar when he was four and writing songs when he was six. Consequently, he doesn't remember a time when he wasn't playing or writing. It's fair to say, music and lyrics are not just something he loves to engage himself in; to him, they are a way of life.