Tom Petty has written his fair share of songs about mysterious women: “Magnolia,” “Shadow Of A Doubt (A Complex Kid)” and “A Thing About You” are just a few notable ones. “The Wild One, Forever” was his first, and it is simultaneously one of his greatest love songs and one of his most heartbreaking.
It’s unknown if the song’s title is a reference to The Wild One, László Benedek’s 1953 film starring Marlon Brando, but Petty aptly opens the song with a very film-esque description: “The moon sank as the wind blew, and the streetlights slowly died.” It’s in this approaching morning that he introduces the eponymous wild one, a girl that he was warned to “stay away from; she could love no one if she tried.” Of course, he’s not going to have any of it; in another fantastic and passionate early vocal performance, Petty describes why he didn’t heed the warning:
But then, something I saw in your eyes
Told me right away that you were gonna have to be mine
And the strangest feeling came over me down inside
I knew right away I’d never get over how good it felt
When you finally held/kissed me, I will never regret
His recollection is beautifully forthright and romantic, and up until this point, it appears to be a testament to the “true love conquers all” adage. The next line, however, tells the sad reality of the courtship: “Baby, those few hours linger on in my head forever.” This was something so strong and affecting, and it was gone in just a few hours.
The sobering brevity of the situation adds extra poignancy to the fervor of Tom’s vocals. As he sings “linger on in my head forever,” it sounds as if his voice will break at any time. He spends the second verse assuring the girl that, despite his disappointment, he understands why they couldn’t be together in the long run, though he doesn’t reveal exactly what that reasoning is. It’s an outstanding set of lyrics, with a storytelling style very indicative of many of his future songs.
Tom starts off the song with a suspended chord figure that ends up dominating the verses. A Stan Lynch cymbal roll ushers in an elegant piano part from Benmont and, a couple measures later, some very fitting acoustic guitar arpeggios from Mike Campbell. Ron Blair enters midway through the first verse with a sparse bass line, completing the appropriately open atmosphere that the lyrics call for. To fill out the choruses, Tom and/or Mike add flourishes of electric guitar chords, Stan fills out the drum beat a bit more, and, for the first and only time on a Heartbreakers record,
Ron performs a cello part. “He doesn’t play the cello,” Tom notes in Conversations With Tom Petty. “But he just fashioned out enough that he could play the chorus part.” This marks the second time on this record that a musician ended up utilizing an instrument they weren’t quite adept at playing, the first being Charlie Souza’s saxophone performance on “Hometown Blues.” However, much like Souza, Ron’s part adds just the right amount of color.
Although many of the background vocals on the album are group efforts, “The Wild One, Forever” really gives Stan Lynch a chance to shine. It’s easily his finest performance on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and maybe one of the best period from his time with the group. Before Howie Epstein’s arrival in 1982, Stan was the best and most consistent harmony singer in the band, due to his unwavering ability to follow Tom’s vocal jumps and falls. The lead part in “The Wild One, Forever” is already pretty high, and Stan still manages to perfectly sit above it and give the chorus an extra dose of energy.
As good as the Heartbreakers perform the song on the album (it’s arguably one of the best songs on their debut), the version captured on The Live Anthology, from the Hammersmith Odeon in London on March 6th, 1980, is even better. All of Tom’s vocal performances on the set from 1980 and 1981 show him at his absolute prime, and his singing on this version of “The Wild One, Forever” is no exception. He handles the choruses with the same tenacity as the album, but, especially in the verses, he has a much better control over the melody.
In addition to matching the strength of Tom’s vocals in the choruses, Stan drives the song even harder behind the kit, which amplifies both the musical and lyrical power. With Tom and Mike both on electric rather than acoustic guitars, their playing also adds a welcome amount of grit. Their interplay at the end of the second chorus, with Tom laying down a somehow not-out-of-place barroom blues riff and Mike playing around on variations of the song’s main figure, is a nice extra bit of musical goodness. The barroom lick appears at the end of the song on the record, but in the live setting, with Mike’s extra part and the slightly different atmosphere overall, the whole section comes across much better.
More than anything, Benmont displays Garth Hudson-like virtuosity on the live version. The addition of organ in the song’s extended intro and choruses is stunningly superb, and the subtle synthesizer he adds in between the first chorus and second verse is also a nice touch. He thoroughly augments the song with these parts without sacrificing his original piano part, and naturally, he switches between all three seamlessly, sometimes playing two parts at once. It’s a quintessential Benmont Tench performance: substantial, tasteful, and impeccably executed.
Taking Petty’s lyrics and the group’s playing into account, “The Wild One, Forever” is one of the Heartbreakers’ best early songs. It’s unfortunate that it has somewhat fallen through the cracks, in the sense that it was not a hit and the group hasn’t consistently performed it in over three decades. However, hardcore fans tend to recognize the song’s greatness, and it also has one big notable fan.
“[It’s] one of my wife’s favorites. Dana [York, Petty’s second and present wife] loves that song,” Petty says in Conversations. Hopefully, as the Heartbreakers’ legacy continues to grow and solidify, more people will discover “The Wild One, Forever” and share Dana’s opinion.
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