Into the Great Wide Open: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Strangered In The Night” (1976)

“Strangered In The Night” is the second and final song on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers that is a leftover from Petty’s solo record sessions, therefore not technically qualifying as a Heartbreakers song. As they do on the rest of the album, Mike and Tom assume guitar duties.

Famed session musician Emory Gordy handles the bass part; it was quite the treat for Tom to work with Gordy, considering his association with Elvis. (He played on “Separate Ways” and “Burning Love,” and toured with Presley in 1973, as well.) Petty also cites his fantastic work on Grievous Angel, Gram Parson’s brilliant posthumous record. “He’s an old pro, and he was really good,” he says in Conversations With Tom Petty, and although he was happy to establish the Heartbreakers before the album was released, “it was a good little band that we put together [for the solo sessions].”

The band also included Jim Gordon on drums, another legend. Gordon’s impressive resume includes playing for the Beach Boys (he appears on Pet Sounds), George Harrison (All Things Must Pass), Joe Cocker (Mad Dogs and Englishmen), Traffic (The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys), and Steely Dan (Pretzel Logic). However, he is still most famous today for being the drummer of Derek and the Dominos, the supergroup including Eric Clapton, Bobby Whitlock, and Carl Radle (all of whom met as members of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends), as well as Duane Allman. Their only studio effort, 1970’s Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, is hailed today as one of the greatest albums of all time. The title track, which is still a rock-radio staple today and easily the record’s most famous song, features a beautiful extended piano coda that was composed and played by Gordon.

His story is ultimately a sad one: An undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, he stabbed his mother to death in 1983. He was given a sentence of 16 years-to-life the next year, and he remains institutionalized today. It’s a tragic tale, but Gordon was able to produce a load of great work before his demons got the best of him. To work with Gordon, says Petty, was to work with “one of the greatest drummers ever, I think.”

His playing on “Strangered In The Night” has a unique story behind it, according to Petty. “There were actually two sets of drums; he overdubbed himself. I’ve never seen that done in my life. He did the track and said, ‘Let me have another track’ and he overdubbed that and he played exactly a carbon copy and doubled the drum sound.” The double drum effect ends up being rather subtle for the most part, but it works very well. Gordon is rock solid with his tempo, and the few times that his playing between the two tracks does differ, he complements himself nicely.

The production of “Strangered In The Night” is one of the most interesting and exciting in Petty’s entire catalog. The scattered guitars and vocals that creep in the background and weave in between the main riff and Tom’s vocals are brilliant, perfectly lending to the song’s mysterious and claustrophobic atmosphere. The same can be said for the slightly peculiar response vocal at the end of each chorus, which sound practically inhuman. Although the song’s basic structure and riff are both strong enough, it’s these effects that musically elevate the song above being a standard rock ‘n’ roll number. Given its borderline thriller movie-esque lyrics, they are almost necessary.

Those lyrics are a bit perplexing, however, if only because Petty has never released anything else this dark or violent in his career. “Strangered In The Night” appears to tell the story of a black slave, most likely now free, confronting his previous owner. The first verse sets the scene, with a suspicious crowd unsure of what’s going on around them (“a roar turned into whispers”). The initial chorus confirms their paranoia: “The sound split the night, they ran hiding from the light like strangers in the night.” The slave (whom Petty curiously refers to as “this crazy black guy”) and the white man initially square off in the second verse. “You don’t remember me well,” the slave says. “I remember you.” Blood is shed in the last verse, as the white man throws a knife toward the slave, while the slave fires his shotgun back. As a result, the “white man’s head exploded, black guy howled in pain.” After the crowd disperses, the story ends with a woman screaming, “God damn, you old black bastard, you’ve blown away my dreams!”

It’s one of Petty’s most confusing set of lyrics. Although he questionably introduces the slave as “this crazy black guy,” the story doesn’t seem to take a racist viewpoint. Given that the black man was treated terribly by the white man he is confronting, his thirst for revenge is understandable and, to some degree, justified. It would also be incredibly hard to peg Tom Petty as a racist; since before “Strangered In The Night” was written up until today, he has been outspoken of the extraordinary influence of black artists on not just his music, but so many other artists’ work.

With the Heartbreakers, Mudcrutch, and his pre-Mudcrutch groups, he has covered songs by Chuck Berry, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and Muddy Waters, just to name a few. Not only have the Heartbreakers tackled multiple Bo Diddley tunes, but they also brought him up onstage with them at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1997. Pat Peterson, one of the “Rebeletts” that sang with the group at times on the Southern Accents tour, is African-American. This is all on top of the fact that Steve Ferrone, drummer of the Heartbreakers for twenty years running, is a black man.

There clearly isn’t much evidence that Petty is racially intolerant. The strangest aspect of these lyrics, though, is that they strictly adhere to the story without stating or heavily implying any overarching message or theme. The two men attack each other, and that is that. If the implication that the black man is/was a slave is correct, his actions make sense, and the woman at the end of the song is emotionally reacting to a loved one’s death with her own bigotry. However, even if that is the case, the “crazy black guy” description remains an strange move on Petty’s part, and if the white man’s death is supposed to be condemnation for his past discrepancies against the slave, it isn’t stated as such.

Of course, Tom could have been putting himself in the place of an indifferent onlooker, unaware of the relationship between the two men, hence his descriptions and resistance to take a side. It’s also possible that after the fact, he himself was unsure of exactly what he was trying to accomplish lyrically. This would explain why he has rarely, if ever, discussed the song other than its recording history.

Although “Strangered In The Night” is pretty atypical of Petty’s writing style — as stated before, he has not tackled anything this violent any other time on record — it remains an intense and effective song, due to the aforementioned production flourishes and its steady backbone. It also holds special importance in the Heartbreakers’ history, as it was the last song to be completed before they officially came together.

Dylan Sevey

A Rhode Island-based writer and musician, Sevey is an avid listener of blues, jazz, folk, and rock 'n' roll. He serves as frontman for Dylan Sevey and the Gentlemen (www.facebook.com/ dylanseveymusic), and is the drummer for Smith and Weeden (www.facebook.com/ smithandweeden). Twitter and Instagram @dylansevey; contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.

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