Tom Petty’s superlative Wildflowers pointed toward a more mature path

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“It’s Good To Be King,” which arrived on November 1, 1994 as part of Wildflowers, doesn’t sound like any side Tom Petty had ever put out — and, at the same time, like all of them.

We have, of course, Petty’s slow, self-conscious drawl, though it’s put to use here in recalling grandiose plans from youth during a precisely melancholy chorus: Can I help it if I still dream from time to time? There’s a sharp, incisive guitar solo (in keeping with Tom Petty’s core sound alongside the Heartbreakers, even if “King” and all of the Wildflowers album was credited as a solo effort) but then there’s this crescendo of swirling string-fueled emotion from Michael Kamen — first of euphoria and then, finally, of a certain realism.

We age, and our dreams change.

We’re led to this sobering vista by an insistent piano signature, one with depths of meaning similarly never hinted at in the gutty simplicity of Petty’s early recordings — songs whose ringing Byrdsy chords and middle-class American subject matter worked as the foundation for later alt-rock hipsters like R.E.M.

This moody seriousness suggests, for one of the first times in Tom Petty’s catalog, the great spiritual singer-songwriters of a generation or so before — Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Robbie Robertson and the like. (It may also be the true, no doubt unintended, legacy of those one-off Wilbury projects.)

There are moments, surely, when Wildflowers is more fun (“You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Honey Bee”), when it is louder (“You Wreck Me”) and, even, when it is quieter (“Time To Move On,” “Don’t Fade on Me”) But none is more effective in showing how rock can mature into meaningful music as we grow older. With “It’s Good to be King,” Tom Petty moved past the one-dimensional role of guitar-playing scruff. He owned up to the doubts of growing old, embraced middle-age wisdom along the way and, yet, ended up rocking some anyway.

It’s a place, true enough, that we still like to go from time to time.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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