The Nintendo Entertainment System first came out in North America in 1985. I didn’t get one until a couple years later, which was probably when I was in middle school. The exact timeline is hazy, but it wasn’t long before I had also acquired a cassette copy of “Full Moon Fever” by Tom Petty. I listened to “Full Moon Fever” and “Damn the Torpedoes,” Petty’s 1979 album with the Heartbreakers, over and over and over while playing Nintendo in the basement rec room of our house in suburban Denver. Maybe I listened to other albums, too, while absorbed in “Metroid,” “RBI Baseball” or “The Legend of Zelda,” but Petty’s music is what stands out to me all these years later.
I don’t think I had listened to either record carefully, or completely, since then. I revisited both recently while (belatedly) reading Warren Zanes’s first-rate 2015 book “Petty: The Biography,” a supremely well-reported and written account of Petty’s life. (Petty died in 2017, a gigantic loss for rock ’n’ roll.) Everybody knows “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down,” but hearing deeper cuts like “Apartment Song” and “Yer So Bad” again brought back visions of that rec room: the mottled brown carpet, the ancient TV hooked up to the NES, the coffee table made from a battered lobster trap we found on the beach one summer in Rhode Island and mailed home.
Back then, as an early teen, I didn’t grasp the import of “Full Moon Fever” being a solo album, with considerable creative input from Jeff Lynne. Most of the Heartbreakers’ names appeared in the liner notes, after all. I didn’t make the connection to the Traveling Wilburys until Zanes noted in his book that Roy Orbison and George Harrison had contributed. I didn’t know that “Damn the Torpedoes” was a commercial breakthrough for Petty and the Heartbreakers, becoming their first Top 10 album. Mostly, I just absorbed catchy song after catchy song. “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Even the Losers,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “What Are You Doin’ in My Life?” all came from “Damn the Torpedoes,” while “Full Moon Fever” yielded “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “Yer So Bad,” “Apartment Song,” “A Face in the Crowd” and the Gene Clark cover “Feel a Whole Lot Better.” It’s amazing those albums didn’t sell even more than they did: more than 3 million for “Damn the Torpedoes” more than 5 million for “Full Moon Fever.”
It’s no exaggeration to call those albums formative for me. Though Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Rush took on greater significance in high school, before giving way eventually to indie-rock, revisiting “Full Moon Fever” and “Damn the Torpedoes” feels somehow revelatory, like bumping into an old friend and falling right back into step. My inbox is choked with more new music than I can possibly write about, but none of it sounds better than Tom Petty at his best. That’s a high standard, but it really speaks to what Petty was as a songwriter and performer. The posthumous boxed set that came out last year puts it best: it’s called “An American Treasure,” and he was.