IT'S BEEN TOO LONG since somebody demonstrated that getting old and getting lame are not the same thing. Rock 'n' roll in particular is without a figurehead or an icon to exemplify how to age and rock with dignity. Johnny Cash is dead; Neil Young is puffy and writing ham-fisted songs like "Impeach the President"; and Springsteen seems like a cool guy who makes music that no one listens to anymore. So who deserves the honorable title of Kick-Ass Rock Geezer That's Older Than My Dad? Ladies and gentlemen, I present Tom Petty.
Petty seemed like an Old Dude to me when Axl Rose sang "Free Fallin'" with him on the '89 Video Music Awards. But since the nearly perfect Full Moon Fever, Petty has put out one solid-to-amazing album after another. Here are just a few incredible songs that Petty recorded in his 40s and 50s.
"Grew Up Fast" (from Songs and Music from "She's the One," 1996) Petty's soundtrack to this lame Cameron Diaz movie has been bleeding from my speakers all summer; it's as close to rock perfection as I can find. Petty spits and snarls through this track with lines like, "You never suck like that for no one else," and "Hey, my brother—I've got to fight with you; I just can't lie down."
"Down South" (from Highway Companion, 2006) One of Petty's prettiest songs ever, the verses nod subtly to Dylan's "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" and exemplify how to masterfully rhyme in sunny pop songs (e.g., all the women/Samuel Clemens/white linens).
"You Don't Know How it Feels" (from Wildflowers, 1994) Tom Petty + Rick Rubin = Perfection. When Petty sings "Let me get to the point/let's roll another joint/and turn the radio loud/I'm too alone to be proud/you don't know how it feels... to be me," I know exactly how he feels.
"Asshole" (from Songs and Music from "She's the One," 1996) Here he covers one of Beck's best songs from One Foot in the Grave. It's always mildly thrilling to hear profanities in the choruses of downtempo acoustic rock.
"Mary Jane's Last Dance" (from Greatest Hits, 1993) Thirteen years later, it's still an impeccable rock song.
"Hope You Never" (from Songs and Music from "She's the One,"1996) Here he sings to a lover, "I hope you never fall in love with somebody like you," but you can totally tell that's exactly what he's hoping for.
"You and I Will Meet Again" (from Into the Great Wide Open, 1991) The Heartbreakers have a reputation as the tightest rock 'n' roll band playing today, and hearing this track, it's hard to argue.
"The Last DJ" (from The Last DJ, 2002) Petty's had a deeply adversarial relationship with the music industry since day one, but he calls The Last DJ, his angriest CD ever.
"Ankle Deep" (from Highway Companion, 2006) Jangly California rock at its very best. Horses, love, death, sun-drenched guitars, winding narratives. Songs like this come after thirtysomething years of honing your craft and resisting complacency. At 55, I want to rock like Tom Petty. And I'd like to thank him for showing me that it can be done.