Doing It to Death

The argument made famous by Pete Townshend in “My Generation,” that a rocker should “hope I die before I get old,” is now itself long dead (though the phrase ought to haunt Townshend, who's fucking up the Who's legacy by selling it out to any corporate bidder who comes to call); there are now plenty of rock musicians out there with 30- and even 40-year careers, and the latest records by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young show it's not only possible to model a late career after 70-year-old blues musicians who belt out their songs while sitting on stools, but also that rock N roll, as Dylan put it, means to “keep on keeping on,” age be damned.

Tom Petty and Jackson Browne, who play at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater on Sunday night, are two more case studies of rock longevity. Browne, who spent his teenage years in Fullerton, was writing songs as a teenager for Nico back in 1966 and began his own solo career in 1972. Back then, he was at the forefront of the singer-songwriter movement, whose acoustic ruminations served as soundtracks to the long, sad hangover that followed the failed social revolutions of the 1960s. (Browne's “Before the Deluge” and “The Pretender,” in fact, take that hangover as their explicit subject.)

Early albums like Late for the Sky and Running on Empty are as great as anything released in the 1970s: intelligent, literary in an unpretentious way, rawly vulnerable. (He could also write the perfect pop of “Somebody's Baby.”) Browne stumbled in the '80s and early '90s with a trio of albums whose political sentiments were as earnestly (and tritely) left wing as their musical arrangements were dull, but with I'm Alive and subsequent releases, he's folded his politics back into autobiographical songs that, at their best, create a pop space for mature and intense personal meditation. In concert, listening to him can be better than a month's worth of therapy.

Petty, unlike Browne, has had few ups and downs career-wise—his catalog is one of the most consistent in all of rock, even if he's never peaked with a single great album (though Damn the Torpedoes and Full Moon Fever come close). Petty combined a fixation on the chiming 12-string guitars of the Byrds with the churning under rhythms of the Stones, and though he's willing to be influenced by collaborators (his guitarist Mike Campbell, producers Dave Stewart and Jeff Lynne), he's remained remarkably true to his intuition.

His 13 studio albums have yielded at least three hours of concert-ready hits (from “American Girl” to “The Waiting” to “Don't Come Around Here No More” to “Mary Jane's Last Dance”), which is amazing, given his thin donkey bray of a voice and lyrical gifts that often abandon him just when he's on the brink of being insightful. Aside from a few brushes with weird trendy videos in the '80s and '90s, Petty's been solid for three decades: blue-collar efficient, keeping ticket prices down for his fans, never selling his music out to the commercials, and making good rock N roll, because that's what musicians who are in it for the long haul do.


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