‘Somewhere You Feel Free:Tom Petty And Los Angeles’ Covers Petty’s Pivotal So Cal Experience (BOOK REVIEW)

Christopher McKittrick’s previous book, Can’t Give It Away On Seventh Avenue: The Rolling Stones in New York City, is an adoring if ultimately academic chronology of the iconic British band’s love affair with The Big Apple. Somewhere You Feel Free: Tom Petty And Los Angeles is somewhat similar in its concept, but the author delves a bit further into the personal and creative mind and heart of the late Southern rock and roller. 

The pride this artist took in himself, his work, and his lineage is readily apparent in the writer’s account. There might be a more direct exposition of the means by which the LA area itself nurtured the success of Tom Petty, solo or with his band the Heartbreakers, but certainly, the ready proximity to personalities like Leon Russell, George Harrison, and Bob Dylan speaks volumes in itself. McKittrick’s accounts of those relationships underscore the younger artist’s humility, not to mention a genuine sense of wonder he would be welcomed into the presence of such figures he himself revered.

In those unusual circumstances, Petty never committed the sin of hubris. Likewise, he never called attention to himself when addressing an issue or otherwise taking a stand. The subject(s) at hand took precedence, whether it was the environment or musicians’ rights in the digital age. Christopher’s passion for his subject allows for a discretion that mirrors that of the transplanted musician/songwriter/bandleader, which is no doubt why Petty’s prescient denouncement of the Confederate flag (used as stage decoration in 1985 for Southern Accents tour) took place long before such statements became politically-correct. It is unfortunate but wholly understandable given his natural circumspection, that his declaration on that front got little more publicity than his after-the-fact revelation of heroin addiction..

From early on in this two-hundred forty-some pages, this author borrows extensively–and with all due acknowledgment–from the deepest explorations into Tom Petty’s psyche to date, namely Warren Zane’s …The Biography and Paul Zollo’s Conversations with…Discerning as are these excerpts, the culls illuminate specific points at hand, a judicious approach that contrasts to McKittrick’s occasional tendency to cram too much information, too often, into a given segment. For instance,  when discussing the ‘riots’ on Sunset Strip in 1966, there are simply too many references to the seminal bands of the period—the Doors, the Byrds. and Buffalo Springfield.

Perhaps a bibliography, a discography, or better yet, an appendix would better serve McKittrick’s allusive purpose. It would certainly prevent the writing from too often turning into a mere recitation of data and thereby promote the flow of the narrative. Granted, there’s certainly nothing wrong with noting Billboard Magazine chart positions or the specific dates of tour stops, but with (mostly) only third-party insight in the form of quotes from publications of the time, Somewhere You Feel Free can belie the liberating implications of its title.

Tom Petty And Los Angeles would definitely benefit from more of the writer’s own perceptions of albums like Hard Promises or Long After Dark. Insightful observations such as his reflections on the song “Waiting for Tonight” serve to color the prose and further personalize the overall tone of his writing without undermining the end results of his generally scrupulous research. And along the lines of attention to detail, it is odd how McKittrick fails to specifically name some high-profile references as he unfurls his timeline: Van Morrison led ‘notable Irish rock group Them’, while Neil Young organized the Bridge School Benefit Concert at which Petty so regularly performed.

Perhaps those oversights are due to the fact that, in contrast to the aforementioned previous work, this time around Christopher McKittrick takes a more detached stance. And rightly so, at least to a point, for he’s justified in the confidence his subject can (and does) speak knowledgeably and often eloquently for himself, just as the author does in his ‘Prologue’ and ‘Epilogue.’

No question the transplanted Floridian was bound to encounter conflicts in the City of Angels, but given TP’s naturally candid disposition, captured so vividly here, it occurs circumstances might have been no different had he migrated to the mid-West or simply ascended further north above the Mason-Dixon line.

In the end, even if Somewhere You Feel Free is not an essential entry into a library devoted to Tom Petty, it can function as a worthwhile means to assembling such a collection. The novice fan can conceivably use it as a starting point toward that very end, while, in what is perhaps an equally important vein, long-time aficionados may avail themselves of this title to fill in the spaces of their knowledge. Either way, the fundamental attraction of Tom Petty And Los Angeles lies in a charm we’d find winning were we to find ourselves in conversation with any music lover as erudite as Christopher McKittrick. His efforts restore the positive connotation to the word ‘fan.’

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