Tom Petty Makes Room At The Top

A new song by the pop-rock troubadour gives comfort and respite from the storm of life.

(Editor's Note: The "Sunday Morning" essay does not reflect the views of SonicNet Inc. or its affiliated companies.)

Editorial Director Michael Goldberg writes:

On his new album, Echo, Tom Petty sings about getting away from it all. "I got a room at the top of the world tonight," is how the opening track, "Room at the Top," begins.

A little later in the first verse he continues, "I've got a room where everyone can have a drink and forget those things that went wrong."

I'm writing this Wednesday night (April 22). Tuesday, two troubled youths killed 12 of their fellow students and a teacher at a Littleton, Colo., high school, then they took their own lives. Earlier, our troubled President (whom I admit I voted for twice) asked Congress for $6 billion so he could continue our involvement in a civil war we have no business sticking our ugly American noses in. Need I say all is decidedly not right in the world?

So excuse me if I find great comfort tonight in Tom Petty's simple words and lullaby of a melody.

Petty has been under fire from some quarters during the week or so since he released his new album. One of SonicNet's contributors, the excellent critic Billy Altman, dissed "Room at the Top" (RealAudio excerpt). He included it among a number of songs he described disparagingly as "navel contemplations."

I respect Billy's opinion, but that doesn't mean I always agree with him. Certainly not this time.

Another writer told me he'd spent a weekend with the album. He was disappointed that it sounded like Tom Petty. You know, Petty doing what he's always done -- wedding romantic lyrics to Byrds-style jangling rock 'n' roll. He didn't think the new batch of songs was anything special.

Petty gets put in the classic-rock bag these days, even by writers who like his music. A Rolling Stone critic went on and on about Petty's sticking to his retro-rock bag of tricks. "Twenty-three years. Twelve studio albums. One sound," wrote Greg Kot. "Petty and the Heartbreakers define classic guitar rock."

All of which is beside the point. "I got a room at the top of the world tonight" (RealAudio excerpt), goes the chorus of the song. "And I ain't comin' down."

Can you express that idea in a song with any more grace?

Sometimes it seems as if rock critics forget that a goal of artists working in the pop-song arena is to communicate to people through their songs. It's to express sentiments -- about love, heartbreak, betrayal, feeling the blues -- that a lot of people feel, but can't always articulate themselves.

Inventing a "new" kind of pop music isn't really the point; saying something you and I can connect with, is.

"I got a room at the top of the world tonight/ I've got a room where everyone can have a drink and forget those things that went wrong."

Tell me you don't feel that way, at least once in a while.

I do. I want my "room at the top" away from it all, where I can hang out (or hide out) with my friends. Where I can forget about all the trouble I've seen, or lived. Where, for a little while, I don't have to worry about whether my news team is going to independently confirm the "Suge" Knight story or get the scoop on the Nine Inch Nails album or break the next Smashing Pumpkins news.

Life is hard and then you die, is the cliché that seems to nail it best. All of us, from the Silicon Valley millionaires to the homeless out on Haight Street here in San Francisco, have a cross to bear. All of us deal with stress -- jobs that are just too much, money problems, relationships that can be tenuous at times, friends who want more than we can give.

And then, along comes Tom Petty. "I got a room at the top of the world tonight," he sings, so gently. "I got a room at the top of the world tonight. And I ain't. Comin'. Down."