Tom Petty likes to go on about dreams – dreams that are dashed, dreams that still can be run down, and American generations raised on promises.
At the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Tuesday, he and his Heartbreakers opened a robust concert with So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, as if that were still an option. (It is not, given the current state of the industry.) The song was cynical when the Byrds wrote it in 1967, and its sneer now is as pronounced as its Rickenbacker jangle. “What you pay for your riches and fame, was it all a strange game,” Petty sang. “You’re a little insane, the money that came and the public acclaim.”
It absolutely was a strange game. Now it’s an old game. And yet Petty is still playing it, and still living the dream.
There was the idea this month that it was big deal when Petty’s latest LP, the rugged but hitless Hypnotic Eye, debuted atop the sales charts in Canada and the United States. It was the first time in the 63-year-old, sleepy-eyed Floridian’s career that he achieved a No. 1 album.
And somewhere, somebody else sold the most buggy whips that week.
Billboard magazine reported that Hypnotic Eye sold 131,000 copies in the week ending Aug. 3. Sales, however, were aided by a marketing promotion with Petty’s current tour: Customers who bought a concert ticket to the veteran rocker’s shows had the option of receiving the album as part of their purchase. Fans who took up the bundling option boosted sales by 50 per cent, according to online sources.
Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991, the year Petty and the Heartbreakers released Into the Great Wide Open. “The sky was the limit,” Petty sang on the title song at ACC, and back then, it was. People used to buy albums, but now, fewer and fewer still do, which makes it a lot easier – with a surge of promotion (which Petty engaged in this summer) – to top the album chart, at least for one week. After which, in most cases, sales plummet and the album goes on to live inside the various streaming services, where it often doesn’t make much of a living at all.
In Toronto, Petty introduced U Get Me High as his “latest single,” whatever that means. There’s no video for it.
There was a video for Mary Jane’s Last Dance in 1993, back when MTV and MuchMusic mattered. Most of the celebrating fans at ACC remembered it; the video starred Kim Basinger, back when she mattered. Some of the unofficial lobbyists for medical marijuana in my row lit up the homegrown about the same time they heard “one more time to kill the pain.”
The concert ended with American Girl, about the pain of something so close and yet so far out of reach. Earlier, the crowd heard the new American Dream Plan B, with its line about fools hoping for happiness. Petty sings about myths. Losers, by definition, don’t get lucky. And if you still believe you can be a rock ’n’ roll star today, well, then, you must have been raised on something resembling promises.