Certain Songs #1032: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – “Room at the Top”

Album: Echo
Year: 1999

This is embarrassing, but there is some dispute in my household over when the eighth (and final) time I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers actually happened.

That it was at the Fillmore in San Francisco is beyond dispute. But Rox thinks we saw them during the initial January-February 1997 stand, whereas I think we saw them on the March 1999 stand. I even dug up my old email program — Pegasus Mail! — from that time period to see if I had any emails about it, but that was during the “stand in line at Tower Records for concert tickets” era, so no go.

Either way, it was an absolute blast. Seeing a band as amazing as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at a relatively small venue as the Fillmore — capacity 1,150 when even the CSUF Amphitheater held 5,000 — do a mix of eternal originals, raucous covers and (if I’m right) new songs from Echo was a rare treat, and ranks as the best Tom Petty show I ever saw. Whenever it was.

In any event, Echo was the first proper Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album since 1991’s Into The Great Wide Open, and while it was conceived and recorded in the aftermath of both a divorce and an addiction, I think it stands up as the last of their truly great albums.

Which for 23 years into a career is really saying something. As some comps, 23 years into, the Stones were about to do the (unjustly, I sez) slagged Dirty Work, R.E.M. were about to release the (justly)
slagged Around The Sun and U2 were working on How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

And as far as his other peers went, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young all coming coming out of fallow periods and about to release comeback records (Oh Mercy, The Rising and Freedom), but Tom Petty never really had a fallow period — he’d been incredibly consistent throughout.

That said, I think Echo ever quite made the stir it should have because it’s a world-weary record, a tone set by its leadoff track, “Room at the Top,” which begins quietly with a resigned Petty singing over a Benmont Tench keyboard swirl:

I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I can see everything tonight
I got a room where everyone
Can have a drink and forget those things
That went wrong in their life

And at first you think, “well that seems cool,” like when we went to that bar at the top of the John Hancock tower in Chicago after the Cubs game and could see the whole city laid out below us, but then he continues into the chorus:

I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I got a room at the top of the world tonight
And I ain’t comin’ down
I ain’t comin’ down

Oh.

And then the drums kick in, Mike Campbell starts hammering his guitar over and over, and “Room at the Top” reveals itself an stately anthem of loneliness.

Later on, there an almost psychedelic guitar solo from Campbell, followed by a clavinet solo from Tench, who tosses it back to Campbell one last time, and just when the mood seems like its beginning to lighten, “Room at the Top” stops dead in its tracks one last time.

I wish I could feel you tonight, little one
You’re so far away
I want to reach out and touch your heart
Yeah like they do in those things on TV, I love you
Please love me, I’m not so bad
And I love you so

While Echo had its share of story songs, “Room at the Top” definitely set a mood that makes it a record that I think people had some difficulty dealing with. And in fact, the title track, “Echo” might even be sadder and darker, and I love it almost as much. So maybe that’s just me.

Official video for “Room at the Top”

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