An Open Letter to Tom Petty,
Tom, you don’t know me, but I’ve been a pretty big fan of yours for nearly 30 years. Recently, I read an article that said that you might be contemplating suing the Red Hot Chili Peppers because of “similarities” between their new single “Dani California” and your 1993 hit single “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”
All I can say is this: Tom, don’t sue the Chili Peppers! While it might be legal, it just wouldn’t be right.
First off, some background. Like I said, I’ve been a fan for a long time. As a matter of fact, I can pinpoint it: I fell in love with your music the moment I first heard “I Need to Know” on Rock 96 FM in Fresno, CA. That was, what? 1978? And I’ve followed your career ever since. I’ve purchased all of your albums — many on both vinyl and CD (and a couple on CD again when they got remastered) and I’ve seen you several times in concert in venues ranging from the first US Festival in 1982 to that stand you did at the Fillmore in 1997.
Hell, I’ve even enjoyed your comic turns in things like It’s Gary Shandling’s Show, King of The Hill and the Traveling Wilburys.
In all of that time, while you’ve made music that I’ve sometimes not appreciated (The Last DJ, “Peace in L.A.,” shudder), I’ve always felt that you got it, that you were kind of a mensch. Suing the Red Hot Chili Peppers would be the polar opposite of when you fought your record compay to keep the prices of the all-time great Hard Promises down to $8.98. That was cool; this isn’t.
But the real reason that you shouldn’t sue is this: so what? So what if they nicked a riff; or a melody or a groove? Hell, I’ve always thought that particular song was your Neil Young rip. Besides, you’ve been doing that your entire career, combining recontextualized riffs from the Rolling Stones with reshaped Dylanesque vocals. And good for you: because you know that they stole from people who stole from people who stole, etc going all the way back what was probably the very second song ever written which was no doubt exactly like the first song ever written but with slightly different words.
That’s how art works: artists put their own spin on what’s come before, hopefully creating something new (or at least new-ish) in the process. That’s especially how rock and roll works: what is new is whatever uniqueness the artist himself brings to the table, not necessarily the chord changes or the melody line or the beat. That’s why it’s the singer, and not the song.
And you know that, Tom. Which is why suing the Red Hot Chili Peppers would play directly into the hands of the same people that you’ve been fighting all these years.
Just thought that you might want to be reminded of that, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming album.