One Of Tom Petty’s Minor Hits Summed Up His Incredible Career

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The first song I listened to after learning that Tom Petty had been placed into a medically-induced coma wasn’t “Refugee,” “The Waiting,” “Into the Great Wide Open,” or any of his numerous other FM rock radio hits. The Damn the Torpedoes cut appeared on the career-spanning Anthology: Through the Years compilation album, but it wasn’t released as a single, and according to, Petty hadn’t played it live with the Heartbreakers since 2008, meaning it wasn’t well known enough to earn an obligatory dust-off during the transcendent 40th Anniversary Tour. And yet, “Even The Losers” sums up Petty’s career more than any other track in his hits-stuff discography.

There’s rarely a wasted word in Tom Petty’s songs, and “Even The Losers” sets the mood immediately: “It was nearly summer, we sat on your roof / Yeah, we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon.” That near-rhyme is romantic, nostalgic, and bridges the gap between carefree adolescence and the anxieties of adulthood (note the past tense, as if the singer is remembering a time before everything turned to shit). At this point, “Even The Losers” could go either way: It could be happy, sad, or both. “I showed you stars you never could see,” Petty continues, “it couldn’t been that easy to forget about me.” We’re still somewhere between extremes. Ever the hopeless, yet bitter romantic, Petty, with the Heartbreakers backing him, then succinctly sums up what it’s like to fall in love, and worry that it will slip away at any second.

“Time meant nothing, anything seemed real
Yeah, you kissed like fire and you made me feel
Like every word you said was meant to be
It couldn’t been that easy to forget about me”

Could it? The rest of the song provides an answer.

Baby, even the losers, get lucky sometimes
Baby, even the losers, keep a little bit of pride, they get lucky sometimes

Two cars park on the overpass, rocks hit the water like broken glass
I shoulda’ known right then it was too good to last
God, it’s such a drag to have to live in the past

It is that easy, apparently, and it stings. As our own Corbin Reiff put it in his list of Petty’s 20 best songs, “Even The Losers” is the sound of “pure pain.” It’s an ode for anyone stuck in the “glory days,” for the lovesick fools who can’t separate the good times (“We smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon”) from the bad (“I shoulda known right then it was too good to last”), and how much that hurts. And yet, I see “Even the Losers” as somewhat optimistic.

I believe it was either Alfred, Lord Tennyson or Billy Joel who once wrote, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” (Oh wait, Billy Joel wrote, “Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk” — I get those passages mixed up all the time.) That’s true of “Even The Losers.” It’s impossible to tell how much time the singer and his fire-kisser spent together, and it’s clear he wishes they were still a couple, but it’s better than no time at all. And by framing himself as a “loser,” he realizes things weren’t meant to be, anyway, that he was lucky to have been in the situation at all. Tom Petty could relate.

Tom Petty always looked out of place, even in his own band (but especially when he’s playing the willing straight-man to Prince). Maybe it was the beard, the awkward grin, the androgynous features, or the scraggly hair, but he didn’t look the part of rock and roll star. Petty was never as big as his titanic songs; he didn’t have Bruce Springsteen’s showman flair, or Bob Dylan’s voice-of-a-generation aura, or Stevie Nicks’ witchiness. He was just… Tom, a Southern kid from Gainesville, Florida, who, through determination, stubbornness, and an uncanny ability to be a one-man jukebox, became one of the biggest rock stars ever. He may have felt like a loser who pined for the One Who Got Away, but he never stopped chasing that American Girl.

As I was writing this piece about “Even The Losers,” I reazlied it could’ve been about any of Petty’s songs, especially from his peak-era of 1976-1981. That’s his genius: His songs are so precise, so tight, so rich with matter-of-fact details, with refreshingly few masturbatory guitar solos or bloated track listings. But because Petty rarely took sides (except against Michele Bachmann), they’re wide open for interpretation.

“Even the Losers” just happened to be the first one that I thought of, but the next time you hear a Tom Petty song in the supermarket or while driving the kids to soccer, one that you’ve heard so many times before that you take the familiarity for granted, listen to it with fresh ears. It might surprise you all over again. There’s a reason “Breakdown” is as ubiquitous as McDonald’s — over 80 million Tom Petty fans served.