Tom Petty Countdown #5: “Insider”

The story behind this song is that Petty wrote it with the intention of giving it to Stevie Nicks, then thought it too good to let go. Nicks understood and agreed to sing back-up on “Insider,” Petty eventually gave her “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which the two rode all the way to the bank, and all was fine with the world, right?

Well, not quite, because, while there’s no doubting that “Stop Draggin’” is a great song, “Insider” is not just better, but is one of the best songs that Petty has ever written. And yet it remains largely unheard, tucked away quietly on Side 2 of Hard Promises. I’m begging you, casual TP fans, look this song up, and you’ll be as floored as I was when I discovered it upon purchasing the CD many years ago.

First of all, it is a tender band performance, featuring what may be Benmont Tench’s finest moments with the Heartbreakers. His organ propels the music in the verse, riding over the acoustic guitar and hitting all of the right emotional notes without ever overdoing it. His pounding piano in the wordless bridge is more elemental, as he bashes way in conjunction with the frustration of the narrator.

Then there’s the stunningly great duet that Petty and Nicks perform here. On “Stop Draggin,” it was more of a he said/ she said vibe, but here, they’re on the same team. As Petty woefully tells his tale yet keeps his emotions on a low boil, Nicks acts as his id, letting loose with all of the pain he’s too proud to show.

Above all, it’s a wonderful song, with music that sighs and then surges as each new wound rises to the surface, and lyrics that nail the plight of someone whose vision of a perfect love is ultimately betrayed. When Petty draws the curtain to revel the third party who has ultimately interfered with this scenario, it’s with a mixture of disgust and concern: “I’ll bet you’re his masterpiece/I’ll be you’re his self-control/Yeah you’ll become his legacy/His quiet world of white and gold.”

In the final moments, as he tried to define his own role in this farce, he comes to the shuddering realization that he simply wasn’t what she wanted: “And I’m the one who oughta know/I’m the one you left to rust/Not one of your twisted friends/I’m the one you couldn’t love.”

On this last line, Petty’s voice practically quakes, the façade finally coming down. It is an overpowering moment in this amazing song. This guy may say he’s an “Insider,” but few songs have ever so expertly detailed the helplessness of what it’s like to be on the outside of a relationship looking in.

(For the full e-book of this list, Breakdown: Tom Petty’s 100 Best Songs, check out the Amazon links below.)



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