Tom Petty, Doris Day and the Art of Being Dumb

Good pop music is usually gloriously dumb. “I love you, yeah-yeah-yeah” (the Beatles). “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle” (Bob Dylan). But Tom Petty’s new single, “Room at the Top,” is dumb musically, not lyrically, a rare occurrence. “I have a room at the top of the world tonight,” he begins quietly over subdued guitar strumming. He tells us that in this room people can drink and forget the things that went wrong with their lives. Then Mr. Petty repeats that he’s in a room at the top of the world tonight, insisting, “And I ain’t coming down.”

After that, the song gets ridiculously gaudy. Mr. Petty goes on and on about this room at the top of the world while a bass starts thumping loud (bum-bum-bum ), and an electric guitar blares single chords like some old Queen song. Then Mike Campbell, one of Mr. Petty’s longstanding sidemen in the Heartbreakers, plays a quick, sloppy guitar solo imitating (or mocking) a Richard Thompson Celtic Strat solo.

The music is both dumb and jubilant because of the wholehearted pathos in Mr. Petty’s lyrics. Once you realize how many regrets you’re carrying around, Mr. Petty’s insistence that he “ain’t comin’ down” is touching. Most of us are smart enough to know that no one, save maybe Donald Trump, stays in the room at the top of the world for even the duration of a single night. Bless Mr. Petty for being dumb enough to think that he’ll be up there forever.

Most of the songs on Echo (Warner Brothers), his latest album, concern the triumphs of losers. But listening, you feel neither equal nor superior to his characters, like the chick in trouble with the law who calls her mother-in-law for dough (“Swingin'”). Or even Mr. Petty himself, who goes “down hard like Billy the Kid” but gets up again. What you do feel is pleased that at least a handful of good-natured dumb clucks realize “you need rhino skin to pretend you’re not hurt by this world” (“Rhino Skin”). Mr. Petty rips through 14 songs about losers without betraying bitterness, and only slips on the 15th song, “One More Day, One More Night.” In that one he whines, “No one taught me how to be on my own.” It’s the only moment when Mr. Petty is a crybaby. On the rest of Echo , he is a man humbled by bad luck, bad decisions and bad karma, and still dumb, or brave, enough to stay in the ring.

It’s not necessarily an insult to call Tom Petty a dumb blond. He was born in Gainesville, Fla., in 1952 and considers himself a Southerner, once singing, “There’s a Southern accent where I come from … the Yankees call it dumb.” He followed his inspiration to become a rock star after seeing Elvis Presley filming Follow That Dream in 1961, and since 1976 has recorded pretty good shopping-mall rock with his pretty good band the Heartbreakers, writing pretty good songs like “American Girl” and “Don’t Do Me Like That.” But Mr. Petty has reached a plateau with his new, very good album. He has the dumb courage to realize what sophisticated singers would never be caught admitting: “The mistakes I’ve made will follow me into the grave” (“This One’s for Me”).

To now compare Tom Petty to Doris Day will seem a stretch. What do they have in common other then blond hair? Dumbness.

Doris Day was born Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1924. Her music was dumb in the 40’s and 50’s, and sounds even dumber in 1999. But to call Ms. Day a dumb blonde is problematic; the phrase implies she was sexually available and naïve, and Ms. Day was (and is) anything but. Columbia is about to release a 48-track celebration of her music, Golden Girl (The Columbia Recordings 1944-1966) , and even a cursory listen will reveal Ms. Day as the most virginal female singer ever recorded. Well, not “virginal”–innocent. Basically, Ms. Day served the national duty of being the Pied Piper, leading post-World War II maidens into marriage while revealing not a clue about what to expect on or in or under the marriage bed.

When Ms. Day goes to bed, she sleeps alone, telling her pillow how much she wants to get married (“Pillow Talk”). In “A Guy Is a Guy,” Ms. Day tells how a guy is following her up the stairs, which has a sinister 90’s slasher-flick vibe. Don’t worry, all he wants is a good-night kiss. But if the guy is a guy , he wants more, right? Of course not! After they peck, Ms. Day goes to her ma, who goes to her pa, and the next thing we know the guy is following the singer down the aisle as if a good-night kiss is grounds for a shotgun wedding.

All these songs are dumb–but dumb in a good way, like Mr. Petty’s Echo . Before I tell you why, hear Ms. Day’s first big hit–”Sentimental Journey,” released in January 1945–in historical terms. This lovely song is not about marriage; it’s about taking a sentimental journey back home. Now what does a 19-year-old girl (Ms. Day’s age when she sang it) know about sentimentality? The song is just a pretty piece of blankness unless you consider the month it came out. The Allies were winning in Europe and had Tojo on the run in the Pacific. Hope was in the air. American boys would soon be taking a “sentimental journey” home.

There’s no way for us “postmoderns” to imagine how sincere the now-dopey-sounding naïveté of those days was. Certainly when the grunts returned from Vietnam no one sang about a “sentimental journey.” And in the 30-odd years since the end of Oliver Stone’s war, naïveté and innocence have ceased to exist in America’s cosmology. Only dumbness remains. Not even children are innocent–i.e., school shootings, Internet porn, “homosexual” brainwashing by Teletubbies (or so says Jerry Falwell). Listening to dumb Doris Day becomes a necessary postmodern delight. On Golden Girl , Ms. Day sings “Ain’t We Got Fun?,” a great dumb song with a corny choir in the background. The answer back in 1953 is Yes! The answer in 1999 is a resounding No.

The one Day song that everyone knows is “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).” You know how it goes. The narrator remembers asking Mom, “What will I be when I grow up?” Rich? Poor? A Jedi knight? And Mom answers, “The future’s not ours to see. Que sera, sera …”

Now, a mom can give that kind of la- di-da spin to her kid, but it’s just a cop-out, because as another dumb guy once sang, the future’s uncertain and the end is always near. Not that you can bear Doris Day any ill will for one false song. She was pre-Tet offensive, pre-Watergate, pre-AIDS, pre-trench coat mafia. Her music gives us the archeological experience of innocence, while Tom Petty sits in his room at the top of the world and forgives us for all the dumb things that went wrong in our lives. It’s dumb, but it feels good.