Behind The Song: “Refugee” by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Written by Tom Petty & Mike Campbell, it was released 41 years ago today on Damn The Torpedoes.

On this day, October 19, 1979, 41 years ago, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers landmark – album, Damn The Torpedoes, was released. It was the day before his 29th birthday. Because of protracted legal battles with his label, leading the band to sign with Backstreet, the album was significantly delayed until this happy moment, when Tom could share what he knew to be his strongest album yet with the world.

It was the band’s third album, and the first on Backstreet Records, having been forced to switch labels. It was also the first one that Jimmy Iovine produced, and the one many considered his finest with the band.

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Its reception by the fans – and most critics – was one of great elation and a sense that this great band was one of those rare ones not to repeat themselves, but evolve with each album. Already the potential for expansion seemed likely and was now affirmed. It all started strong and would keep getting stronger.

As Rolling Stone declared, it was the “album we’ve all been waiting for – that is, if we were all Tom Petty fans, which we would be if there were any justice in the world.”

Indeed. This album was right on the crux of the full emergence of Tom as a songwriter, revealing the remarkable blend of rocking, visceral music wed to words both conversational and poetic. “Refugee” was a remarkable song – taking on this lyrical conceit rarely explored so directly in a rock song – that becoming this character of ragged desperation, though matching some counter-culture ideal of a rebel refusing to play by conventional rules – was perhaps romantic, but unwise.

It was built, as were many of Tom’s great songs, on the foundation of a Mike Campbell chord progression – this one in F#m, anchored on the simple but powerful repeating progression of F#m-A-E – over which Tom wrote the words and the melody to this timeless song.

The lyric, which he said poured out of him without much work, is essential Tom Petty. It’s directed at this character in mostly conversational language, as the narrator attempts to piece together the hurt which fractured her personality, causing this condition:

“Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some.”

This is followed by an archetypal Tom Petty line; at once more poetic and less colloquial than what has brought us there, it’s Shakespearean in its simple but poignant elegance, pushing the entire song gently into a whole other realm:

“Tell me why you want to lay there and revel in your abandon.”

Yet the fullness of Tom’s genius – which was both the result of diligence and his natural instinctual inner-songwriter leading the way – is in beautiful bloom here. Other songwriters wanting the world to know of their poetic depth, might have written every line with the same level of “revel in your abandon” language. Yet he always knew to temper the poetry in a song, so that it was real and understandable, and not obscure the meaning.

That restraint has the effect of underscoring the poetry when it does come to the surface, built on the foundation of real speech. That balance is something some songwriters take decades to develop, if they ever do. Paul Simon spoke often about this balance of conversational and poetic language in songs. Tom somehow mastered it before ever over-thinking it, one of so many reasons his songs were powerful when released, and persists in delivering that force every time. He injects some poetry into the mix, but not so much as to obscure the story.

But like so many of his songs, both the hits and the album cuts, “Refugee” was deceptively simple. That use of spoken language, coupled with Tom’s signature simplicity, led many to the wrong assumption that these songs came easy, and not belonging to the realm of serious songwriting. It was so well-conceived and executed – both in the writing and the recording – that it shows no sign of obvious genius. This was a pattern that extended throughout his career. The songs so effectively transcended any sense of contrivance or labor that they seemed immaculate, somehow getting written without too much input from the writer.

So while Dylan or Lennon, for example, were considered obvious geniuses, Tom was often thought of in a lesser league. But, as he was well aware of this dynamic, he said, “If people think this is so easy to do what we do, they should try doing it themselves.”

That misguided bias was reflected in some reviews for Damn The Torpedoes that seem kneejerk in their fast judgment of this album, which has proven itself as one of Tom’s strongest, and one of his fan’s favorites.

“This is a breakthrough for Petty… but whether Petty has any need to rock out beyond the sheer doing of it—whether he has anything to say—remains shrouded in banality…”

The critic concludes it with a remarkably brazen and erroneous summation of the album as “rock and roll that can be forgotten as soon as the record or the concert is over.”

Can there be a statement more wrong than that? 41 years later, this album is hardly forgotten. It is cherished. Fortunately, even if the critics didn’t have a clue about his greatness, Tom never lost sight of his aim, nor abandoned the passion. It remains as powerful, if not more so, as it did four decades ago.

From our book, Conversations with Tom Petty, here’s the man himself, in his own words, on the birth of this song and record which was released on this day:

It was a very easy song to write. Mike had the chord progression. He sent me over a cassette of him playing that progression.

The memory I have of it is walking around the room with his cassette playing. And I started to sing to it, and really right away I got the tune, and most of the words. And it was really quick. ‘Cause there are only two verses in it. The third repeats the second, almost. [Laughs]

It didn’t take long at all to write it. But it was a difficult song to record. But well worth it. It’s really one of our best records; certainly, one of the best singles we ever made.

That’s an example of a song where the chord progression doesn’t change, but the chorus builds up to a great climax. I’m just proud to have been there on that one.

I hear that on the radio still. And Jimmy Iovine did a really great job of making a great record out of that song. It’s really just a beautiful sound. Jimmy really, really believed in the song. He wouldn’t accept less than greatness [Laughs], which is the way he is. And he got it.

All of [The Heartbreakers] really shine on it. That’s the epitome of The Heartbreakers, of that original five.

That arrangement wasn’t remotely like what Mike did originally. We took the chord patterns and The Heartbreakers came up with that by playing it over and over. We really played that a lot. And a change here and a change there. Until it got the way it was. And it did work like that, in layers.

But it’s the kind of song I can’t picture anyone else ever singing. I’ve never heard anyone else ever do it. It’s so uniquely us. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like that.

It’s in a minor key-

Well, [minor keys] are spookier. And kind of romantic-sounding. You can’t do too many minors or you’ll really drag down the whole. I always think that I’m only going to get so many minor keys in the framework of twelve songs. If I do six, I might create a mood I don’t want to create.

So, yes, when you strum a minor chord, it’s got a more exotic feel to it than a major chord. But I don’t think it’s any easier. There’s a lot of drivel written in minor chords. [Laughs] And in major.

The line “You don’t need to live like a refugee” –

Sometimes you can’t see these things coming. They just appear. That was a case in which I didn’t see that coming. It just appeared, and there it was. So I didn’t question it. I just went with it.

It’s a great example of a song where the verse leads us so strongly to the chorus. The phrasing has such great rhythm built into it: “Somewhere, somehow, somebody/Must have kicked you around some…”

Also “Tell me, why you wanna lay there/revel in your abandon.”

Yeah. I remember all of it coming very quickly. I don’t know why or how.

Sometimes you can’t look too deeply at these things. I’m almost superstitious about it. It’s like I say, you don’t see it coming. Sometimes you can, with some kinds of songs.

But this one just appeared as I was just kind of pacing. I remember pacing around the room, and I started singing to the cassette. And, within twenty minutes, it had all appeared. I think I worked a little longer filling in the bridge. But I’m not even sure of that. It really came quickly. There was no effort at all. It was just very easily done, as far as the writing.



We got something, we both know it
We don’t talk too much about it
Ain’t no real big secret all the same
Somehow we get around it

Listen it don’t really matter to me baby
You believe what you want to believe
You see you don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)

Somewhere, somehow somebody
Must have kicked you around some
Tell me why you want to lay there
And revel in your abandon

Honey, it don’t make no difference to me baby
Everybody’s had to fight to be free
You see you don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
No baby you don’t have to live like a refugee

Baby we ain’t the first
I’m sure a lot of other lover’s been burned
Right now this seems real to you
But it’s one of those things
You gotta feel to be true

Somewhere, somehow somebody
Must have kicked you around some
Who knows, maybe you were kidnapped
Tied up, taken away and held for ransom

It don’t really matter to me
Everybody’s had to fight to be free
You see you don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
I said you don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
You don’t have to live like a refugee

© Universal Music Publishing Group, Gone Gator Music

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