Never Before Released Audio: Tom Petty on Rhyming

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Never-before heard recording of Tom on rhymes, and the balance of art & craft in songwriting

“I’ve gotten where I just don’t give a damn anymore,” he says, as we both laugh. We’re talking about that intersection of art and craft in songwriting where all songwriters sometimes get stalled while writing songs. As he says, songs don’t sound right without rhymes. But perfect ones? Are they necessary?

It’s one of those issues all songwriters know, how to balance both the expected conventions with unexpected artistic detours in service of the song. Sometimes, as we know, the unexpected sounds especially cool — such as a non-rhyme where a real one would normally fall — that makes the most impact. Because listeners of these songs, and of all songs, are sophisticated in their awareness, as they’ve listened to songs their whole lives, and many of the greatest ever written. So they have a fair measure of expectations based on decades of popular music listening every day of their lives.

Here is the transcript of that passage on the audio, as well as a bit more of this conversation, which goes right to the core issues of songwriting. Because the song is such a short form, to tell fully-realized stories in little more than three minutes is a lot harder than it might seem. Especially in Tom’s songs, because he worked really hard to make it seem easy as if it required no work at all.

It’s similar to how he answered my question about melody. He said he liked it if a song had a melody. But quickly added, “But a song doesn’t need a melody, you know.” Yes. There is no law. But as he then said, without one nobody will remember your song. Rhymes aren’t quite as important as melody. There are some great songs, though few, with no rhymes at all (“America” by Paul Simon). But great songs without a melody?

He compares his job to that of a screenwriter, who has ample time to develop characters on a narrative path. Doing that in the necessary shorthand of songs, and with rhymes, music, meter, melody and more all completely entwined, is a complex puzzle to solve sometimes. It’s tough especially because the only right solution is the one the songwriter accepts. But it’s not random. There are no rules, or songwriter’s jail for those who abandon the conventional. But is it a good song? Does it work? That is all that matters. And we know, in his songs and others, that sometimes it is the unexpected near rhyme or no rhyme at all which makes the biggest impact. Always it’s a play of expectations.

Some songwriters do all this instinctually, with no need for excessive thought. Tom said many times he tries to do that, tries not to overthink this stuff too much. But it was hard to avoid. Because he knew what moved him about songs, and what didn’t. And he never lowered his standards. 

How about rhymes? Sometimes you have real rhymes, sometimes false ones. Is rhyming important to you?

TOM PETTY: Yeah. Not as much as it used to be. I’ve gotten to where I just don’t give a damn anymore.


How come?

Because I’d rather just deal with what I want to say, as exactly as I want to say it, and I don’t want to compromise it for a rhyme. Sometimes, though, if you don’t rhyme it, it don’t feel good. So, it is the great thorn in the songwriter’s side that you’ve got to pretty much rhyme what you’re gonna sing. So that’s part of the trick, getting that rhyme to say what you want.

I’ve talked about this with really good screenwriters. They have so much more room to get across what they want to do. I’ve got three-and-a-half minutes. If I’m gonna tell a story, I have three-and-a-half minutes to get it across. So sometimes a single word is Act II. [Laughter]  

I don’t have that kind of space. And then when you come in with rhymes as another rule, it really makes it difficult. I feel good when it does rhyme. But if it’s something that I’m really attached to, even if it doesn’t rhyme, I just don’t care anymore, I’m gonna put it in.

I do get annoyed though, with near rhymes. When people do things that don’t rhyme.

You do that sometimes.

Oh yeah, I’m as guilty as anybody.


From Conversations with Tom Petty, Expanded Edition, by Paul Zollo and Tom Petty. [Omnibus]

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