“Rhino Skin” is a song about the need to have “thick skin” in navigating through a tough, judgmental, and sometimes unforgiving world. And the tough old Rhinoceros of the African steppe is exquisitely equipped with the kind of body armor — here, in an emotional/ psychological sense — that Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers suggest surviving souls may need. That is, you need the emotional equivalent of rhino skin to get through the unforgiving terrain of daily living.
Petty is also referring, generally, to the same “slings-and-arrows” territory that a bard named William Shakespeare raised centuries earlier, though in a somewhat different context.
Petty and the Heartbreakers do a fine job in their musical conveyance of this need for daily fortitude and more. They offer just enough attitude, empathy, and a touch of defiance in their performance and prescription. The male choral backing running with the instrumental ending adds a moving finish as well. The full song with lyrics is offered below (best with headphones).“Rhino Skin” is the kind of song that can get overlooked, as in this case, it wasn’t released as a single or even for separate radio play. But it’s a perfectly good and even compelling tune, worthy of wider circulation – if only for its message. It appears Petty has woven some of his own hard knocks and life lessons into the lyrics here – and between the lines as well – offering warning and counsel for others going forward.
Life’s journey can be pretty treacherous, Petty seems to suggest at the outset, stating that you need to have Rhino skin at the start. You need to don this protection even to “begin to walk though this world.”
You need rhino skin
You need elephant balls
Oh my love if I reveal
You need eagles wings
You need rhino skin
If you listen long enough
You need rhino skin
You need rhino skin
And after that, you need variations of thick skin and fortitudinous-persevering courage to keep going. For the most part, it’s unfriendly territory out there – whether adolescence, workplace, or love. He suggests “elephant balls”as required equipment – or as a Mexican might counsel, “large cojones.” That is, you need a certain amount of gumption and “stand-upedness,” as all kinds of stuff is gonna` come your way – good, bad, ugly, crazy, indifferent, depressing, and all the rest.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Love and trust – and their fraying and betrayal – are part of the territory Petty is talking about as well. They are consistent Petty themes throughout much of his music. In “Rhino Skin,” Petty allows that there is a certain interpersonal calculation that goes on in all relationships. Secrets abound. Doubt, fear, anger and other concoctions are all there. But sometimes it’s better that the loved one not know them, and that the bearer consider not revealing them. But should you choose to reveal, that’s when some rhino skin might come in handy.
Adding to the trove of wildlife powers one may need to survive the modern world are “eagles wings” – ideal for flight, avoidance, surmounting barriers, and generally getting away from things unkind or unpleasant – especially when confronting things that make no sense, of which too often there is a fair amount.
So generally, there’s really no avoiding the need for developing this dermatological-like psychological skill set. But you have to work at growing it – i.e., the rhino skin – especially for self defense in love relationships. Petty warns: “Love is [or can be] painful to the touch” so you have to be prepared – “must be made of stronger stuff.”
At the close, Petty reiterates the need for thick skin in dealing with the nonsense and getting through life’s maze – dealing with “the arrows of sin / the evils of men” — you name it. Whatever they throw at you, “you need rhino skin.”In some ways, the lyrics for “Rhino Skin,” and a few other tracks on Echo, are the learned conclusions of a wounded soul.
Tom Petty was going through some tough times as this song and the Echo album were being crafted. His first marriage of 20 years was then ending and headed for divorce. And earlier, his adolescence wasn’t the best of times either. So there may be some personal history seeping through this tune’s suggested toughening up.
But “Rhino Skin” also suggests a kind of re-armament; a refortification for going forward. Tom Petty doesn’t give up. Throughout his musical ouvre there is a consistent theme of getting up off the mat for another day; of not being defeated.
Yes, the slings and arrows along life’s path can be pretty hurtful and humiliating. But they are bearable and instructive, especially with a little “rhino skin” growing tough for next steps and another day.Echo was first released in April 1999, and it rose to No. 10 on the Billboard 200 album chart. It was certified Gold (500,000 copies sold) by the RIAA in July 1999. There were no singles released from the album for retail sale, but three of the 15 songs – “Free Girl Now,” “Swingin’” and “Room At The Top” – were released for radio play, hitting numbers 5, 17 and 19 respectively on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks in 1999. Elsewhere on the album, “About To Give Out” is a good old southern rocker, and “One More Day, One More Night” has a bluesy quality about it.
Among the Heartbreakers assisting Petty on Echo are: Mike Campbell, lead guitars, bass, lead vocals on “I Don’t Wanna Fight”; Benmont Tench, pianos, organ, chamberlin, clavinet; Howie Epstein, bass, harmony/ background vocals; Scott Thurston, acoustic and electric guitars, background vocals; Steve Ferrone, drums; and Lenny Castro, percussion.
USA Today’s review of Echo noted: “…Tom Petty continues his unwavering sanction of rock ‘n’ roll purity and simplicity, refusing to sully his smartly crafted songs with arty window dressing, hip-hop flourishes or electronic noodling. By rejecting such trends and remaining loyal to classic guitar rock, Petty emerges as one of the few real rebels in the ’90s…” Echo was nominated for 1999 year Grammy Award for Best Rock Album, while “Room At The Top” was nominated for Best Rock Song. Santana took the 1999 album prize with Supernatural, while the Red Hot Chili Peppers won the Best Song prize with “Scar Tissue.”
See also at this website, “I Won’t Back Down,” a story about the use of Tom Petty’s music in political campaigns, and visit the “Annals of Music” page for other story choices in that category. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 28 April 2016
Last Update: 28 April 2016
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Jack Doyle, “Rhino Skin: Tom Petty, 1999,”
PopHistoryDig.com, June 25, 2014.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Album Notes, Echo, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
“Echo (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album),” Wikipedia.org.
“Rebellious Ring to Petty’s ‘Echo’,” USA Today, April 13, 1999, p. D-4.
“Tom Petty,” Wikipedia.org.
Rajesh Kottamasu, “Album Review: Echo by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” Harvard Crimson, April 23, 1999.
Greg Kot, “Echo / Tom Petty / Warner Bros.,” Rolling Stone, April 29, 1999.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “Album Review, Tom Petty / Echo,” AllMusic.com.
Jim Beviglia, “Songs 85-71: Tom Petty Explores Mischievous Preachers, Loose Women & Pain of Divorce as the Countdown Continues,” Houston.CultureMap.com, Au- gust 22, 2010.
Dennis Brault, “Freedom of Speech Trumps Concerns over Cyberbullying,” LaCrosse Tribune, November 14, 2012.
“Q Exclusive: Tom Petty Brings the Snarl Back on Hypnotic Eye,” CBC.ca, July 17, 2014.