Reveling in Abandon

The Triumph of Tom Petty

by Steve Leftridge

5 October 2017

Tom Petty was a democratizing mix of Southern rusticism and California cool, a split that made him the most relatable special-burnout rock figure for every gravel-road kid in America with an FM radio.
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews (Warner Bros. Records) 

On Monday, we lost Tom Petty, the preeminent American rock ‘n’ roller, the gun-slinging, road-warrior poet, a man who created one of the most iconic catalogs of the rock era through his own indomitable badass spirit and courtesy of a singular talent and artistic integrity that kept him at the top of his game for 40 years. We will never be able to replace him.

Petty embodied all our dream-reaching rock and roll archetypes. A kid of the South, born at the dawn of the 1950s, crazy about Elvis, loved his mama, fought like hell with his dad. He turned anger into ambition, escaped into music, developed a rebel’s swagger. He wrote tough, taut songs packed with sincerity and passion, songs that made the audience dance but contained direct lyricism that promoted emotional and physical release alike.

Petty perfected the idea of the rock band as a gang of rock ‘n’ roll true believers, tying the innocence and romanticism of blood brothers to the rugged individualism of ramblers who couldn’t be pinned down and who refused to compromise. “I don’t like clubs,” Petty said. “I don’t like to join nobody’s club. We’re our own club. We’re a rock and roll band.”

Everybody’s got to fight to be free.

Petty talked both guitarist Mike Campbell and pianist Benmont Tench into dropping out of college, risking the Vietnam draft, and along with the rest of Mudcrutch, their first band, headed into the West searching for the rock-and-roll Promised Land. They found it by holding true to their rockers’ code—trusting the spirit of the music and the fire of their performances, playing their asses off on Petty’s tight, truthful tunes.

But no one could take their eyes off the blonde scamp up front. Tom Petty cut one of the coolest figures of all time, a laser-skinny renegade with a switchblade voice—a laconic drawl and Camaro whine that would serve as the only sound on rock radio that everyone could agree on. The Tom Petty countenance—the shake of the head, the furrow of the nose, the tight downturn of the mouth, the bong-hit hair—embodied an essential rock mythos of nonconformist as hero, a complex kid with a romantic heart and a loud guitar. He was a democratizing mix of Southern rusticism and California cool, a split that made Tom Petty the most relatable special-burnout rock figure for every gravel-road kid in America with an FM radio.

And goddamn, the songs. Did anyone ever conquer the charts more comprehensively, soundtrack more lives, and get heavier rotation on MTV all while also refusing to follow a single trend or kiss a square inch of record label ass than Tom Petty? He bundled his influences (cowboy singers, Sun-era rock, Delta blues, ‘60s folk-rock) and mixed it with the punk and new wave scenes of the ‘70s underground shot through with his own songwriting gifts for hook after hook after hook. Petty was a true-blue rocker who reenergized Casey Kasem’s countdown in an era drowning in rock-is-dead disco fever, but he also brought the energy and attitude, a bit of anger, just enough dangerous edge, to be championed alongside college radio insurgents like the Clash, Talking Heads, and Patti Smith.

Moreover, Petty was a wonder of craftsmanship, treating the studio like an instrument, creating vivid textures, bringing in sonic aces (Denny Cordell, Jimmy Iovine, Rick Rubin, Jeff Lynne) to help create a body of work defined by taste and vibrancy and sturdiness that was innovative (the drum sound on Damn the Torpedoes, the way Petty’s voice would set in amid the chiming guitars, the presence of Tench’s capering synth lines) and unfailingly timeless. As with his hair, Tom Petty always knew what worked and never futzed far from his wheelhouse. He was one of the ‘70s and ‘80s biggest stars, yet he never caved to any kind of cultural pressure. No spandex pants. No power ballads. No bloated, proggy, nine-minute bullshit.

As a result, Tom Petty sounded so great, and his songs were so unfailingly stellar that he got away with what no else did and transcended every prevailing wind in music by paying no attention to disco or new romanticism or glam metal and instead letting his pure heart of rock and roll bleed on. Tom Petty just kept telling the truth and increasingly sounding like no one other than Tom Petty, inadvertently creating a genre unto himself, a standard to which hundreds of bands would be compared, but none could ever reach.

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Petty would keep the core of the Heartbreakers—Campbell, Tench, bassist Ron Blair (who left in 1982 but returned in 2002 after the death of Howie Epstein)—together for 40 years, a remarkable accomplishment for a superstar who had every opportunity to go it alone. Instead, he continually gave the band a voice, creative input, pride in the power of the collective over any individual. Petty allowed his band to get as close as possible to being a unit of equals while still maintaining his solo-star status, an anomaly in rock history.

 

Yet Petty was also a fighter, and when it came to his art, you could stand him up at the gates of hell, but he wouldn’t back down. When his label, MCA, screwed him over with a coerced contract, Petty sued them and won, an unprecedented victory for artists, winning his publishing back and leading to the formation of his own label. And when the record company wanted to hang an exorbitant $9.98 price tag on Hard Promises when it was released in 1981, Petty again took them on and won, refusing any efforts to gouge his fans.

Everyone wanted a piece of him. Stevie Nicks: “In 1978, if Tom Petty had said leave Fleetwood Mac and come join us, I would have.” Petty had to remind her that the Heartbreakers had a strict no-dames policy, but he agreed to write “Insider” for her to sing. Petty ended up liking the song more than Stevie did, so he put it on Hard Promises. She snagged the Hard Promises leftover “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” for her own album, and it would end up being the highest-charting song of her solo career, still to date. Nicks and Petty performed it together for the last-ever time in July of this year.

Petty was the youngest of the Traveling Wilburys, not quite in the generational class of his heroes George Harrison and Bob Dylan, much less Roy Orbison, but Petty was admired by those legends enough to be considered a peer with full benefits. In fact, Petty is the only artist to be able to summon 50 percent of the Beatles as his backing band (in the video for “I Won’t Back Down”). Petty helped resurrect the career of Johnny Cash, too, for Cash’s epic final fun, the American Recordings series, as Petty and the rest of the Heartbreakers served as the studio band, effortlessly recreating ‘50s and ‘60s country idioms but with dark modernist contours. And Petty was instrumental in the mid-career revitalization of Bob Dylan, supporting him on tour for two years as Dylan’s most reliable backing outfit since The Band.

There were bumps in the road. He pulverized his chording hand in a wall-punching rage and didn’t know if he’d ever play guitar again. Someone burned his house to the ground, destroying everything he owned. He went through a traumatic divorce. Epstein died of a heroin overdose. Yet the music that poured out of Petty could not be stopped. He was a writer of supernatural alacrity, often claiming that songs came to him fully formed. He was disciplined—while the other Heartbreakers were partying like the young rock stars they were—Petty could most often be found humming another melody over another chord progression. The songs came to him in a spiritual rush: For Full Moon Fever, Petty wrote one song for the album every day, songs that the world would sing along to forever.

Everyone has their favorite—the punky jangle of the ’76 debut, the classic AOR breakthrough of Damn the Torpedoes, the sinewy synthy punch of Long After Dark, the soul and Americana pastiche of Southern Accents, the eclectic sprawl of Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), the sheeny roots rock of Full Moon Fever, the organic heartland ease of Wildflowers, the dark divorce melancholy of Echo, the introspective acoustics of Highway Companion, etc. As dedicated as Petty was to his sound, as much he dismissed fads, as huge as his singles were, Petty was a lifelong adherent to the album as a cohesive collection, to be taken all at once, and every Petty LP has a distinct personality. In fact, Petty resisted the label’s insistence on putting out 1993’s Greatest Hits album, arguing that those songs should be heard only within the context of the original albums. A contractual obligation, Greatest Hits nonetheless went on to sell over 12 million copies.

And amid all of Petty’s personalities—the fighter, the rocker, the rebel, the classicist, the collaborator, the showman—he connected to so many because he wrote about love with more emotional realism than anyone. As straightforward as the music could be—his motto was “Don’t bore us / Get to the chorus”—his lyrics revealed a complex undercurrent and an honest vulnerability rare among the rock swaggerati. “Breakdown”, “I Need to Know”, “Don’t Do Me Like That”, “The Waiting”, “You Got Lucky”—they were all songs about characters with tenuous holds on love, desperate to get it right but often falling short, begging for someone to love them.

And he wrote just as well about female yearning; songs like “Listen to Her Heart” and “American Girl” are imagery-rich vignettes of characters struggling to reconcile their soaring passions with the realities of what is available to them: “It was kind of cold that night / She stood alone on her balcony / She could hear the cars roll by out on 441 / Like waves crashing on the beach / And for one desperate moment / He crept back in her memory / God it’s so painful when something that’s so close / Is still so far out of reach.”

Tom Petty reached his rock and roll dreams and lived them out for four decades. In doing so, he created the sound and words that would represent the best parts of living for millions of others. Life is full of hard promises, but anything is possible. Even the losers get lucky sometimes.

This week, Tom Petty rode off into the great wide open, leaving behind a hundred perfect Tom Petty records, songs that for the rest of us will always be just a heartbreak away. Take it easy, baby. Make it last all night.


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