Tom Petty was a superstar, adored by millions, and was selling out arenas right until the very end. But I think people took him for granted.
He wasn’t exactly your typical current-day celebrity. He was 66 years old, and his first album came out in the mid-’70s. Not exactly reality TV show fodder. And yet I guarantee that the Facebook timelines of about 90 percent of the people who read this are positively flooded with posts bemoaning Petty’s passing.
His appeal was pretty simple: he was a prolific and vastly talented songwriter whose appeal spans generations. And he made it all seem so easy. There was nothing terribly complicated about his music — it was solid, meat-and-potatoes rock ‘n’ roll, informed by his idols: the Byrds, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan. So much of Petty’s music (aided by his faithful backing band, the Heartbreakers) was filtered through so many older greats, and the result was unmistakably Petty. Passionate, urgent, occasionally relaxed (no doubt due to some herbal assistance), heartland rock delivered with his inimitable, Dylanesque Southern drawl.
Petty provided the soundtrack to millions of lives, and mine is no exception. Flipping through his discography after hearing of his death, I was shocked into recalling not only the sheer breadth of the music but how much of it touched both my childhood and adulthood. I was ten years old when my sister Julie bought Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes. I distinctly remember that now-iconic cover photo: Petty standing against a bright red backdrop with that mischievous grin on his face, a Rickenbacker guitar slung over his slight frame. Four of that great album’s songs were staples on the rock radio stations I was listening to at the time: “Refugee”, “Here Comes My Girl”, “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Even the Losers”. Four unimpeachable classics plucked from a single album.
Petty and the Heartbreakers’ follow-up, Hard Promises, not only contained now-classic songs like “The Waiting” and “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” (their collaboration with Stevie Nicks), it was also the subject of a highly publicized tiff between Petty and his record company: MCA wanted to raise the price of the album to $9.99, but Petty refused to comply, even threatening to rename the album Eight Ninety-Eight. Petty won out (of course), and that was the first time I ever remember an artist sticking up for his fans who may not have the extra cash to shell out for new music. He was “woke” before they even had a name for it.
A couple of years later, the underrated “You Got Lucky” was in heavy rotation on the still-young MTV. The video was a futuristic, dystopian Mad Max tribute, with Petty and the Heartbreakers playing along in a smirking, goofy way. They weren’t cut out to be video stars, but they seemed to be having fun. My high school years were dotted with plenty of great Petty music, from “Rebels” to “Don’t Come Around Here No More” to “Jammin’ Me”, and plenty of great stuff in between. As a high school kid whose tastes ran the gamut from Frank Zappa to Bob Dylan to Tom Waits to Elvis Costello to the Smiths, Petty was an unfashionable yet irresistible mainstay. Speaking of Dylan, the only time I saw Bob in concert was in 1986 when Petty and the Heartbreakers were his backing band. Resume bullets don’t get much better than that.
Through adulthood, my love for Petty’s music continued, from his delightful all-star band, the Traveling Wilburys, to his first bona fide debut solo album, Full Moon Fever, filling the late ’80s and early ’90s with plenty of good earworms. His second solo album, Wildflowers, contained the gentle, rollicking “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, a sleepy, catchy ode to hanging out and getting nicely stoned. It was my go-to jukebox song in the mid-aughts at the bar my fellow bookstore co-workers used to frequent after the store closed.
Over the last decade or so, I began to lose track of Petty’s music, but I knew he was still putting music out at a steady clip. Nobody ever accused him of being washed out — he remained a vital fixture on the music landscape, becoming something of an avuncular presence among the younger roots-rockers. His gifts, coupled with the seemingly out-of-nowhere nature of his passing, make it painful to consider. But like all the greats, his music will live on. So crack open a beverage of your choice and crank up “American Girl”. Chances are, the neighbors won’t mind.