RIP Tom Petty 1950-2017
We lost one of the all time great American songwriters and performers yesterday. Tom Petty was the sound of America, the dream, the way of life, the adventure. More than that, he was the personification of music itself, an ambassador of a time when music was a secret to be shared among friends, when you stayed up late at night listening to the radio hoping to hear that one perfect song. Or maybe you even called the radio station, talked to the DJ and made a request that would then be relayed over the air. That’s the America he sang about, even as it was slowly fading away, and now with his passing it seems like it is all but gone. Sure, we still have Bob Dylan to remind us, but he’s always seemed more remote, aloof, while Petty was the consummate man of the people. A man you would want to have as a neighbor, or an in-law. The kind of guy who knew that things could be hard for the people who came to his shows and wanted to provide a brief respite from the coarser edges of reality through the gift of music.
But he also had that distinctly American characteristic of a tireless work ethic, right up until the end. He played the last show of a massive four month long tour just mere days before he passed away. But on top of never stopping he was a believer in value, his shows were marathons and while he would mix in some deep cuts, he knew the people came to see most of his 20 or so massive hits and never failed in giving the people the show, and then some, that they came to see. The nucleus of his band, The Heartbreakers, was a well oiled machine after over 40 years. Guitarist Mike Campbell’s leads would effortlessly intertwine with Petty’s jangly chords. Benmont Tench was the band’s not-so-secret weapon, on the shortlist for one of the most accomplished rock keyboardists ever. All three were bandmates from the very beginning, dating back to Petty’s previous Gainesville, Florida band Mudcrutch. Live or in the studio, they always delivered and together created some of the most enduring radio hits of all time. Pleasing their audience and ensuring they were having as much fun as the band was always a top priority.
The first Tom Petty album I ever owned was 1989’s Full Moon Fever, on cassette. It was a formative time for me, as my musical tastes were just beginning to take shape. And in a moment of serendipity, Petty happened to deliver one of the best albums of his career just as I gained the capacity to appreciate it. It being the late ’80s, Petty was still cool in a contemporary way, enough so that his duet on “Free Fallin'” with Axl Rose was the highlight of that year’s MTV Video Music Awards. It helped that Petty was particularly savvy when it came to music videos and was one of the pioneers in the realization that a video could be a mini-movie instead of just shots of the band miming away to their song. The surreal take on Alice in Wonderland for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was groundbreaking back in 1985. For me though, Petty entered my consciousness when most of my listening was dominated by the excessive hair bands of the day like Motley Crue and Poison. Petty showed me a way back to music that was more substantial and not all flash and glitter. It was a reconnection to the music that my parents had introduced me to, like The Beatles and Steely Dan, and it also pointed toward the future of alternative and indie rock that would soon take my world, and everyone else’s, by storm. Petty’s kinship with the grunge bands of the ’90s with their flannels and unkempt hair was that they were both the real thing, not a record executive creation. Surely no one would ever call Tom Petty punk, but he absolutely had the same DIY aesthetic as the punk ethos. Get in a van, play music and see the world, that was the engine that drove Petty’s, and countless other band’s beginnings.
Nearly twenty years into his career he delivered his masterpiece, Wildflowers, in 1994. It’s a lengthy, mature album where fiery rockers like “Honey Bee” sit comfortably next to rustic beauties like the title track and plaintive calls for camaraderie like “Don’t Fade on Me“. Then there’s the shimmering hit “You Don’t Know How it Feels“, with its undeniable hook and rousing lyrics, it introduced a whole new generation to Petty’s radio empire. But the real gem is “It’s Good to Be King“, a forlorn keyboard driven ballad about aiming for the top and not quite getting there in reality, but perhaps finding some solace in the little victories. The instrumental outro with swelling strings and moody brass is truly moving and perhaps some of the deepest music he ever created.
I had the good fortune to see Petty in concert about ten years ago. He played for well over two hours and brought out Stevie Nicks completely unannounced as if it were no big deal. They sang the classic “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” together and then he let her sing the lead on “I Need to Know”, prefacing it with a story about how he had originally wrote it with her in mind. Bringing out a star of Nicks’ magnitude without warning might seem like a marketing gaffe, surely he could have upped the ticket price had she been part of the official bill. But that was just Petty’s style, giving a little bit more when it wasn’t expected or required. While my kids will never get the chance to see him, I have no doubt they will enjoy his music, as will their children. RIP Tom Petty, you were a window into the soul of America and we will not forget it.