Alex Swhear.is gliding down Mullholland.
In 2017, society’s assembly-line treatment of celebrity deaths can feel ghoulish. With a video montage and a few remembrance tweets, such deaths are often swept aside, left to be forgotten. The speed with which we move on can be jarring, even inhuman. America’s reaction to the death of Tom Petty on October 2nd felt different—rawer, more painful. It didn’t help that the nation was still reeling from the deadliest mass shooting in American history, a massacre at a Las Vegas music festival just hours earlier. Nor did it help that Petty, mere weeks removed from a major tour, appeared as healthy and capable as ever. Circumstances aside, public reaction was rooted in a palpable connection to the music of Tom Petty, one that blossomed decades ago and has only deepened. He was a star, yes, but more importantly, he was an icon. A world without him defied comprehension. It’s difficult to imagine life without something you’ve never had to live without.
Indeed, to get acquainted with Tom Petty’s music didn’t require a conscious effort so much as it required a general proximity to sounds. His music is stubbornly ubiquitous, permeating soundtracks and advertisements and smoky dive bars. You played it on your Walkman while you cut the grass, during your work commute, and it hummed from the supermarket speakers while you didn’t even notice. His accomplishments were vast and his influence inescapable. He was as comfortable in his own skin as any rock star before or since.
He helped usher in the golden era of music videos and made top hats look fashionable in the process. He wore the smirk of a cartoon villain wolf with the upper hand. He tried his hand at film (Kevin Costner’s The Postman) and television (a recurring role on King of the Hill). He sent then-candidate George W. Bush a cease-and-desist letter for playing “I Won’t Back Down” at his rallies, and he shrugged amicably when the Red Hot Chili Peppers snatched “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”’s chord progression. He has survived and thrived in more eras than just about anyone else in the music industry, living or dead.
Thomas Earl Petty was a student of music—fluent in the blues; guided by honky-tonk but not a prisoner to it; inclined to rock out but receptive to slowing down. He was inspired in equal parts by Elvis and Chuck Berry, and was informed by the dueling growth of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones before him. He had a voice that felt like a slightly smoother cousin to Bob Dylan’s nasally croon, just a pinch shy of a whine. He somehow managed to sound like Southern rock and LA all at once.
As straightforward as Petty’s stylistic tendencies are, he wasn’t easily pigeonholed upon emergence in the 1970s. He was rougher around the edges than most contemporary pop at the time, but felt out of place with that era’s hard rock. The new wave stamp didn’t fit. He had the passion of punk but rarely bothered with the anger. He was many things at once, but he never let it show at the seams.
Petty’s output had many faces, the most notable of which was his work with the Heartbreakers. The band formed in 1976 and, with some exceptions, the same lineup endured for four decades. Some of his strongest material came from his solo career. His first band, Mudcrutch, reformed in 2007 after decades dormant—a return to roots that served as a creatively reinvigorating shot in the arm. Their sophomore album, Mudcrutch 2, was the last he recorded.
Petty was confined to a supporting role within supergroup The Traveling Wilburys (alongside Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne), but both of their albums were firmly within his wheelhouse. He frequently slipped from role to role, never content to settle into the Heartbreakers’ comfort zone for too long. He executed the transition to elder statesmen of the genre so seamlessly you’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint when it happened at all.
No matter the platform, Petty had a skill for wielding simplicity as a weapon. His songs were fully realized and achingly real, but never overextended their ambitions. He could zero in on a hook like a sniper, and many of his best songs were anchored with an earworm of a chorus. He had an economy of language that lent his songs a certain poetry—direct, heartfelt, and unpretentious. He was thoroughly and unmistakably American, without ever leaning on easy flag-waving platitudes. He leveraged the blue-collar appeal of Bruce Springsteen, but balked at The Boss’s self-importance.
The result was something a bit more universal. Petty emerged with real stories about real people at a time when progressive rock was becoming spacier and Led Zeppelin was churning out Lord of the Rings fan fiction. The lost, trapped “American Girl” and the everymen of, say, “The Waiting” and “Even the Losers” tapped into a vein that heartland rock would mine for years. Even when the characters were complicated (such as the small-town protagonists of “Free Fallin’” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”), he viewed them with sympathy and even admiration.
If these sound like simple accomplishments, in truth they represent a tricky balancing act. Petty could always thread the needle impressively, crafting relatable but layered characters, while making genuinely inspirational songs that didn’t veer into corniness (a prime example being “Learning To Fly”).
Remarkably, the aforementioned songs only mark the beginning of Petty’s arsenal of radio hits. There isn’t a music collection that can be considered complete without Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits, and the more expansive Anthology: Through the Years is nearly as effective.
Lest he be mistaken for a singles-only artist, Petty crafted a number of strong albums. 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes is a landmark release – one of the finest pop-rock albums of its era, and a showcase of a band at the peak of its powers. Full Moon Fever, his solo debut, is stacked with stunning singles. It is basically perfect, “Zombie Zoo” be damned. Equally essential is Wildflowers, his sublime second solo record, with songs both underrated (the reserved but powerful “It’s Good To Be King”) and well-worn (the hazy wheeze of “You Don’t Know How It Feels”).
Tom Petty was a consummate live performer, reliably energetic and remarkably skilled. I saw him in Indiana about ten years ago. Petty flashed a knowing grin as he delivered the “Indiana boys on them Indiana nights” line from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” to predictable fanfare, given his audience. Local references are predictable applause lines at concerts, but Petty had the crowd in the palm of his hand in ways that transcended the typical superficiality of such shoutouts. The small town restlessness and apathy at the core of the song struck a nerve, and Petty’s performance of it felt like group therapy.
Most lines are not as on-the-nose as that one in that context, but such moments are what defined Tom Petty’s music: musings and feelings and stories that the world became convinced were inextricably linked to their own. Socio-economic background, geography, politics, race—none of it mattered. If you were unlucky in love or felt constricted by the trappings of your hometown, Petty’s voice was yours. “We’re a real rock ‘n’ roll band—always have been,” Petty mused in his final interview with the LA Times, just days after his last live performance. “And to us, in the era we came up in, it was a religion in a way…it was about moving people, and changing the world, and I really believed in rock ‘n’ roll—I still do.” In a world with Tom Petty, who wouldn’t?