UPDATE 10/3/17, 12:15 AM: After a day of conflicting information, Tom Petty’s passing was indeed confirmed just after midnight Tuesday. Here, Joe and Mike share some thoughts on the man and his music.
When Tom Petty burst onto the scene with his band The Heartbreakers in 1976, American audiences initially didn’t know what to make of him. In a year dominated by pop and disco, there wasn’t much room on the charts for this new heir apparent to the jangle of The Byrds. Petty loved rock and roll, pure and simple, unadorned and unvarnished. He took his cues from the greats of the 1960s in crafting tight, melodic nuggets, and embellishing them with ringing guitars and surging organ flourishes. Soon, word got out of this blazing talent, first in the U.K. and then at home. Throughout an extraordinary career, Petty stayed remarkably true to himself – fighting to keep the prices down on his albums, taking aim at the greed he saw in the music industry, and recording the kind of music he wanted to hear himself. It’s almost unfathomable that this bright light – who just concluded a major tour mere days ago at the Hollywood Bowl – has died, a little more than two weeks shy of his 67th birthday,
Petty was that rare artist, able to adjust to the changing times and tastes without abandoning what made his soulful, driving sound so powerful. In 1988, his place in the classic rock lexicon was more evident than ever when he teamed with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison to create The Traveling Wilburys, the tongue-in-cheek supergroup to end all supergroups. As Charlie T. Wilbury, Jr., Petty on Vol. 1 and “Muddy” Wilbury on Vol. 3 (their second album, of course), Petty paid tribute to his heroes – some of them in the very same group with him – with his engaging, retro-flavored rockers. He held his own with Dylan on the concert stage, and very much belonged to the Wilburys on records. His generosity extended to other collaborations, such as with Stevie Nicks. With his friend Lynne, he crafted a remarkable solo debut in 1989’s Full Moon Fever, crossing over to the pop realm with the soaring ballad “Free Fallin'” and channeling the joyful spirit of the Wilburys on the defiant “I Won’t Back Down,” which could have been a mission statement for Tom Petty, the man.
As an artist, Petty didn’t mellow in his later years, offering pointed commentary on The Last DJ (2002). channeling his blues roots on Mojo (2010), and returning to the stylistic milieu of his earliest albums with The Heartbreakers on Hypnotic Eye (2014). He even revisited his first band, Mudcrutch, for two well-received albums of swampy southern rock in 2008 and 2016. As a DJ for Sirius XM, Petty’s Buried Treasure show celebrated the varied strains of music that inspired him, and allowed him to inspire others in turn with his eclectic choices. His Tom Petty Radio featured his own curated playlists, and the Tom Talked to Cool People interview program allowed him to welcome guests such as Andrew Loog Oldham and Micky Dolenz.
In the final song on his last released album, Mudcrutch’s 2, Petty sang, “Nobody cry for me/Ain’t nothin’ to it now/The world will turn somehow…” Indeed, the artist left behind a legacy of song that will continue to resonate and inspire, as long as the world turns. Let’s not cry for Tom Petty, but rather raise our voices and lift our instruments to make a joyful noise.
Mike remembers a complex kid:
Call it the curse of the era in which I was born or the conditions that I was raised upon: something felt artificial about what they called rock and roll. It didn’t seem scary or righteous or cool for terribly long bouts of time, as a child or even a teenager, when technology and speed of information pulled the veil away from most of pop music’s mythmaking. But Tom Petty seemed apart from that.
The one rock hero who always gets to me, with his stage presence, songwriting and fiery belief in the healing power of rock and roll is Bruce Springsteen. But Petty, born a world away in Gainesville, Florida, does the trick in oddly similar ways. Petty’s songs are etched into the rock radio canon: “American Girl,” “Refugee,” “Listen to Her Heart,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Learning to Fly,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels“–the list stretches into eternity. Like The Boss, Petty was backed by an incredible band in The Heartbreakers; Mike Campbell’s guitar sounded like no other, Benmont Tench’s keyboards and organ cut you to the quick, and the rhythm section (whether consisting of Ron Blair or Howie Epstein on bass or Stan Lynch or Steve Ferrone on drums) rounded things out nicely. Petty and Springsteen were alike in terms of standing up for causes they believed in (Petty fought MCA Records against higher LP pricing and won, and was gracious in acknowledging the folly of supporting the Confederate flag later in life) and their admiration for Roy Orbison. (Petty, of course, was Orbison’s bandmate in the Traveling Wilburys–the youngest in the five-man supergroup–and co-wrote his last major hit.)
Despite all that, Petty differed from Springsteen in a crucial way: rock seemed like a job. A cool job, but a job nonetheless, and as it was a job, you had to do the best you could so you could get by. The working class dog in me respected that, and still does. For Petty, making music seemed less of a vocation and more of a profession: plug in and play, and if people dig it, then all right.
And oh, how they dug it. It’s a rarefied space that Petty’s singles discography will exist in: responsible for a sizable chunk of what classic rock even sounds like, but also above any chart position or certification you could recite. A lot of times, his music just felt like flight, or at least barreling down a green hill in a wagon, wind whooshing in your ears, cares stripping away as the widescreen plain stretches out before you.
We cling to our rock heroes to understand ourselves, to believe in promises we try to keep with ourselves, to help “take it easy, baby/make it last all night.” Though Petty is gone, we still have his songs to hold on to, to help us run down dreams and navigate that great wide open as best as we can.