Tom Petty Was the Great Rock Songwriter We Too Often Took for Granted
Over the last 24 hours, it feels like Tom Petty left the world twice — once, the victim of bad reporting (spread by too many jump-the-gun writers, including me), and then, finally, the victim of a heart that gave out way too soon, at the age of 66.
On the one hand, he deserved better. The media, perhaps still shellshocked by the events in Las Vegas, let him down. On the other hand, it somehow felt grimly appropriate. It's hard to think of another rock & roll survivor more dogged than Tom Petty. Of course he didn't leave this world without a fight, and without leaving the rest of us wrecked and broken in two.
For all his success, Petty spent much of career being underrated, or at least underestimated. He was the just-happy-to-be-here youngster in the Traveling Wilburys. He cranked out hits but could never quite shake his journeyman status. For years, he plied his trade in the shadow of his contemporaries and forebears — not a genius like Springsteen, according to many critics, or an authentically gritty purveyor of raw Southern rock like the Allmans and Skynyrd, but a maker of "a finely crafted brand of meat-and-potatoes rock," in the faint praise of Rolling Stone's grudgingly favorable review of 1982's Long After Dark.
On some level, Petty seemed to love his perpetual underdog status — maybe at times a little too much. For most of the '80s, when he should have been building on the critical and commercial success of the Heartbreakers' breakthrough third LP, Damn the Torpedoes, he seemed a little lost, battling his record label, trying on and discarding sounds and personae, getting so frustrated in the studio that he famously, at one point, broke his hand by punching a wall — over a song, "Rebels," that was clearly meant to be his "Born to Run," an attempt at a calling-card anthem that didn't quite click. After 1987's Stonesy Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) produced only one minor hit, "Jammin' Me" (co-written by his fellow Wilbury, Bob Dylan), many were ready to write Petty off.
He responded, as he did throughout his career when the chips were down, with some of his best work. While Damn the Torpedoes will probably forever be the critics' darling, 1989's Full Moon Fever is the fan favorite. When I saw Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Arroyo Seco Festival earlier this year, no audience sing-alongs were more full-throated and enthusiastic than those reserved for "Free Fallin'" and "I Won't Back Down." The latter's plainspoken defiance finally gave Petty the career-defining statement of purpose that "Rebels" had fallen short of. (Before that, the closest Petty had to a calling-card song was "Even the Losers," but that never felt quite right either — he may have been an underdog, but he was never a loser, not even in that grandiose, Springsteen/Orbison way.)
"Free Fallin'" has become Petty's best-known L.A. song — but since moving here at the start of his career, he was always a great chronicler of our city's contradictions and paradoxes. He understood L.A. as a place where Jesus-loving good girls and Hollywood vampires roamed the same boulevards, and where it was possible to feel both freedom and failure in the time it takes to sing a three-word chorus. "Century City," from Damn the Torpedoes, is one of the greatest L.A. transplant's laments ever committed to vinyl, and "Into the Great Wide Open" is a bone-dry send-up of the late '80s Sunset Strip music scene, written just before grunge smothered it in flannel.
Over the years, Petty and his music fell in and out of fashion, but his defiant, underdog streak was always his saving grace. In the last decade, he settled into the kind of comfortable late-career groove only a handful of artists have found. His last two Heartbreakers albums, Mojo and Hypnotic Eye, sound completely unforced — looser, bluesier and jammier than the band's classic material, but still full of the kind of twangy hooks and catchy choruses Petty (with frequent and vital assists from guitarist Mike Campbell) delivered so regularly that, by the mid-'90s, Rolling Stone opened their review of Wildflowers with, "It's easy to take Tom Petty for granted."
Something else unexpected and glorious happened in later years, too. Tom Petty — underdog, journeyman, perpetually saddled with that condescending "heartland rock" tag, even though the two places he had called home (Florida and Los Angeles) were as far from America's heartland as New York or Seattle — suddenly became cool. His best riffs and melodies, especially the chugging chords of "American Girl," began showing up in unexpected places — on The Strokes' "Last Nite," then Spoon's "They Never Got You." Petty full moon fever came to a head when everyone suddenly realized that one of the best songs of 2014, Sam Smith's "Stay With Me," had lifted the melody of its chorus from "I Won't Back Down." Smith claimed he had never heard Petty's original, but by 2014, that was virtually impossible. Step into any mall or drug store in the English-speaking world and you'll hear Petty's nasal twang at some point.
That ubiquity might explain why some of us, myself included, continued to take Petty for granted to the end. I missed his three late September shows at the Hollywood Bowl, telling myself that I had just seen him at Arroyo Seco, sure that he would be back around even though he was already intimating that the Bowl shows might, at the very least, be his last with the Heartbreakers. Instead, they were his last shows on earth. He passed away one week to the day after the final one, on Sept. 25. In its own way, it was a swan song as impressive Bowie's — gifting his fans not with an instant-classic album, but with a series of concerts that, by all accounts, proved that he and his Heartbreakers were still at the top of their game, and making a strong case that they rank as one of great bands in rock & roll history.
"He's the last rock star," wrote industry observer Bob Lefsetz after one of the shows. That may be an exaggeration, but it's fair to say that Tom Petty was, at the very least, our last relatable rock star — free of the self-aggrandizing pretensions of a Bono or Springsteen, the ageless superhumanity of a Jagger or Iggy Pop, the inscrutable eccentricities of a Morrissey or Axl Rose. He was, in the vein of his heroes Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn, a singer and songwriter first, a rock star second. And by the end he was no longer, in any way, an underdog.
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