From now until I’m stood up at the gates of hell, every midnight glide down Mulholland will remind me that Tom Petty can’t die. No sweltering Reseda day will ever fail to summon visions of skaters suspended in mid-smog, haloing the San Fernando Valley sky. A beach day at Carrillo State Park will forever double as the immortalized backdrop where weird old Tom Petty ghoulishly waltzed with Kim Basinger’s corpse in the “Mary Jane's Last Dance” video.
For the last three decades, a spindly and straw-haired Florida transplant made L.A. feel like L.A. as much as anyone who ever complained about the traffic. He sketched the city as glamorous and sleazy, raw and sinister, eerie and sun-stunned. He wrote fluorescent blues and pop noir. In a town largely composed of transplants, Petty instantiated the ease with which styles are grafted, mutated and warped under the blistering Western sun.
With his fellow Gainesville refugees in The Heartbreakers, Petty seamlessly wove disparate styles and genres yet remained singular. There’s heavy guitar, swamp blues, Chuck Berry, hillbilly Carl Perkins riffing, ’80s MTV pop that doesn’t sound campy or dated, light psychedelia and 21st-century homages to the greats. Everyone from The Red Hot Chili Peppers to Sam Smith, The Strokes to South Park Mexican ripped them off.
Not only is Petty’s “Free Fallin’” arguably the best pre–Paul Thomas Anderson defense of the Valley — it served as sample fodder for Pimp C, Chamillionaire, and Teenage Fanclub and De La Soul. The latter pairing’s “Fallin’” could be the best collision of rap and rock this side of The Beastie Boys.
If you’ve ever listened to classic rock radio, it’s almost impossible not to know every Tom Petty hit by heart. Yet The Heartbreakers were never a cool band. With Americana bread-and-butter influences, their success came from flawless and direct songcraft.
What Bruce Springsteen was to New Jersey
Something in Petty’s thin but durable whine refused to let it ever get corny. When he sang about his “American girl raised on promises,” you detected a sly-but-never-slick irony. It could perfectly score Jennifer Jason Leigh’s imminent deflowering in Fast Times at Ridgemont High or be lamely deployed by Michele Bachmann (much to Petty’s chagrin). What Bruce Springsteen was to New Jersey, Tom Petty was to Encino.
Petty famously met Elvis on a movie set at 12, and after receiving a guitar and a box of 45s, his fate was settled. He distilled The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Dylan and The Byrds with a distinctly frontier rebelliousness. He arrived too late for the classic rock apogee but never quite fit into punk, new wave or glossy ’80s pop. By virtue of being a man slightly out of tune with his time, Petty became timeless.
He was the youngest in The Traveling Wilburys but still somehow earned MTV rotation until his mid-40s. Where other rock stars trafficked in sex, power, glamour or mystery, Petty discovered avenues that were hidden to all but the most genius songwriters.
His anthems are intensely melodic and sentimental without being schmaltzy. They’re songs rooted in an elemental sense of the infinite: unbroken road, dreams that refuse to be deferred, personal and creative freedom, the obliteration of psychic and physical roadblocks. His lead guitarist, Mike Campbell, might be the most underrated in the last 40 years, a virtuoso who exercised almost monastic restraint on record but remained fully ready to seismically shred in the live show.
The lightest Petty bops are slightly stained by darkness. Sun cracks through the heaviest dirges. He conjured platonic driving music to flee an abusive house or stale hometown, to fly at 90 down the 4 a.m. freeway, into the great wide open. Just 66, his corporeal frame finally left this world, but his spirit and songs will always live around every curve.
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