Tom Petty: The Last Great American Rock Icon
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recently completed a summer tour with three nights at the Hollywood Bowl. The trek marked the band’s 40th anniversary. I was chatting with a coworker about Tom Petty the morning he was found unconscious at his home.
During a conversation that now feels eerily foretelling, I mentioned Tom Petty as my bucket list concert; the only musician I just had to see live before they died. Little did I know at the time that Petty would go into full cardiac arrest at some point that morning.
Later in the day, after much confusion and retracted news reports, a statement was issued by his manager, Tony Dimitriades. “We are devastated to announce the untimely death of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty,” Dimitriades said on behalf of the family.
News of Petty’s condition and his death may have been unclear and confusing, but his reputation and legacy suffered no such problem. Tom Petty was one of the greatest rock musicians and possibly the last link to the early days of rock and roll.
ANYTHING THAT’S ROCK ‘N’ ROLL
With his nasally voice and chiming guitar, Petty and his longtime band, the Heartbreakers, churned out an instantly recognizable brand of sturdy, American rock that made them a classic-radio staple for decades.
Petty was born October 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Florida, the first of two sons of Kitty (Avery) and Earl Petty. His interest in rock and roll music began at age ten when he met Elvis Presley, and he began working on music after seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964.
After numerous failed starts, Petty, along with original Mudcrutch members, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench joined Ron Blair and Stan Lynch to form the first lineup of the Heartbreakers. Their eponymous debut album was released in 1976 to minimal fanfare.
The single “Breakdown” was re-released in 1977 and peaked at #40 in early 1978. Their second album, You’re Gonna Get It!, marked the band’s first Top 40 album, but their third album, Damn the Torpedoes went platinum, sold nearly two million copies, and catapulted the band to stardom.
Over the course of his career, Petty released 13 studio albums with the Heartbreakers, three solo albums, two albums with Mudcrutch, and two albums as part of the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.
The period between 1988-1994 could be considered Petty’s artistic high point, with four seminal albums produced during that seven-year period; The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1, Full Moon Fever, Into the Great Wide Open, and Wildflowers.
An artist whose output spanned five decades as a recording artist, Petty has charted albums in the Top 5 on the Billboard 200 in every decade from the 70s up to his most recent recording, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye. His last album entered at No. 1., becoming the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album to ever top the chart. He had 12 top 20 Billboard Hot 100 hits, with “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Stevie Nicks being his highest charting song at No. 3.
Petty sold more than 80 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling music artists of all time. In 2002, Petty was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Petty has won GRAMMYs for Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal for 1989 for Traveling Wilburys, Volume One, a collaboration with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison; Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for 1995 for “You Don’t Know How It Feels“; and Best Long Form Music Video for 2008 for the documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream.
Petty’s songs proved their durable and timeless. A 1993 collection of “Greatest Hits,” including the single “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” stayed on the Billboard album chart for six years.
IT’S GOOD TO BE KING
I always appreciated Petty’s songs, but it wasn’t until my adult years that I fell in love with his music. My teen years were the early 90s. Grunge and alternative rock were my musical mainstays. I also romanticized the 60s era of protest rock. Tom Petty’s songs were catchy but they seemed trite. Pitted against 90s grunge, his 80s output seemed to suffer from overproduction.
And yet, Petty and the Heartbreakers endured through Punk, New Wave, 80s synth pop, and 90s grunge. Those genres and sounds came and went. All the while, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers endured.
Tom Petty and his longtime band the Heartbreakers consistently delivered incredibly catchy rock and roll songs that were embraced by critics, fans, and fellow musicians alike. Stevie Nicks wanted to be in his band. He and the Heartbreakers backed Bob Dylan during the True Confessions tour.
He was a part of the greatest superband of all-time, the Traveling Wilburys. He contributed to several albums of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings albums that were produced by Rick Rubin. Cash even covered a few Petty standards, his sublime “Southern Accents” and a somber but defiant, “I Won’t Back Down.”
“It’s shocking, crushing news,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in a statement. “I thought the world of Tom. He was great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”
RUNNIN’ DOWN A DREAM
When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers first started recording, the Ramones, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and punk rock, and then New Wave were in fashion. It wasn’t clear exactly what genre they represented. In truth, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were a modern amalgamation of rock and roll’s roots.
The sound of Petty’s songs were shaped by the music he heard growing up: the harmonious melodies of the Beatles, the aggressive feedback of the Rolling Stones, the chiming guitars of the Byrds, and the dirty percussion of southern soul.
But more than anything, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were known for their songs. He and his bandmates churned out catchy rock songs that were deceptively simple but remarkable in their craftsmanship. Tom Petty songs were the quintessential sound of American rock.
His songs were as catchy and melodic as anything from the Beach Boys. Just listen to American Girl, The Waiting, Don’t Come Around Here No More, or Free Fallin’.
The talent and musicianship of the band rivaled Springsteen’s E-Street Band. Benmont Tench is one of rock’s greatest keyboardists. Mike Campbell is one of rock’s unsung guitar heroes. Campbell is responsible for some of rock’s greatest guitar licks.
His approach is more of adding texture and looping melodies over long, excessive solos. Just listen to The Waiting or Breakdown to hear how he favors succinct, melodic solos that perfect blend into the song rather than draw attention to itself. His fading outro solo on “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is one of the greatest musical moments in a rock song, the epitome of a song that is meant to be listened to in the car with the windows rolled down.
Succinct Storytelling Genius
Time has been very kind to Petty’s legacy as a songwriter and lyricist. The 60s and 70s ushered in an era of topical singer-songwriters. Critically acclaimed songwriters were viewed as poets, who chewed and spewed lyrical tongue-twisters.
Lyrics that leaned toward the abstract, obtuse, or stream-of-consciousness were judged as serious, heavy, and important. But Tom’s reputation as a lyricist and singer has only grown in stature the further removed from eras of the 60s and 70s. Nowadays, the pomposity and hubris of artists like Neil Diamond or the Eagles only grow more cringe-worthy of their songs dripping in self-importance.
Even late era Bruce Springsteen has fallen victim to manufactured gravitas, having fallen victim to the need for each of his songs to be grander than the last and making himself a caricature of his old self.
But Tom could sing about universal themes of love, restless youthfulness, and everyday themes that listeners of every era and generation could relate to. His lyrics were often straightforward to the point of Hemingway-esque brilliance. He was a storyteller that loved the classic formula of a rock song (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge/musical solo, chorus).
His rock and roll peers were closer to Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison over Dylan or Paul Simon.
The economy of his words evoked emotional truths that echoed the best songs from Johnny Cash and Townes Van Zandt. They could spin a good yarn/story and turn it into a simple, campfire singalong song. That was the genius of Tom Petty.
But his songs stayed down-to-earth, with sturdy guitar riffs carrying lyrics that spoke for underdogs, ornery outcasts, and the youthful rebels in dire need to escape.
STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS
Amid his successes, Petty also suffered dark periods during a career. A 2015 biography of the singer, “Petty: The Biography” addressed in great detail about dark events and periods in Petty’s career. Tom suffered from depression, channeling his pain into 1999’s Echo, during which he was also dealing with a divorce.
In 2002, he married Dana York and said he had been in therapy for six years to deal with depression. His biography also included the participation of Stan Lynch, the ex-drummer of The Heartbreakers. Lynch talked unflinchingly about his falling-out with Petty.
Petty’s biography and Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary film Runnin’ Down a Dream also explored bassist Howie Epstein’s heroin addiction. The Heartbreakers bassist dealt with a drug problem throughout much of the Nineties, but by the early 2000s, the talented musician and vocal harmonist was missing shows and physically falling apart.
Petty fired him shortly after the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, replacing him with original Heartbreakers bassist Blair. Epstein died of an overdose in 2003.
Petty himself struggled with heroin addiction, something he addressed for the first time in his biography but was omitted from Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary.
TIME TO MOVE ON
Because of his timeless sensibilities in songwriting and sound, Petty’s music successfully connected to a younger generation. He headlined the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee in 2006 and 2013. “We’re one of those old, lucky bands,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 2013. “Young people come to see us. It makes a difference.”
I am deeply saddened by his passing, and the opportunity I will never experience of seeing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live in concert. But his songs will endure, and the music world will forever be in his debt.
His manager Tony Dimitriades announced, “He died peacefully at 8.40pm surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends.” Tom Petty is survived by his wife Dana, his daughters Adria and AnnaKim Violette, and his ex-wife Jane Benyo.