Rock ’n’ roll is all about myth making. And as far as origin stories go, Tom Petty had one of the better ones.
Born in Gainesville, Florida, Petty was called to action early. His uncle, who was working on a nearby movie shoot for the Elvis Presley film Follow That Dream, invited him to meet the King. He later told Esquire of the experience “I was really young and impressionable. Elvis really did look—he looked sort of not real, as if he were glowing. He was astounding, even spiritual.”
Upon the passing of Petty’s hero, the renowned music critic Lester Bangs said: “We’ll never agree on anything the way we agreed on Elvis.” Like very few other songwriters to come along since the golden age of rock ’n’ roll, the same could be said of Petty. That’s the crux of what made him special.
In retrospect, after Petty died on Monday at 66 years old after going into cardiac arrest, it’s fair to say: Everyone liked at least one Tom Petty song, a compliment that can be applied to very few artists.
“Agreeable” can often seem like a backhanded compliment, suggesting art that doesn’t push hard enough, for fear of offending anyone’s sensibilities. But Petty was a born crowd-pleaser, and there’s an art to giving people what they want, year after year, decade after decade, without curdling into shtick.
There were world-shaking titans who came up around the same time as Petty who did more to change the way music could sound, or what it could symbolize. But Petty was never cut out to be boundary-pusher like Prince or a mythological hero like Bruce Springsteen. He was too thoroughly unpretentious for that kind of thing, too averse to putting on airs. With his every guy demeanor and aversion to technical showiness, Petty was the rock icon next door.
Though he was an American master and globally famous superstar, Petty came off like a guy who would have a beer with you as long as you didn’t gush at him too much, which is only fitting for a guy who wrote as many happy-hour classics as he did.
Since catching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, Petty was a dedicated scholar of rock ’n’ roll. He believed in the transformative, healing power of a good song, absorbing the jangling 12-string riffs of The Byrds, the steady grooves of the Allman Brothers and the eye for detail of Bob Dylan, and had a knack for making it look easy.
When punk and new wave started gaining traction, he adjusted his sound just enough to stay current, beefing up the synths and the lean tempos without ever making it look like was trying to play catch-up; he got the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart to add electronic sitar wheezes to “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and didn't lose an inch of heartland rocker cred, no mean feat in the 1980s. Tying too hard wasn’t his thing. He was a rock ’n’ roll savior who never made it appear like he had to strain to win you over.
Petty dropped out of high school to start the band Mudcrutch, which also featured his longtime bandmates Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. Starting with the release of his 1976 debut album Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which contained both the scathing hit “Breakdown” and his signature anthem “American Girl,” Petty and company were a remarkably steady presence on the radio for the next two decades, reliably releasing an album every year or two, reliably placing at placing at least one single—be it “Listen to Her Heart” (from 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It!) or “You Got Lucky” (from 1982’s Long After Dark) into rock-radio rotation.
Petty’s high water mark during this phase of his career was his third album Damn the Torpedoes, which featured focused, just-shiny-enough production from Jimmy Iovine and classic-rock radio standards such as “Refugee” and “Here Comes My Girl.”
He made his solo debut with 1989’s Full Moon Fever, co-produced with Campbell and ELO’s Jeff Lynne. And though Petty wasn’t one to get experimental or go full-on art rock, the album still had some of his most ambitious songs and Beatles-esque pop melodies. It contained an onslaught of mega-hits, including lead-off track “Free Fallin’,” which still shines brightly, featuring a so-simple-it’s-genius opening lick and a chorus that never met an arena it couldn’t tame.
Petty was a devotee craftsman who would never tolerate bloat (it was rare for a song to go past four minutes) and had a keen eye for quality control, once boasting to Rolling Stone that while some people like some of his albums better than others, he'd never made a bad one. But it’s no insult to say he was perhaps the best rock ’n’ roll singles artists of his era, and the 1993 compilation Greatest Hits is the platonic ideal of the form, a collection of one perfect car radio conqueror after another. For a while, no road trip would be complete without it, and for a time a bar could lose its liquor license if the album wasn’t available on the jukebox.
Rick Rubin produced Petty’s second solo effort, 1994’s Wildflowers, and in retrospect the stripped-back production and autumnal feel seems like a dry run for what the producer would soon do with Johnny Cash final run. Even at the height of the alternative-rock boom, Petty was receiving MTV rotation for hits like “You Don't Know How It Feels” and “It’s Good to Be King.” This was probably the last moment when Petty was still central to popular culture, but even as he aged into a legacy figure, he continued reliably making strong work, with 2006’s Highway Companion being one of his most emotionally revealing set of songs.
Everyone could find something to like about Tom Petty.
Punks and new wavers who were suspicious of music that sounded like their parents’ record collection tended to give Petty a pass; after all, “Refugee” could pass for a lost Pretenders cut, and his love of quick tempos and his take-no-crap attitude (he got into a career-threatening fight with his record label MCA because he was mad they wanted to raise the price on Damn by one dollar) was punk in spirit.
Just a decade after his debut, he began touring with the Grateful Dead and writing with Bob Dylan. It was a sign that he’d already earned the right to be considered an icon.
He was the youngest artist to join the Traveling Wilburys (which included no less than Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Lynne) and never for a second did he not seem like he belonged in their ranks. Younger artists were not shy about touting him as an influence; Jenny Lewis recruited Ben Gibbard, Matt Ward and Conor Oberst to help her cover the Wilburys’ “Handle With Care,” and Oberst has covered both “Listen to Her Heart” and “Walls” with his band Bright Eyes, and shortly after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Dave Grohl played with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers during a Saturday Night Live appearance and briefly considered joining the band, a mark of how much younger musicians held Petty in esteem.
By contrast, conservatives tended to look at his embrace of Americana and working class pugnaciousness and try to claim him as one of their own. However, Petty’s publisher sent the George W. Bush campaign a cease-and-desist letter to get him to stop using his iconic “I Won’t Back Down” at campaign events. Despite Petty’s wishes, Republican candidates would continually try to co-opt the song for rallies, and it was played in regular rotation at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
Tom Petty’s ease with melody and knack for boiling down ideas about heartbreak and hard-nosed defiance into easily digestible lyrics made him the sort of songwriter that people would copy even if they didn’t realize they were copying him.
Just ask Sam Smith, who had to fork over some of his royalties for “Stay With Me” because of its melodic similarities to “Back Down,” or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who seemed to borrow the cadence of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” for “Dani California.” At least Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas had the good taste to admit to biting “American Girl” for “Last Nite.”
Tom Petty’s death broke on the same day as the worst mass shooting in American history, in which at least 58 people were killed when Stephen Paddock opened fire on the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas. The incident has left the country both outraged, and also doubtful that the problem of mass shootings, enabled by easy access to automatic weapons, will ever be fixed. Petty’s death also comes in a year when America seems more divided than ever, less able to understand or communicate with each other or agree on anything.
As such, the passing of one of the last artists we could all agree to liking, at least a little, is both sadly symbolic of a dark era for the country and Petty’s talent for speaking a language everyone could understand.