The great American rock star is a rare breed. Anyone can strum on a six string and sing a song about a girl. Or pose for pictures in tight pants with hair over their face. It takes a special person to rise above the superficial glitz and glamour of rock and roll. It takes a special person with the gift to share stories about love and loss and connect with people all over the world. A special person who in one moment can pen a lighter burning rock anthem and in another, a drunken ass-shaking sing-a-long. Losing Tom Petty isn’t losing a great musician, it’s losing a slice of Americana. There will be other rock stars, other rock songs, but there will only ever be one Tom Petty, and that’s heartbreaking.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers broke through at an odd time for music. Disco was on the rise as was punk. New Wave was still a few years out and Tom Petty didn’t fit in with the current crop of stadium rock darlings like Journey or Styx. Tom Petty’s music was simpler, shorter, more in tune with the rock and roll of yesteryear. He loved The Birds and The Beatles and sang with a nasally Southern twang, courtesy of his upbringing in Gainesville Florida. Petty didn’t look like your stereotypical rocker either. He was gangly with straw-blond hair and big teeth, like a scarecrow who had come to life, picked up a sunburst Rickenbacker and slipped on a leather jacket. He wasn’t caught up in whirlwind love affairs or on the covers of tabloids for drug-addled debauchery. He was a quiet, unassuming soul, but most importantly a master songsmith.
You could fill a whole radio station with Petty songs and never run out of quality material. His songs could be upbeat and inspiring, but also rebellious and dark like “Breakdown” or “Refugee”. He was a great collaborator, working with artists like Stevie Nicks on the classic “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” or with the late ‘80s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys. In the 90s he transitioned into a folk-rock troubadour, blowing his harmonica on hit songs like “You Don’t Know What It’s Like” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”. He was one of the first artists I remember liking for their words. I didn’t care for lyrics as a child but when I heard “All the vampires, walkin’ through the valley move west down Ventura Blvd.” I was engaged.
Tom Petty is one of those artists you never imagine passing away. Whether you discovered him as a fist-pumping teenager or in the back of your mom and dad’s car, you can’t deny he was an essential part of our modern musical landscape. It’s sad to lose him, but at least we have the classics to remember him by. RIP.