“It’s sort of hope amongst the ruins, I think. To me we’re all in the great wide open. I think life is pretty wild; I really want to like the world, but at the same time I have to write about what I see.” – Tom Petty
The outpouring of love, grief, and appreciation that has come in the wake of the unexpected death of Tom Petty has been, at the least, impressive, at the most, mind boggling. Petty created an admirable body of work, to be sure, and he kept working – and selling millions of records and selling out venues – long after many of his contemporaries faded into legacyhood, lugging their middle aged bodies – I refer to both their physiques and artistic achievements – around the summer shed circuit, playing the old hits for aging audiences.
Tom Petty never had to do that. He had a #1 album as recently as three years ago. And he completed his farewell tour, some 40 years after he began his rise to, first stardom and then, to legend status, with a triumphant three day stand in his adopted home, Los Angeles, at the Hollywood Bowl (a venue made famous by the band that first inspired him, The Beatles) only a week before his shocking death from heart failure at the age of 66.
But I don’t think that any of what I’ve said above explains the outpouring of love, sadness, and admiration being expressed in reaction to Tom Petty’s passing.
Petty’s greatness – and he had greatness, let’s be clear about that – is part of what people are responding to. Partly, perhaps, this is because Petty, for all his success and acclaim, avoided most of the glamour and glitz of rock stardom. He wrote, recorded and toured, but again and again he sublimated his own stardom to serve those he considered rock music’s heroes, first by making the Heartbreakers Bob Dylan’s backing band in the mid-eighties and then by immersing himself in The Traveling Wilburys where his stardom, while bright, was outshone by the presence of legendary figures: Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and a Beatle, George Harrison. That willingness to play backup band or sideman in service to other musical greats (and heroes of his) was in its way evidence of Petty’s own greatness: he saw himself as both musician and fan, as both master and servant to the music he loved so deeply.
Yet there’s something else that I think people are responding to. For want of a better word, let’s call it Petty’s realness. We heard pundits claim that George W. Bush’s success in winning the Presidency had much to do with people’s conception of him as a fellow one could sit down and have a beer with. Petty was – in a very real way, much more the “real guy” than Yale educated scion of a wealthy, powerful family George W. Bush could ever have been or be. Petty was a major rock star – but for all that he was, by many accounts, what he seemed to be – a guy you could sit on a bar stool next to and talk about music. His modesty and “good old boy” behavior was not a persona – it was who he was.
Then there’s his loyalty and his insistence on a kind of insularity. These can be bad things (see Trump, Donald), but there’s a long history in rock of great bands who come from the same hometown, often from the same neighborhood: the Beatles, all from the same working class area of Liverpool are the most famous example. It’s an example Petty took to heart – the Heartbreakers formed from the remnants of his previous band, formed of Gainesville, Florida guys, Mudcrutch – and added two more Gainesville guys. Over their 40 year career the band made minimal changes, and, when changes had to be made, whenever possible brought back old and trusted friends.
Finally, there’s the Petty artistic vision. He stayed true to straight ahead roots based rock and only experimented when he wanted to try something new. He never worried about trends and he never chased styles. Some, as a result, saw Petty as anachronistic. But then he never had to bear the shame of having trend hopped and he never had to worry about such trend hopping leaving him with embarrassing moments in his legacy (I’m looking at you, Disco Rod and Faux Funk Mick). He loved rock and roll and he was true to rock and roll.
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All of the above is but prologue to an anecdote that explains my own love of Tom Petty and my deep sadness at his passing. My lead guitarist and co-songwriter Steve Littlejohn and I found Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers the way lots of his “early adopter” American audience did: we heard “Breakdown” on a radio that was touting itself as celebrating the New Wave in rock during that song’s brief (and failed) American run. We were busily buying records by every new band popping up during those heady days of Elvis Costello’s emergence. On one foray to the record store we picked up the self-titled first album by TP and the Heartbreakers. It was full of great tunes (including the iconic “American Girl,” the last song Tom Petty played live on stage a few days before his death).
The song that grabbed us, though, was the second single from that album. It’s a song called “Anything That’s Rock and Roll” and the first stanza knocked us out:
Some friends of mine and me stayed up all through the night
Rockin’ pretty steady till the sky went light
And I didn’t go to bed
Didn’t go to work
I picked up the telephone
Told the boss he was a jerk
Every true rock musician and rock fan know’s the “Yeah!” moment when an artist says exactly how you feel. Steve and I looked at each as the song played. I don’t know if we said it, but both of us were thinking, “Yeah!”
Out of a catalogue of superb music, all of which I like a lot, most of which I love deeply, “Anything That’s Rock and Roll” is still my favorite. Here’s Tom and the Heartbreakers doing it on German TV in 1977:
And for me, and, I suspect, a lot of people, that’s what made us love Tom Petty and mourn his passing so deeply. When he said “anything that’s rock and roll’s fine,” we knew he meant it.