When I was a kid, the cosmology of the musical world was Pete Townsend, Joe Strummer, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Davies, Tom Petty (Bono and the Edge joined when I was in college)…
…with everyone else trailing far behind.
But now Tom Petty is dead at 66.
When I heard that he’d been found in his Malibu home unresponsive, with a cardiac arrest mere days after the end of what was reputed to be the last Heartbreakers tour, I couldn’t help but think of Charles Schultz, the “Peanuts” comic artist who passed away mere hours after the last panel of his seminal strip ran in papers around the country; their life’s artistic work over, they retired for real, for good.
I wrote about Tom Petty years ago; my abrupt conversion from doubter to fan 38 years ago next month. I was watching Saturday Night Live, looking to mock and scoff at the singer I’d heard about – for reasons I can’t begin to remember four decades later. Buck Henry introduced Petty; by the time they got three counts into “Refugee”, I had reconsidered my skepticism, and become a fan
(NBC blocked access to that original SNL video years ago; someone needs to die in a grease fire. This one is close):
. The next morning, after sunday school, I skipped church and ran to the drug store to pick up Damn the Torpedoes; me andMike Aylmer and Matt Anderson and Keri Kleingartner listened to it on a record player in one of the classrooms. And that night, I sat down with my guitar and started learning every single song, every lick Mike Campbell played; every flourish Benmonth Tench played on the organ; I didn’t so much listen to it as I absorbed it.
Because when you were a little too tall and coulda used a few pounds, and were hardly renowned, it was revelation to know that even the losers – tramps like us – could get lucky sometimes:
It was like a musical flash-bang grenade went off in my brain, blowing it open to a phalanx of new influences: the Byrds, Del Shannon, the whole canon of post-Beatles American rock and roll – it was all there.
Indeed, given that Petty, like his contemporaries Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger was such a traditionalist, it’s hard to remember sometimes what a radical departure from the 1970s’ mainstream he was. Music radio lumped him in with the New Wave (as they did with many acts and artists that didn’t fit neatly into 1970s’ radio formats, from Dire Straits to AC/DC to The Police); in a half-decade of American pop music dominated by disco, sixties-holdovers from the “singer/songwriter” genre like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, arena acts like Styx and REO Speedwagon, and top-40 machines like Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles, the idea of a singer doing perfectly crafted homage to the Byrds, Stax/Volt (Duck Dunn sits in on bass on Damn the Torpedoes’ “You Tell Me”) and all that was great about early-sixties American rock and roll, and turning in into something vital, funny, crisp, fierce, was kind of radical.
It sure felt radical at the time.
His cardiac arrest yesterday was Petty’s worst medical problem, obviously – but it wasn’t his first medical issue, as he relates in this stunning 1985 version of “The Waiting”:
And as the years unwound, he had the same personal issues a lot of us fans had when we grew up; the girl who Petty told not to do him like that, did him like that in 1999, leading to one of his best albums (and the one from which he never played anything live), Echo, full of world-weary anthems about profound loss:
But maybe my favorite thing Petty did? He wore that Dixie chip on his shoulder with pride – and wrote one of the best songs every about that chip:
And that – the idea of putting the chip on my own shoulder out there in the form of music, the one art form I ever failed to completely fail at – led to one of my life’s great adventures, writing music and playing it for people, an adventure that’s still going on today.
If you told me to take a Tom Petty song to a desert island, it’d be…well, “Even the Losers”. But I’d sneak “Southern Accents” along under the table anyway.
UPDATE: Mr. D adds his own musical obit.