Farewell Tom Petty
Tom Petty went to the Great Gig in the Sky last night. He was only 66 years old. RPM’s Jason Lent and Earl Douglas share their thoughts.
Tom Petty has left us, but there will be no tears from me. I cannot think of a musician who conducted his business with more integrity or artistic consistency than Tom Petty. Each album he released with the Heartbreakers or on his own became a part of the fabric of life. Of all the artists I’ve listened to with friends over the years, Petty has been that one constant that never wavers. Whether it was growing up in the early ‘80s or last summer, whenever Petty came on the radio, or tape deck, or CD player, or the iPod, everyone just listened. And even after he is gone, we will continue to listen.
Discovering music in the 80s, there was a whole world of Petty that I had missed as a little kid. It was the post-apocalyptic video for “You Got Lucky” that introduced Petty to me and my friends. Much like ZZ Top, Petty, clearly a holdover from the 70s, had a knack for videos that were always “cool” – whatever that meant at the time. Even the big-budgeted Alice In Wonderland acid trip “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was far cooler than what most New Wave bands were coming up with (yes, even Duran Duran). For a long-haired, average looking guy from Gainesville, FL, he managed to turn the visual medium to his own purpose and we loved him for it.
After all these years, Petty’s mix of punk, rock, folk, garage, and country all add up to one thing: American rock-n-roll. The discussion of best American rock-n-roll band includes Petty along with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band and Cheap Trick. Like Springsteen, Petty managed to balance his work between the band and more introspective solo projects with each album benefiting from the other. The line between the two was often cloudy at best. His iconic 1989 release Full Moon Fever was co-produced with Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and several of the band members played on it. It didn’t matter what name was on the cover. Every song on that album sounds instantly familiar to anyone who ever owned it.
As an artist, he always fought for what was right in the music business, even jeopardizing a record deal because the label wanted to price the album higher than he felt was fair. That story alone makes him a hero to us. He made music for his fans and never once seemed to give a second thought to what the radio or record labels might think. In doing so, we trusted him and he was always hip regardless of what the current style was in music. I’ve gone through phases of New Wave, post-punk, hip hop, Americana, pop, and metal during my not-too brief time on earth. No matter what I am currently into musically, Petty’s music is never far away.
My fondest memory of Tom Petty comes, believe it or not, from a Jimmy Buffett concert. During an encore in Las Vegas, Buffett told a story about driving down the coast with his daughter on a beautiful afternoon when the perfect song came on the radio. So caught up in the moment, Buffett decided to learn the song and play it that night in Vegas. He then stood in front of his colorful throng of Parrothead faithful and played Petty’s “Wildflowers” alone on an acoustic guitar.
In that moment, Buffett brought us all into his car that afternoon and we knew exactly what he felt because we have been there, too. We have all shared more moments than we can remember listening to Tom Petty’s music with friends, family, lovers, and even strangers. Road trips to Key West for Spring Break, an impulsive trip to Iowa from Tallahassee, FL to surprise a high school buddy, or even just a quick trip to the bank became better in the company of Petty’s music. Nobody ever argued or complained when you put a Petty album on and that pretty much says it all. Thank you Tom.
– Jason Lent
Anyone who truly loves and appreciates music is gutted right now. Petty and his outstanding group, The Heartbreakers, had just completed a tour celebrating the band’s 40th anniversary a few days ago at The Hollywood Bowl. Even more crushing is that Petty was looking forward to life away from the road. Perhaps it’s fitting that in his last public appearance, he was doing the very thing that he loved the best: playing music.
What made every Tom Petty release – either with the Heartbreakers or solo – so memorable was that all of the songs had edge and attitude, beautiful chronicles of rebels, outcasts and hopeless romantics navigating through their current situations. We all made and felt the connection: Tom Petty spoke to and for all of us. He had that unique ability of writing songs that you would know by heart with just a few listens anchored by infectious hooks that got you from jump. I witnessed this first hand when he and The Heartbreakers did a surprise show at Irving Plaza shortly after the release of their album Echo. They were playing ‘Room at the Top’ for one of the first time in public and by the time the song was over, the entire room was mouthing or singing along to the chorus. Again, this was a NEW song.
Tom Petty proudly and unapologetically wore his influences on his sleeve: You can hear bits of The Beatles, The Byrds, The Animals, Del Shannon, Electric Light Orchestra, the blues and Bob Dylan on every album. But while he was always able to mine the best parts of those artists, his own sound and artistic vision always shined through. Tom Petty was the constant thread behind the late period successes of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Roger McGuinn and Del Shannon. They all knew what greatness when it was presented to them and was collaborate with him.
Petty & the Heartbreakers broke out the same year punk did, and while they weren’t directly associated with that movement, they certainly had punk’s rebellious attitude. Throughout various stages of his career, Petty took on his own record company (when they tried to raise the price of his upcoming album, Damn the Torpedoes), the corporatization of radio (The Last DJ) and even his own album concept. When the band hit the road in support of the Southern Accents album, a large Confederate flag was used as a stage prop. He would later regret the decision, calling it ‘downright stupid’ and even stopped a show to voice his displeasure about it. As ticket prices skyrocketed through the years, Petty insisted that his ticket prices remain affordable for his fans, even at the risk of cutting into his own bottom line. Tom Petty was still a music fan (he even hosted and curated a radio show for Sirius called Buried Treasure) and always keep the best interests of his fans first and foremost.
As rock artists initially struggled to find their footing in the growing world of music videos, Tom Petty fully embraced the medium and made some of the most iconic clips of the MTV era. ‘You Got Lucky’ saw the band roaming a post-apocalyptic landscape and coming across a treasure trove of…musical instruments. “Free Fallin’” captured Southern California life at the end of the century. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” saw Petty having a cryptic ‘date’ with a very dead Kim Basinger. “Don’t Come around Here No More” is a super surrealistic take on Alice in Wonderland with Petty as the Mad Hatter. Equally trippy is “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, an animated clip that has Petty and a cigar chomping clown having a series of psychedelic encounters. ‘Into The Great Wide Open’ is a biting look at the rise and fall of a small town kid turned self-absorbed rock star played by Johnny Depp. The defiant “I Won’t Back Down” features Petty, long time right hand man Mike Campbell, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Ringo.
He even found himself taking notable turns on film and TV. His appearance is The Larry Sanders Show? Classic. There isn’t a whole lot to remember about the film The Postman, but everyone does remember his extended cameo in it. Why? He’s playing…Tom Petty. Writer-director-actor Edward Burns was working off a limited budget while filming She’s The One. But Petty – who shared the same defiant independent spirit as Burns – decided to give him not only one song for the soundtrack, but did the entire soundtrack. He also used as a platform to promote the songwriting mastery of two other mavericks – Lucinda Williams and Beck – by covering their songs. When a world-class filmmaker was needed to do THE definitive documentary on Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, they got Academy Award nominated Peter Bogdanovich to do a four hour epic that showed just how monumental their influence has been on the world of rock.
Yes, Tom Petty was THAT dude.
I would suggest that you pick up any of the amazing albums that he’s made throughout the last 40 years, but chances are that you have more than one. Even if you’re a newbie, there’s plenty to choose from – they are all Rock n Roll 101.
Deepest condolences to Tom’s family, bandmates, and fans.
Rest easy Mr. Petty….
– Earl Douglas