Tom Petty went into full cardiac arrest on Monday morning, October 2nd and was pronounced dead sometime later that day or early evening. He would have been 67 years old on October 20th. He’s about a year and a half younger than I (scary) and his loss is significant in that he was truly a unique artist. With a voice reminiscent of an early Bob Dylan incarnation (but more full bodied and lyrical), Petty wrote and produced some of the most memorable and catchiest tunes of the last half century. I became a Petty fan forty years ago, when Breakdown was the hit song on the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album. From that point on, Tom Petty was part of the soundtrack of my life. It’s sad that he’s gone but his legacy is certainly impressive and the beauty of artists like Petty and Prince and Bowie is that we still have that great music they created.
As Petty’s death sunk in (amid the Las Vegas tragedy & Puerto Rico’s continuing struggle) I commanded “Alexa” (our Amazon Echo “personal assistant”) to “play Tom Petty” and a steady flow of new and familiar songs have been pulsing out for a couple of days. Petty’s range as a song writer and musician is impressive but what always attracted me to his songs was his energy, along with the clever (often sarcastic) lyrics. While working in the “pop” idiom, Petty could “symbolically” skewer as well “imagistically” crucify a target. Often couched in breezy “pop tune” lyrics were deeper, more thoughtful ideas --- in keeping with Petty’s own sense of fairness and justice.
As early as 1981 he took on the record labels over artistic control and he was extremely active in the Farm Aid and Aids Relief causes. A high school drop out from Gainesville, Florida, Petty achieved the heights of The Traveling Wilburys --- a band including George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Roy Orbison, as well as striking out on a highly successful solo career. While a master of the pop tune, Petty also wrote a number of thoughtful ballads (“It’s Good to be King” comes to mind) and always --- always --- produced immaculate recordings with just the right instrumentation, vocal backing, etc.
My connection to popular rock and roll music began fading by the mid-1990’s (as I reached my mid/late 40’s) so I’m less familiar with Petty’s later work. The 1993 Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits, along with his solo Wildflowers (1994), were probably my last Petty music purchases. But that does not at all mean I ever stopped listening to Tom Petty --- or didn’t break into a smile when one of his “classic hits” streamed out of the car radio. Reviewing his body of work I came up with a list of my “Fifteen Favorite” Tom Petty songs --- far short of Rolling Stone’s “50 Greatest Tom Petty Songs,” for sure, but all of these choices made that list. Please feel free to write a comment noting Petty pieces I should have included.
We always talk about celebrating someone’s life when they pass on. In Tom Petty’s case, he’s left a wonderful soundtrack we can dance to at the wake!