Thoughts On Tom Petty

Art allows life to be exceptional. The artists who deliver the music, performances, and words that illuminate our lives also create an extraordinary connection between themselves and their audience. Even if you never meet them, an artist can feel like a friend because they were there on the lonely nights and during the good times that only the closest members of your inner circle were present for. For me, Tom Petty was the artist who made music that spoke to me and inspired me. For an uncounted number of moments, he was there for people as they drove to work, danced at a wedding, flipped across a radio dial, or sat in a bar swirling the remnants of a glass of bourbon. His work maintained a consistent quality that entered the lives of millions of fans. It was the purest balance between commercial popularity and artistic credibility.

I was fortunate to enjoy a complete range of experiences seeing Tom Petty. In addition to being a frequent presence in my headphones, I saw him with friends and strangers, went on a road trip, and recently had the chance to binge a concert tour that satiated my bucket list desire to watch a Heartbreakers tour unfold. Yes, he was not the most dynamic performer, but if you ever closed your eyes in the middle of a show you could hear thousands of people sing along to every word of a chorus. The listening experience was rock ‘n roll ecstasy at its zenith.

I cannot name just one aspect of Tom Petty’s work that created such a devoted bond, because there is so much to celebrate. He valued quality over quantity and mastered longevity as well as any artist in his age group. Outside of Bruce Springsteen or Paul McCartney, one would be hard-pressed to find a rock artist who debuted in the 1960s or 1970s that still attracted a millennial following in 2017. He maintained a perpetual cool that transcended generations, but it was the songs that brought the retired plumber and twentysomething tech worker to a Tom Petty show.

He could paint a picture with words and music better than anyone. In those songs he created relatable characters and situations. He also sang about women in a unique way that eludes most male songwriters. The Good Girl. The American Girl. The Indiana Girl. The Free Girl. The longing boyfriend in “Here Comes My Girl” and the teenager chucking rocks into the water in “Even The Losers” are all characters in music that are as much a part of Americana as Gershwin and Elvis.

The people who Petty surrounded himself with were indicative of the magnitude of the man. He didn’t merely align himself with flashy stars, but with the very best of rock ‘n roll. Stevie Nicks, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Dave Grohl are just a few of the musicians who played with him. Additionally, Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, Luke Wilson, Kim Basinger, and Anthony Hopkins all starred in Petty videos that cemented the Heartbreakers’ dual legacy as groundbreaking visual artists.

The legacy of his principle band reflected his own drive. The Heartbreakers are all virtuoso musicians, but consistently played with checked egos in order to serve the beauty of the songs. Petty also consistently kept his fans in mind. He battled a record company to keep album prices down and typically kept his work reasonably priced. His openers usually included exciting musicians like Buddy Guy, Joe Walsh, Chuck Berry, ZZ Top, and Steve Winwood. The consistency of Petty’s albums (the Heartbreakers’ last record Hypnotic Eye hit number one in 2014) and the delivery of a great concert helped strengthen the relationship between the artist and the audience. They delivered great music for forty years. The sudden absence of the Heartbreakers makes American music feel a little less magical.

For the first time in my life I feel a vacancy that cannot be explained. The songs remain, but their creator is no longer around to play them. This is a chapter in my life that I did not anticipate closing. Hearing the music today without the artist is a loss. When Petty and the Heartbreakers plugged in the sound brought me unmatched joy and comfort. His song “Walls” may best describe the void. “Some things are over. Some things go on. Part of me you carry. Part of me is gone.”

I would feel remiss without including my favorite song, “Swingin.” An underrated classic from a master songwriter:

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12 thoughts on “Thoughts On Tom Petty

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  1. Thanks for articulating this; I Tom was the one person on the planet I could not do without, and now I have to somehow grow that rhino skin and those eagle wings to even try.

  2. It feels odd to say this about someone whom you never met, but I cried once it sank in on Tuesday. It is going to be a tough process. In my Facebook post for this piece I lost it when I wrote “thank you, Tom.” It's something I was never able to say to him. Just, “Thanks for everything.” We still have the music, but it feels different and for the first time I am struggling with an “is” being a “was.”

  3. Tom Petty entered my life pretty late, with the Travelling Willburys, TBH I’d never heard of him, but once I did I wanted more. I lost him during the heady days of the Madchester music scene here in the UK of the early 90’s when I was but a callow youth, but years later whilst in my first job working as a mail sorter during the dull nights, his music kept me company and sane. When I heard the news of his passing it smacked me in the face, and I shed a tear for a man who made those long nights tolerable, he was an understated genius. So thank you for writing this eloquent tribute.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. I have read so many similar stories where people can place his music with a particular time. I find that to be an interesting tribute to the artist.

  4. John, thank you for writing this last year shortly after Tom’s sudden passing. Coming up on the one year anniversary of his death, I revisited this article that I bookmarked, and I have to say it still hurts. It’s crazy, like you say, you never met the man, but the connection to the music being there for me since the late ’80s just makes it seem like you are friends with Tom. I took my oldest son to his first rock concert last year–to see Tom Petty and the band at Wrigley Field. It was such a memorable, rainy night, and I remember it so vividly. Looking back I am so happy I was able to take my son to see Tom on his last tour, just one month prior to his death. Since that painful day last year, I have listened to Hypnotic Eye many, many times. It truly is a classic. I can understand why it hit number one, the only one in their catalog to accomplish this. That is amazing in my opinion, speaks to the power of Tom and the band. I find myself listening more closely to each song and Tom’s voice these days, just soaking it all in and appreciating that we still have the music to enjoy, sadly without Tom in everyone’s lives; however, what a legacy he leaves behind, and I am thankful for that.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. It means a lot to me that someone bookmarked a post that meant so much to me personally. I have had a strange relationship with their music over the last year. I went through months without listening to the Heartbreakers and gradually began to re-listen to them after I saw Mike Campbell play a couple of songs. This year has been a strange listening journey. I have been grappling with another post regarding an Elton John concert I just saw on his last tour that you might find interesting. I’ll probably publish it on Monday.

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