A sad day in our national life was punctuated yesterday by the death of Tom Petty, a mineral element in American song whose square-jawed beats, high-lonesome whine and surfeit of canon-ready classics made him one of the most enduringly popular figures in rock music history. A Gainesville, Florida native and denizen of teenage bar-bands, Petty served as a Southern analog to his direct contemporary Bruce Springsteen, often parsing the challenges and contradictions of the post-Reconstruction South in the way Springsteen chronicled the struggles of the Atlantic corridor.
Petty hailed from the land of Lynyrd Skynrd and often sang about the South, but in musical terms his DNA was really Californian. With their chiming Rickenbacker sound and high harmonies, Petty and his wondrous backing band the Heartbreakers took their cue from Buffalo Springfield and especially the Byrds, whose arch “So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star” they covered to tremendous effect. Heavily tipped by an industry eager for bankable stars, the group’s self-titled first album in 1976 contained the soon to be standards “Breakdown” and “American Girl”, although it did not sell sensationally well at the time. The good but not great follow-up You’re Gonna Get It! was also not the hoped-for breakthrough and Petty seethed. That frustration boiled over on 1979’s tour-de-force Damn The Torpedoes, an album of visceral, angry songs whose aura of menace dovetailed fortuitously with the rise of punk rock.
From that point forward and until the middle-2000’s Petty and his Heartbreakers were as reliable a hitmaker as any in the business, producing albums of varying quality but singles that no rational person could deny: “The Waiting”, “Even The Losers”, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “Rebels” to name but a few. Of the band’s post-Damn The Torpedoes LPs, perhaps the most interesting was 1985’s deep-dive into regional identity Southern Accents, with its anguished but relatable characters still nursing the affronts of the Civil War. While not fully successful, it’s an ambitious record which anticipates the Drive By Truckers and their native examinations of “the duality of the Southern thing”.
Lacking matinee-idol looks and always a seemingly indeterminate age, Petty made for an unlikely staple of MTV and a breakout solo star. That’s just what he became however, with the 1989 release of Full Moon Fever, an album where he lost the band, hooked up with producer Jeff Lynne of ELO and casually dropped a raft of unstoppable hits on his public. It remains nearly impossible to egress up and down a radio dial for any period of time and not hear “I Won’t Back Down”, “Runnin’ Down A Dream” and the lovely, ambivalent “Free Fallin’” perhaps his best-known song. Abetted by clever clips and populist melodies, Petty seemed to be on MTV in a non-stop loop for the ensuing years, his wry expressions and hooded eyes making for odd company.
In the early 90’s, Petty joined or fell inadvertently into what is certainly rock’s most celebrated supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys along with Lynne, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison. A long time California transplant at this point, Petty simply offered his home studio for an off-the-cuff recording session and ended up in a band with a Beatle, a member of the Million Dollar Quartet and the folk-singer formerly known as Robert Zimmerman. Happens all the time, right? In truth, Dylan and Petty had known each other for years and the Heartbreakers had served as Dylan’s backing band when those acts toured together. They seemed to share a dyspeptic view of media and perhaps modern life in general, reflected in the vituperative duet “Jammin’ Me” which they co-wrote for Petty’s 1987 album Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough). “Take back your insurance/ baby nothing’s guaranteed/ take back your acid rain/ let your TV bleed” went one representative verse. It was an amusing non-classic but perhaps revealed something important in both men’s psyche’s.
For an artist as famous as Petty was for as many years, he remains a challenging figure to get one’s arms around. He kept producing hits for decades, but for all his success his tone seemed to become ever more defiant and even embittered. A song like the 1991 music-business send-up “Into The Great Wide Open” was cruel and defeatist, but not really very funny. Meanwhile, 1994’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” seemed to burn with a simmering rage at something non-specific. As he aged, the small-C conservatism always present in his music asserted itself more and more until it seemed the only record he ever listened to must be Neil Young’s Harvest. He remained a premium songwriter and a premium showman, but a heaviness lingered that shaded into joylessness.
Listening back through his catalog, it is often difficult to understand Petty’s perspective on his subjects in a way that is rarely true of Springsteen or Dylan. The perfect pop song “American Girl” possesses such an indelible, driving melody that the subtle undertone of mockery and chauvinism is easy to miss. “I Won’t Back Down” is an almost frighteningly universal expression of hostility towards unnamed antagonists, its weaponized malice occupying a dangerous blank slate. These are Petty’s two most characteristic modes: slyly mocking and savagely affronted. Even “Free Falling” is less romantic and more mean-spirited than you might remember.
None of this is to suggest Petty wasn’t great. He was, and then some, as both a writer and performer. The Heartbreakers in concert were a monument to intense professionalism and the best of Petty’s catalog stands toe to toe with any in the tradition. The enigma of Petty, relative to his peers, is that he did not seem to strive to be understood. Springsteen, Dylan and Elvis Costello wrote memoirs. David Bowie, through his endless creative contortions and personas, ultimately revealed far more of himself than Petty with his Sphinx-like dolor. Hell, even Prince felt the need to commit his early biography to film as soon as feasible. Tom Petty just played until he died, quietly smoldering or smiling his in-joke smile. He will always be with us, but I suspect we’ll never know him.