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American Boy: Tom Petty Was Always Runnin' Down A Dream
Tom Petty died Monday night at the age of 66, as confirmed by his longtime manager. As with David Bowie and especially Prince, the first thing that hits you is that he was way too young. Wasn't Petty just onstage a week ago, as part of a summer-long tour in honor of Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker's 40th anniversary? Wasn't he just chain-smoking backstage and talking about needing new shows to watch on Netflix?
Unlike those other two musicians we lost in 2016, Petty wasn't a recluse or an extraterrestrial, neither semi-retired nor secretly battling a disease (as far as we know). Petty wasn't someone whose life or work seemed that far removed from this plane of existence—he wrote simple, empathetic anthems about regular people struggling to survive day-to-day, striving for better lives, and fighting to keep the people they love. They were rebels, refugees and losers raised on promises; when they weren't running down dreams and chasing ghosts, they were dealing with breakdowns and learning that waiting was the hardest part. Petty always had a curiosity for the lives of dreamers, whether they fumbled, failed or were learning to fly.
He had an uncanny knack for hooks that you didn't even realize were poetry because you were too busy singing them at the top of your lungs. He was the poet laureate of underdogs, who knew that "even the losers get lucky sometimes." (He was such an underdog, he only snagged his first number one record in 2014). He appreciated women by bestowing onto them inner lives as complex as his male characters—which might be why I have more female friends who are Petty fanatics than male ones. And he was proudly American—he wrote songs that were unabashedly, distinctively about the American experience—without succumbing to jingoism or obnoxiousness (and on the few occasions that he did, he took responsibility for it).
While he was always a consummate storyteller, he was never flashy and never interested in chasing trendiness, which led some to overlook or take for granted his clarity of vision. He was always very, very good, except when he was so great as to become an immortal part of our culture with songs that transcended time and space. It doesn't feel like it now, but did you know that there was a time in history before "Free Fallin'"? Did you know there were sports games and political rallies that weren't able to use "I Won't Back Down" as their theme song? It's sad to say, but there were brides who weren't able to walk down the aisle to "Here Comes My Girl." And this is almost unbelievable, but there were hundreds of bands who were formed who could not fumble their way through learning "American Girl."
It would be an understatement to say Petty was consistent over the course of 15 or 16 studio albums (both solo and with The Heartbreakers). It's easy to count off the all-time classics he released—Full Moon Fever, Wildflowers, Damn The Torpedoes, the self-titled first album, the criminally underrated You're Gonna Get It!—but it's just as rewarding looking at the rest. There isn't a single outright bad record that Petty released—even Let Me Up (I've Had Enough), coming during his late-80s nadir, still had "Jammin' Me" on it. Although they weren't his most popular, late-period albums like Highway Companion and Mojo were shockingly good. And I've never seen the movie She's The One, but the soundtrack had three all-time Petty songs on it: a cover of Beck's obscure "Asshole," "Angel Dream (No. 4)" and "Walls," which is one of my top 10 favorite Petty songs of all time. It encapsulates so much of his understated romanticism: "You got a heart so big/ It could crush this town/ And I can't hold out forever/ Even walls fall down."
As consistent as his songwriting was—he never strayed from his early love for Byrds-ian jangle and melody—Petty always seemed to exist between worlds and musical movements. The Floridian native was obsessed with Elvis Presley and the Beatles as a kid, came up during the punk era, then was somehow absorbed into the classic rock tradition despite being around a decade younger than everyone else. I would argue any day of the week that his first four albums are just as monumental (and equally rocking) as the first four Ramones albums. He was eventually accepted by the elder statesman of rock, forming lasting musical bonds with the likes of George Harrison (his buddy in the Traveling Wilburys, and with whom he shared a sense of humor—see the video below), Jeff Lynne (the ELO frontman who produced his two greatest solo records) and Bob Dylan, who told Rolling Stone, "It’s shocking, crushing news. I thought the world of Tom. He was great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him."
His consistency lent itself to his reputation as a fierce, passionate live artist who was still going strong as of a week ago. Has anyone ever heard Petty's voice—that raspy croak that could slice through a hot musical bed like a butter knife—go off-key? Watch Peter Bogdanovich's essential documentary on his career, Runnin' Down a Dream (it's on Netflix now) or listen to the four-disc The Anthology Live box set, and you will see and hear performances from throughout his forty years on the road which sound like they could have all come from the same show. Dylan and Harrison could never claim to sound as good as Petty did all these years removed from his prime.
His first band, Mudcrutch, never made a dent in the charts back in the early '70s (though that band included future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench), and his solo career soon overshadowed that part of his biography. Nobody was clamoring for a Gainesville blues band to get back together—and yet, when Petty realized he missed his old bandmates in the mid-'00s, they reunited and had a hell of a lot of fun making a couple records on which Petty is just another guy in the group. Between Mudcrutch, the Wilburys and the Heartbreakers, it seems everyone loved playing with him—just ask Stevie Nicks, who desperately wanted to join the band in the early '80s. (Also note: Petty was inadvertently the inspiration for Nicks' classic "Edge Of Seventeen.")
I will be forever sad that Petty wasn't able to tour Wildflowers like he intended to, especially as that is my favorite album of his, one that literally wrecks me at times. I will forever hold "American Girl" up as one of the most spine-tingling opening tracks on a debut album in rock history, up there with "I Saw Her Standing There," "Radio Free Europe" and "Blitzkreig Bop;" it's the rare song that can unite people from all classes, races, religions and sports affiliations (and the Strokes wouldn't exist without it as well). It's a sexy song that also holds the yearning of nothing less than the American dream in its lines: "God it's so painful/ Something that's so close/ And still so far out of reach."
The best summation of Petty's indelible, unpretentious, magnificent spirit: for the better part of my life, I could find a copy of Tom Petty and The Heartbreaker's Greatest Hits in the CD player of every car I was ever in (regardless of whether it was my car). It is the single greatest rock 'n roll compilation of all time, the platonic ideal for a greatest hits album. I don't know if people pay much attention anymore to greatest hits collections—hell, I don't know if record companies still churn them out like they used to—but Petty's version of it was both comforting in its familiarity and understated in its genius. Much like the man himself.