Tom Petty: An Appreciation

"When he took the stage and the music began, if you listened closely, through the drums, the organ, the electric guitars, you could hear thunder, feel its movement, you could see the mist of blue rain falling onto the stage and over the ocean of people, hands in the air, waves of pure rock ‘n’ roll. Electric nights in rock ‘n’ roll heaven on earth." -tr

In a week of tragedy and violence that has sent shock waves across the land, the loss of beloved rock ‘n’ roll artist, Tom Petty, has created a place of cultural grief that can only compare to the passing of John Lennon nearly four decades ago, when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were hitting their stride.

Petty, who died on October 2nd, is in the company of a handful of veteran rock artists including Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and Neil Young, who are still creatively active in defiance of the sunset that is slowly coming on. They are re-writing the rules of rock stars into enduring, energized and vital artists who keep their creative fire and integrity for a life time. The tired old cliché of self-destruction fostered by the early deaths of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison at the close of the 1960s, has been blown asunder by the 40-year run of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

When Petty played his last three shows, after a grueling, but celebratory 52-city tour, his final note was one of gratitude, joy and an authentic love that only comes when a career and life has been devoted to a commitment of uncompromising music. Defying his 66 years of life, he performed like a man half his age.

Petty has helped create a new template for the aging of a rock star. If Neil Young said it was “better to burn out than to fade away,” Tom Petty did neither. Rather, he triumphed and brought his fans along with him for the flight of their lives. In one song he said, ‘I’m learning to fly.’ His final shows at the Hollywood Bowl, showed his wings were strong, even as his physical heart had grown unnoticeably weak.

Coming to the end of a career and legacy that began in 1977, Petty and his band were not even close to artistic exhaustion. In his most recent interviews, he was ready to go to work into his fifth decade in music. For Tom Petty, it was his lifeblood. While some rock stars slow down when they have passed age 65, content with a country-club lifestyle, Petty was planning to write songs and spend time in the studio helping other musicians. His most recent project was ex-Byrd/Desert Rose Band’s, Chris Hillman’s solo album, Bidding My Time.

From the time he gave up his childhood love for cowboys after meeting Elvis, Petty was raised on pure rock ‘n’ roll in the tradition of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. As a music fan, he dug deep in to the earth of the Delta blues, the deep southern soul of the Memphis Stax and British and American rock of the ’60s. As he grew into an artist in his own right, he never strayed from his heart-felt influences. Listening to his music it’s easy to find the stylistic paths that led to his original style. They include Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Animals, the Byrds, Van Morrison, and Buffalo Springfield. But, he broke out of the mold of an imitator re-inventing his influences into his own timeless form of rock ‘n’ roll. He would soon find himself a peer and friend of his heroes. The music of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would influence those who influenced him. So, it was natural in the ‘80s, to find him in a high-powered garage band, The Traveling Wilburys, with his heroes, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jim Keltner.

From his early days in Gainesville, Fla., he built on the influence of the music and artists he loved. Ironically, his breakthrough came during the new wave and punk movements of the late ‘70s. But, he was not one of these. He eschewed new wave with its often cold, glossy veneer and he couldn’t relate to the nihilistic anger of punk. So rather than rejecting rock 'n' roll's best progressions, he drew a continuous line from the legends of the 50's and 60's. 

Petty built on the rock ‘n’ roll from his youth and carried it forward to something new. He re-energized rock ‘n’ roll traditions and gave the music a new breath of life. In that sense he was a ‘new wave’ of his own making. He was about much more than ‘three-chords and the truth.’  He was about finding the heart of the music he played and centering his songs there without compromise. He found the ingredients of great American music and injected it with all the passion of a young garage rocker.

After the slow break out of his first two albums, the band was poised toward great success. The industry knew it. He was the first rock artist to break the back of the cooperate music world when his label tried to back him into a corner and take (steal) his publishing. He changed the rules, challenging the publishing agreement and the he filed an unprecedented Chapter 11 bankruptcy, that allowed him to start a fresh and retain many of his publishing rights. Then, with more control and the help of a subsidiary label (Backstreet), he released the groundbreaking, Damn the Torpedoes. From that point, Tom Petty became equal to the best music rock ‘n’ roll had ever produced, from Elvis to the Beatles, it was an album that innovated as it drew from the best sensibilities of rock’s traditions. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had come of age. 

On a personal level and as an artist, Tom Petty touched so many lives. Perhaps none more than the musicians who worked with him in the studio and on the road. In a recent Facebook post, legendary pedal steel guitarist, Marty Rifkin wrote,

“Stunned to hear the news about Tom Petty. I had the extreme pleasure (that’s an understatement) to have worked with him on his “Wildflowers” album. His method for recording is indelible in my mind. It was all about capturing the moment and if it “felt” great, that’s what he’d go with. He was all smiles with his eyes closed as he’d sway back and forth between the speakers while listening to the takes during playback. A truly great guy, concerned with everyone being comfortable. It’s a blessing that he left us with so much incredible music. Whenever I haven’t been sure of what type of music I wanted to listen to or what mood I was in, it’s always been a safe bet that putting on a Tom Petty record would be the right choice. Rock & Roll needed someone like Tom and he certainly rose to the occasion."

 Tom Petty found his way to move through the life of a rock star with endurance and integrity. However, it seems his passing has given a new name to ‘heartbreaker,’ full of irony and loss for so many. He left us at a time of triumph, on his way to a musical heaven of his own creation. It was an act of true spirituality. It was an act of creation.  As John Prine has said in a song, ‘he was in heaven before he died.’ With all the joy, passion and legacy of songs he has left us, his example of loving and living through music, has brought us all to the heaven he so richly experienced in life. He has not gone, he last not left us, he just ‘had to move on’ …and he always did belong ‘among the wildflowers.’  


This article originally appeared in Turnstyled Junkpiled

Nice tribute Terry...I remember he busted Dreamworks chops before they released "Damn the Torpedoes" too...made them back up on their plans sell the record at a dollar above the level that had been established as list price for an album...that translated where I bought records into raising the price from $5.88 to $6.88...and Dreamworks backed down.  I appreciated that he did that, even though I bought so many records at the record store I frequented that I was getting most releases for 3-4 bucks...barely more than the I didn't get hurt as bad as the kid who bought 1 record here and there...the price inevitably went up anyway, but not on TP's watch...

"He was about much more than ‘three-chords and the truth.’  He was about finding the heart of the music he played and centering his songs there without compromise." Lovely job, Terry.

Thank you. (Love the Prine quote, too).

Thank you Paul! I appreciate you taking time to read

Terry, I consistently enjoy your contributions and this was no exception; it was heartfelt. It struck me as a bit hyperbolic though in comparing Tom’s passing as a cultural event to John Lennon’s murder, and again in this statement “he released the groundbreaking, Damn the Torpedoes. From that point, Tom Petty became equal to the best music rock ‘n’ roll had ever produced, from Elvis to the Beatles...”.  I could be wrong. Also, when Tom broke through with Damn the Torpedos I was not a fan, it seemed workmanlike and didn’t hit me right. At some point though years later I did a complete 180 and game to appreciate his talent and became a fan. Runnin’ Down A Dream floors me every time. I love his Mojo album, First Flash of Freedom in particular. You are right on the money in saying how vibrant he was over the long haul and to the end. No string of cover records/product of the great American songbook for Tom as with one of his Wilbury’s band mates.  He still had it. Glad you wrote this.

Thank you, Jack, for your fair and honest point-of-view of the piece. I do lean on the hyperbolic side when I'm writing these emotional tributes. I should and maybe will, clarify the Lennon comment. It was my personal experience and stood in contrast to my unconscious experience with Lennon's death. I went to a counselor because I had been feeling so down, angry and just plain bad. He explained that I could grieve for someone I never met who had an infuence on my life. The fog lifted as I pulled out all my Beatles albums and solo Lennon records. I listened to Double Fantasy and wept throughout.  Then, it was over and time to move on. Tom, by contrast, and with a little more life lived, I was able to process the grief right away.   As for the comparison of Damn the Torpedos....yes!  Hyperbolic. To be honest, I was not a huge fan of Petty's until Full Moon Fever and The Wilburys.  Damn the Torpedoes had an immediate impact at the time. But, I did have to do some backtracking.  The Last DJ is the closest I've found to a rock classic.  Just an opinion.....hyperbolic to the last!  thank you, tr

Terry, not to make light of your discomfort and the cathartic effect of listening to Double Fantasy, but I am picturing you alternating between grief and WTF every other song; Lennon, Ono, Lennon, Ono, Lennon, Ono.  I remember well being in the car around 2 a.m. on my way to work at UPS and hearing that Lennon had been shot the night before.  I was of course shocked, but I was then 20, too young to have grown up on the Beatles and so it didn't hit me like it did so many. When I got to work, I walked in and our crusty hard ass supervisor Duane was sitting at his desk, saw me and said what's up.  I asked if he heard that John Lennon had been murdered the night before. He was stunned, started crying.  Startled me seeing such a hard ass crying, that's when I realized how much regard people had for Lennon. I hadn't visited the TJ site before, glad you listed that link as I'll stop there going forward.  Thanks again for another fine contribution here.

Jack, I think for those of us who are older than you and grew up with the Beatles from being teeny bopper stars to counter culture gurus Lennon's death was indeed shocking to a degree similar to the assassination of JFK. Lennon's death hit me much harder than Petty's not only because his influnence on our culture was so much deeper but also because of the violent nature of his murder. Petty's death was unexpected and shocking to that extent but at least he wan't murdered. When you related how your hard-assed boss started crying when he heard about Lennon it brought tears to my eyes remembering that awful day.

yes Jack, i became a Double Fantasy skipper rather quickly. Thank you for checking out TJ. A great piece on Radney Foster today.   The hard-ass boss story is quite moving.  

I want to thank you too for the TJ connection which I checked-out today and it looks like a great site. But from what I could tell it doesn't allow comments from readers like the ND site does it?

Not sure about that choice they made. I'll check in with Courtney about it. I'm hoping this little publication grows. 

I love Radney Foster...super nice guy, great songwriter and excellent live...just saw him in concert a couple of weeks ago with his sideman, Eddie Heinzelman, very cool guy and great player...his new book is excellent, as is the record that accompanies it...I will be headed over there myself to check that article out...

As for me, I only liked Yoko's songs on "Double Fantasy"...

Checking out now fellows, physical nose seems to have gotten a bit longer just after the Yoko reference....going to see my man Geppetto...

I'm afraid Jim that your tongue, too, may be lodged fiercely in your cheek...As for Radney Foster, he's religious and there's the rub for me but I promise not to go into that as I've alrady embarrassed myself enough on that subject on this site.

Dennis, I  find any evidence of a 'religious' outlook from Radney Foster. There was one album called Revival. But, not gospel or carrying a gospel point of view. Can you tell me where you got the info? Thanks

Terry, I should know better than to keep bringing up my prejudice and I'm not that familiar with his music. I only own his 1992 album "Del Rio, Texas 1959" and I wasn't that impressed by it so I haven't listened to it in years. So the information about his faith came from Henry Carrigan's posting on this site about his collection of short stories, "For You To See The Stars" which includes an inteview with Foster in which he talks a lot about his faith and that killed any interest I might have had for both the book or his new release. Perhaps he doesn't preach in his music and I might even like it but I get so much music already I don't really need to explore that of someone who's worldview is so contrary to mine.

Having a Yoko record on hand for family parties is useful if some folks are overstaying their welcome, you can pop it on. Might have to play both sides but it does the trick every time.

Recently at my local record store they had on one of their listening stations the new re-release of Yoko's 1970 album "Plastic Ono Band." I know her music as gotten more respect lately and she's even had hits on the dance charts so I thought  what-the-hey, I'll give it a listen. It only took about 15 seconds into a couple of songs for me to think, "No, it's just as bad as I remember." But it's all a matter of taste as this album gets a rave review on the Allmusic sight and its regarded in some circles as important experimental music way ahead of its time. To each their own...

Back to Petty. When the next Petty tribute record is made, given these lyrics, Robert Earl Keen seems a natural to cover A Mind With A Heart of It’s Own:

“Well I been to Brooker and I been to Micanopy
I been to St. Louis too, I been all around the world
I've been over to your house
And you've been over sometimes to my house
I've slept in your tree house
My middle name is Earl”