Tom Petty was like Sara Lee. Nobody doesn’t like him.
In a time of bitter divisiveness, one of the few things most people could agree on was that they liked Tom Petty – or at least that they didn’t dislike him. Music snobs could appreciate his songwriting. Guitar enthusiasts could respect his steady rhythm work, his knack for dynamic, memorable riffs, and his interplay with longtime lead guitarist Mike Campbell. Casual listeners could enjoy themselves whenever they heard one of his songs on the radio or watched one of his videos on MTV. Never overtly political, his songs, nevertheless, evinced a strain of populism that struck a chord with both liberals and conservatives. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we lost him on one of the darkest and most divisive days in recent American history, as we all struggled to make sense of the latest mass-shooting – this time in Las Vegas where 59 concert goers were slaughtered by a guy with enough weapons and ammo to take down the Terminator. [This Simpsons clip which uses “The Waiting” to convey Homer’s frustration over the legally mandated waiting period before he can get his gun pretty much summed up what Monday was like.]
Petty died of cardiac arrest on Monday at the age of 66. One week after wrapping up his 40th Anniversary tour, TMZ reported that Petty had been rushed to the hospital from his home in Malibu. His condition seemed grave from the outset – the first update we got was that he had no brain activity and had been taken off life support. Then CBS News prematurely reported that Petty had died, only to correct itself after its source clarified that he was clinging to life. This, of course, led to the obligatory comments that Petty really meant it when he said “you can stand me up at the gates of Hell, but I won’t back down.”
Unfortunately, we won’t be getting that epic new Tom Petty album about coming back from the brink of death. Instead, we’re left with his songs, so ubiquitous and ever-present that they became the soundtrack of our lives. When Showtime did its documentary on The Eagles, one of the central reasons given for the band’s enduring popularity was that people did things to Eagles songs. They went on road trips, danced at prom, and broke up with significant others while listening to songs like “Hotel California,” “Heartache Tonight,” “Take it to the Limit,” “Take it Easy,” and whatnot. For this generation, it was probably Petty. You can’t go into a store, take in a sporting event, or watch a movie or TV show without hearing one of his songs. You certainly couldn’t turn on the radio and avoid him. According to FiveThirtyEight, Petty is the fifth most-played artist on classic radio trailing only Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd and beating the likes of the Beatles, AC/DC, Aerosmith and The Eagles. And unlike the Eagles, he’s remained cool throughout his long career, weathering both the usual cyclical changes in musical tastes, as well as the big-time, seismic shifts in the music industry. Perhaps his humble veneer and “charismatic insouciance” insulated him from being seen as overly earnest, pretentious or ironic.
But he wasn’t like Jay Leno, Two and a Half Men, Disney movies or other things designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. After all, Petty’s songs could be highly sophisticated, as well as dark and sardonic. As mentioned before, he clearly had a populist streak in him as many of his tracks are about little guys getting screwed over, rejected or ignored and the pain that comes with it. Unlike Bruce Springsteen or his Traveling Wilburys bandmate Bob Dylan, Petty’s songs were political without being overtly biased (even though he, himself, seemed to be a liberal – going so far as to express his regret for using a Confederate flag early in his career). As such, liberals, conservatives and everyone in between could claim him as their own. “You don’t know how it feels to be me.” “She was an American girl, raised on promises.” “I’m running down a dream – that never would come to me.” Who couldn’t relate to that? And who couldn’t tailor those lines to suit their needs?
Indeed, those simple lines that become deep once you think about them demonstrate why his songs resonated with millions, regardless of background or station in life. His songs were full of straightforward, yet pithy and insightful lines that could be used for all sorts of situations, such as finding the perfect yearbook quote or writing easy applause lines in speeches. Heck, I used “Time to Move On” when I left New York to move to Chicago. “He could take a simple phrase and make it instantly identifiable to large number of people,” said Mike Campbell about his longtime lead singer in 2014. “That’s a talent.”
He wasn’t perfect. His voice could be an acquired taste. And his albums (especially later in his career) could be hit-or-miss. Yet he never hid from his imperfections. After telling his biographer that he could write whatever he wanted, an astonishing level of autonomy that most people would never consider offering, Petty revealed one of his darkest secrets. In the late 90s, at the height of his popularity, a painful divorce and other long-suppressed emotional demons resulted in a full-blown heroin addiction.
“The first thing he says to me is ‘I am very concerned that talking about this is putting a bad example out there for young people,’” recalled Warren Zanes, author of 2015’s Petty: The Biography. “‘If anyone is going to think heroin is an option because they know my story of using heroin, I can’t do this.’”
Petty’s reaction and reluctance to glorify his past drug use illustrates just why he was so beloved by so many. When all was said and done, he just seemed like a nice guy who got lucky and didn’t let fame change him. Whether it was going on strike to get out of an unfair recording contract, taking on his label to prevent it from raising his album prices, standing up for artists feeling ripped off in this age of digital music, adopting a laissez faire attitude towards fellow artists accused to plagiarizing his stuff, taking time off from his wildly successful career to engage in fun, artistically fulfilling side projects like The Traveling Wilburys and Mudcrutch, giving a helping hand to up-and-coming artists or hosting his own radio show, he did things his own way and he really didn’t back down.
“I compare it to fishing: There’s either a fish in the boat or there’s not,” Petty said in what turned out to be his final interview. “Sometimes you come home and you didn’t catch anything and sometimes you caught a huge fish. But that was the work part of it to me. … I just remember being excited when I had a song done, and I knew I had a song in my pocket, I always felt really excited about it.”
Sadly, we won’t be getting any more fish from Tom Petty. Then again, he’s given us enough to feast on for generations. And who doesn’t love that?