Tom Petty’s Wisdom and Will Transformed American Music Forever

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Tom Petty, who passed away on Tuesday at 66, felt like part of the rock firmament in a way that was different from your Pauls, your Micks, your Anguses. Both solo and with his storming backing band The Heartbreakers, Petty specialized in a loose-limbed style of rock that grooved as it felt utterly human, with Petty’s wizened voice, full of wisdom even when it was recounting the simplest boy-loses-girl yarns, leading the way. His formidable catalog, which spans the biting “Refugee” and the dreamy “Free Fallin’,” the sardonic “Into the Great Wide Open” and the gently menacing “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” the determined “Runnin’ Down A Dream” and the chiming “The Waiting,” encapsulates a particularly American ideal — it’s music for the open road that chews on humanity’s foibles in a way that doesn’t short-circuit its pleasure.

This year, Petty and his band celebrated four decades of making music together, with their final show as a band taking place at the Hollywood Bowl — about an hour east from Petty’s adopted home of Malibu, Calif. Petty had been playing in The Heartbreakers alongside guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench — who were also in the country-rock band Mudcrutch — since 1975. Hailing from Gainesville, Fla., Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their self-titled debut in 1976. Its initial reception from United States audiences could best be described as chilly, even though songs like the woozy “Breakdown” and the taut “Anything That’s Rock And Roll” synthesized Southern rock’s all-out style with power pop’s crispness, with Petty’s laconic voice leading the way.

“American Girl,” which closes out the band’s debut, has in the 40 years since its release become a classic-rock radio staple. Its propulsive riff and hip-shaking breakdown are made for jubilant dancing, even though its lyrics tell the tale of a woman whose lonely life hasn’t quite lived up to the “promises” that, she’d been told, were supposedly in her future. Petty and his bandmates updated the idea of American folk with that song, incorporating rock’s muscle and swagger even as Petty’s lyrics kept the song utterly grounded in workaday humanity (“It was kind of cold that night/ She stood alone on her balcony/ She could the cars roll by/ Out on 441”).

Petty was expert at blending the everyday with the larger-than-life in his music. “Free Fallin’,” which came out on his 1989 solo debut Full Moon Fever, evoked “American Girl” in the way that it combined the starlit atmosphere of its strumming with crystalline details about love’s mundane cruelties; “Refugee,” pulled along by Tench’s life-or-death keyboard riff, cloaked its story of emotional reserve in urgent metaphor. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” his 1983 duet with Stevie Nicks that would be his highest-charting single (it peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100), embraces this aesthetic as well, even with Nicks’ larger-than-life persona; their similarly weathered voices dart around each other on the song’s chorus, a depiction of romantic wariness that feels like an emotionally weighty game of chicken. Even his Christmas song, 1992’s “Christmas All Over Again,” balanced holiday cheer with the season’s attendant ambivalence of seeing long-lost relatives.

The rise of MTV helped Petty further establish himself among younger listeners who might not have reached record-buying age until after Damn the Torpedoes, Petty & the Heartbreakers’ 1979 commercial breakthrough, was released. Unlike other members of the ’70s rock class, Petty appreciated video as an art form, his clips going far beyond the awkward “hey, we’re making a video, look at that!” mugging his peers often engaged in. The eye-popping video for the gently psychedelic 1985 track “Don’t Come Around Here No More” featured Petty as The Mad Hatter, hosting a tweaked-out tea party in Wonderland; the clip for “Free Fallin'” laid a golden-hour glow over the southern Californian version of the late-’80s suburban ideal. (Petty’s performance of that song at the 1989 MTV’s Video Music Awards allowed Axl Rose, then a leading “baaaaad boy” of rock, to show off how much his serpentine lower register owed to Petty’s own silver-tongued delivery.) He invited then-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl to drum for The Heartbreakers in 1994, shortly after Kurt Cobain died; he appeared on the animated sitcom King of the Hill as Lucky (as in “You Got”), a slacker who wound up getting hitched to Hank Hill’s daughter Luanne.

He was hardly a rock purist, but Petty did believe in the power that rock music in particular had to unite audiences — which explains why he was so game for reaching out to both artists and audiences. “So much of the greatness of rock was that it was a shared experience,” Petty told Mojo in 2009. “When Sgt. Pepper was released, everyone knew what you were talking about because you all bought it and heard it…. It was something we all experienced together, and that was lovely. Youth in those days really felt united, that we had a power and could change things through being unified.”

Petty’s career stretched until the very end. He put out thoughtful, propulsive records both on his own and with The Heartbreakers through 2014’s finely honed Hypnotic Eye. His biggest successes, though, were born of tenacity and, in particular, a strong belief in the his work. The 1976 self-titled record didn’t take off in the States until nearly two years after its release, which resulted in two of its songs becoming radio staples. Full Moon Fever was initially rejected by Petty’s label at the time, even though he’d enjoyed previous successes with both The Heartbreakers and the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys. “When that happened, it was really just a board to the forehead,” he told Esquire in 2006. “But then finally I picked myself up. I said, ‘I’m not buying this, there’s nothing wrong, I really like this record.'” Management changed, and Full Moon Fever went on to produce a clutch of classic-rock staples — including the breezily resolute “I Won’t Back Down,” which could double as a thumbnail description of the effect his distinctive style and independent spirit had on American rock.

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