Breakdown: Mourning the great Tom Petty, 1950-2017

Dave DiMartino
Executive Editor

Tom Petty’s jarring, sudden death Monday has made an extraordinarily odd year seem even stranger.

It was by any standard unexpected — he just played the last of three sold-out Hollywood Bowl shows a week earlier — and especially cruel in its timing. “I want to thank you for 40 years of a really great time,” he had said from the stage at his final show at the Bowl. And now he’s gone.

If he was in the mood then to look back — at a career that saw more than 80 million record sales worldwide  — he was likely pretty happy with how 2017 had been shaping up. While his personal life had been dotted with misfortune since his early days — a troubled childhood, a failed marriage, dalliances with drugs and depression — it was marked even more conspicuously with consistent critical and commercial success. He sold records. He made lifelong fans. He was appreciated.

This was the case at the yearly benefit concert for the Recording Academy’s MusiCares Foundation in February. “We got together last week and rehearsed for this thing,” 2017 Person of the Year Tom Petty announced from the stage, “and I realized I may actually be in one of the best two or three rock ’n’ roll bands there is.” What followed then — a nonstop tribute set of Petty material played by the likes of Randy Newman, George Strait, the Foo Fighters, Jackson Browne, Stevie Nicks, Don Henley, and many more — was further confirmation of that fact and much more. He and his music touched many, many people.

It might simply have been a matter of Tom Petty’s age and his background. He liked rock ‘n’ roll; he grew up in the South playing rock ’n’ roll in bar bands, and while he loved the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, he was just as likely to be fixated by the music of those artists’ contemporaries — the Animals, the Searchers, the Zombies — instead of just the big guns, and that showed in his music.

And let’s not forget Yanks like the Byrds: When Petty’s 1976 debut album emerged, its highlight was the unforgettable “American Girl,” which many listeners thought sounded uncannily like some previously unheard Byrds track — as did Byrds founder Roger McGuinn, who good-naturedly covered it on his 1977 Thunderbyrd album. In fact, he and fellow ex-Byrd David Crosby show up on the just-released, Petty-produced Bidin’ My Time album by yet another ex-Byrd, Chris Hillman — who, to further complete the circle, performed “Wildflowers” at this year’s Petty tribute. Petty’s friends always seemed to stick around.

He also managed to be in the right place at the right time. When mid-’70s punk emerged, both Petty and his Shelter Records labelmates, the Dwight Twilley Band, seemed — to their great fortune — to be sufficiently new and cutting-edge to be filed in both the “rock” and “punk/new wave” bins at America’s hippest records stores, thus satisfying AOR (adult-oriented rock) and hipster listening audiences simultaneously. And as the ’80s unfolded, when Petty wasn’t blaring on the radio via tracks like “Refugee” and “The Waiting,” both expertly co-produced by Jimmy Iovine, he was captivating a youthful MTV audience with the Alice-in-Wonderland costumery of “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”

To his long-term credit, Petty tended to stick to his guns and was nobody’s pawn. When record companies were at their biggest, toughest, and meanest, he would typically — as the song he’d later write would say it — not back down when they pushed. It meant a delay for 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, which after a lengthy court battle between Petty and MCA Records ultimately ended up on a newly created imprint, Backstreet Records. And it didn’t stop there: When the label announced plans to initiate a price hike for “superstar” product with Petty’s upcoming Hard Promises, the artist threatened to withhold it from them until they relented. And they did. Tom Petty did it for the kids.

Petty was all over the place during the 1980s, in a good way. He hit the Billboard top five with Stevie Nicks’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which he penned and performed with the Heartbreakers; he collaborated on tracks with Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart and the Band’s Robbie Robertson on 1985’s Southern Accents and, significantly, undertook a world tour with no less than Bob Dylan the next year. One result of that pairing was “Jammin’ Me,” the opening track of Petty’s next album, Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), penned by Petty/Dylan and Heartbreaker Mike Campbell. And the other result may have been, at least in part, the formation of the Traveling Wilburys.

To those there at the time, the Wilburys were a fascinating combo — three certified icons (Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Roy Orbison) and two hugely talented players (Petty and Jeff Lynne) who were not quite at their level but gaining on them. That this, by design, was intended to be a fun gathering of equals must have been mind-blowing for Petty, who had probably grown up with a transistor radio glued to his ear listening to his new bandmates sing their distinguished catalog of hits.

It was at some point during this era that Petty attained the status that would never depart thereafter: a top-rank class act, a superstar less concerned with image and sales status than with doing the right thing, playing rock ’n’ roll for the sheer love of it — all the while with one of the very best rock ’n’ roll bands ever in tow. There were sales lulls here and there, true, but as the current millennium rolled around, the music stayed strong, the most recent albums like 2010’s Mojo and 2014’s Hypnotic Eye sold strongly — the latter was the band’s first No. 1 album — and Petty became, almost by default considering the sales decline of the genre, one of rock ’n’ roll’s true remaining live icons.

There was something about Tom Petty; something that made the man act outside the normal boundaries of the conventional rock ’n’ roll business. There were the two excellent albums he made with his pre-Heartbreakers band from Gainesville — Mudcrutch — in 2008 and 2016. That they made them was one thing; that they were so listenable, and so filled with enthusiasm and love for music, was quite another. Few artists in music have managed to attain Petty’s status; even fewer would ever take the time to see that those albums — and all they meant to those who made them — were actually created.

It’s funny. Being in the rock ’n’ roll business for so many years, Petty had the time to make deep connections with everybody. And those connections varied. Me? I grew up in Miami, and in 1976, when I heard him singing “American Girl,” about the cars rolling by “out on 441/Like waves crashin’ on the beach,” I knew precisely what road he was talking about because I’d driven it hundreds of times, and we connected. Years later, I’d moved to the San Fernando Valley here in California, and when I heard him singing about Ventura Boulevard and Reseda in “Free Fallin’,” or saw its video featuring the same hot dog stand I drove by every day, we connected.

My older brother went to school in Gainesville and still remembers briefly working with Petty at Shelley’s in the early ‘70s; they delivered sandwiches and pizza. “He was a great delivery guy,” my brother recalled today. “He never got lost.” They connected.

In front of that exclusive MusiCares audience this year, at the benefit concert paying tributes to the music that he and his band had created over the years, Petty said, almost bashfully, “This is kind of a surreal moment in a surreal life.” He noted the performances of a few of the newer bands that had been performing his songs onstage earlier, such as the Head and the Heart, Cage the Elephant, and the Shelters. “They’re going to carry this forward, and we have to be there to support them through it,” he said, “because there ain’t nothing like a good rock ’n’ roll band, people.”

And now, for the first time in 40 years, there’s one less rock ’n’ roller out there who’ll be filling our hearts with joy. And he will be greatly, greatly missed.