What a day. First that awful news from Las Vegas. Many of us went to bed on that last night, woke to hear the full horror, from one death to twenty, then over 50, some 400 injured…
For music fans the news didn’t get better as the new day started. First the story that Tom Petty had died. It can now be confirmed (confirmed for the family, on behalf, by his manager). A day of people posting their grief because even if he had lived on for however many days that initial news told us of a full cardiac arrest, a loss of brain activity, the words ‘life support’ and ‘do not resuscitate’ in every social media post, in the mainstream media stories. And then anger that it was a hoax, or that it wasn’t quite true at least. Panic and refreshed Google searches every few minutes, then every hour, then back to every few minutes. The news was never going to be good.
Tom Petty has died.
I was just a little kid when Live Aid happened. I was allowed to stay up and watch it until I fell asleep. Apart from Bob Geldof’s spot singing I Don’t Like Mondays all I really remember was Tom Petty singing Refugee. Since then it’s been Tom Petty. As a member of the Wilburys, the singer of Refugee, that live version of “Breakdown” where he lets the audience sing nearly every word them sly-mumbles “you’re putting me out of a job…”, the Wildflowers album, that incredible run of albums from the late 70s to the early 90s. The comebacks that always worked. More consistent than most, better than most. Read the great Warren Zanes book (“Petty – The Biography”), watch the video footage of The Heartbreakers, that amazing doco from years back (newly added to Netflix). Marvel at it all. The guy was a hitmaker, a song crafter. He wasn’t ever thought of in the same breath as the Dylans and Neil Youngs of the world. But what always spoke volumes was that they thought of him in the same breath. And if you’ve (somehow) never been convinced by his craft, his gifts, reach for the solo album “Wildflowers”. I’m playing it now. Again. As I have so often. This time with a tear in the eye.
“You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
You belong with your love on your arm
You belong somewhere you feel free”
A quick set of memories. All that welled up, swelled up inside me as soon as I hit play on the Wildflowers album and tried to think of all Tom Petty had meant to me. He was it. One of my heroes. One of the guys you could always rely on. He was a master songwriter, a pioneering music-video maker, a mischievous man that felt like an insider and outsider all at once; that created hit songs and albums – he anthologised well and nailed several classic albums. He staged ‘comebacks’, while never really going away. He made solo albums, then returned with the awesome band he was leader of for 40 years. He returned to his original band (Mudcrutch) for two very good albums and tours. He was in so many ways one of the ones doing the heavy lifting on those Wilburys albums – his own hot streak at the time helped get some guys who were almost has-beens (in a way) over the (end of) the line. He wouldn’t back down.
Past that early memory of seeing him on Live Aid, and I must have known the songs from the radio beforehand, I cannot remember ever not liking Tom Petty. Even the one album he did that I consider a dud (no clues, you should know) still has a couple of searing songs on it.
Tom Petty wrote great songs.
Too many to name. You should know them. You could start at any of the greatest hits comps and you’d still need to find a few key album tracks too. You could start with almost any of the albums.
That debut injected ‘songs’ into an era when it was about the sneer, spit and swagger. But Tom had that too – took some of it from the era, took some of it to the era.
But he was link back to the 60s, to the chiming folk-rock of The Byrds, to the 50s too – the R’n’B and that rockin’ perfect pop of Chuck Berry. He was powerpop and just punk enough (in the early days). He was an influence on cool, indie artists, and on straight-ahead pop songwriters and producers. He was a lover of fine music – and when he name-dropped Del singing (“a little Runaway”) it was super cool; you knew he meant it, it wasn’t contrived.
My brother introduced me to Damn The Torpedoes It must have been The Right Time. I heard lyrics like, “I showed you stars you never could see/It couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me” and I heard riffs like Here Comes My Girl and got swept up in songs like Louisiana Rain.
A couple of years ago we drove from L.A. to San Francisco listening to Tom Petty. Just all the Tom Petty we could find on our devices. For several hours. We had the radio on. We and Tom were singing, (a little Running Down A Dream). We were obliged…
Tom Petty wrote great songs.
I love the way he layered the little details. We only found out that his middle name is Earl – it is! – after he told us he’d slept in someone’s treehouse.
I once got really upset that a really good friend of mine told me she had no facility for Tom Petty. I respected her take – she grew up never wanting to hear Free Fallin’, certainly never wanting to hear it again. But I was so confused by this also, so passionate about Tom’s music that I had to try to write about it, to try to understand it.
For one of my birthdays in my 20s my mum and dad sent me some money. “Buy something you think you’re really gonna need, treat yourself to what you really want”, it said in the card.
I rushed straight out and bought the 6-CD set, Playback. Its two discs of hits and many discs of live tracks and rarities spoke volumes from my stereo/s across the years. One of the best box-sets I ever could have owned. It meant the world to me. Several worlds, even…
Tom Petty was always cool. And never cool. He either never looked cool or was totally the coolest. Sometimes he sounded like he was never ever trying to be cool and at the same time he couldn’t get any cooler. He spanned generations. His music was something I just imagined everyone having a grudging respect for, bare minimum. Often far more than (just) that!
I never got to see him play. Never had the opportunity in my lifetime.
Obviously it’s about far more than that. It’s about far more than just Tom Petty too. We know that from other news stories over the same time span, from other troubles in our lives.
But Tom was 66. He had just recently finished celebrating the 40 years of The Heartbreakers. I looked forward to another album – or two, or three. Some more live and archival material. An autobiography maybe? And I really wanted to see a show from him. I even had it all planned. He would play Wellington’s Basin Reserve. Blow the fucker to pieces! I had it all sorted. Just needed the money…maybe hope for an even bigger birthday present from my folks one day? Okay, now I’m just rambling…
There was – legitimately – a tear in my eye when I played Wildflowers earlier today. Now I’m listening to the Into The Great Wide Open album – a huge album for me in my early teenage years. And I’m thinking about the kid from around the block. We bonded over that record. Big time. We haven’t spoken now for longer than we ever were speaking. And that’s just what happens of course. But I’m thinking about that now, when I wouldn’t on any other day. So you can’t say that it’s not just about Tom Petty. Or that if it is that doesn’t mean a lot. Because it does. It means so much. His music is something that I always said was the safest bet. You could put it on and it would fill the room and almost everyone would be happy. Some would be elated, hardly anyone would complain. You’d not only find the common ground you could play that shit all night long. We can still do that now of course. And we must. And I certainly will. I don’t consider that petty.
“The sky was the limit”