The media circus surrounding the death of Tom Petty made the ultimate announcement difficult to bear. Early reports of the musician’s death were almost immediately contradicted by still other reports that he was alive and on life support. One source even went so far as to call the entire situation a death hoax. The worst news proved inevitable, and late on Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, reputable sources announced that Petty had passed away, age 66.
Petty’s legacy with his longtime band, the Heartbreakers, plus his involvement with rock supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys, and numerous side projects, make him a valuable icon in the world of rock ‘n’ roll. His truth-telling rock songs and unflappable demeanor allowed Petty to redefine cool. Petty’s body of work showed an uncanny ability to get to the heart of people.
Even though an attempt is being made here, words cannot describe what Petty means to rock ‘n’ roll. His body of work is an institution, not just a series of albums and singles. With a career that spanned more than 40 years, Petty crafted some of the most memorable songs in contemporary times.
Tom Petty and the Midwestern soundscape
While he might not have been from the Midwest, Petty’s songs played well here. Songs like “Breakdown,” “Refugee,” “American Girl,” and “Don’t Do Me Like That,” seared into minds and hearts. So much so that those of us who grew up in certain times and places had the lyrics to the aforementioned songs imprinted in our brains. We could recite every line. We knew every break and key change. This was music that spoke to us.
No one played or wrote songs like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty’s delivery, his guitar playing, and the use of organ and sometimes accordion, created a soundscape that made the group a sonic phenomenon.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: songs from the 1970s and 1980s
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their debut album in 1976. It was self-titled and included the hits “Breakdown” and “American Girl.” These songs became rock radio darlings and showed up in frequent rotation. “American Girl” is used during a pivotal scene in the film, “Silence of the Lambs” (1991).
The band followed their debut album with the release of “Damn the Torpedoes” in 1979. The album’s second single, “Refugee” (1980) further cemented Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as something special. Again, lyrically, the Petty form of cool was at work–“We got somethin’ we both know it/we don’t talk too much about it”–the delivery is honest. The song is characterized by its varying dynamics, the organ riff at the end of lines that helped listeners to remember them, and the terse organ that swelled against Petty’s almost shouted vocals before the organ solo. Underneath it was a groove-heavy version of jangle rock accented by accordion and shaker. The usual instruments were there, too. Everything worked as a cohesive, creative unit and fans were hooked.
In 1981, Petty sang on Stevie Nicks’ debut album, “Bella Donna.” The single, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” became an instant classic. It captured the nuances of both singers’ unusual voices, told a coherent narrative, and featured the organ swells, guitar riffs and heavy drumming consistent with the work of the Heartbreakers.
At the end of the 1980s, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released “Full Moon Fever.” Arguably, the most notable song was “Free Fallin’.” In 1990, “Free Fallin'” made it to No. 7 on Billboard.
Petty fills the song with references to California areas, but the lyrical narrative is universal. He paints a picture of a “good girl” who loves Jesus, horses, and America. The song’s narrator is a “bad boy” because he doesn’t miss her. Petty nails the archetypes he describes when he sings: “And all the bad boys are standing in the shadows/all the good girls are home with broken hearts.” The poignant rendering of these American types was not lost on listeners.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: The 1990s and beyond
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (1993) proved to be another instant classic created by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Its Americana charm is enhanced by Petty’s delivery, driving guitar, echoing backing vocals and the reference to Indiana boys and Indiana nights. Here again, audiences are struck by Petty’s ability to capture potentially lengthy descriptions in a sentence or two “…had a good-lookin’ mama/who never was around”–not a good thing for a girl who was apt to fall prey to Indiana boys.
In the 21st century, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers earned a No. 1 album with 2014’s “Hypnotic Eye.” But it wasn’t all music for Petty. From 2004 until 2009, Petty offered his voice to the realistic animation of Mike Judge’s “King of the Hill.” His character was “Lucky,” boyfriend, then husband of Hank Hill’s niece by marriage, Luanne.
There is so much that Petty accomplished in his career that spanned almost half a century. His time in the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup founded by George Harrison, and included Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Bob Dylan in addition to Petty. Proper discussion of all of Petty’s work would require at least one book-length treatment.
Tom Petty did that remarkable thing that amounted to setting stories of Americana and fragile human relationships to unforgettable soundscapes. Petty’s observations were true, and proved that he knew people, and despite their failings, sang to them, anyway. For that we can be grateful.