Tom Petty 1950-2017: Ten Career Reflections On A Great American Musical Hero

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Tom Petty should go down in rock history as the music’s greatest individual role model. If that sounds like an audacious claim, just take a cursory look at how this native Floridian navigated his way through the forty year career he just celebrated with a national tour with the Heartbreakers, culminating in multiple sold-out shows at Los Angeles’ iconic Hollywood Bowl.

Petty maintained steady leadership of his band even as he initiated a solo career that turned out as successful, if not more so, than his work with the group. He nurtured the relationship of the five disparate figures of The Traveling Wilburys, based on his abiding friendships with the late Beatle George Harrison as well as the personal professional connection he established with Bob Dylan when Tom and the group backed him on tour a couple years prior. And TP reformed his pre-Heartbreakers band, Mudcrutch, for two albums, each excellent in its own way, as well as some touring, albeit limited in scope.

Grounded in a pragmatic work ethic consisting of seemingly perpetual songwriting, in combination with regular cycles of recording and performing, Tom Petty accomplished all this with a no-nonsense attitude his fans surely envied. The man never seemed to feel a need to explain himself: he is the least prominent source in Warren Zanes’ splendid biography and Paul Zollo’s book Conversations with doesn’t so much reveal as it does confirm what anyone could readily learn from listening to his music.

That is, Tom Petty was an independent soul whose inner compass, moral and artistic, was the hard-earned result of honestly testing himself and those around him in a never-ending challenge to do better work. We may never know all the details of his sad, shocking departure from this material world,  but that doesn’t lessen the practical reality of all we can glean from what the man achieved and almost equally importantly, how he achieved it.

If a nagging sense of futility arises from his devastating passing on 10/2/17 , it’s superseded by a deep-rooted desire to emulate his fundamental ambition, that is, to relish the moments as they arrive, savor them as they pass and refuse to dwell too awfully much on them once they’ve gone by. That said, it’s worth reflecting on some milestones in the history of Tom Petty, if only as a first step in learning to live in a world without him, keeping in mind his work survives and will grow in significance as time is passing.

1. On his first two albums with the Heartbreakers, Tom Petty became the first rocker of modern times to build a style of his own from contemporary influences, specifically, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Byrds, instead of directly sourcing the roots of blues, folk and country music on which those icons had based their own original music. It took braggadocio to say the least, but these two records, taken together, set the tone for the man’s career in more ways than one.

2. Never let it be said, however, that Tom Petty didn’t know his roots—see his expansive box-set Playback and even more so The Live Anthology, in which where early Fleetwood Mac, “Oh Well,” is as conspicuous as Van Morrison and Them’s “Mystic Eyes” (or the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” the likes of which covers have populated entire sets by at theater shows in recent years). And, when it came time for TP to be married a second time, he had THE Little Richard perform the ceremony!?!?(the author of “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Long Tall Sally” became an ordained minister over a decade after his religious conversion in the late Fifties).

3. The story of Tom Petty brandishing a knife in a meeting with his record label is emblematic of his innate self-respect, the likes of which he approached his partners, personal and professional: if realistically speaking, he didn’t demand things go exactly his own way all the time, he nevertheless wanted those around and involved with him to know exactly where he stood and why he stood there.

4. Witness, for instance, the feud that arose when Petty found himself fighting the price change to be put into effect with 1981’s Hard Promises, the follow-up to his breakthrough album Damn the Torpedoes. The release of the latter was delayed for a similar reason: not only did Tom fight the record company directly over business; he made rare public statements and took his battle to the courts, even going so far to file for bankruptcy (having footed the cost of recording that LP himself). And, in a show of his typically wry humor, he put himself on the cover of the former title, pictured in a record store with the designated price point of $8.98 visible in the display.  

5. Having refined the sound he and his band made through Long After Dark (not a commercial smash by any means), Petty had grand ambitions for Southern Accents, not all of which came to fruition: originally conceived as a double album, his enlistment of Robbie Robertson for horn arrangements on “The Best of Everything” gave only an inkling of what might have been. Still, the reinvention of his persona via the video for “Don’t Come Around Here” connected him with the MTV-audience through a creative partnership with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, just another instance of TP’s willingness to work with those who furthered his inspiration(s).

6. Full Moon Fever may have been the more commercially successful of his solo efforts, but Tom Petty’s Wildflowers was as close to his heart, if not more so. The release of a full album’s worth of additional tracks—NOT outtakes from those sessions, the artist has declared– have been rumored for a couple years, so when and if the material does see the light of day, it will sound all the more poignant, especially because the live concerts to feature this material never came to pass.

7.  Tom Petty made the reformation of his pre-Heartbreakers band, Mudcrutch, sound like it was only common sense for a professional musician, giving him a chance to collaborate with different players as well as contribute in different ways because he didn’t write all the songs or do all the singing (AND he got to play bass!). The man was keenly cognizant of the ongoing need to freshen his perspective on his work and made no bones about his efforts to realize his potential and/or make a statement, at any given point in his career (see The Last DJ or the patently autobiographical Echo: not so popular as some of his records, but nevertheless means to an end).

8. At the peak of their commercial popularity, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers were also a well-honed road unit by the time they consented to tour with Bob Dylan in 1986 and dealing with Zimmy’s well-known spontaneity of the moment tested their mettle, But they acquitted themselves stylishly and authoritatively in alternating tunes of their own with their guest frontman, so much so that, beginning with their own min-sets within those shows, the quintet played with noticeably greater power and confidence from then on.

9. On the 2006 tour from which filmmaker Peter Bogdonavich fashioned his documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream, Petty and the Heartbreakers were conscious of playing all the hits (plus some select covers), as well as hosting Stevie Nicks for a portion of the show, practical gestures that guaranteed plenty of good footage and appropriately uproarious crowd response to accompany it. Yet the most memorable moment was one in which the leader of the band played a single song, “Square One,” from the solo album that came out that summer, Highway Companion: virtually alone on the stage in Mansfield, Massachusetts, TP largely silenced the raucous crowd in and around the open-air venue with one of the most personal songs he ever wrote, a paean to self-discovery the likes of which few in attendance might suspect of a rock and roll star of his stature.

10. Tom Petty never put on any airs, least of all when he was making music, so it’s little wonder he sought out projects with other musicians he’s admired for whom he’s played low-profile but nonetheless estimable roles. He and the Heartbreakers backed Johnny Cash on one of his final albums, Unchained, and performed similar duties for Del Shannon on a record Petty produced called Drop Down & Get Me. Along with some of his bandmates, Tom co-wrote songs and guested on Roger McGuinn’s Back to Rio to boost the solo career of the Byrds’ titular leader and in 2016-17 supervised Bidin’ My Time for Chris Hillman, another one of the co-founders of that seminal band; closing that record with TP’s own “Wildflowers” is a signal of low-key generosity and admiration emblematic of a man who, especially in recent years, detested calling too much attention to himself. Now we’re on our own to recognize him as he deserves: with deep admiration, empathy and affection.

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2 thoughts on “Tom Petty 1950-2017: Ten Career Reflections On A Great American Musical Hero

  1. Tim Pickering Reply

    Thanks Doug, very well done! In my own opinion, Tom epitomized the spirit of rock ‘n roll!

  2. Clarence Deegan Reply

    Tom Petty was my most listened to singer of my adult life starting in 1976. I only got to see him 1 time in 1991in Houston, had tickets two more times but death and sickness in my family stopped me from going to the shows. The sadness I feel at his passing is a shock, I just can’t get past. I will play his music every day forever!

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