Tom Petty may have been the least polarizing figure in rock history. Literally everyone else you could cite has a substantial “not a fan” base, from Dylan to Springsteen, Bowie to Bono. And the very nature of the eternal Beatles-vs.-Stones debate attests that there will always be someone, somewhere, immutably meh on Mick and McCartney. But there’s an argument to be made that Petty almost never caused an argument, at least not among music fans. To never have fallen for the bicoastal boy who sang about that girl raised on promises, you might as well confess to not giving a rip about American music.
For someone with such an unwavering core persona, Petty had plenty of micro-personas to latch onto. Remember when he and the Heartbreakers came out of the gate 40 years ago — if you’re of a certain age — and the question was whether they were all about the Byrds-ian jangle-rock, or a power pop band, or actual new wavers? (The New York Times, in reviewing an early Manhattan club show where Petty opened for Roger McGuinn, used the headline to try to split the difference: “Tom Petty’s Pop Punk Rock Evokes Sounds of ‘60s.”)
But by the early 1980s, it was clear there was so much more than even those early indicators could suggest. Stardom gave way to superstardom as he embraced bluesier, more swaggering rock or neo-psychedelia, or fully developed his singer/songwriter bona fides. Taking a brief break from the Heartbreakers, he borrowed Jeff Lynne’s vocal-stacking techniques to put an extra spin on some of rock’s most essential anthems. As the kid brother in the Traveling Wilburys, he became an impish peer to four of the greatest talents in the half-generation before him. He seemed to go through life, and rock, with the slightest perpetual smirk… but if you didn’t relate to his Rickenbacker or his wit, you were probably won over by his “Wildflowers.” That mid-period acoustic solo music felt as delicate and emotional as the Heartbeakers’ signature sounds felt loud, precise, thrashy, and utterly liberating.
And, having accomplished all this, Petty continued to come off as the least pretentious guy in rock… or at least the least pretentious guy who had earned the rights to a million pretenses. His gift, or charm, was in an innate ability to write some of rock’s most beautiful verse without ever letting the drunks in the lawn section imagine for a second that they’d been hoodwinked into singing along with poetry. Petty was a thoroughly relatable everyman with a contradictory layer of star mystique and inscrutability. He had a Cheshire cat grin and a heart.
Which is all to say, he could embody more than one thing at a time, without ever ruining the spell by making a listener think hard about the contradictions. It was all there, most perfectly, in “Free Fallin’,” one of the most enduring popular songs of the 20th century and the 21st. Lyrics don’t get more specific than the song’s nearly hilarious litany of Valley references. But what deep emotions were that less detailed chorus meant to augur? Was the song about the sheer jubilation of breaking free from a confining relationship, or the untethered terror of having broken someone else’s heart and maybe your own? Yes, and yes.
On the list of Petty’s prowesses, not least is the power that allowed him to land at just the exact point in Florida in the 1970s to hook up with the lifelong cohorts who would make it all swing like mad. While Petty took time-outs, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench in particular went on to take part in a fair share of the greatest records of the last three or four decades, yet the sound they came up with together with Petty is one of the great, unrepeatable band alchemies ever. America loved Petty the individualist but also Petty the guy who kept a band together for the better part of a half-century. Rugged individualism and teamwork — ain’t that America, to quote one of the many lesser poets?
“You’ve got to play for yourself first,” Petty told me when I visited him in 2010, as “Mojo,” maybe the best of his later albums, was about to come out. “And if you’re doing something you don’t really feel 100 percent about, then it’s going to show, and someone’s going to feel it. So I’ve always gone where the wind took me. I’ve never had a great grand plan for any of this stuff from day one. I just kind of went, ‘Time to record — well, here’s what I’m feeling like!’” He laughed, maybe protesting too much about his own casualness, or maybe really being just that honest. “That’s what I did, and that’s served me well. You’re not gonna always hit it out of the park, but when you do hit it out of the park, it really goes a long way.”
He reminisced about the unrepeatability of their one-band phenomenon. “You have to have a little bit of luck, I think, with success. I tell kids that these days — that you work really hard, and maybe with a little dash of luck, things will work out for you. We were lucky that we came along in the time when rock radio was really big, and rock was the music of the day. Imagine that! So we tended to have hit after hit on the radio, and the radio was so big and it reached so many people that it was really our salvation as far as having a career and building an audience. And then just when you thought that was at its apex, MTV came along, and we were able to kind of ride that wave too. Now you have the Internet, and that’s one way of reaching a lot of people, but the model of the business seems to change every few weeks. You’ve got to do a lot more marketing and just try to hit everywhere you can, and hopefully this amounts to a lot of people knowing about it. But I’m lucky that I’m at an age and at a point in my life where having a big seller isn’t my first priority. I’d love to; I think every musician wants as many people as possible to hear what they’re doing. If they say they don‘t, they’re lying. But it isn’t my first priority. My first priority is to please me — which, believe me, is the hardest on the list. And sometimes I manage to do that.”
We got lucky, too, when we found him. Good love is hard to find, and so is artisanship that thrives on a large scale. When Petty and the Heartbreakers played some deeper tracks at some smaller venues in 2013, including a terrific run of shows at Hollywood’s Henry Fonda Theatre, it was hard not to think that this more intimate and slightly more adventurous approach to playing live represented the wildflowers among which the band really belonged. But that also felt a little elitist after seeing the group do bigger and more greatest-hits-focused shows on their 40th anniversary tour this summer — locally, headlining the Arroyo Seco Festival in Pasadena in June, and then with a capping three-night run at the Hollywood Bowl that ended just a week before Petty’s death. The playing was so beautiful, and Petty’s grin so much bigger than ever, that a set list that looked like caving to nostalgia felt personal and almost idiosyncratic in the flesh.
I thought back to that time I spoke with Petty in 2010, when they’d just rescheduled a tour to have it end instead of begin at the Hollywood Bowl — and maybe the memory of that show is what inspired him to end his most recent, and last, tour at the storied venue. Having that show as the climax “will be good for the people at the Hollywood Bowl,” he said then, “because we’re always best near the end, I think. You feel the band just get stronger and stronger and stronger, and usually those last few weeks we really burn.” I thought of those words Monday, trying to reconcile the impossibility of his passing with the virtually tactile memory tens of thousands of us had of seeing him in concert just the weekend before.
I also remembered hearing him tell me something that, given the timing, might have turned out to be more literal than he even intended: “Music is so much fun. It just keeps me alive.” If that’s as true for a lot of his fans as it was for him, we do know how it feels to be him, after all.