The oft-cited, albeit morbid truism about how death inevitably helps the legacies of pop stars usually applies to young artists. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Nick Drake, Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G., Aaliyah, Lil Peep — we remember them all as eternally vital, effortlessly cool, and imbued with endless, unrealized potential. But in recent years, as some of the most famous icons in modern music have passed on, this same recalibration of public opinion has taken place for those who died in the midst of late-middle age, erasing any lingering ill will and rewriting history to suggest a sustained, uninterrupted period of brilliance.
Consider how, in the final 20 years of his life, Prince was all but exiled from mainstream pop music. While he remained an electrifying live performer, his steady stream of new albums was mostly ignored commercially and dismissed, even reviled, critically. “Another underwhelming entry in his catalog,” Pitchfork sniffed in its 4.7 review of Prince’s 2016 album HITNRUN Phase Two, published just three months before his death.
This was hardly a contrarian opinion at the time. In retrospect, however, I wonder how HITNRUN Phase Two would’ve been received had it come out three months after Prince died. Would listeners recontextualize the music in their minds, hearing it as a final statement by a great artist, rather than a middling misfire by a past-his-prime legacy act? History suggests that they would. But why? What is it about losing our heroes that makes their music sound better?
I’ve been thinking about this lately in reference to Tom Petty, who will have been gone for exactly one year on October 2. Ever since he passed, it’s been impossible for me to hear any Tom Petty song and not love it. This is true even of songs I didn’t particularly like when he was alive — if you put on “Rhino Skin,” I’ll ask you to turn it way the hell up. As for the tunes I’d heard a million times and had grown a little sick of, like “Don’t Do Me Like That” or “I Won’t Back Down,” I can listen to them now with fresh ears as I cue them up an additional one million times. My desire to hear Tom Petty songs in the past 12 months has been insatiable. I never get sick of him anymore.
Of course, I don’t totally trust my own opinions here, because I actually wrote my feelings down about Tom Petty right before he died. “Tom Petty could always be counted on to be just good enough,” I argue in my 2018 book, Twilight Of The Gods: A Journey To The End Of Classic Rock. “Recording three or four perfect singles and then padding the rest of the album with jangly, expertly performed filler is just good enough. Rhyming ‘some place to go’ with ‘Joe Piscopo’ is just good enough. Tom did not have to prove it all night. He was fine knocking off at around 11 PM.”
In the book, I compare Petty’s relaxed southern casualness to Bruce Springsteen’s all-consuming desire to achieve greatness at any cost. When I say “Tom Petty could always be counted on to be just good enough,” I meant it as a compliment… though it seems now like a backhanded one. As for the part about how his albums tend to be padded “with jangly, expertly performed filler,” I still think that’s true, though those songs sound less and less like filler to me when I revisit them now. They just seem like, well, great songs.
The hardest thing to accept when Tom Petty died is that I would never get to see him play live again, or hear a new song he had written. This is the case whenever a beloved hero passes away — the conversation between artist and fan suddenly ends, leaving us in an everlasting lurch. Now, the only way I can have a “new” Tom Petty experience is by digging into songs and albums that I didn’t have time for before. It’s what sent me back to records like 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), which I dismissed in the book — it’s the one that starts with “Jammin’ Me,” the source of that immortal “Joe Piscopo” / “no place to go” rhyme — and made me seek out any cool little nooks and crannies I had previously missed. Like “Runaway Trains,” which sounds like a rough draft for The War On Drugs, or the garage-rock rager “Think About Me.” I love those songs now.