For the past 20 minutes I’ve been staring at my computer and trying to think of how to sum up Tom Petty’s impact on rock and roll, American pop culture, and the lives of millions upon millions of listeners. Forgive me if this seems like an impossibly tall order. I once compared Petty to tap water and concrete, the sort of sturdy, reliable fixtures that have always been a part of your life, and seemingly always will be a part of your life, so you never fully appreciate how they make your life immeasurably better. Tom Petty’s music truly achieved the ubiquity of a public utility — you can hear it in bars, cars, supermarkets, sports stadiums, gas stations, movies, TV shows, and pretty much everywhere else, even now, decades after it was originally recorded. His songs are in the atmosphere.
What in the hell do you say once the tap runs dry, and all roads and sidewalks have turned to dust? At times like these, it helps to make a list. What makes Tom Petty great? Let me count the ways.
First of all, Tom Petty was a great bandleader. Not only that, Tom Petty knew how to build a band. When you start a band, you definitely want a guitar player as good as Mike Campbell, and you definitely want a keyboard player as good as Benmont Tench, and you definitely want to call it something cool and timeless like the Heartbreakers. And then you want to play with those guys for as long and as hard as you can, practically right up until the day you die.
Next, Tom Petty was a great songwriter. When it comes to writing perfect rock songs for the radio, it’s hard to think of anybody better. John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and John Fogerty are his only rivals in that regard, though none of those people kept writing perfect rock songs for as long as Tom Petty did. His Greatest Hits CD — from 1993, with the garish red cover, the one that introduced the world to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” because Petty was so good he could write a future greatest hit to go with his old greatest hits — is probably the best road-trip album of all-time, and it doesn’t even cover the period that produced “You Wreck Me,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “It’s Good To Be King” (my favorite Petty song, tied with at least 47 other Petty songs), and “Walls.”
Tom Petty was a great storyteller, a skill demonstrated in countless documentaries, including Peter Bogdanovich’s exhaustive and essential four-hour Heartbreakers history, Runnin’ Down A Dream. (Please also take a moment to laugh and cry at this clip from Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison doc Living In The Material World, in which Petty warmly reminisces about Harrison’s love affair with ukuleles.) But it’s most evident in his songs, which dispense narratives so economical that they turn into instant sing-alongs before you’re even finished with your first listen, and yet they’re also rich enough to linger in your heart well past the thousandth listen.
It’s easy to understand the puppy-love nature of the relationship in “Here Comes My Girl,” or the varying ways that the characters in “Yer So Bad” deal with comically traumatic mid-life crises, or the personal apocalypse experienced by the poor schlub in “Room At The Top,” one of his most despairing tunes. Simplicity doesn’t lessen the impact of these songs, it makes them more real, unfussy, and naturalistic. If Raymond Carver had been a fanatic for the Byrds, he might’ve become Tom Petty, if Tom himself had decided to stick around Florida instead of free fallin’ into rock immortality.
Tom Petty was also great at not trying too hard. He exuded a very Dude-like vibe of charismatic insouciance, with his southern drawl, sideways grin, and bevy of easy-going deep cuts that inevitably sound like filler next to the undeniable classics on his albums. Extreme casualness paid off big for Petty in the ’90s, a time when virtually every other denim-clad white male rock star of the ’70s and ’80s went into permanent commercial hibernation. Even Bruce Springsteen endured a seriously uncool period during the Clinton years. For the slacker philosophers of the alternative era, Bruce was too earnest, too muscular, too arena-rock. He was easy to mock. But how can you make mock Tom Petty? He always seemed to be laughing at himself, a classic bit of “you can’t fire me because I quit”-style ’90s posturing that Petty mastered back when he was making Damn The Torpedoes. Tom Petty never required a revival or comeback — he stayed awesome, no matter the era.
Tom Petty was great at marking time, probably his most crucial talent. Because Petty was always around, you could rely on him to be different things at different times in your life. My earliest memories of listening to FM radio date back to riding in the car with my dad as he was driving me back to my mother’s house — I’m sure this is an instance of my brain retroactively adding the perfect soundtrack to my life, but in my memory these trips were always scored by Petty’s hit 1981 duet with Stevie Nicks, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” a sexy, smoky ballad that I can’t hear now without thinking about my parents’ divorce.
From then on, Petty was with me for the long haul. The video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was second grade. Full Moon Fever (and the cassingle for “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” which I wore out) was sixth grade. The video with Johnny Depp for “Into The Great Wide Open” was eighth grade. Dave Grohl temporarily joining the Heartbreakers on SNL was 10th grade. Thinking about every girl at school I was in love with while listening to the title track from 1994’s Wildflowers, my favorite Petty album, was 11th and 12th grade.
During my early twenties, when I spent 80 percent of my non-sleeping, non-working hours in bars, my go-to jukebox song was “You Got Lucky,” from 1982’s seriously underrated Long After Dark, a typical exercise in “tough but tender” brooding that Petty excelled at. Few rock singers were as good at projecting macho strength while also exposing underlying spiritual weakness, and “You Got Lucky” is a masterpiece in that regard. The text is a boast (“You got lucky, babe / when I found you”) but the subtext is insecure and lonely, as all the best drinking songs are. Depending on which point in the night I queued up the song, “You Got Lucky” would either make me feel like the biggest man in the room, or the most tragic. A true Tom Petty state of mind.
In my 30s, after I got married and started having kids, I dwelled more on the lesser known gems in Petty’s catalogue, like the spooky “Something Big” from 1981’s fantastic Hard Promises, the beautifully messy ballad “It’ll All Work Out” from 1987’s largely misbegotten Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), the dusky allegory “Two Gunslingers” from 1991’s Into The Great Wide Open, and “Blue Sunday,” a breezy digression on 2002’s otherwise sour anti-music industry diatribe, The Last DJ. In the ’00s, Petty’s albums became less frequent, and his songwriting was often melancholy and preoccupied with mortality. One of my favorite of his latter-day songs is “Night Driver,” from 2006’s wistful Highway Companion, in which Petty sings about an aimless moonlit cruise like a man who suspects that he might soon run out of road.
I could go on listing things that Petty is great at. He rhymed “some place to go” with Joe Piscopo in “Jammin’ Me.” He wrote a song called “Zombie Zoo,” a terrible idea, and actually made it work. (It’s still the worst track on Full Moon Fever, but 98 percent of all the songs in the world would also be the worst track on Full Moon Fever.) In the bridge of “The Waiting,” he sings, “Don’t let it kill you baby / don’t let it get to you,” and in spite of hearing that song literally 5,000 times in my life, I had no idea those were the words until I Googled it just now. Even when he garbled lyrics, Tom Petty was eloquent.
Above all, Tom Petty was decent, hard-working, and consistent. He created art that anyone could appreciate, but not at the expense of his own individuality or emotional authenticity. He brought people together. He gave more than he took. He was a larger-than-life everyman. He didn’t back down. He was a great American.