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.”