Tom Petty – Heartbreaker, Wilbury, solo musician, storyteller, and so much more – has died aged 66.
Having started his musical career with Mudcrutch, the band with which he also released his last album ‘2’ in 2016, he then formed Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1976, alongside fellow Mudcrutch members Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, and graced us with thirteen studio albums as well as another three solo albums along the way.
The Heartbreakers‘ first, self-titled album initially gained little recognition other than the single ‘Breakdown’, but it was their second album, You’re Gonna Get it! that propelled them into stardom with singles like ‘Listen To Her Heart’ and ‘Baby’s a Rock ‘n’ Roller’.
Petty’s Americana twang, combined with simple rock & roll music and romanticised stories of rebellious individuals almost always existing somewhere in California struck a chord with listeners, and tracks like ‘The Waiting’, ‘Listen To Her Heart’, ‘Refugee’, ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’, and ‘Learning To Fly’ were immediate hits.
In the late 1980s, Petty recorded two albums as part of the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup consisting of himself, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Roy Orbison, under the monikers Charlie T. Wilbury, Jr. and Muddy Wilbury.
Though they never toured, singles from these albums like ‘Handle With Care’ and ‘Tweeter and the Monkey Man’ were regularly played live by Petty on tours from 2003-2008. Aside from his band success, Petty also released three solo albums, most notably the Jeff Lynne produced Full Moon Fever, which reached no. 8 in the U.K. charts.
Petty always remained loyal to The Heartbreakers, however, hardly ever changing the band’s lineup and consistently coming back to them to record new records. He recorded his final album with them in 2014, entitled Hypnotic Eye. Amazingly, this album earned the group their first ever number one spot in the Billboard 200.
Petty was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. He had just concluded a celebratory tour of The Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary before his untimely death on Monday night. Throughout his career, he sold over 80 million records worldwide.
On a personal level, Petty’s death has left me devastated.
His 1989 solo album Full Moon Fever was the first album I ever listened to that made me realise that ‘old’ music (if you can call it that – ‘old’ in this context may simply mean pre-dating my birth) could be cool.
Even a lyrically basic song like ‘The Apartment Song’ (“Oh yeah, I’m alright, I just feel a little lonely tonight / I’m okay, most of the time / I just feel a little lonely tonight”) left me entranced with its heartland, almost country-rock sound and paradoxically tongue-in-cheek but relatable words.
Tom Petty was a magnificent songwriter. Lines such as “My sister got lucky, married a yuppie / Took him for all he was worth / Now she’s a swinger dating a singer / I can’t decide which is worse” from ‘Yer So Bad’ will never fail to make me smile, and unlike other artists whom I adore, Petty never seemed as if he could have a grumpy streak.
The utterly surreal music video for ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’, in which Petty plays Alice In Wonderland’s Mad Hatter, is a perfect example of his sense of humour. His ability to tell stories in his music, in ‘Two Gunslingers’, for example, was just another string to his bow.
That isn’t to say, though, that his music was all the same upbeat rock that one might immediately associate with him.
Whilst his voice seemed to remain eternally youthful but wise, comfortably unchanging throughout his musical canon, he was able to express brooding sentiment about his own individuality with songs like ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’ and portrayed his own vulnerability beautifully in ‘Alright For Now’. He just wasn’t an artist that anyone could say they deeply disliked the music or personality of. Even those that weren’t big fans couldn’t deny the quality of certain hits.
I know of no one who hated him or his music in the way that so many artists over the years have divided opinion. Rock critic Lester Bangs wrote in his obituary for Elvis Presley that “We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.” Tom Petty may be an exception to this rule.
I will now always regret choosing not to fork out £75 to go and see a musical hero of mine play in London last summer, and will instead only ever be able to imagine what hearing him play songs that mean so much to me, live, might have been like.
His music is not only proper, spirit-lifting rock, it is comforting and honest too, and the meaning behind much of it – ‘I Won’t Back Down’ springs to mind – seems as important now as ever. The only consolation when an artist one holds so dear dies is that, thankfully, their music remains and can forever be discovered, like new, and enjoyed.
Farewell, Tom. I will, no doubt, keep crawling back to you.