BOB DYLAN DESCRIBED the news as “crushing”, which is as good an indication as any of the love and respect fans and fellow musicians had for Tom Petty, who died yesterday (October 2, 2017) after a heart attack.
He was a brilliant songwriter, a great producer and led a legendary band, but despite all that it was almost his personal qualities that were most appreciated.
Petty apprenticed in the ’60s in Gainesville country-rock tyros Mudcrutch, and when experiencing his first flush of fame, with the Heartbreakers from 1976 onwards, he held a torch for ’60s rock music and its values at a time when music fans (and the industry) appeared to have forgotten about The Byrds and The Beatles.
While “Heartland Rock” – a term latterly bandied around – is as unhelpful in describing Petty’s varied and often spiky music as it is when applied to Bruce Springsteen, it’s true that Petty offered continuity rather than novelty. And personally, he extended an invaluable lifeline to his ’60s heroes, lending moral support when he wasn’t physically backing them with the ever-willing Heartbreakers.
“In an arena overgrown with preening hubris Petty had genuine humility.”
To some he must have appeared the junior partner in the Traveling Wilburys, the whimsical combo he formed with Dylan, Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in 1988, but actually it was Petty with the juice in the industry at the time. Like the rug in The Dude’s living room in The Big Lebowski, he really tied the room together.
But his songwriting voice was unique, too. It was tougher than he looked, helping sustain him through the New Wave period and beyond. Freefallin’, I Won’t Back Down, American Girl will be played as long as there is equipment to play them on, and they’ll continue to influence future generations of songwriters. Imagine the Strokes’ Last Nite without American Girl. Impossible.
Not that you’d ever hear him claim credit for any of that. In an arena overgrown with preening hubris Petty had genuine humility, and was also notably generous with his time for MOJO magazine.
Only last month Tom called in, not to talk about himself, his band or his tour, but Chris Hillman, whose album he had produced. One of the things he said about The Byrds’ bassist could easily have described himself.
“Thing is, Chris is not interested in show business,” Tom told Bob Mehr. “I doubt he ever has been. He’s a musician, in the purest sense, and a very good one. What really interests him the most is being around other talented musicians. It’s all about playing and singing for him — it’s not about anything else.”