••• The International Writers Magazine: Obits
Thomas Early Petty - 1950-2017
Comedian Marc Maron has a bit in his most recent Netflix special in which he struggles with bridging the gap between Trump voters and Trump haters which centers on the universal appeal of Tom Petty. “People who voted for Trump are just like you, man,’ the character in Maron’s piece argues. “We all listen to Tom Petty…”
It was Maron’s way of saying that despite great divides Tom Petty is our American connection. Well, of course, who doesn’t love Tom Petty? This immediately came to mind when word of Petty’s death at age 66 from cardiac arrest came down this week. Of course, I’d imagine that there are probably a few people out there, maybe you, that don’t “love” Tom Petty, but at the very least there doesn’t appear to be much if any disdain there. Sure, I’ve been confronted by a few contrarians who can wax poetic about how the Beatles are overrated or what is wrong with the Rolling Stones or why Michael Jackson fails at this and that and on and on. Somehow Tom Petty escapes this.
How is this possible?
Beloved is a tough chore in entertainment, especially for rock and roll, and specifically for four decades, as Petty and his indestructible band the Heartbreakers recently celebrated with a six-month tour that ended mere days before Petty collapsed and never recovered. Tom Petty seemed to just go on being loved, until the end.
For this, I have a few theories.
Firstly, and most importantly, Tom Petty is one of the great American songwriters of the latter part of the twentieth century; working in all of the genres that make it universal; rock and roll, country, folk, blues, (he even occasionally dabbled in funk and punk when feeling frisky). Not that any of the artists mentioned above failed to do so, but there was something about Petty that swerved around pretention or artifice or marketing or promotion or all the things that plague any act that becomes a household name. You got the feeling when listening to Petty’s songs that he wrote them to make himself happy or say something to himself and if you could share in this experience that’s great. Otherwise, have a nice day.
This also spread to his complete inability to get political, something the purported voice of his generation, Bruce Springsteen has done repeatedly, in both ideology and comportment. And while Springsteen arguably wrote some of the most striking inner-dialogue personality songs of his era, his penchant to expand his voice to that of the “everyman” made him too universal. Petty did not play in that sandbox. He built his own, thank you very much. And again, if you dug it, great, if not, well…have a nice day.
And speaking of songs; anyone who has tried their hand at laying melodies over chord progressions and trying to get the words to rhyme in all the right places totally gets Tom Petty. There is no “figuring” with these gems. And that is not to say they were not as complex or deep as say some of his contemporaries who were lauded as such; Tom Waits, Jackson Browne or Randy Newman, but listen to Petty’s very first hit, “Breakdown”, a strangely arranged but simply compiled little ditty that has more atmosphere and attitude than most of what was going on at the time. It doesn’t rush to curry your favor and it doesn’t even bother to hang a hook on you with the vocal, it’s the damn guitar line that makes you hum and leaves you with a slow, sexy fade. It’s simple, but not really.
This is another reason why everyone loved Tom Petty; he did not try and reinvent the wheel. Petty understood something given to him by Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers and the Byrds and the Beatles and Dylan and Sam Cooke and Muddy Waters; it’s all in the foundation. There is no sense fucking with a good thing, and this is evident every time you listen to a Tom Petty song, especially the earlier band-oriented work that seems to come from so many familiar corners of your musical taste buds you think you’ve eaten every sandwich conceived by man. “Free Fallin”, perhaps his most hummable tune, captures this marvelously. Although to be fair so does “The Waiting”, “American Girl”, “Even the Losers”, you get the point.
Petty was indeed a musical short-order cook with the genius of a top-shelf chef, he could make you taste the backbeat of Gene Krupa and the wit of Jimmy Reed and spice of Keith Richards and the pain of Billie Holiday and the anger of Johnny Rotten and the pathos of Johnny Ray and the tender mercy of George Jones and the spit and vigor of Robert Johnson. And he did this in usually three to four minutes…tops. Put some brass on there, sure. Sweep in some Hammond and toss in a harmonica and sprinkle in the background singers and a smattering of riffs and you get it, right away.
Tom Petty made songs that spoke to you and made you tap your feet and recognize their lineage without effort. Making that happen took finding the best band, and the Heartbreakers were that and more. Some of them went on to play with almost anyone who was anyone – above and beyond backing up Bob Dylan in the 1980s. Benmont Tench is the keyboardist’s keyboardist, and guitarist Mike Campbell became the finest accompanist to the simplicity and ingenuity of Petty’s songwriting method as could possibly be offered. Understanding musical compatibility was a primary instinct for Petty. He famously said, “No one cares how you make it…does it sound good?” I use that one all the time for everything.
In 1985 Petty created, in my estimation, his masterpiece; Southern Accents, a penetratingly honest, excruciatingly tempestuous and exceedingly funny look at his childhood, his roots, his oeuvre and his place in the world. Many will point to his breakthrough 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, produced by the guy who claims to have invented music, Jimmy Iovine. And while it is chock full of hits (my senior year of High School was plagued by “Refugee”) and a fantastic record, it is only a prelude. Others will cite the 1981follow-up, Hard Promises, an album so perfectly constructed it seems silly (“Insider” is the height of understated fierceness; a rarely lauded element in rock and roll). I saw Petty for the first time during this tour and he and the band were sublime and the songs, again, were stunning, but it still sounds as if it is leading somewhere. Still others will bring up his monster solo effort, Full Moon Fever from 1989, wherein he reinvented the idea of the aging rock star and made it super cool to edge into middle age and not simply choose between Neil Young’s burning out or fading away (almost every time I’m privy to an electric guitar my hands I cannot help but move in the direction of the opening riff to “Runnin’ Down a Dream”). But that never happens without Southern Accents.
If I do nothing else with this tribute to the beloved Tom Petty I hope to get everyone to listen to the eerie pulse of that album’s opening song, “Rebels” just once, as it brings you deeper into Petty’s psyche, something he rarely did with such fervor. It ended up making him crazy and pushed the limits of his band, but it accomplished something none of his other albums did; it defined him. When I first heard it the day it arrived in the record store where I worked I could not stop listening to it. It helps to unfold this airtight narrative of a man in search of the search. It was as if the magician was letting you peak into how that rabbit got in the hat. For just a second, but then turn away because here comes “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, which may be my favorite non-Prince / non-R.E.M. / non-U2 song of the decade. This needs its own celebratory piece that I am not about to dive into here.
But I digress from my letting you know why Tom Petty was so queerly beloved.
The main thing may be that Petty was a big enough, rebellious enough, cool enough rock star not to fall into any of its clichés. He did not have a rock star wife. He did not make a rock star spectacle of himself. He did not flaunt it or piss on it or sell it to the highest bidder. The most decadent thing he may have done was punch a wall and shatter all the bones in his chording hand during the making of the aforementioned Southern Accents. Doctors said he was through playing guitar. He wasn’t. Pretty cool. He also took on record companies who wanted to out-price his competitors when the Heartbreakers were the hottest commodity in the biz and won. Very cool. And one time he put a lyric about rolling a joint in a single (“You Don’t Know How It Feels”), which MTV and the radio garbled to save us from ourselves. Super cool. Even when someone did something otherworldly around him, like the oft-viewed video of Prince going off on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, there’s Tom just grooving along and singing the song as if he just rolled out of bed to lean into the microphone. Damn cool.
Really, I think, that is what made Tom Petty so endearing. He eased into it and never took it for granted, like how we all want to approach something we love, that we find we’re good at and are glad we can do, because it simply makes life worth living. It is what we would do if we could do it, which Tom Petty always seemed to be saying to me in song. And because he was such a seminal songwriter it is what he leaves behind; a legacy of fine, pure, relatable music that he shared. And if you’re into it, cool, otherwise, you know…have a nice day.
© James Campion 10.06.2017
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, "Midnight For Cinderella" and “Y”. and his new book, “Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon”.
And coming in June, 2018; “Accidently Like a Martyr, The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon”
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