Tom Petty was many things, but a man of mystery wasn't one of them.
Unlike many rock stars who came up in the 1970s, he didn't have an aura of debauchery and jet-set living about him. Enigmatic stories about practicing black magic, going on retreats with gurus, or flirting with extreme politics never followed him around. He was a cool guy, but not in a remote, untouchable way.
Petty would never be the sort of cool rock star Lou Reed was — the kind of guy who'd respond to an autograph request by biting your head off and stealing your girlfriend. Then again, it'd be hard to imagine Reed voicing a character on King of the Hill. Reed was never that kind of cool.
It's one of the bitterest ironies about Tom Petty's passing on Monday, October 2. For a man who always had been one of rock's most reliable and straightforward presences, the confusion and conflicting stories surrounding the 66-year-old's cardiac arrest turned the final chapter of his life into a question mark.
Found unconscious in his home on Sunday, initial reports said that he had arrived to the hospital with no brain activity and was soon taken off life support. Stories that announced his death were retracted and amended as family and the authorities seemed to question the news of his passing. It wasn't until late Monday night that Tony Dimitriades, manager of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, confirmed Petty's death on behalf of the singer's family.
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Petty was the rarest of archetypes in the music business: everybody's best friend. He made music that appealed to shit-kicking country boys and Beatles-loving Anglophiles, that could soundtrack a patriotic summer barbecue just as easily as it could score a druggy New Wave party. His music didn't sound like it was geared towards a “target audience” or subculture. It was music that sounded like it was made for everyone. His songs sound right at home on mixtapes and on constant rotation on classic radio rock; they seem to fill up any space you play them in.
A key to that accessibility was his openness. Onstage and off, Petty always seemed like a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of dude. It's perhaps one of the reasons why he was underrated for so long by the press. Aside from a brief stint doing heroin in the '90s and a freak house fire in the late '80s, Tom Petty's life doesn't hold the kind of “juicy” controversy that critics love to unpack. He was never one for myth-building. He's not a Bowie or Dylan type, hiding behind an artfully constructed, self-aware persona. He was just a man who wrote one indelible, gorgeous song after another.
Petty's longtime bandmate Mike Campbell once described Petty and The Heartbreakers' unofficial band slogan as being, “Don't bore us, get to the chorus!”
It's that dedication to getting right to the good stuff that makes Petty's songwriting great. Listen to any of Petty's classics and they all share a common trait: They never wear out their welcome. Songs like “Even The Losers,” “Learning to Fly,” “Refugee,” and “Crawling Back To You” don't have a second of dead air in them. The verses play out just long enough to paint a vivid picture before the chorus sweeps you off your feet.
For confirmation of Petty's songwriting bona fides, look no further than his membership in The Traveling Wilburys. The original “Monsters of Folk,” Petty played and wrote alongside titans Roy Orbison, Dylan, and George Harrison. On paper, it might seems like Petty and fellow Wilbury Jeff Lynne are hopelessly outmatched by such august company. But Petty's music was that good. His knack for earworms, mixed with his nasally, reassuring voice and ability to conjure up chiming guitar riffs on the fly, earned him a place at that table.
In some ways, the Gainesville, Florida, native's career was like a dispatch from an alternate dimension where Big Star made it big.
Both bands excelled at taking the best parts of '60s English pop and mixing it with American garage rock sounds and the classic gritty soul of Stax Records. And both groups were capable of creating music that sounds utterly timeless. Petty's “Here Comes My Girl,” like Big Star's “September Gurls,” is a song that'll make any generation swoon. But whatever imp of the perverse that compelled Big Star frontman Alex Chilton to self-destruct his career over and over again never possessed Petty. Aside from a few personnel changes in The Heartbreakers lineup over the years, the man was doggedly consistent, putting out one excellent record after another.
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It's easy to take that kind of excellence for granted.
Petty never had a Tin Machine or a Lulu in his discography. He doesn't have a “bad decade” for music fans to reassess and champion. Nor did he ever release a mega classic, a defining album in the vein of Pet Sounds or Nevermind – the kind of record that puts its stamp on an entire era. He wasn't a tormented super genius or a charming train-wreck. He was just a wry, gawky looking guy who put out solid albums like Wildflowers and Damn the Torpedoes.
Listening to Petty, one could imagine his music being turned into a Voight-Kampff test. In the movie Blade Runner, the authorities use that test to differentiate human beings from artificial replicants. A song like “Free Fallin'” would be the perfect test for determining someone's humanity. Anyone who can sit and listen to that song and not feel the urge to bellow “Cause I'm freeeeee / Free fallin'" when that sublime chorus hits has gotta be a soulless machine.
That's what Tom Petty did best. He wrote songs that could ignite a spark of life in anyone.