“Some days are diamonds
Some days are rocks” – Tom Petty, ‘Walls’.
October 2 was wretched. I awoke to the horrific news of the shootings in Las Vegas and by the time the sun went down, we’d lost the icon of enduring rock’n’roll – Tom Petty. An act of expansive evil followed by the end of a life that brought joy to millions.
It’s an odd thing, the grief we feel for artists, for heroes we never knew, never met. I never even got to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in concert. Yet the rush of sadness, shock, tears and sudden absence cuts as deep as for a real friend. Of course, this is really an artificial line to draw. How many friends or loved ones do we have who have been with us for as many intimate moments as Tom Petty?
Blasting ‘Even The Losers Get Lucky Sometimes’ after a teenage first kiss, psyching yourself up for a life changing act of rebellion with ‘Won’t Back Down’, a tipsy wedding dance and singalong to ‘Free Fallin’, celebrating triumphs with your best friends to a shambolic singalong of ‘Handle with Care’, drinking away the sorrow of a lost friend with ‘Walls’. The irony is, if anyone wrote the perfect songs to listen to to cope with losing Tom Petty, it was Tom Petty.
Petty kept his own counsel, a far more private man than most rock stars. He never built his own personal mythology, outside of whatever mythology you might infer from his lyrics. I often suspect the girl in ‘Free Fallin’ is partly him – for all his rock’n’roll swagger, he was much more like the ‘good girl’ than the ‘bad boy’. And he did love Elvis.
When you know so little about an artist’s personal life, you might assume all his songs are about him – even ‘American Girl’. Actually, that one is about me. It’s also probably about him – the dirt poor Florida kid with an abusive dad who knew that the electrified dreams coming out of the radio could be his ticket to somewhere else, where there was a little more to life.
That somewhere else turned out to be Los Angeles, where he and his band Mudcrutch relocated after landing a record deal in the mid-70s. While the group soon faltered and disbanded, two of the members returned to Petty’s orbit almost immediately. Keyboardist Benmont Tench lucked into some free studio time, and took the opportunity to lay down some original songs with some Florida pals. A studio virgin as a vocalist, he invited Petty down to teach him mic technique. Knocked out by the chemistry and spirit in the room, Petty soon recruited the band to back him on his new solo record, and the Heartbreakers were born.
From their first self-titled record – featuring songs like ‘Breakdown’ and ‘American Girl’ – they were almost subversive in their straightforwardness. The Byrds and Dylan were obvious influences on Petty’s vocal and the guitar interplay, but overall it was like they had inhaled the history of American (and British) rock’n’roll and a good deal of country and R&B. They managed to produce a sound that resonated all around the world, but was the archetypal definition of American music. They were Southerners who didn’t make ‘Southern rock’, though Petty never tried to shake his accent. They matured and evolved, but no-one would be surprised that the men who made ‘Wildflowers’ had made ‘Damn the Torpedoes’. There is no ‘Their Satanic Majesty’s Request’ or ‘Self-Portrait’ in their catalogue. From 1975 on, they followed true north, and to quote Benmont, they ‘counted four and played loud’.
Petty stepped outside the band for a few records, he was never comfortable standing totally on his own. While Bruce Springsteen’s first step away from the E Street Band was his solo acoustic ‘Nebraska’ record, Petty’s first move outside his gang of Florida pals was to start a band with his heroes. The Traveling Wilburys united two and a bit generations of rock royalty, from Roy Orbison to Bob Dylan and George Harrison to Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. Petty happily slid back into his old Mudcrutch role of bassist on their first single ‘Handle With Care’.
His first “solo” album ‘Full Moon Fever’ still featured Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and was built in close collaboration with fellow Wilbury Jeff Lynne. When it came time to tour the album, there was no question that it would be back with the Heartbreakers again.
“Songwriting is work. It's hard work. Most people don't want to put that kind of work into it” – Tom Petty, to Paul Zollo.
If Petty had driven a different road out of Gainesville on his way to seek his musical dream, maybe he would’ve ended up in Nashville, falling in with the likes of Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell. The unvarnished, intimate directness of their best work has a lot in common with Petty’s.
Today, songwriters sit in publishing offices all over Music City, trying to write the next song that will capture a universal sentiment and nail it down with specific phrasing and unforgettable melody. I’d bet good money that most of them have, at one time or another, sat down and said something like “Let’s try and write our Won’t Back Down” – or ‘American Girl’, ‘Free Fallin’, ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’, ‘You Wreck Me’, etc. The list of Petty songs that could be templates for much of country music from the last 25 years is deep.
For his part, Petty himself saw a lot of modern country as “bad rock groups with a fiddle” (or so he told journalist Paul Zollo). His taste in country tilted to an earlier era, and one of the proudest moments of his career was when he and the Heartbreakers were invited to back up Johnny Cash on his 1996 album ‘Unchained’. Freed from any pressure to cut hit rock songs or live up to their own formidable catalogue, they were just basking in the glow of the Abe Lincoln of country, and played with a subtlety and sympathy that was the perfect vehicle for Cash’s scorched baritone. Cash tipped his hat to Petty on his next record, when he cut a version of ‘Won’t Back Down’ that equaled the original (Petty would probably say it surpassed it).
Within days of Petty’s passing, impromptu tribute shows sprang up in venues around America. Normally these events take weeks or months to put together, as bands and singers set about delving into a fallen artist’s catalogue and learning the songs. But try finding a band who formed after 1980 who haven’t been covering Tom Petty songs for most of their career. If you walked into any bar with a cover band and stood in the corner for an hour, you would hear at least one. In these fractured times, those songs are the one thing men and woman from all walks of like can agree on. Normally being an artist who everyone likes means you’re stuck in the middle of the road – for Petty, it just meant he was that damn good. His songs came straight from his heart, but left plenty of room in there for your own.
I recently watched a speech Petty gave earlier this year, accepting an honour from the MusiCares Foundation. He looked surprisingly frail, in a way I hadn’t perceived when watching video of him performing over the last few months, on what turned out to be his final tour. Holding a Rickenbacker guitar, standing front of that brilliant band, those immortal songs filled him with strength and vitality. You could so easily forget that the man wasn’t himself immortal. The songs Tom Petty wrote were sculpted from stone. They have already outlived him, but they will likely outlive us all. As long as there are guitars, bars, love and heartbreak in the world, we will always turn to the songs of Tom Petty, in a world made duller by the loss of the twinkle in his eye.
“And some things are over
Some things go on
And part of me you carry
Part of me is gone”
Even walls fall down.