I rarely take celebrity deaths very hard and almost never personally. Tom Petty’s passing at the age of 66 is an exception to the rule. In part, because of the lengthy confusion as to whether he was alive or dead and, more obviously, because we’d made the difficult decision to put Oscar to sleep that morning. And because TP’s music has been a part of the fabric of my life for longer than I care to admit. Did I really say “fabric of my life?” Somebody call the cliché police.
The first time I heard Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was when American Girl came on my car radio. I was convinced it was a new Roger McGuinn song, which given my Byrds fixation is high praise indeed. It was a blast of fresh air in the disco era, especially since I was not much on punk rock either. It was something new and old wrapped together.
I avidly followed the twists and turns of TP’s recording career. Despite playing with the same musicians, each album sounded different from its predecessors. Petty’s knack for melody and deceptively complex lyrics kept his sound fresh over the years. I have most of his albums and there’s not a stinker in the bunch; even lesser Petty is better than the rest.
I also admired Petty’s willingness to stand up for himself and other musicians against the record labels. The people who ran the music industry were mostly a pack of thieves and TP refused to let them push him around or rip-off his fans. He lived the lyrics of I Won’t Back Down: “You can stand me up at the gates of hell but I won’t back down.”
As a band leader, TP brought out the best in the Heartbreakers. They went from being a band who played their songs note-for-note from the records to skilled improvisers. It helps when you work with the likes of Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench for 40 years.
Condolences to all the Heartbreakers and the Petty family. TP was a grandfather, y’all. Put that in your hookah and smoke it. Then don’t come around here no more…
The terrible coincidence of Tom Petty and Oscar dying on the same day is something for me to hold on to:
We could all do worse than that. Not bad company for a big-eyed cat from New Orleans.
After seeing TP and the Heartbreakers last April, I burned a CD of my favorites. It’s structured like a short live set. Here’s The Portable Tom Petty as a YouTubular playlist:
Album Cover Art Wednesday will return next week.