Remembering Tom Petty
So many great songs. And so much integrity. He will be missed.
ATF, as in Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Apparently they added explosives when I wasn’t looking. What I was doing Monday night was sipping a glass of wine as I cursed guns and tobacco. Firearms, the American scourge that won’t quit, just blew up in our faces in a horrifying rerun of the same old news: A madmen with a gun ended the lives of 59 people in Las Vegas and the count continues to rise with an unbelievable total of over 500 injured. The nation grieves and braces itself for the next seemingly inevitable one.
Tobacco is the culprit in the second sad story of the day, one that caught us reeling in shock from the first. Tom Petty, a lifelong smoker, is gone. The victim of a massive heart attack, he was taken off life support and reported dead by CBS before it actually happened. A clumsy exit for a graceful man on a thoroughly wretched day. Tom Petty was in a special category. A couple comments I read were from people who made an interesting point: They had never met anyone who didn’t like his music. His was one of those extraordinary talents whose work appeals on a visceral level, sounding ordinary at first before it reveals itself to be much more than that. He was sneaky and imaginative, always paying tribute to the masters while staying himself. He proudly wore an honest and pugnacious love of rock and roll on his sleeve.
Amidst the swirling rumors of his passing on Facebook, someone posted the question, “What are your three favorite Tom Petty songs?” With a catalog of great hits and album cuts that extend back 40 years and with so few slip ups, there are too many to answer that question. His output may rival that of The Beatles for quality, though he was around much longer.
So I can’t pick one song to talk about here; drop the needle anywhere on a Tom Petty record and you’ll strike gold. He was the master of the hooky chorus, keeping the words and the chords interesting without being gratuitously complex. On display through his whole career was a gleeful sense of just where the naughtiness teetered into nastiness — but he always managed to stay on the more affable side of that line. The band he kept together throughout his career, The Heartbreakers, was as tight as any on the planet. When one of Milwaukee’s finest, Howie Epstein, replaced the original bass player, they became even more of hometown favorite. Sadly, Epstein was lost to his heroin addiction in 2003. It was habit Petty was caught up in for a few years, but he managed to beat the odds and emerge from rehab clean and sober. I wish he’d done the same with cigarettes.
Part of his secret was looking and sounding like nothing special when he was exactly the opposite — a singular talent who had the right, but would never dreamed of putting on airs. He lived in Hollywood most of his adult life, but never really embraced stardom. His southern roots remained strong, even when he expressed regret for using the Confederate Flag as a backdrop on his “Southern Accents” tour. He called it a stupid mistake and doubtlessly lost a lot of fans. Then there was his perfectly droll voiceover as the character Elroy “Lucky” Kleinschmidt on “King Of The Hill.” Lucky was a scam artist and Hank Hill’s son-in-law by way of a shotgun marriage. Petty had this guy down, maybe because who he could envision who he would have become if he had stuck around Gainesville.
Petty’s integrity really showed in his dealings with labels. Staring down MCA when they wanted to sell his record for one dollar more, he also wouldn’t allow his songs to be used in ads. I’d guess there were millions to be made had he said yes. Granted, it’s a stand only the most successful artists can afford to take, but I’m glad I’ve never heard his songs in Chevy ads. He was hard on the business people, but he was a gentleman in court when other artists borrowed a little too much from him. He didn’t demonize Sam Smith though his song “Stay With Me” borrowed from “I Won’t Back Down,” perhaps because Petty sensed it was an honest, unconscious crib. No biggie.
His work will last because everything in it is necessary. There were no insecure attempts to be of the moment, and that keeps the songs timeless. He didn’t court music critics, though they loved him — there was nothing grandiose in his music, but there was a lot of muscle and grit. Yet he never broke a sweat as he delivered song after perfect song and show after perfect show. It’s cooler to look like you’re not trying — but much harder to do.
Somewhere out there in the Great Wide Open his songs are reverberating — Tom Petty’s probably got a Tele or a Rick, but he’s not strumming some silly harp, you can be sure of that.