October 2, 2017
By Brian Bentley
Nobody said getting old would be fun, but the death of Tom Petty from a heart attack at 66, just makes our collective aging process seem lonelier and more desperate. (At press time, he had been taken off life support but was technically still alive)
Tom Petty was a selfless artist who continually stood up to record companies at his own expense. He was generous and supportive of countless other musicians, and maybe harnessed the best rock band for pure chops, ever. Ask Bob Dylan who handpicked The Heartbreakers to replace The Band on several worldwide tours.
Hailing from Gainesville, Florida, Tom Petty moved to L.A. in 1975 with his band, Mudcrutch, and was signed to Shelter Records. A year later, he released the single “American Girl,” and from that point forward, his career never looked back. Over the next 42 years, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were an encyclopedia of rock and roll. Being from the South, they easily mixed Southern Rock with Cali studio finesse (Skynyrd meets The Byrds).
They also married sixties Garage Rock, like The Standells, with Americana folk and country. Tom Petty was Neil Young without all the personal drama. His style forged Del Shannon guitar licks with British Invasion R&B. The Heartbreakers’ cover of The Animals, “Don’t Bring Me Down,” was fierce and unrelenting, soulful and defiant. In some ways, you could compare Petty to Paul Shaffer’s house band on David Letterman. Not only could The Heartbreakers master any rock and roll style, they were frequently better at it than the originals.
Tom Petty was a music historian and facilitator. In Jimmy Carter-type fashion, he managed to corral the egos of Bob Dylan and George Harrison and form the supergroup Traveling Wilburys, which also gave us an 11th hour taste of the brilliance of Roy Orbison, weeks before Orbison passed. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers toured with Bob Dylan in the 80’s, which was a treat, not only for fans, but for Bob, who was awed by their cooperative, laid-back musical taste and once declared Mike Campbell, “the greatest guitarist I ever worked with.” (Hopefully Robbie Robertson wasn’t listening).
If rock and roll is not truly dead, as Gene Simmons recently said, most of its original practitioners are. Some deaths are expected (like Weiland and Lemmy), others, such as Chris Cornell and Tom Petty, hit us out of left field, like a flat tire on your way out of town for a long vacation. Rock, like other obsolete forms of art, must be cherished, preserved and handed down to generations unlucky enough to have missed it. To rail against its loss by blaming the disappearance on American mall-kids who took up rap instead, may have some validity, but it serves no purpose. One of the first Twitter responders to offer sympathy to Petty’s family was Chuck D.
Tom Petty once said, “Fuck politics, Rock and Roll is about heart.” Petty always had plenty of it until his own gave out on him. Life is short my friends. Celebrate every moment of it and never lose the feeling of liberation that the music gave you the first time you heard it. I have included a link here to some of the best Petty interviews that capture the brilliance, bluntness and balls that made him our national rock n’ roll curator and keeper of the flame.
5 best interview moments of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers