People loved Tom Petty, and so did I.
It was easy to overlook Petty, as I have, because he claimed no tribe in our pop culture, except maybe that of a stubborn champion of loud, ringing guitars in the late era that has seen hip hop and electronic music supplant rock and roll as the lingua franca. Petty embodied the “rockist” posture — originated as a term of derision but adopted as a badge of honor by some.
As recently as last week, I deliberately snubbed Tom Petty in my assessment of ’80s music because he didn’t fit into my paradigm of the mainstream vs. the underground. He was never larger than life like Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Prince or Michael Jackson, but he also didn’t belong in the punk scene even though his early career ran parallel to it. In truth, Petty’s musical sensibility was more a continuation of the 1960s folk-rock of Buffalo Springfield. What made those first early records in the late 1970s so irresistible was the combination of Petty channeling the Byrds and his band the Heartbreakers channeling the Rolling Stones.
And while I never really embraced Petty, he will not be denied. His music is forever woven into the fabric of our culture. I doubt if he cared that he never received the adulation that Bruce did; he doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who wanted to be anyone’s hero.
In the Venn diagram of music that both my wife and I like and can play on musical instruments — me on guitar and she on bass — “I Won’t Back Down” became a staple of our repertoire. With simple chords and catchy melodies, his songs were delivered in a raspy voice that anyone could pull off. His music belonged to all of us and none of us at the same time. I do like Full Moon Fever, the 1989 album that finally shoved Petty into the mainstream, with “I Won’t Back Down” and the laconic yet frenzied “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”
But the stuff I love goes back a couple clicks. “Jammin’ Me,” the lead track from 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) that Petty co-wrote with Bob Dylan, is a jaded cartoon-esque protest song for the Reagan era: “Take back Pasadena/ Take back El Salvador/ Take back that country club/ They’re trying to build outside my door.”
Maybe the reason I never thought Tom Petty was that cool is because my grandparents introduced me to his music. They were looking for a Grateful Dead cassette in their local record store in Gainesville, Fla. to give me for Christmas of 1985. The clerk told them that regrettably he didn’t have anything by the Dead in stock, but I would probably enjoy this album Southern Accents by a local guy named Tom Petty. I rediscovered that cassette in an old shoebox two decades later and wore it out. I can’t really groove to the “lost cause” grievance of “Rebels” with its romanticized narrator born “down in Dixie… with one foot in the grave and one foot on the pedal,” although I do like the trumpet solo. It’s the programmed drum sample opening “Don’t Come Around Here No More” that smuggles in a surprise pleasure. That tatter of ’80s flotsam is all of a piece somehow with the exuberant soul of “Make It Better (Forget About Me).” But there may be no more plaintive a rock-and-roll lament than “Dogs on the Run.” At first tentative and then gathering strength, Petty’s weary vocals carry a regret of the damage we’ve done to each other and determination to keep going that makes me want to weep: “Well we come with what was on our backs/ Yeah, when the leaves had died and all turned black/ Back when the wind was cold and blew them ’round/ When we laid our blankets on the ground/ Yeah and I woke up feelin’ hungry….”
Tom Petty may be gone, but this music won’t let us go.