Tom Petty never enjoyed the sort of rhapsodic critical acclaim and promotional hype that Bruce Springsteen did. He was never considered a genius-level guitarist like Eric Clapton or a genius-level lyricist like Bob Dylan. And he never used his musical celebrity to become an international social and political activist like U2’s Bono.
All he did was write, record, and perform great songs—year after year, decade after decade—to the point where untold numbers of people, from multiple generations, consider Petty’s music the soundtrack of their life. As Chris Ingalls noted last week at PopMatters (in a column titled, appropriately enough, “The Soundtrack of our Lives”), “Tom Petty was a superstar, adored by millions, and was selling out arenas right until the very end. But I think people took him for granted.”
Petty’s longtime friend and keyboardist, Benmont Tench, made the same point in a 2010 documentary. “I’ve always felt like he’s just so incredibly underrated as a songwriter,” Tench said. “I’ve always felt like he’s taken for granted.”
One reason for that may be the perception that Petty’s songs are “simple.” If they seem that way, it’s often because the lyrics and melodies are so darn catchy. In truth, his music has a depth, elegance, and soulfulness that most artists could never dream of matching. That’s why Petty inspired such a diverse range of singers and guitarists, including everyone from Eddie Vedder (born in 1964) and Dave Grohl (1969) to Ryan Adams (1974) and Taylor Swift (1989).
In fact, Swift made one of the week’s most insightful observations about Petty’s success. “To me,” she told Rolling Stone, “Tom Petty represented a kind of songwriting I idolized: complex simplicity. It said so much in the lyrics, the concepts, the stories, the message, the nuances . . . but always brought you back to a hook that got stuck in everyone’s head. He motivated thousands of guitarists to learn to play just because they wanted to be able to play ‘Free Fallin’.’ Count me as one of them.”
Petty’s music spans not only different generations, but also different genres, containing elements of California rock, Southern rock, heartland rock, blues rock, folk rock, and—during the early days, at least—perhaps even a dash of punk rock. Indeed, back in 1977, a New York Times piece on Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, called them a “1970’s pop‐punk‐rock band with a strong feeling for the diverse sounds of the 60’s.”
His best songs include rugged anthems of defiance (“Refugee,” “I Won’t Back Down”), high-octane rockers (“Even the Losers,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “You Wreck Me”), spirited love songs (“Listen to Her Heart,” “Here Comes My Girl”), folksy acoustic songs (“Yer So Bad,” “Wildflowers”), infectiously groovy songs (“Breakdown,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels”), songs written for a movie soundtrack (“Walls,” “Angel Dream”), a deeply personal song about the American South (“Southern Accents”), and a handful of genuine pop masterpieces (“American Girl,” “The Waiting,” “Free Fallin’,” “Learning to Fly”).
Between 1988 and 1990, Petty wrote and recorded songs with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison, as part of a short-lived supergroup known as the Traveling Wilburys. Upon hearing the news of Petty’s death from cardiac arrest at age sixty-six on October 2nd, Dylan told Rolling Stone, “I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”
Dylan was a major influence on Petty, as were the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, and a host of 1950s-era rock pioneers, including Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers took these influences and synthesized them into a quintessentially American sound, one that features lots of Rickenbacker guitars, jangly melodies, and nasally but energetic vocals.
Following Petty’s death, Geoff Edgers of the Washington Post recalled an experience he had a few years ago while listening to a cover version of “American Girl” and watching the audience’s response. “Petty’s writing had delivered something you find in only a perfectly executed song,” Edgers realized. “It somehow felt as if it had been written for each one of us, a universal, emotional footprint that we all could share.”
That’s a brilliant way of describing Petty’s appeal. It helps us understand why his sudden, unexpected death has, in the words of Kansas City Star music critic Timothy Finn, “touched an inordinately widespread population of music fans, at least in my circle, including dozens of songwriters and musicians (some jazz musicians among them), all of whom have been touched by his songs and by the modest personae he projected for more than 40 years.”
Some critics would assert that, despite his many hit records, Petty does not belong in the top tier of rock songwriters with people like Bruce Springsteen. I disagree. Petty’s songs address timeless themes and convey profound ideas using bulletproof melodies and plain, straightforward language. As Ron Rosenbaum argued in a 2000 New York Observer essay, Petty’s lyrics “are, at their best, better than Bruce Springsteen’s: They don’t labor under the leaden weight of the Boss’ self-mythologizing portentousness.“
Moreover, Petty has demonstrated a consistency and longevity that is virtually unheard of in popular music. His first album with the Heartbreakers came out in 1976. From 1981 onward, he scored no fewer than 28 top-ten hits in the Billboard magazine Mainstream Rock Songs chart—the most in history. In 2014, Petty and the Heartbreakers released what turned out to be their final studio album, and it immediately zoomed all the way to the top of the Billboard 200 list, debuting at No. 1.
Throughout his career, Petty projected a humble, laid-back demeanor, even as he clashed with his record label, struggled with depression, and, in the 1990s, dealt with both a painful divorce and a heroin addiction. Unlike many of his rock-icon peers, he largely eschewed self-promotion. “I just don’t always speak unless I have something to say,” Petty told CBS in 2009. “I don’t court the limelight, really.”
In a way, his humility and lack of pretense may help explain why he has long been underrated and taken for granted. The same is probably true of Mike Campbell, Petty’s sublimely talented lead guitarist and frequent co-writer.
Yet if the past week is any indication, Petty will eventually be recognized as one of the greatest and most consequential singer-songwriters of his generation, and the Heartbreakers will be regarded as one of the finest supporting bands ever assembled.
Rest in peace, Tom.