Perhaps the first great rule of figuring out who is an iconic rock singer is: you must be able to do a silly impression of them. Tom Petty shines through on this rule. You can definitely do a silly impression of him that many people will recognize, especially if they’ve grown fond of a few of his big hits.
But Tom Petty, who died of cardiac arrest at age 66, was of course more than someone fun to imitate. Whether you’ve been with the Heartbreakers since Damn The Torpedoes or even before, whether you know who’s Mudcrutch (his first and, when reassembled, nearly last band), Tom could tell you “You Don’t Know How It Feels...to Be Me..” But rock’s look-a-like answer to Marvel Comics Group editor/writer Roy Thomas provided me music for many fast rides down the road, in times when that was my favorite part of being alive. “Running Down A Dream” always connected with my nervous system in a strong way; that may be my favorite Tom Petty song. WE’ve learned to play several of them. In fact, he was the last artist I tried to find covers from before I laser-focused on recording Integr8d Soul this summer. His biography, Petty, is the very best book of its sort I think I ever read. That’s also the last book I completed reading. It took basically two days. I love creating songs, and this book has more of the essence I wish to reflect in work like Creating Marvels : I’m intrigued by what put the ‘there’ there. Tom went to the well for songs longer than I’ve been alive. He brought back a number that are practically some part of every American experience. He seemed to show a good sense of humor about that innovation that came along to change it all, the music video. You still really need one, today! I’ll always remember him first as the Mad Hatter, from what is rightly pointed out by my friend Crystal as one hella scary-ass children’s story, Alice In Wonderland. Stacy Edge gave us a lyric referencing it that became our chorus to a song she titled first as the poem, “Halb.” Nothing quite says lost like Alice. But Tom said so many things in songs. You get a real part of his life. Early on, you get his desire to craft a hit song with his Heartbreakers. Even the records I’ve never heard had fascinating descriptions. Did you know he turned down what was soon turned into “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley? Mike Campbell, guitarist, initiated the creation of that one.
I thought I’d need his biography to write a eulogy. But he spoke for me when he released “I Won’t Back Down.” You know he recorded that in Mike Campbell’s garage, with ELO’s Jeff Lynne producing? Same record with “Free Falling,” “Running Down A Dream,” even “Yer So Bad.” That friendship began thanks to mutual friend George Harrison. A Beatle! You get adopted by a Beatle and you are some big time talent. Ask Elton John! No, don’t ask him if he’s big time talent, it’s a figure of speech.
My friend at Krafthaus wondered aloud, he knew not quite why, he thought of Tom Petty as “a successful fan.”
I can tell you the LP Wildflowers was mine, on CD, in that window in my life when music had made its strongest surge yet in showing me how important it was to me. So while my life otherwise went nowhere but long drives and struggles to find a way out of the grind and make a living, “You Don’t Know How It Feels” was blasting on the car radio; “It’s Good To Be King” was playing to the window in my bedroom, the window where I’d watch the street and just listen to songs. “Honeybee” and “Cabin Down Below” were fun- I hadn’t really mastered much on guitar yet, but those kinds of old rock rhythms, electrified, kept a part of me ready to rock forever onwards. I had plenty of songs I liked but, as I grew writing songs, didn’t love, but Tom Petty’s always welcome in my passive public consumption of song. “Learning to Fly” also got a great song out of David Grohl, too, but the second famous song by that title I ever knew, with its Traveling Wilburies feel, that slide guitar and down hominess, is one of the simplest Tom hits and one of the most rewarding. But I think “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” cut just for the Greatest Hits, might be the most universally loved one of the the 90s.
He had a hell of a time with that drummer, Stanley, but what a talented guy Stan is, a good writer and suitable foil on drums, however much Daniel Lanois just thought he was noise. I think I’m getting my producer right. This is just a blog, dammit, the producer of Damn The Torpedoes and two other albums- a collaborator who brought in Steve Nicks, who wanted to be a Heartbreaker even while Fleetwood Mac was selling huge-he’s the headphones magnate. Benmont Tench was the first Heartbreaker I knew by name, because what a weird fucking name, and that’s coming from Cecil Lue Disharu. But he and Mike were constants in the Heartbreakers, with deft touches whose simplicity belies their raw talent. I still can’t get over Stevie Nicks wanting to be a Heartbreaker- she got in through Tom’s wife at the time and stayed around a lot for over a decade.
But through it all, attempting to be a family man, married, occasionally for unhappy, guarded reasons, and a man who bottomed out harder than anyone knew following his greatest run of success, Tom Petty was a recognizable talent. He didn’t even start out as his first band’s singer. He and his Heartbreakers became, in 1986, the touring band for Bob Dylan, himself. Remember my initial point about funny impressions? It took a lot of pressure off everyone to just be inventive and work with Dylan on stage.
I forget who it was that walked into the study during a Christmas party around 1986, guess it was, to find George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne first discussing what would become the Traveling Wilburies. Now I realize how close Tom and Bob Dylan had just been working, and the book went on at length describing the years of correspondence and friendship Petty shared with the late George Harrison. Wouldn’t you love to hold one of those letters for just a minute? I wouldn’t even try to read them all if I could, but just appreciate how cool it is to find out someone who changed music forever for you was basically a cool guy, funny, smart, sincere. When is the last time you reached out to someone with something you wrote down, to keep it on a shared piece of paper? I think it would be novel to some people, nowadays. Tom’s life among the musicians- like his brief secret weapon, party man Dave – Stewart, isn’t it?- of the Eurythmics- tells you the real story of how this music was made.
I can’t decide whose collaboration story I really enjoy the most, but hearing how Lynne recorded those tracks of Full Moon Fever- the LP that hooked my sis and I big time- might’ve seemed the most relevant to me as I recorded, this summer. Isn’t it wild they brought Roy Orbison back into a studio for that one last amazing record, real hits? One more time, that voice on the radio. I used to cover “Little Runaway”: turns out Petty produced a comeback record for that singer, Del Shannon!
I’m out of date past The Last DJ, but I can tell you the book describes Tom’s effort to reunite Mudcrutch as a moment as satisfying as having the Heartbreakers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. He’s a band guy, in an era some no longer see as a band era.
Ah, but lest I forget, no longer is he in present tense. He’s past tents- he’s living in bungalows, now! Now, there’s a full moon, beautiful, right on the doorsteps of his passing. Tom played cowboys, had a crazy dad, a long-suffering mom, two pretty great daughters, and a stepson and a second marriage that I heard blew up. IF they didn’t work things out, that is just too bad, as they had twenty years of much happiness, but I am not in the thick of Petty gossip nor even online much at present.
I love the story of the first tour, piling five or six of them together in a van the old fashioned way, and the odyssey of bands for which they opened, reminding me what a treat awaits me when I finally get way into Cheap Trick! Tom had true cool. I’d say he wasn’t so much an all-around singer as the voice of what he had to say. I should do so well! He had a spirit that seems like it’d bring you a few words of wisdom. He had an amazing time overall. He brought happiness into millions of lives, and is not done! We’ll be listening for some time. It will really be the change of an epoch when I am not hearing Tom’s songs in random public places. He worked with Rick Rubin, the last producer to Johnny Cash. I hadn’t even worried for ol’ Tom, just didn’t seem like he’d be going anywhere soon.
I still have songs galore left from him to enjoy, but when music could really mean something to my life, he and his buddies were teaching me American music. And as the Violent Femmes sang, “I like American Music. You like American Music.”
He devoted his life to making good songs, then taking them out to whomever would listen. He threw one really great Super Bowl halftime- what a fine nod to how much his songs were loved. If I seemed a bit flip in eulogizing him, please take it today in the Heartbreakers’ own style. Stevie Nicks and the rest of you, there’s millions of people who’ve sang with the Heartbreakers, danced or played air guitar or drums. So don’t just be heart broken, be a Heartbreaker.
The worst part of dying just might be those you leave crying. Time passes, molasses, sweet and slow, spread on biscuits of homemade dough. One year they threaten to arrest your fans, another greet you with parades of bands. So count on yourself when you’ve been counted out- no doubt you’ll learn to count on your doubt. Let the fun live on though the man is gone.
He will be there wherever there’s someone “running down a dream, that never would come to me/ working on a mystery, going wherever it leads...” He’s been free falling and leaving this world, for a little while.