Tom Petty: Our Companion Into the Great Wide Open

John J. Thompson

What a gut punch this is. Tom Petty is gone? One of the greatest songwriters in the history of rock and roll will never compose again? One of the most generous and magnanimous performers will never again take the stage? A week after the final show of his final tour, one of the best voices in rock and roll is silent, succumbing to cardiac arrest at the age of 66.

Petty had announced that he was done touring, but I fully expected a long and beautiful season of studio recordings, collaborations, experiments, and more. Ever since he and his band, the Heartbreakers, backed up Johnny Cash on his 1996 album Unchained, I have been looking forward to Petty’s long, soulful sunset. As with Cash, I have needed his songs more times than I can count. Simply put, this sucks.

Tom Petty, seemingly from his very early days, understood something important about the spiritual potential of rock music and the servant role of the musician. His second single, “American Girl,” set the tone. We were all that girl, wandering the world, looking for love. “God it’s so painful when something so close is still so far out of reach,” he sang, and we felt it. I was a little kid when that song, “Listen To Her Heart,” and “Here Comes My Girl” all came out. To me these songs were every bit as formative and foundational as anything by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Elvis. Probably more so. I came to appreciate those artists later. I got Petty right away.

I listened to his 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes on my friend Greg Kirkman’s record player shortly before my young life got turned upside down and inside out at the tender age of 10. That album enveloped me. In addition to “Refugee,” there was “Even The Losers” and “What Are You Doing In My Life?” Even as a kid I knew that “Don’t Do Me Like That” was about reaping what you sowed. Torpedoes has long served as a watermark for me; a near perfect rock record. And Tom and the band were just getting started.

Petty’s songs—even the acerbic and sarcastic ones—often offered encouragement and inspiration. He sneered humorously at the wolves at the door, while singing about a secret hatch in the roof through which we all might escape. He painted himself as one of us. He was right there with us, wondering about love and lies and the meaning of it all. He also understood the musical DNA of American music so thoroughly that he could match every song to its perfect melodic soul mate. Whether it be a boot-scootin’ rockabilly shuffle, a blues riff to wake the dead, or crystalline chord progressions that sent us all “Free Falling” into emotional exultation, his craftsmanship connected with millions in a deep, even spiritual way.

If “Christian music” could be half as electrifying as “Running Down A Dream” no one would ever have to apologize for the genre again.

Offering echoes of the gospel, he constantly assured us that things would get better, that some day we would be free, and—most importantly—that we were not alone. He stood up for us against the users and abusers and mocked the absurdity of the world we shared, even as he celebrated rare moments of transcendence. He punched out three-and-a-half minute sermons wrapped around primordial riffs and delivered with perfectly imperfect swagger. Songs like “The Waiting,” “Deliver Me,” “Learning To Fly,” and “Into The Great Wide Open” might not have been specifically Christian in nature, but the inspiration and hope they offered lifted my spirits over and over and over again. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” That’s Proverbs 13:12. Petty’s lyrics and melodies reverberated with both hope deferred and longing fulfilled. If “Christian music” could be half as electrifying as “Running Down A Dream” no one would ever have to apologize for the genre again.

Petty was an unabashed fan of rock and roll and an ardent student of its professors. He was like a super-cool big brother who let you listen to his records. He helped me hear The Byrds in a new way. He celebrated the authentic twang of American country. He underscored that it all came down to Dylan. He was less interested in innovating brand new forms than he was in perfecting the forms we already loved. He and his band knew how to dial in a ridiculous hook, tether it to an instantly memorable melody, and use it all to deliver a lyric so simple and so true that it was impossible not to sing along. When he and Jeff Lynne got to play with Dylan, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison as The Traveling Wilburys, you could hear the fandom in his voice and see it on his face. He was truly living the dream, but somehow still felt like one of us.

Petty also modeled and honored the power of a true band of brothers. The names Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Howie Epstein, Stan Lynch, Steve Ferrone, and Scott Thurston are less familiar than Petty’s, but the Heartbreakers were essential to Petty’s success. Though he also made several amazing solo albums, he was actually the front man of the archetypical American rock band. They set the bar impossibly high for the rest of us, but it sure has been fun swinging for those fences.

Even when his days at the top of the pop charts faded, Petty kept writing, recording, and releasing amazing new stuff. Have you heard Mojo, the album he recorded live in the studio with the Heartbreakers? Have you heard The Last DJ, which warned us all of the end of an era? Have you heard Echo, one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful reflections on love and loss ever cut to tape? Hypnotic Eye, from 2014, was reflective, transparent, and powerful. In 2015 he released his final single, aptly entitled “Somewhere Under Heaven.” It was actually an older, unreleased track bundled with other rarities and outtakes. Even Petty’s B-sides were better than most writers’ best work. It’s a simple song about finding peace and beauty in the midst of life’s storms.

Tom Petty, though far from perfect, was an inspiration. In fact, it was his imperfection that made him so powerful. Bob Dylan said that his good friend Tom was “full of the light.” So true. He served his audience well, lifting our spirits and giving us a reason to dance. He looked down the barrel of life, bared his buck teeth, and flashed that crazy smile. I’m so glad he ran down his dream, and helped inspire mine.

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure