On Monday afternoon, I came across a Facebook post from a friend in deep and understandable distress concerning not only the horrible shooting deaths of nearly 60 people Sunday night in Las Vegas but the divide in our country that remains a backdrop of such tragedy. The posting came with a simple plea: “Please, someone, give me some good news.”
No sooner than I finished reading that than three successive emails arrived, all concerning Tom Petty. Found unconscious at his home. Not breathing. No brain activity. His death, at age 66, was confirmed Tuesday morning.
We won’t try to equate the passing of an American rock ’n’ roll colossus with what happened in Las Vegas. This isn’t a contest. It’s just a sad footnote to an indescribably sad day.
The most immediate reaction to Petty’s death is simply shock. He had completed what was widely regarded as his final major tour as recently as last week (a trek that took him to Cincinnati’s US Bank Arena in June). You simply don’t expect an artist with such seeming invincibility to simply exit so suddenly. But when do such departures ever really announce themselves?
The overriding sense of loss, though, is that Petty was part of a small circle of American rock stylists whose music came of age in the 1970s by embracing essentials — a sense of rock ’n’ roll vitality that largely sidestepped trends, a songwriting ability that embodied an everyman stance without unduly flaunting it, and, let’s face it, enough of a celebrity profile to win him the kind of commercial appeal to fortify an enduring audience. It’s a short list. Bruce Springsteen is on it. Bob Seger, despite a career that began to catch fire in the late ’60s, is on it. The company thins out pretty quickly after that.
Petty came to us at the unlikeliest of times. A Floridian who made his fortune after moving to Southern California, he released three initial albums with his band the Heartbreakers band — “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” (1976), “You’re Gonna Get It” (1978) and the breakthrough “Damn the Torpedoes” (1979) — at a time when rock and pop were split between mainstream disco and upstart punk. Petty avoided the extremes of both by embracing a meat-and-potatoes rock that sounded more heartland than West Coast in terms of inspiration. The backbone of his enduring catalog — “American Girl,” “Listen to Her Heart,” “Refugee” and others — is from those first three albums.
Petty also accomplished something few artists outside of Springsteen and Seger could. He rode new waves of popularity in ensuing decades.
“Full Moon Fever” — technically a solo album, but with a Jeff Lynne-produced sound largely in league with the Heartbreakers’ music — yielded the defiant hit “I Won’t Back Down” as the 1980s closed to become as popular as anything Petty cut during the preceding decade. Then, in 1994, came “Wildflowers,” another record with another famed producer (Rick Rubin) that stripped away the Lynne-enhanced pop-veneer for some of Petty’s most elemental and endearing songs.
There weren’t many hits after that, but there didn’t need to be. Petty never made a bad album. Even his last two Heartbreakers works, “Mojo” (2010) and “Hypnotic Eye” (2014) possessed great songs even if their more relaxed feel provided Petty an elder status that he largely shrugged off in performance. But those records are great listens and offer proof of Petty’s ability to age with grace and vigor.
I saw him perform probably a half-dozen times, none of them recently. Nothing compared to my first Petty show, however: a February 1983 outing at Louisville Gardens with Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack playing together as an opening act, all for $10.
Petty’s hit at the time was the synth-heavy “You Got Lucky.” But it was another then-new tune that defined the evening: a stubbornly assertive and anthemic non-hit called “A One Story Town.” The reason was simple. It embraced fully the band that pervaded every corner of Petty’s music, right down to his singing: The Byrds.
Just thinking of that song puts a smile my face. Then again, that’s what great rock ’n’ roll does: it makes your spirits soar, even at the saddest of times.
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com