Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform at the Xcel Energy Center in June 2017. (Nate Ryan/MPR)
“For all his present eminence,” I wrote in a review of Tom Petty’s last Minnesota concert, “Petty still comes off as the kid who’s cool because he takes himself seriously, but not too seriously. That’s the image that appears on the cover of Damn the Torpedoes and other early albums: the lanky, sun-kissed Florida boy who’s running down a dream. Four decades later, he’s lived his dream, but he keeps running on.”
It was my first time seeing Tom Petty, and I had no inkling that it would be my last. Petty seemed truly ageless, an exuberant presence onstage and in popular culture. He was a singer-songwriter like no other — one whose work had real bite, but also glowed with an warm and engaging spirit. He found many millions of welcomes, and never seemed to outstay them. His songs and albums galloped to thrilling climaxes, and then politely saw themselves out.
He was a rocker, one of the last who played that role without a hint of irony or calculation. Among the generation of guitar heroes to emerge in the 1970s, Petty and Bruce Springsteen were at the twin poles of a cohort of true believers — the Boss representing for the north and Petty coming from the south. What made Petty’s music so intoxicating was its merging of a bluesy bayou crunch with the folk-rock chime of bands including, most obviously, the Byrds. Roger McGuinn remembers that when he first heard Petty’s breakout single “American Girl,” McGuinn confusedly asked his manager, “When did I record that?”
Petty’s fans weren’t just among the masses — all the stars loved him, too. That includes his Traveling Wilburys bandmates Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne. Petty and Lynne were the fanboys of the group, but the supergroup was ultimately built on the foundation of that duo’s musical alchemy.
That partnership also underpinned the album that became Petty’s most popular and probably, in the final analysis, his best: Full Moon Fever, the nominally solo effort (there was always a Heartbreaker in there somewhere) that kicked off with the two songs that would become his signature anthems. There can’t be many songs released in the last 30 years that have inspired as many full-throated front-seat sing-alongs as “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin’.”
That latter song was the one Mary Lucia played on The Current when news of Petty’s heart attack broke, and it was the song many people must have also gone to in that moment. More than any other of Petty’s many beloved hits, “Free Fallin’” captures the blend of sunny good humor and wistful regret that he so exquisitely balanced in songs like “American Girl,” “The Waiting,” and “Wildflowers.” Even the ostensibly bleak “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” possibly the best song ever to be released as a bonus track on a greatest-hits compilation, traipses forward with an infectious dark humor.
Petty’s career-long leadership of the Heartbreakers was in keeping with his collaborative spirit, shimmering with a sound he wore like a well-worn pair of jeans. Though Petty was the undisputed leader of the group, there was a good reason he never really stuck with the “solo artist” schtick. He was like Springsteen in that regard: he built a band and rode their signature sound to the top, and by that point there was really no turning back. Ultimately, Petty’s sound was even more decisively shaped by his collaboration with his bandmates than Springsteen’s was by the E Street Band.
While Petty was sometimes outspoken on social issues, explicit commentary wasn’t his strong suit. (Anyone remember the “Peace in L.A.” cassingle?) You have to read between the lines of his lyrics to appreciate the complex emotions he felt about his southern heritage (1985’s Southern Accents is a classic, the rest of it sounding nothing like the sitar-driven hit single “Don’t Come Around Here No More”) and other subjects, including his two-decade marriage.
It’s remarkable how much darkness Petty worked in to a musical catalog that most listeners associate with almost unbridled joy. In fact, it’s precisely because Petty didn’t shirk from sadness that those major chords rang out with such conviction. He looked life full in the face, and met it with a knowing smile. Like the grin of the Cheshire Cat, it will linger on long after he’s gone.