Complex Simplicity: Reflections on Tom Petty

Tom Petty 77

by Mike Derrico

There is a lineage of a certain brand of American artists going straight back to Woody Guthrie that puts the human heart and the human voice before the human ability to sing or showcase your vocals as “talent.”   And for that reason, I say “voice” in the context of exercising the right to expression, and not the one many asshole music fans are going to judge you by.   Perhaps the most important of that lineage for obvious well-established reasons that I don’t need to go into, has been Bob Dylan.  He’s the one who gets the most “oh well I know he’s a good writer, but I can’t stand his voice and he can’t sing” comments.   But rather than make this about Dylan, let me make myself crystal clear that there are reasons why he and the Beatles were, are, and always will be the exceptions.  But Tom Petty in his own unique manner was also an exception in that he always seemed to be the one artist who Dylan haters liked.   On a universal note, for the broad spectrum of music fans over the past 40 years, he was often a bridge from the counterculture artists to the more modern ones of the 80s, 90s, and beyond.  He was loved by fans of hard rock, classic rock, easy listening, and even punk and metal, both of which usually have strict codes attached.  Serious music fans for whom music is everything enjoyed his songs, as did the casual listener.  The nasally voice and Dylan influence always persisted, yet there was something so undeniably catchy and infectious about his melodies, that most people were instantly hooked and couldn’t turn away.

Formed in Gainesville, Florida in 1976, Petty and his band the Heartbreakers was a staple sound to Baby Boom and Generation X rock radio, and his past and present longtime musical companions Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Scott Thurston, Steve Ferrone, Howie Epstein, and Stan Lynch were every bit as responsible for sharing in that exceptional sound.  Few bands did three-chord rock as tastefully elaborate as the Heartbreakers.    Aside from a great live performer and some brilliant albums, Petty was usually most effective as a singles artist.  A Tom Petty song when first heard, always sounded familiar.  On first listen, it would stick in your craw until you heard it the second time, even if it was a few days later.  By third listen, you knew it by heart.  As a songwriter and lyricist, he had that rare double connection to his talent that allowed him recognition, respect, and reverence from critics, peers, and most importantly, his own icons and influences.   And still, he had the natural instinct for a three and a half minute pop song that had “hit” written all over it.  That said, it wasn’t just FM radio he was a staple to.  He utilized the medium of video very early, and did it much more effectively than any other rock artist of his generation, becoming a staple to MTV as well, during the music channel’s relevant years.

Petty’s long-held status as a respected elder statesmen in rock music happened gradually sometime during the mid to late 1980s while he was only in his mid 30s and some seven or eight years into his recording career.   Amidst the plastic musical abyss of what was the most superficial decade of the 20th Century, there was something very real and authentic about Tom Petty that Bob Dylan recognized enough to label him and the Heartbreakers as the “last great American band.”  There was enough for Dylan to take them on as his own backing band for a stadium tour around the world in 1987.  And there was enough for Petty’s own icons and influences to marvel at, as they all wanted to work with him in some capacity.  It also doesn’t go unnoticed that he was the only young artist in 1988 to be included in a band made up of 1950s and 60s legends called the Traveling Wilburys.  There were also very good reasons for that.   Even the British who were obsessed with American music and made up two fifths of the Wilburys knew that the American story as well as its myth was the backbone and lifeblood of their inspiration.  Tom Petty like so many of the best writers was steeped in Americana.   He knew, respected, and was influenced by that tradition of where real rock and roll came from, and not just the usual suspects like the great blues artists,  but the ones going back to that folk universe that people like Harry Smith would preserve.   The roots that more or less served as the road map to rock and roll.

Well for anyone still in doubt that the rock era as an historical period that encapsulated vision, relevance, and a common cause, ended long ago, take a look at Tom Petty’s songbook.  The absence of Tom Petty has been a symptom.  It’s been a while since he was on the charts, but he stuck around, scoring FM hits well into the mid-late 90s, even through the beginning of rock’s worst trends as they were about to gut the whole fucking thing into its inevitable decline.   Even then, he left marks on the radio and the public conscience much longer than his contemporaries did.   The casual listener (and there are far more of them than there are us snobs) may not know Dylan’s 1989 masterpiece “Man in the Long Black Coat,” but they certainly know Petty’s  “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” from the same year.   And it doesn’t devalue his music to say that his best songs were his hits.  “Hits” is usually a curse word for rock fans and thus often rejected in favor of the album cuts.  But again, the quality in the writing of those hits was undeniable to even the most elite of critics.  The immediacy and urgency of songs like “Breakdown” and “I Need to Know” has rarely been matched.  The unique angle on relationships in songs like “Refugee” and “You Got Lucky” has rarely been attempted.   So complex, yet so simple.  And that right there was the magic of Tom Petty’s work.   Many could do one, and many could do the other.  Few had that gift for sounding on the surface one-dimensional and straight forward, while actually being profoundly layered and multi-dimensional beneath the surface.  Well, for those still in doubt, you won’t be hearing new songs like that on the radio anymore, not that there’s been a single memorable rock song written by anybody in the past few decades.   And no, those songs of his weren’t on the messianic level of “Kashmir,” “A Day in the Life,” or “Like a Rolling Stone.”   They just had that ability to make you feel, move, sing, and recognize some part of yourself along with some sense of hope and possibility up ahead…which was the fundamental basic aim of a rock song to begin with, until it became the central informant for generations raised on promises…generations that couldn’t help thinking there was a little more to life somewhere else… and a whole lot more than I can say for rock today.

I’m reading the headlines today, and they’re telling me we’ve lost Tom Petty.  I had to post about it on our site late last night after hours of mixed up confusion.  But now it’s official.  And yet, I know we still have his art.  We have his words and music and irresistible melodies, and even the counter melodies that often crossed over and merged harmoniously with those irresistible melodies .  They’re in our heads right now.   Even as you read this, you know exactly what I’m talking about.   You can hear them too.  And so he’s still with us.

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