Like so many moments cutting tracks in a studio, Tom Petty’s death began with a false-start.
TMZ reported that he’d been rushed to the hospital after suffering cardiac arrest. CBS jumped the gun and announced with a tweet that he’d passed away.
At this point the fate was an inevitability — as with all of us — but for the moment, it was premature. The rocker was indeed humous. So we mourned for a moment, tweeted our tributes, then turned back on CBS and asked what that blue Twitter checkmark really meant when they could mess up our grief so royally.
By the time overnight that he finally passed, it didn’t matter. From the period between the initial announcement and his actual death, anyone who’d ever heard a Tom Petty track was hearing it, and others, again.
Petty was as ubiquitous a rock-and-roll name as Springsteen, Berry, Dylan and Elvis. He was Midwestern laconic and New York cool. He was California chill and Nashville twangy. He recorded tracks for everyone, both to hear and to play. Barely a guitarist got through his first ten lessons without taking a stab at a Petty track. Mine was “Breakdown.”
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers were that band that was made for the radio. They are as FM as traffic and weather. If you grew up with parents who filled silence, they filled it with Petty tracks. The air is always ready for their music, especially hits with those hooky riffs and lead-ins that a good DJ can talk against, right into the verse.
Imagine “American Girl,” “The Waiting,” or “Don’t Do Me Like That” — Songs that were bright and jangley and connected immediately between the tune, the message, and the listener.
The biographical details of Petty are known and important; he’s a Gainesville, Florida, baby boomer. His father was abusive and never liked Petty’s musical yearnings. Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and countless other acts were the portrait of life outside Gainesville for Petty.
His upbringing mirrors that of millions of Americans kids who rejected their upbringings. Only a handful actually made good on the direction and Tom Petty was one of them.
We know and love Tom Petty; never enough is paid to the Heartbreakers, including Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair and Stan Lynch. They as a unit produced as much sound as any great Phil Spector production, were as nuanced as an orchestra and rocked as hard as Springsteen. They were perfectly situated in the middle of rock-and-roll, being aggressive, soft, loud, acoustic, electric, riffing, finger-picking, pounding, tapping, and sometimes all at once.
A musicologist could say what made the nuances of their sound so specific. As an admirer, I’m comfortable saying there was never a note too little or too far.
Listen to “Won’t Back Down,” one of his gems. Note how the instrumentation changes between the verse and chorus the first time. The sparseness of the proclamation, with synth, guitar, bass, drum all just staying as basic as possible.
A tiny flick of lead guitar to kick off the song. Then the burst of beautiful noise at the chorus ushered in by the thump-thump-thump-thump of the drums. It’s all rhythm and everything lies in wait until it strikes. It’s a perfect rock song. He recorded a hundred of them; tight little suites with no loose ends.
The final word on Petty is he wrote and recorded songs for the soundtrack of living life.
I was a freshman in college and all the sensory awareness, night after night, was the exact same. The smell was of beer in all it’s varied forms: freshly de-canned, unfinished, stale, week-old, spilled, returned. The taste was the same. The texture was of cheap fabric and paper towels to wipe up the perpetual mess.
The sight was the same group of guys and ladies in the same jackets, yelling and laughing and flexing and singing. The sound? The sound was Tom Petty. We had so little in common at first we had to air Petty to lay the formation.
It worked. It still works.
Matt Shirley is a producer at CGTN America. His analysis represents his views alone.