The Wild One, Forever: In Appreciation of Tom Petty

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He went down swingin’. And that should be no surprise.

As reports trickled out on the afternoon of October 2, 2017 that Tom Petty wasn’t yet dead, but still on life support after going into cardiac arrest, fans were quick to quote one of his most famous and uplifting songs: “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.” The situation could not have been more fitting.

This was the musician who got himself into a lawsuit, declared bankruptcy, and jeopardized his entire career to gain control of his own music. Who filed his nails with a knife in a meeting with the record company bigwigs he was fighting in court. Who threatened to name an album Eight Ninety-Eight in protest of having it priced $9.98, one dollar more than the standard record at the time. It didn’t matter if Tom Petty didn’t have any brain activity; his heart was still beating, and fighting was in his blood.

Anyone who may have quoted another one of his famous refrains in reference to fearing the inevitable – the waiting is the hardest part – didn’t need to wait long for the news to be confirmed. Petty was officially pronounced dead at 8:40 PM PST on October 2, ending a spectacular 40-plus year run of music that we may never see the likes of again.

I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for the first time on June 21, 2006 in Mansfield, Massachusetts. They kicked off with the most perfect four-song punch anyone could have asked for: “Listen to Her Heart,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Free Fallin’,” the last of which I may or may not have teared up during. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” came soon thereafter. Stevie Nicks showed up for “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and “I Need to Know.” They closed out the main set with another insane four-song stretch: “Learning to Fly,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Refugee,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” For good measure, they gave us “You Wreck Me” and “American Girl” in the encore as well.

To this day, I can’t decide what’s more remarkable about this group of songs. Sometimes, I’m most impressed by the fact that they were all hits, in addition to the sheer number of them. Has there ever been a rock and roll artist with as many true hits as Tom Petty? He busted out 13 at that one show alone; 14 if you count “Handle With Care,” the Traveling Wilburys’ signature song – and 15 if you further count “Saving Grace,” the lead single from 2006’s Highway Companion that did gain some decent radio traction around that time. And that’s not including “Breakdown,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Even the Losers,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “The Waiting,” “You Got Lucky,” “Rebels,” “Jammin’ Me,” “Into the Great Wide Open,” or “Walls.”

I struggle to think of many, if any, rock artists who have written the same amount of commercially successful and culturally relevant songs. Hell, even the song he wrote for a contractually obligated Greatest Hits record (“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”) became an actual greatest hit. Other times, I’m most impressed by the fact that they weren’t just hits; they were truly fantastic songs. Whether or not any of them were written with the intention of being hit singles, the writing quality was never compromised.

That same, strong writing quality is equally present when you explore the deep cuts from the first half of his career, as well as the albums he made in the second half. The consistency is absolutely flooring. Damn The Torpedoes, his breakthrough record and signature release with the Heartbreakers, had four hit singles, but “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid),” a non-single, is every bit as good as all four hits. Hard Promises, the follow-up record, is just as good as its predecessor, thanks to the strength of songs like “Nightwatchman,” “Something Big,” and “Letting You Go.”

To anyone under the impression that he somehow tapered off in the last 20 years of his career, I implore you to go back and really listen to his post-Wildflowers records. Although a lot of songs on Echo are rife with darker subject matter, the frankness of songs like “Room at the Top” and the title track are striking, while “About To Give Out” and “Billy the Kid” are classic Petty rockers. The Last DJ may be the most under-appreciated record of all. A few songs up front are guilty of pushing the record’s concept while lacking his unique writing quality, but listen to “Dreamville,” “Like a Diamond,” and “Have Love Will Travel” and try to tell me they aren’t on par with his best work.

Furthermore, listen to “Lost Children” and “Can’t Stop The Sun” from that record, “First Flash Of Freedom” from Mojo, and “Shadow People” from Hypnotic Eye. You’ll hear the sound of a songwriter continuing to exercise the talents that made him famous whilst stretching the limits of his writing and showcasing his brilliant band even more.

Petty was rarely the type to tread musical water or rest on his laurels. He was on a constant mission to write the next best song, and didn’t stop when the radio stopped playing his new singles. It was their loss, because he kept succeeding.

Between 2008 and 2010, I listened to Tom Petty on a daily basis, and I have no hesitancy describing to anyone who will listen how my obsession with him changed the way I thought about and played music. In the hours following the initial announcement of his death/hospitalization, I received somewhere between 20 and 30 messages and phone calls from concerned friends. I joked that it was like I had lost a family member – but in reality, it didn’t feel like much of a joke. And I’m far from the only one who feels that way, as evidenced by the number of people that I also felt obligated to reach out to, and the instant outpouring of grief worldwide in reaction to the news.

It will be similarly tough when we lose Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, or Mick Jagger, but they all seem larger than life. Despite Tom Petty’s celebrity, his presence in the world was more like that of a cool uncle. He was someone we knew, even if we never actually met him. Part of this, no doubt, goes back to the number of hit songs he had, and how they became so deeply embedded in the American rock landscape. There is a such a strong familiarity with his music that it is universally associated with classic rock radio. Even those who have never become full fledged Petty fans would probably be hard pressed to remember a time when “Free Fallin’” and “American Girl” weren’t radio staples – let alone a time when they didn’t sing along to them at full volume.

For those of us who are more than casual fans, the personal connection was further harvested by his relatability. Bruce Springsteen, who is Petty’s most comparable contemporary, has carved out a career as a voice of the working class and the common people. Petty’s writing often touched upon the same themes and characters that Springsteen sung about, but with a more individualized and direct approach, giving his songs a more intimate feel.

The identifiable lines in both his hits (“God, it’s such a drag when you’re living in the past,” from “Even the Losers”) and album tracks (“Most things I worry about never happen anyway,” from “Crawling Back To You”) cut straight to the core. He’s singing right to you. He understands you. And even though he was a rock star, he was never quite iconicized in the same way Bruce Springsteen was, so he never felt too out of reach.

As a band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers represented what we strive for across so many aspects of our lives: consistency, dependability, and longevity. As a songwriter, no one has better spoke for and understood our emotions. You may be happy, content, frustrated, confused, or sad at any given moment; not only is there a Tom Petty song for that, but there is one to make you feel human. For this, his passing feels more personal than many other celebrities’. But in the spirit of all he’s left behind, I quote for everyone who mourns with me, “May my love travel with you everywhere. Yeah, may my love travel with you always.”

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Dylan Sevey

Dylan Sevey

Dylan Sevey lives in Nashville, where he plays drums full time with Ron Gallo (www.rongallomusic.com), writes songs, and continues his 10-year obsession with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Instagram and Twitter: @dylansevey; contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Dylan Sevey
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  • JC Mosquito

    The article focused on his songwriting rather than his celebrity and fame; I’d like to think he would have appreciated that. Good job.

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