He was a friend of mine. That’s what it felt like to be a fan of Tom Petty during his lifetime.
A quick personal story…
June 18th, 1980, Damn the Torpedoes Tour. The Monday after the last day of my junior year of high school. We all went to see Tom and the Heartbreakers at Pine Knob, a ski resort outside of Detroit that doubles as an outdoor concert venue in the summer months. I don’t know how, but we managed to bring a keg along, planning to get there early, and stay late.
Installing ourselves on a close spot on the lawn, we are set up for a great time. Show starts with Here Comes My Girl, and we are over the moon from the first note. They put on a killer show, play two encores, and the house lights come up. We’re in no hurry to go home. When everyone’s gone, we move ourselves down to the front rows of the pavilion seating, sharing what’s left of our beer with anyone who’s got a cup, just watching the roadies pack up the stage.
After about an hour, Tom and Mike Campbell come out with acoustic guitars and play a set of Hank Williams and Carter Family tunes for whoever is left. Superlatives escape me, except to say that this man was in it for the music, and the connection with his fans, and that can’t be described with a more accurate term than friendship.
When his record company wanted to tack an extra dollar on to the list price of the follow up to Damn the Torpedoes, his breakthrough album, Tom Petty said no – he would not allow it. So the release of Hard Promises was delayed until he beat them back. When the promoters wanted to inflate ticket prices to his shows because they figured the market would bear the extra profits, Tom Petty said no. He was not going to betray the bond he had with the fans who supported him, and gave him his dream life of writing and playing music with his friends, for his friends.
When Sam Smith inadvertently mimicked the melody and chords to “I Won’t Back Down,” Tom didn’t bring him to court or demand money. He said “no hard feelings.” Thirty years after the band dissolved, after Tom Petty had attained every success afforded a rock artist, he decided to record two albums and tour America with his original band, Mudcrutch, so that his old friends could share some of the glory and some profits too.
We like to call them our heroes, these music giants we idolize, but Tom Petty was a hero in the true sense. He fought and won battles on behalf of his fans, his bandmates, the culture at large. He earned our admiration and our deep bond, and he will be dearly missed now that he is no longer with us to give us his songs, his truth, and his friendship.
Tom Petty came along in 1976, the perfect moment for a savior to show up. Just when rock was, as Lester Bangs put it in Almost Famous, “Over… just in time for the death rattle, the last gasp, the last grope,” after all of the great bands had peaked, after their solo careers had peaked too, here comes Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with their one-two punch singles “Breakdown” and “American Girl,” embodying hope, glory, pure energy, swagger, and everything essential about rock and roll, with none of the cynicism. And the sound of the band, the best rhythm section in rock, surrounding Petty’s sly yet punchy vocals, was the sound of pure rock deliverance. By the time they got to the Jimmy Iovine-produced Damn the Torpedoes album a couple years later, their sound and songwriting was at a peak not seen since rock’s glory days.
I was 14 years old when I caught the band playing “I Need to Know” live on The Midnight Special, and I was hooked for life.
That was almost four decades ago and I’m still a fan. Like most musicians writing their own songs, I’ve tried to figure out what makes the music I love so compelling to me. To quote Tom Petty himself, “Music is the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There’s not some trick involved in it. It’s pure and it’s real.”
The key to understanding the particular greatness of Tom Petty’s music, and how he goes about creating it may lie this lack of tricks; at any point, he is only going for what’s essential. There is no artifice, because the artist in him strips it away as the first step. And because of this there are many starting points for exploring his music. You can get in at the major ports – 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes with The Heartbreakers, or 1989’s solo album, Full Moon Fever, both genre-defining outings that went multi-platinum. Or you could also start with either of the first two albums, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or You’re Gonna Get It, both overflowing with energy and raw talent. Or you could start with Wildflowers, the solo double album produced by Rick Rubin that is somehow both pared-down and sprawling with ambition. Or you could put into the river at the seemingly anonymous She’s The One soundtrack album that retains the approach of Wildflowers, but with the best house band in rock, The Heartbreakers. You could even start with Hypnotic Eye, his last album, and go backwards. There are no bad ones.
For my money, there is no better songwriter I know of than Tom Petty. As a songwriter myself, and as someone who has marveled at the Petty songwriting gift with my fellow songwriters, let me say that what he does is not so much write a song as capture it.
He’s a writer who somehow embodies the Dylan thing, but without the intellectual baggage, the Neil Young thing, but keeps it entirely in the concrete world.
His songs are simple without being simpleminded, speaking of everyday miracles instead of lofty concepts, and the songs pack an emotional wallop and go deep. “Even the losers get lucky sometimes.” “Wherever you are tonight, I wish you the best of everything.” “Here comes my girl…”
His songs are so clever, without seeming clever. And no one knows how he did it. HE didn’t know how he did it.
No matter, because it’s all for our benefit, the fans, the connections he has made along the way. I write these words the day after Tom’s passing, in the wake of the sudden loss of one of my true heroes, a giant, and a friend. I miss him so much already.
David Tobocman is a songwriter based in Los Angeles