Where does Tom Petty take his place in the pantheon of the great American rockers?
Near the very top.
The skinny, straw-haired Gainesville, Fla., songwriter, who died on Monday at the age of 66, was an enduring classic rocker with a knack for writing grabby, instantly memorable pop songs that stood the test of time.
The guitarist and drawling singer was a canny craftsman and formidable bandleader who rose to stardom with album rock radio cuts like “American Girl” and “Refugee” in the 1970s and remained a consistent chart-topper for decades, keeping the radio hits like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Free Fallin’” coming even as the MTV and grunge eras pushed his chronological contemporaries aside.
And Petty and his erstwhile and excellent band the Heartbreakers continued to draw multigenerational, surprisingly youthful audiences even as they celebrated 40 years together on the road, as they did this summer on a tour that played two sold-out dates at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philly.
Petty was not a pioneer or a stylistic trailblazer, and he’s not given to poetic profundities in his lyrics. You weren’t dazzled by his talent or theatrical flair like, say, David Bowie or Prince, two recent pop stars whose deaths inspired widespread and heartfelt mourning that reminded us of the ways music becomes the fabric of our lives.
Instead, he was a savvy student who got an early look at what fame looked like up close when he met Elvis Presley on the set of the movie Follow That Dream in Florida in 1961. Like seemingly every would-be rocker of his generation, his ambitions were ignited when he saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, and he would then go to school on other British Invasion acts, as well as Bob Dylan and, crucially in his case, The Byrds, whose 12-string Rickenbacker guitar jangle and country-rock leaning would make itself felt in Petty’s music in the coming decades.
In 1968, Petty dropped out of high school to pursue his own musical ambitions, playing bass in a band called Mudcrutch that also included two key lifelong collaborators in guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench. Both would become Heartbreakers when Petty formed that band after moving in the 1970s to Los Angeles, where they launched their career with a terrific self-titled debut album, which featured concert staples-to-be “Breakdown” and “American Girl” in 1976.
(Both Campbell and Tench also played with Mudcrutch when Petty reformed that jammy bar band, first in 2008 and again in 2016. The second time produced the underrated album 2 and included a tour in which Petty got to play smaller venues than he had in years, including a particularly memorable show at the Fillmore in Fishtown in June of last year.)
Petty was never a particularly dynamic performer. I might have missed one, but I believe I saw him on every tour dating back to Damn The Torpedoes — the record that broke him big on FM radio stations like Philadelphia’s WMMR-FM (93.3) in 1979.
Watching him on local stages from the Tower Theater to the Mann Center (where the Replacements opened up for him in 1989) to the Spectrum and the Camden shed that is now known as the BB&T Pavilion, he’s always moved around onstage like a matchstick man in skinny jeans and wanly led the crowd in overhead clap-alongs. This summer at the Wells Fargo Center, I couldn’t help but be amused at how uncomfortable he still seemed when addressing the crowd, even when expressing earnest thanks for their loyalty.
But who cared about any of that? What Petty always had was plenty of songs, and a great band to play them with. And an important part of what made Petty so enduring was his relationship with the Heartbreakers.
There’s never been any question that he’s the Heartbreakers’ leader. But more so than for instance, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, he’s also clearly a member of his own band, and he shifts back and forth between those two roles skillfully without letting his ego get in the way. His lack of need to be the center of attention also came in handy when he teamed with Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison in the remarkably easygoing supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, with whom he scored more even more hits with two self-titled albums in 1988 and 1990.
The relationship between Petty and the Heartbreakers is explored in depth in Warren Zanes’ top-notch 2016 Petty: The Biography, a book that the songwriter, with typical laid-back self-confidence, cooperated with fully while also giving the author his blessing to dig up whatever dirt he could find.
Petty’s seeming Southern California mellowness, which comes across charmingly in his authoritative and encyclopedic Sirius/XM satellite radio show Buried Treasure, however, has always masked a feistiness and a defiance that’s one of the keys to his greatness. With a leather jacket and an impudent sneer, he was marketed as and often mistaken for a new wave if not punk artist in the late ’70s.
Along with “Free Fallin’,” his easiest arena-sized sing-along to grasp and maybe his biggest crowd-pleaser is “I Won’t Back Down” from the most successful album of his career, the 1989 Jeff Lynne-produced Full Moon Fever.
Petty always makes clear the things he wants no part of, and it sometimes seems like his favorite word is “don’t,” as in “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and of course, “Don’t Do Me Like That.” And in one of his best, Byrdsy songs, Damn The Torpedoes’ “Here Comes My Girl,” he lets it be known that his favorite thing about having the love of his life by his side is “I can tell the whole wide world to shove it!”
That contemptuous attitude has served Petty well over the decades. In the all-time great American guy with a band, an electric guitar, and story to tell sweepstakes, though, he’s an underdog of sorts, without the verbal grace of Dylan or the existential profundity of Springsteen. In his favor though, he’s got one major asset: a seemingly endless supply of songs that, once you hear them, you can’t get out of your head.