As much as I have idolized rock musicians over the years, dating back to when I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was 4, I can’t point to any I actually wanted to be. Indeed, there were plenty whom I would not have been for love or money — Bruce Springsteen, for example; my own father was bad enough.
But of all the musicians I have appreciated over the past 50+ years, the one who was most like me was Tom Petty.
We both were Southern and cognizant of it — and, therefore, carried with us the weight of what was good and what was bad about that, right down to our evolving views on the Confederate battle flag. We both appreciated the classics. We both struggled with difficult — and, in some ways, abusive — father figures. We both struck out professionally and personally in directions of which those father figures did not approve. And neither of us forgot where we came from or lost our appreciation for the classics in our fields, even as we forged new work for new audiences in those respective fields.
Obviously, we’re not completely alike; just for starters, although a more than competent journalist, I’ll never wind up in anybody’s Hall of Fame. But I did do some pioneering work in database journalism and social media. Tom Petty didn’t ever get that innovative. He didn’t have to. He just kept mining a rich vein of classic rock and found ways of making it relevant to multiple generations. He lived and created long enough to become one of those artists whom parents and children go to see together. I was fortunate enough to see Petty and the Heartbreakers on their “Damn the Torpedoes” tour with Tony, and it was one helluva show.
Petty’s songwriting alone would have gotten him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but it also is not coincidence that he spent most of his career with most of the same musicians with whom he first worked, years before he had a recording contract. The working relationship he developed with those musicians, primarily guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, anchored a 40-year career, and hit song after hit song resulted from Petty’s lyrics applied to a tune Campbell or Tench had given him.
Petty’s songwriting touch was so universal that parents and children alike could describe his work as “the soundtrack of my life.” You didn’t have to be female or from an anonymous Midwestern state to identify with the subject of “American Girl” — you only had to yearn for something you hadn’t yet gotten. “Learning to Fly” could apply to 22-year-olds on one level and the middle-aged on a wholly different one, but in exactly the same way. Indeed, you have to work hard to peruse Petty’s catalog for any dated references; about the closest I can get is from “Even the Losers”:
Well it was nearly summer, we sat on your roof
Yeah we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon
And I showed you stars you never could see
Babe, it couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me
Not that many people, even young adults, smoke anymore. Otherwise, the sentiment is timeless.
I remember reading about 20 years ago a piece handicapping the likelihood of Petty’s being inducted into the then-new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (that happened in 2002). I don’t remember the exact percentage the piece placed on Petty’s chances, but I do remember it was in the 90s, with the lone comment: “The songs will suffice.” And so they did. And so, now and forever, they must.