Tom Petty, one of the most widely and consistently beloved rock songwriters and singers of the past four decades, died today, the Associated Press reports tonight (after an earlier erroneous report of his death spread today).
Petty was the best, most internal and least patronizing, of rock songwriters plowing the field of embodying (not "speaking for," a subtle but important difference that elevated Petty's songs) the "average guy." Petty was every kid from nowheresville (in his case Gainesville, Florida, the same nowheresville I spent nine of my first 21 years) who loved rock n' roll, learned how to make the jangle of a guitar and the uplifting sway of the right chord progression feel like pathos and triumph dancing close and slow, moved to the big city of Los Angeles and ended up with hit records galore, playing with Bob Dylan, then forming a band with Dylan, a Beatle, Roy freakin Orbison and that one guy from ELO. He was so dedicated to the old-time rock verities he recorded an album griping about how crummy corporate programmers were ruining radio all the way in the 21st century.
Petty was our ambassador to show business, and even when he aged into a sepia-toned but always sharp dry melancholy and ceased delivering much in the way of the zesty, sinewy pop-rock he started off with, he never embarrassed himself or the fans. He stood fast for the gang-togetherness mentality of his eternal Heartbreakers, even while openly admitting that his favorite records were the ones he made without them; but his band were his boys and American rock n' roll small town boys stick together (mostly, but don't ask original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch). Late in life he even revived his pre-fame Gainesville band Mudcrutch, just because he could and they were his old pals.
During my years in Gainesville, a lot of us had a bit of a chip on our shoulder about Petty because of his clear chip on his shoulder about his hometown; he didn't perform there often during the 1980s and his one LP that dealt with his smalltown southern heritage, 1985's Southern Accents, was an amazingly well crafted, deeply felt and smart record but did not, to put it mildly, cast the modern South in a flattering light.
Sure, in America one often has to leave home and hearth for the Big City for real success, but painting modern southerners, even in songs as elegant, elegaic, powerful and gorgeous as "Southern Accents" and "Rebels" (and as scabrously witty as "Spike") as sad drunken fuckups still obsessed with those "blue-bellied devils" who "burned down our cornfields, and left our cities leveled," however much truth it had, wasn't designed to incline the south to heartily welcome the prodigal son. (He even used confederate flag iconography for the ensuring tour, something he regretted and apologized for recently.)
In an excellent biography of Petty by fellow rocker Warren Zanes, former Del Fuego, Petty spoke of wanting to avoid the pressures from family members to extend himself in some manner to all their local pals. Better, once it's time to move on, to keep going, as Petty wrote and lived. Still, whether he loved us back much, Gainesville was proud enough of Petty to keep alive a collegiate legend of a "Petty's Past Pad" that we partied at; Petty, bless his heart, told interviewer Paul Zollo that that was all bullshit and no one in old Gainesville was partying at any past pad of his. (He did produce one sharp, spooky B-side, "Casa Dega," based on a local Gainesville obsession, a nearby town crammed with spiritual mediums.)
In a rock n' roll world of romantics and depressives, Petty was mostly a stoic and won the respect and affection that stance deserved; while love for him was not universal, I find it stretches across a wider range of American rock generational and communal lines than most.
In Petty's world life was difficult and poignant, but transcendence was available via shared cigarettes on the roof, singing along with Del Shannon, and just the right party dress, and knowing you can always survive via reckless assertions of self in the face of relationships or circumstances trying to drag them down.
He sang powerfully from that place of winning stoic resignation, making both the desire to disengage and float and the desire to stand one's ground endlessly feel like the only truths in the world worth contemplating. A working boy from the South, he delivered fair value for money (leading an early and eventually fruitless quest to keep LP prices down) but never seemed to kiss any ass, not even his audiences'. But you could usually trust Tom to deliver.
His most iconic video, and the one that made this Gainesville boy also feel he had to follow in Petty's footsteps and go west to where the Byrds jangle was born? Hard to explain rationally, but these video visions of malls suffused with pink spilled light inside and coated in smog like's heaven's gate outside, the backyard pools, stylish conflicted kids scuffling across ethnicities and identities, hot dog stands simultaneously "vintage" and always now, and of course the skateboarders escaping the surly bonds of earth and prudence to splay themselves across the valley of endless possibility…who the hell wouldn't want to see what that was like to live through, to succeed in?
And the fan indulgence, a song that moved me tremendously from first listen to last, and one that neither Petty himself nor anyone else I've ever met noticed or cared about, buried on side two of Southern Accents, "Dogs on the Run," which sounds like Petty was singing the ballad of Kurt and Courtney before he, or any of us, knew who they were: