Music

Tom Petty, R.I.P.

One of the most widely and consistently beloved rock songwriters and singers of the past four decades passed away at age 66.

|

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).

Southern Accents LP cover

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:

NEXT: Automatic Weapons Are Already Heavily Regulated and Gun Control Laws Don't Work

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “…a song that moved me tremendously from first listen to last,[… “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…”

    And if we never did know, probably the world would be at least as good as it is now. Probably better; the ’90’s version of Lennon and Ono.

    1. I don’t want to live in a world where Kris Novelesic isn’t famous enough to know. Just imagine not knowing that he got arrested for taking roadkill just this year.

      Yeah, Nirvana was great.

      Alice in Chains > Nirvana > Soundgarden > Pearl Jam

      1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

        This is what I do… http://www.startonlinejob.com

  2. RIP

    – and thanks, media, for the shot of false hope, that really cheered me up. /sarc

    1. I gotta say, I’m more choked up about Petty than those 59 nameless people in Vegas. I admit with shame.

      1. You are not alone. Damn the Torpedoes is my one album for the desert island.

      2. It’s a weird thing. I was just thinking what it must be to have a loved one die on the same day as a famous person. The world comes together to mourn the celebrity and to remind you that your suffering is yours alone.

        Fucked up.

      3. The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.

  3. As I posted earlier today I saw him and Joe Walsh in Columbus in July. Great time. Your with ‘the wild flowers’ now Tom Rest in peace.

  4. It’s not even true, several news websites have retracted the death announcement they issues earlier in the day but don’t feel bad, I was a victim of the fake news mafia too. Cried and grieved Mr. Petty and all, but he’s still in our plane of existence.
    http://concreteprosindianapolis.com
    http://hvacexpertsbelleville.com

    1. Is this crazily on topic spam?

      1. RIP, the death of this famous celebrity should remind us all of the need to buy the products on my Web site!

  5. I’ve seen several references to Southern Accents today. I actually really liked that album when it came out (still do, though it’s a little dated) but I read that Tom hated that album.

    The other story I heard was that the only reason he was part of the Wilbury’s was that George Harrison (I think, maybe one of the other guys) left his guitar at Tom’s house and when he got his ax, Tom tagged along and horned in on the action.

    I’ve been listening to his 2 Mudcrutch albums lately, they are pretty good (at least the songs he wrote).

    1. Southern Accents was great. And you don’t have to “obsessed” with the blue bellied Yankee devils leveling Southern cities and burning crops to never forget the history.

    2. SA cost him a lot of gigs as the ‘establishment’ hated/hates anything ‘Southern’. Every artist’s venue can be calculated with ease, and for a bit, his were either too big (expensive) or small (too little revenue). Soul artists were plagued by the same system in the 70s and poor management (Motown) hurt the thriving sound. If Thriller hadn’t been such a hit on MTV, that whole era would be lost. The partial demise led to the abomination known as hip hop.

      Petty was capable of a great deal in music, even playing a wide range of styles and riffs. No record exists of the songs he played on of other artists, just not his style to toot his own horn. I just remember his riffs in a New Orleans club, backing up a jazz band from the shadows, quiet and supportive.

  6. RIP

  7. The waiting was the hardest part.

  8. Some say life will beat you down, break your heart, steal your crown.
    So I started out for God knows where; I guess I’ll know when I get there.

  9. Quite possibly the only singer in rock music with a voice worse than Geddy Lee, I could never stand his music with the exception of You Got Lucky.

    However, he was a decent enough guy and helped old rockers be popular again, which is sort of cool.

    1. No accounting for taste. This may fit more with your preferences.

    2. Ugh. You disgust me worse than anyone else here. God damned pleb.

    3. Ariana Grande has a great voice. Go back to listening to her.

      Petty didn’t need a great voice. He wrote great songs.

    4. I may not have been an enthusiastic follower and purchaser of his music, but I always respected his talent even back in my punk/new-wave days. I wouldn’t go out of my way to listen to his music, but there are songs I like and enjoy (like “You Got Lucky” and “Running Down a Dream”). Can’t say the same for Bruce Springstein, whose songs *ALWAYS* sound better when sung by someone *else*.

  10. I’m old and fat, but I run 30 miles a week. Tom Petty has been the soundtrack for a ton of miles over the last two years. The best you can do as a musician – or any kind of artist, really – is to leave behind a product that clicks with people who are currently struggling through, and persevering through, their own fires. You give the world a couple minutes of connection, and inspired strength.

    You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.

    RIP Tom Fucking Petty

  11. Another one joins the great jam session in the sky.

  12. Probably my favorite musician after The Beatles and Eric Clapton, and sadly, I always seemed to take him for granted.

  13. Tom Petty kicked ass. I also appreciate how the Heartbreakers backed up Johnny Cash on his last three albums. American 2, 3, and 4 are really Johnny Cash and The Heartbreakers.

  14. No idea why he should hate Southern Accents, I think it’s his best album, outstanding bunch of songs.
    RIP Tom

  15. I heard Tom Petty learned to play guitar from Don Felder, but maybe it’s just as well you leave the Eagles out of this.

    1. Felder was also from Gainesville, so there might be something to that.

  16. So much I could say. My brother gave me Damn the Torpedoes as a Christmas present in 79. TP quickly became one of my favorite artists. Kind of a poor man’s Bruce Springsteen who didn’t take himself quite so seriously. There was a genuine honesty to his music without all the pretension Springsteen had.

    When Southern Accents came out, I had lived in the South for 5 years. It resonated with me in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if I was still living in Vermont. I suspect that’s why it wasn’t as popular. But there was a lot of truth to it.

    The other thing that will never leave me. After 9/11, there was a some sort of musical telethon to raise money for lord knows what. A lot of prominent artists came out and sang weepy dirges that made it sadder than it already was. TP and the Heartbreakers came out and sang “I Won’t Back Down”. It was a lot closer to how I felt and I wish I could have thanked him for being genuine about it.

    Been a tough year. Bruce Hampton and Tom Petty.

    1. And Don Williams.

  17. You couldn’t take 10 seconds to look up Jeff Lynne? That guy from ELO?

    1. It is called being snarky. This is the internet. That’s how we roll.

    2. Not to mention that Jeff Lynne wasn’t “that guy from ELO”, he pretty much WAS the Electric Light Orchestra.

  18. That Free Fallin’ video is a fantastic portrayal of the innocence of suburban Gen-X America in the early 90s, before the cynicism of hip-hop and grunge took over the cultural mainstream–a bunch of kids in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, sort of aimlessly roaming about without a care in the world or much in the way of an identity.

    Most of those kids are probably in their late 30s or early 40s now and wondering how the hell they got so old so fast.

  19. Damn what a bummer. Such a legend. I always admired his approach to the music. Had a chance to see him in Sacramento just a couple weeks ago. Even went in to the box office right before he was about to go onstage. But tix were a little too steep for us. Now I’ll be kicking myself forever. RIP Mr. Petty. The world is a little bit sadder today in your absence.

  20. RIP Tom Petty, Hogtown’s favorite son. I have always liked his music, and his musical longevity has been incredible.

    It’s funny, but all the stories I heard locally were wrong–the house everyone said he grew up in wasn’t (went there for a Halloween party), “American Girl” wasn’t about a girl jumping off of Beaty Towers, etc. I did hear him say that he drove into Lake Alice, so guess that one is true.

    He may have trashed aspects of southern culture at times, but he had a lot of the values and attitudes of a southern boy, even after decades in LA.

    1. I always enjoyed watching ospreys dive for fish at Lake Alice.

      1. There was a rumor when I was there that people would release baby alligators in Lake Alice. I believed that, because we were down at the lake at night one time, and it looked like there were ten of them right there.

  21. I remember you so clearly
    The first one through the door
    I return to find you drifting
    Too far from the shore
    I remember feeling this way
    You can lose it without knowing
    You wake up and you don’t notice
    Which way the wind is blowing

  22. His most iconic video was clearly “Don’t Come Around Here No More”.

  23. His most iconic video was clearly “Don’t Come Around Here No More”.

  24. This article was a little too subtle for me. I couldn’t figure out which law the author wants abolished. Are they a new Reason columnist?

  25. Tom Petty, R.I.P. – Hit & Run : Reason.comis the best post by imo for pc Please visit imo app imo app snaptube for pc snaptube app

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.