Tom Petty died.
And I really don’t know what to say after that.
I’ve stated how the time, place, and station of our births affect our preferences in music, art, and literature. That being true, there was no way Tom Petty wouldn’t have a big influence on me.
Petty–and his Heartbreakers–came to prominence in the late-70s, which were my middle school years, and from that point on he was a part of the musical landscape of my life. Over the last 40 years, Tom released 13 albums with the Heartbreakers, three solo albums, and two Traveling Wilburys albums. Two more albums by his reformed band Mudcrutch–his first band and the band the Heartbreakers were born out of–bring his LP total to 20.
With some musicians and bands, you can look back to a difinitive point/song or two when they lifted themselves to legendary status. Maybe they’ve had success in the past, they might have even been quite big, but then that one thing happened to really push them into the national spotlight and write unforgettable memories on the walls of our minds.
REM had hits like “Stand” and “Orange Crush,” and their huge following from the college and indi-pop scenes was burgeoning into a national thing, but then they released “Losing My Religion,” and, man, that just straight up turned the screw; they were a sensation and, for those who were around and at least somewhat culturally intuned, they will always be a sensation. I think there’s a certain truth in that, that the legendary performers of our lives remain legendary.
Garth Brooks would have had a nice, fine country music career on the strength of songs like “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and “The Dance,” maybe Hall of Fame even, but he wasn’t going to be the near phenomenon that he became if he didn’t do “Friends in Low Places.”
Robin Williams was great as Mork, and he charmed audiences in Moscow on the Hudson and The World According to Garp, but he wasn’t “Robin Williams” until he said “Good Morning Vietnam!”
For the fortunate ones, there can be more than one of those moments. Taking into account time, place, and station, one might say the same of Mrs. Doubtfire‘s “Hello!” in Robin’s case.
Tom Petty had three of those moments. The first one he shared with a friend, and it wasn’t even a song for one of his own albums; rather, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” while written by Petty and Mike Campbell for a Heartbreakers record, was actually released on Stevie Nicks’s 1981 solo debut, Bella Donna.
Tom’s next chance to really assert who he was and why he should be so noticed came with the song and video for 1985’s “Don’t Come Around Here no More,” from Southern Accents. Would this song have been the sensation it was without the video? We’ll never know. But we don’t have to; videos were a big part of what a song was in those days, and if you could use a memorable video to bring home an already solid tune, well then, good on ya.
The third also used a strong video as well. It also might have had such the force it did if it wasn’t for the expectation at the time. I think everybody thought that Tom and his band had had a nice little career and that they’d just melt slowly onto the adult contemporary charts. Then “Free Fallin'” comes out, and the video strikes a chord and then all of the sudden he’s got a verified hit.
Folks from my day know those three moments, and they’ll be there on the walls of our minds even though Tom has passed.
I’d like to put three songs on your radar that might not come to mind. I’ve been listening to a lot of Tom in the last ten hours, and I think these are good songs to seek out if you want to listen to something a bit off the beaten path today.
“A Higher Place” off Wildflowers, was a hit that has been swallowed up by all the smashes; an ultra-poppy piece that hearkens back to The Byrds, it’s a wonderful song to hear him sing today.
“Saving Grace,” from 2006’s Highway Companion, is an easy blues piece with good march, harmony vocals, and an understated delivery that is truly good company.
Lastly, we have “It’s Good to be King,” also off Wildflowers. What a beautiful way to show he could be serious without taking himself too seriously. He sings, “Oh, the world would swing, if I were king”; indeed it would have.
Thank you, Tom Petty. On your tombstone, I hope they put this: “Here lies Tom Petty. He spent a little time in Gainesville, and then he started kicking ass.”
With admiration and esteem.