As time marches, it becomes all too easy to forget the sheer volume of greatness that existed in rock throughout the 1970s and 80s. So much of the music of the era continues to dominate the collective consciousness, even as, one by one, each of its lights fades out. With good reason, too: the pace at which the genre expanded, flipped, folded, and exploded has left an indelible mark on American culture, back to which we can trace virtually all modern rock, from Arctic Monkeys to Imagine Dragons.
Of course, today we’re thinking particularly strongly of one of the era’s signatories. Yesterday, at age 66, Tom Petty died of cardiac arrest at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica.
It’s a curious thing, watching as the icons of this bygone time each come to their turn at the great crossing. The more time that accumulates on this side of the millennium, the higher into their 60s, 70s, and 80s these artists climb. Thus, the less strange it feels to learn that one of them has passed. After all, Leonard Cohen dying at 82 is not quite the same gut punch as Chester Bennington at 41 or Carey Lander of Camera Obscura at 33.
But make no mistake: a lack of strangeness – the relative logic of an old person’s death as compared to a young person’s – does not equate to a lack of absence. And there are few other artists who will leave behind quite the same vacancy as Tom Petty.
Coming from an era of hard-edged rockers and beatnik poets-with-guitars, Petty found his own niche of cleanish, jingly guitar rock. The eponymous debut, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, still feels today at home next to grittier contemporaries like Bruce Springsteen and the verbosity of Bob Dylan. It’s no coincidence that two of Petty’s signature songs – “Breakdown” and “American Girl” – exist on opposite ends of this album. From the very beginning, he was a songwriting talent not to be denied.
Even as recently as 2014, the Heartbreakers were putting out decent albums, and each of his three solo efforts contains great songs. His first solo release, Full Moon Fever, is practically analogous with a greatest hits album, containing “I Won’t Back Down” and the stadium-filling “Free Fallin'”, among several others.
What a world without Tom Petty will miss most, though, might not be immediately obvious on any individual song, or even on a single album. To see Petty’s greatest accomplishments, one must zoom out to the top level of his wider artistry. It is at this wide-gazing perch that one realizes how versatile, yet consistent he was.
This was the performer who could deliver one of the best, most crowd-pleasing Super Bowl halftime shows while delving unabashedly into 10-minute versions of Traveling Wilburys songs at concerts. This is the same guitarist whose twangy, clean chords interchanged with infectious licks. This is the same singer who could sound tender one moment and then belt with the best of them on barnburners like “Refugee.”
Throughout his entire life in the public eye, Petty maintained an everyman persona that never once felt inauthentic or put-on. Long after he reached his pinnacle of fame, at a time when he could have done practically anything in the world, he reformed his high school band, Mudcrutch, for two studio albums. He was consistently humble and articulate in interviews, perhaps never better exemplified than in his response to the similarities between “I Won’t Back Down” and Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.”
In his own way, Petty trained the impossibly opposing snakes of great artistry and humanity. He was both the rock superstar and the polite neighbor, the great balancer of multitudes.
Even in death, there was this quality about Tom Petty. When news first broke yesterday of his hospitalization, it was shocking but not implausible; he was not young but he also didn’t feel old. He wasn’t at the peak of his powers, but neither was he irrelevant. His death came on the heels of a major national tragedy in Las Vegas, and yet is entirely newsworthy in its own right.
Due to a journalistic hiccup, there were a few hours there when a question mark hung over whether he was alive or dead. Even as a cynical person, I found it hard not to hope Tom Petty would pull through. Our fortunes are infinite, our culture richer, for the body of work he leaves behind.