Tom Petty was everybody’s artist, and The Heartbreakers were America’s band. I don’t mean that in any kind of patriotic, nationalistic way. I mean that his music was the soundtrack of the American heartland, captured in a way no one else had been able to capture. With no disrespect to Springsteen, Mellencamp or Seger, Petty found the perfect formula and was able to out-produce them all, song by song. His songs speak of youth, of growing, of being bored, of rebelling and of romance, and they are always instantly recognizable and memorable. Tom Petty wrote the perfect hooks. They’re simple, but they’re not dumb or dumbed down. The chorus to “Free Fallin” might only be a couple of words, but it soars in a stratosphere that can be defined by only one word: epic. His songs sound familiar the first time you hear them, like they have some sort of witchcraft blessed upon them that gives you a sense of comfort and knowing without having ever heard it before. They’re not just part of your road trip mix, they are the road trip.
Everyone’s got a Tom Petty story, too. I’ve never met him or any of The Heartbreakers, but they’ve been part of my entire life, always there, hanging around. I can still feel all of those summers in the ‘80s with “Breakdown” and “Here Comes My Girl” on the radio, the windows to our Firebird rolled down and the wind rushing in, battling the July heat. His music was probably also playing while we cruised through Leitchfield in that ugly, yellow Pacer, too. I might have been 6 the first time I saw the video to “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and what a trip that was. Exciting and terrifying at the same time, I would wait all day for it to come on just so I could be a part of their warped, “Alice In Wonderland” world. The waiting was the hardest part.
Also, who has three solid decades of hits? You get one, maybe two before you start to taper off, but after a breakthrough ‘70s and a huge ‘80s, Petty still dominated the ‘90s. First with Into The Great Wide Open (the title track and “Learning To Fly” both still sounding just as good today as the first time), but more importantly with a solo record called Wildflowers. Find a stronger Side A on any other album. The first eight tracks are all classics. I mean, hell, the man doesn’t have deep tracks. They’re all hits, even the toss-offs. Even the losers were winners. The follow-up, their soundtrack to the forgotten movie “She’s The One,” is packed with songs that could have been a greatest hits collection for any other band, and it’s not even a proper album.
I don’t want to overlook his late career catalog either. The man was still swinging for the fence and knocking them out of the park. Mojo and Hypnotic Eye were back-to-basics rock and roll with a blues lean that suited the band perfectly. “I Should Have Known It,” a song released as Petty hit 60, sounds just as immediate, angry and relevant as “You Wreck Me” or “Running Down A Dream.” And it became my favorite song to see live with its huge riff, and Tom outstretching his arms as he sang, “It’s the last time you’re gonna hurt me.”
Jenn and I went to see the band when they played Bonnaroo, and I think that was the last time I saw them live. It was Jenn’s first (and only) time, and I loved watching her slowly realize that she knew every single song they played. Two full hours, maybe more, and not one song that wasn’t recognizable. They were a human jukebox machine and every single song had their name on it. I know it’s easy to over-compliment an artist after they pass, to paint them more than they actually might have been, but I really think I’m still selling The Heartbreakers short even with everything here. Tom Petty’s inclusions in the The Great American Songbook are the bloodlines of all of our lives. America’s band. A crown taken from The Beach Boys and never given up to anyone else. We’ll never know what else he had to give, but we’ll never forget the ones he gave us. They’re a part of us all.