Tom Petty, humble performer of American rock music and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, passed away Monday night after being hospitalized for cardiac arrest.
Now, talk about an amazing songwriter. I have grouped Tom Petty in my own little camp of prolific songwriters like Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Billy Joel or John Mellencamp. Lyrically, Petty never wrote with a dedication to the working man, or the changing American landscape, but wove a musical fabric of carefree living with Southern style and early roots rock that trace back to this Floridian raising and a childhood meeting of Elvis Presley.
Like Springsteen, music electrified the veins upon Elvis’ existence and seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Those Elvis/Beatles epiphanies have given birth to great songwriters of the late 20th century. From Mudcrutch to being an accidental Traveling Wilbury, Tom Petty was able to create fluidity in his songs. There were worlds that we all knew of and identified with. He wasn’t New Jersey, Middle America, down South or out West. He was everywhere, and with those songs were connections with fans in the form of memorable lines. When Petty did make references to his new home of California in lyrics, they were so tied along to the carefree flow of his songs, that the location did not matter. Like a great storyteller, Petty went straight for the motions. There’s something visceral about hearing the arrangement and that haunting line “don’t come around here no more.”
“American Girl” was written while enjoying the sounds of life in Los Angeles outside a window. He painted the image of every girl in America: what she wants, what she’s looking for. That was also every other song. You can imagine “the boy in the corduroy pants” and the “girl at the high school dance” when you tune in to “You Wreck Me.”
And how about the music? So simple yet so classic. Every song’s arrangement feels like a popsicle on a hot summer day or driving down a back road with the windows down and letting a hand wave up and down in the 60mph wind. The jangling guitar reminded me of The Byrds or early Bob Dylan with bursts of gutsy rock and roll anxious to be let loose along a basic formula of verse-chorus-verse and repeat a couple of times. And lemme tell ya, it worked. Tom Petty was never a performer designated to a decade. He emerged in the 1970s and kept going, adapting to videos in MTV’s heyday and continuing to keep toes tapping and heads nodding for generations to come. His catalogue features songs that everyone knows whether you know the title or not—it’s just that song you know.
It is hard to ignore the major occurrence that also happened this week in Las Vegas. As hearts sank over a senseless-yet-mysterious act that took 59 lives and over 500 injured, news outlets began to report on Petty’s passing. I began to hope that this was actually a piece of “fake news,” but what only seemed incorrect by early Monday evening only became true hours later.
Music has always been a soundtrack to history’s events and as a rally cry of support in the aftermath of events. Tragedy has recent leaked right into the music venue, which we saw in Paris, Manchester and now Vegas. We use music to heal, as it is our everyday escape from the daily worries of life and work. The lives lost lived enjoying their free moment, leaving memories behind that make up the fabric of life. It is what is in all those songs all along.