He was a songwriter’s songwriter. His songs created more than a narrative, they created a feeling and became instantly recognizable. Tom Petty himself said, “I don’t know what they’re about, but I know what was happening when I wrote them.”
The day Tom Petty was rushed to a Los Angeles hospital following a cardiac arrest, was also a day many in the music world went out of their way to pledge allegiance to Petty. There were tributes from artists, actors and regular fans who couldn’t help but share their grief.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were not my favorite band. But they were always there. There was never a time in my life when their songs weren’t on the radio, or that they weren’t making music.
So why would anyone less than a superfan spend time writing a tribute? Interesting question. Here’s the thing. This guy achieved stardom, he sold millions of records, but he also took on record companies, and got invited into a superband with resumes the likes of which we will never see again. A man welcome in the company of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne, and who would seemingly just have willingly sat down beside you.
A guy that told his record company he wouldn’t accept his album being “superstar priced” at a dollar more than other artists’ releases.
A guy that was so taken with the what-might-of-been of his first band Mudcrutch, that he got them together forty years after they broke up to make two albums together.
A guy that was trying to make his producer laugh by making up “Free Fallin’” and then trusting him enough to release it as a single.
A guy that as a teenager went down to see Elvis shoot scenes in a movie, and watched The Beatles play on the Ed Sullivan Show, and decided, he’d had enough of school and would make it as a musician.
A guy that more than ten years into a celebrated career gladly backed up Bob Dylan in a seemingly never ending tour.
A guy that got his own satellite radio channel, and would play and interview artists that influenced him.
And a guy that articulated truth in his songs, wasn’t afraid to be himself, and inject that into his songs.
In the hours before his death, this non-superfan decided to do a little research. How many other artists had covered a Tom Petty song? (It’s not the same after the artist dies. When they’re living, it means you just want to do it.) So I looked on YouTube. Here’s a partial list:
Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, Wilco, Johnny Cash, George Strait, Keith Urban, Marty Stuart, Taylor Swift, Ke$ha, Frank Turner, Jason Isbell, Imagine Dragons, John Mayer, Stereophonics, The Gaslight Anthem, Taking Back Sunday, The Lumineers, Daughtry, Sugarland, Everclear, Bright Eyes.
I ran out of time to look further, but oh my God. Everyone from hard rock, to country to emo. And then it hit me. He was a songwriter for all of them. Find an emo band, play them “Even the Losers” or “Listen to Her Heart,” and see what they do. Southern Rock and Country have a lot in common. The songs were about real people, and real emotion, and didn’t talk down to Southerners. The title track to Southern Accents, would bring down the house at many concerts. Petty not only acknowledged his distinctive delivery, but also got the joke. Petty helped Cash make an album, and regretted ever having sung “I Won’t Back Down,” after hearing how Cash did it. Dave Grohl nearly became the drummer for the Heartbreakers, and guested with them on Saturday Night Live. Look up “Honey Bee.” Petty likely never played with someone who hit that hard. Newer artists were probably a lot like me. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were just always around.
Something else you will notice on these cover versions, the people playing them love it. Watch Bright Eyes and the Felice Brothers play “Walls.”
As one of the Heartbreakers told Petty’s biographer, Tom had a way of suggesting you drop out of college to come play in his band and he made it sound like a great idea.
He was a Floridian. His music publishing company was called “Gone Gator,” but he was remembered in Gainesville the Saturday after his death as a sellout crowd at the University of Florida football game sang “I Won’t Back Down.”
If you’re looking for more, the biography Petty by Warren Zanes is a worthy read.
I heard my eight-year-old daughter singing “American Girl,” to herself last month. She’d learned it from Frank Turner’s cover version. A Tennessee girl singing in a British accent, the classic song that a guy from Florida wrote. Tom Petty may be gone, but he’s always here.
If you’re looking for more, the biography Petty by Warren Zanes is a worthy read. Peter Bogdonovich put together a four hour film on his life, as well. As of this writing it is available on Netflix.