After a summer that has seen us lose some of modern music’s most iconic figures to more unnatural causes, it feels a shock to be so starkly reminded of our own mortality as the greats and legends of the previous generation are reaching their time. Yet, in spite of the string of celebrity deaths of his peers last year, exactly that happened last night as rumours of Tom Petty’s death began to circulate. Due to an erroneous statement released by the Los Angeles Police Department yesterday afternoon local time (mid-evening UK time), many were ironically led to begin mourning the singer-songwriter several hours before his death at 20:40 yesterday evening (03:40 here in the UK). However, this morning, we awoke to a confirmation from Petty’s agents that he had indeed died peacefully in hospital after suffering a cardiac arrest in his California home.
Starting out on a dirty road, from inauspicious beginnings in deep-south Bible Belt northern Florida with a shy disposition owing to an abusive father, and despite an early interest in music through a chance meeting with Elvis Presley at an early age, it wasn’t until later in his teenage years when he first encountered The Beatles that Tom Petty first picked up the bass guitar and decided to drop out of school and form a band. Growing up tall and growing up right, he enjoyed early successes in his hometown with the band Mudcrutch, but when the band’s debut recording flopped and they subsequently split up it looked like the end of Petty’s musical career.
Fortunately, former musical acquaintances persuaded a reluctant Petty to pursue a solo career, and the first line-up of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers was formed in 1976. Despite immediate mainstream success in the UK, it wasn’t until their third album “Damn the Torpedoes” was released in 1980, debuting with the lead single “Refugee”; that his southern-rock sound began to take popularity in the United States; the sky was the limit. As his music entered the mainstream, Petty began receiving invitations to collaborate alongside artists including The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan; then in 1989 came the album “Full Moon Fever”, featuring his most successful song, “Free Fallin’”, and Petty’s status as a timeless cultural icon was cemented.
Like, I imagine, many people of my generation who maintain an interest in rock music, I grew up with Tom Petty from a young age owing to my parents’ musical choices at home. Yet despite having his feet firmly planted in classic rock, Tom Petty influenced so much more than just that, dipping into elements of folk, blues, and country; as well as pop and even occasionally hip hop; helping redefine the Americana genre into what it is today, musicians from a wide range of styles and backgrounds owe as much to Petty as they do any other rock legend. His life and successful career as one of the highest selling artists of all time have been immortalised by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary, “Running Down a Dream”. With appearances in such pop culture staples as “Live Aid” and “The Simpsons”, as well as providing inspiration to Rhys Ifans’ character “Gavin” in Richard Curtis’ 2009 cult-classic comedy “The Boat That Rocked”, his image and personality have made their mark on our society just as much as his music have. They will both live on.
Whilst Petty will perhaps be remembered most for his inoffensive love ballads such as “Free Fallin’” and “American Girl”, it would be shameful to not credit his genius as a songwriter with something to say. As a bard to rival Bob Dylan, his political wit is showcased in hits including “The Last DJ”, an angry protest at the commercialisation of the American music industry; and a timeless knack for storytelling is demonstrated by songs like the semi-autobiographical “Into the Great Wide Open”. Despite hailing from a particularly conservative and oppressively religious part of the United States, Petty would not back down from his humanist views, even citing on numerous occasions that, to him, music was the only religion worth following. He was also a heavy supporter for both Al Gore and Barack Obama in their presidential runs, and lashed out at the Republican Party twice for unauthorised use of his music in their political campaign videos. He also campaigned publicly to fight against climate change. Despite his southern roots both personally and musically, he was far from the stereotypical American southerner.
As a poet, as a musician, and as a cultural legend, Tom Petty is a man whom it is simply impossible to pay tribute to. Whether his politics are something that you agree with or not, his poetic method of expression is up there with the best of them. As a performer, few people can light up a concert hall and get several thousand people to sing along to “that old song on the radio” quite like he could. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducting Petty in 2002, hit the nail on the head perfectly in describing Petty and his band as “hardworking, likeable, and unpretentious”. Tom Petty will live on through his music, even as he free falls out into nothing, and the musical community is lessened by the loss of someone who was, without a doubt, one of the greatest songwriters of all time.
"So there goes the last DJ
Who plays what he wants to play
And says what he wants to say
And there goes your freedom of choice
There goes the last human voice
There goes the last DJ”
- Tom Petty