Tom Petty, 1950–2017

Despite the vagaries of fortune and fashion, Tom Petty entertained and inspired, year after year and decade upon decade

✎  Wayne K. Spear | October 3, 2017 | waynekspear.com

When Tom Petty arrived forty years ago I was ready. I first got into music during that delicious interval when British rock was still king but when its chief rivals—punk, post-punk, and new wave—were charging the palace gate. It was the 1970s and Rock-n-Roll having crossed the Atlantic over a decade before was now crossing back. Early Tom Petty was punk around the edges but you could discern the influence of rock, blues, and country. He had Joe Strummer’s breadth of musical vocabulary and the on-stage confidence of an overnight sensation ten years in the making.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1977. His “Flying V” guitar is featured in the band’s logo.

American Girl wasn’t a song, it was a drug, and no normal teenager could resist it. When you heard that opening D-major open chord you had to know Who is this? Simple and infectious, it showed Petty’s genius for pop hooks and story-telling. Breakdown and American Girl were followed by the 1978 hit I Need to Know, but it wasn’t until Damn the Torpedoes that Petty’s song-writing talents were fully materialized. The album is even more impressive when you consider its circumstances. Recorded while Petty was at war with his record label over publishing rights, the reel-to-reel tapes of Damn the Torpedoes were secretly shuttled by engineers into the recording sessions and then shuttled out at end-of-day to avoid seizure. The Tom Petty who recorded Refugee knew from personal experience that “everybody has to fight to be free.” He had bankrupted himself and risked everything to do so.

Tom Petty’s victory over MCA would be repeated with the next album, Hard Promises. MCA wanted it to retail for $9.98 but Petty was adamant that it should sell at the standard price, which at the time was $8.98. He refused to give the label Hard Promises just as he had refused to give it Damn the Torpedoes. When I rode my bicycle the 30 kilometres to Niagara Falls to buy the new record, I paid the Tom Petty price. Throughout the 1980s Petty released hit after hit, closing out the decade with another simple and infectious tune based on a jangly D-major open chord, Free Fallin. He played an early version of this song at Bob Dylan’s studio, where he had been spending time with Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne. Eventually this association would lead to the short-lived project, Traveling Wilburys.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers traversed genres and generations. The Beatles convinced Petty that “I could do this, too” and Petty likewise inspired younger generations. My friends aged, their lives and circumstances evolved, and in many instances we drifted apart. Despite the vagaries of fortune and fashion, Tom Petty entertained and inspired, year after year and decade upon decade. For me the early years will always be the best, but Tom Petty was a reliable stage and studio artist from the late 1970s until the end. With so much else having drifted to the curb, my friends and I loved his music Back in the Day and we love it now. There isn’t a covers band that doesn’t play at least one Tom Petty song. (The band I saw this past weekend at Bloor and Jane played American Girl.) I don’t know a human being who professes dislike of Tom Petty’s music. If such a person exists, that person is taste challenged. As for the rest of us, we will always love the music of Tom Petty, and we will miss him.

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