Thomas Earl Petty died a week or so ago, at the age of 66.
I might have blogged about the passing of one of the rock and roll greats of the late 20th Century at that time, but I was unaware of his passing. I wrote my last post early Monday, but when I hit the road that evening, Jim Ladd on Sirius/XM’s Deep Tracks led his regular show with breaking news.
I expected it would be about the Las Vegas shooting, braced myself for Ladd’s typical rant, and prepared to change channels. But, no, instead I got a simulcast with the network’s Tom Petty channel, and a couple guys talking about the artist.
But neither that, or the bulletins on the other SXM channels, ever said that Petty had died — just that the singer/songwriter had had a massive heart attack, and was found unconscious. I perhaps could have followed up and found something definitive, but the ship had already sailed and the horse had left the barn.
So, other bloggers and music critics have had a week to weigh in on the passing of one of the best-selling and most-influential artists of modern rock and roll. My response will be a caveat or two, but confirmations as well.
I’ve written about Petty before — you can look it up in the archives of this blog, from the Rock Steady column I wrote for the Whitehall Times 30-plus years ago— under the heading “Pop Machines.” The point being that Petty and the Heartbreakers, along with the Police, Elvis Costello and several other acts, were really, really good at doing pop songs.
Petty and his group had shown up on my radar during the time frame when I had left the orbit of Radio Free Madison (Wis.), and when the album rock that I was so into was changing into something else. When I moved to western Wisconsin in early 1977, the Eau Claire and La Crosse FM rock stations were “robot radio,” pretty much Top 40 and nothing else. KRCH out of Rochester, Minn., had more depth, so that’s perhaps where I first heard Petty.
I flashed back to those years tonight, on perhaps one of the year’s last al fresco audio outings on my deck, listening to Petty and the Heartbreakers’ first (I assume) greatest hits compilation. There are lots of bands whose “greatest hits” albums are oxymorons — if they have any hits, it’s not enough for an album — but pretty much everything Petty’s second group (more about that later) did back then was a hit.
It’s all great stuff, the second coming of the three-minute masterpieces of the ’60s. And not cookie-cutter art, either — ranging from the Byrds-inspired “American Girl” to one of the ultimate speeding-ticket songs of all time, “Runnin’ Down the Dream,” to the loopy, MTV-designed “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
In that run, Petty mainlined some of the best of those who influenced him. The lyric of “You Got Lucky” (“when I found you”) seems to borrow heavily from the 1948 pop song wittten by K.C. Douglas and Robert Geddins, recorded by the former’s trio, and popularized by the Steve Miller Band: “Well the girl I love/I stole her from a friend/He got lucky, stole her back again.” “Runnin’ Down the Dream” not only references Del Shannon by name, but channels that early-60s artist’s big hit, “Runaway.”
Petty’s music had adapted some to the changes in pop and rock in the ’90s and later, but he also branched out into other projects, like reconstituting his pre-Heartbreakers band, Mudcrutch. He seemed at times to be the first among equals of the Traveling Wilburys; that supergroup to me had trouble containing the considerable talents of its superstar members, but they did make some good music.
Petty’s music also seemed to be pretty self-effacing, but some interview snippets I’ve heard make him come across as taking himself a bit too seriously. The guy who looked right at home in that music video Mad Hatter outfit said that it seemed like the music world coined the term New Wave just to describe what his group was doing.
That terminology apparently was first associated with a rock genre in the early ’70s, five years or so before the Heartbreakers broke out. Initially applied by music critics to Big Apple bands like the New York Dolls and the Velvet Underground, by the mid-70s it was used somewhat interchangeably with punk rock,-and to describe groups like Blondie, Mink DeVille, Talking Heads and the like.
What Petty, Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Mink DeVille, Television and others were trying to do was yank rock back in the direction it had started out: simpler, shorter songs with hooks and lyrics that got in our heads and stayed there. It’s a recurring movement in The Music, a reaction to the tendency to make rock too complicated. It showed up with about the same frequency as disco, but with much better effect.
At its best, as exemplified by Costello and Petty, it’s more than just Sha Na Na-style retro. It’s witty, playful and thoughtful, and of course infectious.
There is one Petty song that makes me scratch my head a bit, “Rebels.” At times a Southern Rock anthem with one of the great lines of all time — “Yeah with one foot in the grave/and one foot on the pedal” — it later seems to veer into Confederate Lost Cause-ism.
Those “blue-bellied devils” he still feels eyeing him were, of course, the Union Army come to put down what some folks call the Slaveholder’s Rebellion. It's kind of the lyrical equivalent of one of those Confederate statues that they’re covering up or tearing down.
In another interview segment, Petty talked about how, after some concerts, he was up all night because of the adrenaline that developed during the performance. His comments had a whiff of Bruce Springsteen’s “we want to make the hair on your arms stand on end” self-promotion, but Petty — like the Boss — did put a lot of himself into his art.
He died, figuratively, on such a concert high, after the end of the Heartbreakers’ 40th-anniversary tour. You had to think he had some left in the tank creatively, but now we’ll never know.