We weren’t expecting it. The list of rock stars we think that are perpetually on death’s doorstep is endless. There has been a decades-long death watch for Uncle Keef, but not Tom Petty.
He was one of us. Not for one second did you ever think he was spoiled by the trappings of success. Well, if he was, he hid it well. There was an ease about Petty that seemed genuine and it came through in his music. He was able to take various aspects of everyday life and spin them into instantly memorable songs.
His music plays like a soundtrack to the movie that is your life. I’m sure we’ve all had that feeling when we have convinced ourselves that nobody understands us or the universe doesn’t “get us.” Cue “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” from Petty’s classic 1994 album Wildflowers: “But let me get to the point / let's roll another joint / And turn the radio loud / I’m too alone to be proud / You don't know how it feels / You don't know how it feels to be me.”
Petty managed to have a successful 40-year run without compromising his work or alienating his fans. He kept playing his style of rock long after the genre’s death. There was never a need to deify him or make him a mythical, larger-than-life being. That was a game he had no interest in. His songs spoke for him and to us.
There were times he stood up for his fans, most notably in 1981 before the release of Hard Promises. Petty delayed the release of the album because MCA Records had planned to charge $9.98, a $1 increase, for the LP. Petty told The New York Times, “A lot of fans have been with us for a long time and I think they trust us. MCA has done a great job selling our records, but they couldn’t see the reality of what it’s like on the street—they couldn’t see that raising the album’s price wouldn’t be fair.”
Petty also had the unique ability to admit when he was wrong. In 1985, on the concert tour for The Heartbreakers’ Southern Accents, the Confederate flag was used as a part of the accompanying marketing campaign. Raised in the South, Petty did not give it much thought. He remarked, “In 1985, I released an album called Southern Accents. It began as a concept record about the South, but the concept part slipped away probably 70 percent or so into the album. I just let it go, but the Confederate flag became part of the marketing for the tour. I wish I had given it more thought. It was a downright stupid thing to do.”
During a concert in 1990, a fan had tossed a Confederate flag onstage. Petty approached the mic and told the crowd that it was a mistake to use the flag as a part of the Southern Accents stage set. Some of the crowd began to boo and Petty finished by saying, “So we don’t do this anymore” and tossed the flag back into the crowd and went right along with the next song. He never gave the requisite “if I’ve offended anyone” speech.
Throughout his career, Petty was a staple on classic rock radio stations, an unlikely MTV star, a performer at halftime of Super Bowl XLII and a headliner at Bonnaroo. I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up. No act from the ‘70s besides Petty has pulled that off. He grew older without compromise and never played the role of the old guy doing anything and everything to stay relevant, integrity be damned. Modern acts have borrowed from him. Play the Strokes’ “Last Nite” and you’ll hear “American Girl.” Even Sam Smith had to give Petty a songwriting credit for “Stay With Me” because the melody was very similar to “I Won’t Back Down.” To his credit, Petty stated on his website, “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things happen.”
He came off as if nothing phased him. Throughout his discography, you can find a song for any occasion. People this cool aren’t supposed to leave us. Petty and his music are the friend that knows just what to say at the right time. Many will say that there will never be another like him. I contend that there never was. Rest in peace, Tom Petty. Thank you for leaving us your songs.