Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the last stop on their 40th Anniversary tour at the Hollywood Bowl on September 25. A week later he passed away following cardiac arrest. Petty was 66.
Petty’s songs have that early rock and roll quality about them that makes them so memorable. Most of them are short, three minutes or less, and always feel like they are moving forward. Petty was a great rhythm guitarist, and whether he was with the Heartbreakers or the Traveling Wilburys, the music was always locked in time. His songs get in grooves that get you tapping the steering wheel or moving your feet. “Don’t Do Me Like That” is a perfect little radio dance party, and “Runnin’ Down A Dream” feels perfect for driving down the highway.
Petty’s songs were crafted with the classic lyrical ingredients of a rock song: cars, girls, and rock and roll. They could connect with people in a way that earned him the title “the next Bob Dylan,” just like Bruce Springsteen. Petty wrote relatable songs about regular teenagers with crushes in regular towns, songs that strike a chord driving home late at night because you feel like you could be the characters in them. He had the right amount of small town charm from his youth in Florida, and held onto it even after moving to the big city, Los Angeles.
Petty’s voice was as memorable as any. You would not say he was a bad singer, but he was not gifted with a smooth voice or the powerful belt of other rock singers. His voice, as unique as it was is so connected to his songs that covers of them fail to convey the same kind of emotion. The textures of his voice, its little twang, added to the sense of plain-spokenness in his songs, like the boy next door wrote some songs and has been practicing them in his garage with his friends.
He carried this feeling to the Traveling Wilburys, who sound like a campfire strum circle between some of the greatest songwriters of all time. Petty’s voice, or rather that of Charlie T. Wilbury Jr., ran in tandem with Bob Dylan’s unique voice, and in opposition to the smooth crooning of Roy Orbison and George Harrison. That supergroup was one of the best showcases of musicians making music because it is what they love to do. Petty certainly did. Watching videos of him perform, it is easy to see him enjoying every second of singing and playing his guitar.
There is video of Petty’s last concert circling the internet. He closes with “American Girl,” and he sings and plays with the energy of someone forty years younger. With the news of his passing coming shortly after the horrible events in Las Vegas, “Don’t Back Down” became a rallying cry for the city and the country. Maybe one day we can live without these tragedies, in a Tom Petty world of fast cars, pretty girls, and rock guitar—where the sun is shining in Gainesville and Los Angeles, and everywhere in between.
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons