Petty, like a lot of Baby Boomers, got into rock music after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Rock stardom seemed like the least possible outcome for him though; kids from Gainesville, Florida, don’t end up selling out arenas and selling millions of records. Petty dropped out of school at 17 and joined Mudcrutch-- a band that he’d reform in the 2000s--before a broken up and reconstituted lineup would join a now-solo Petty as the Heartbreakers. His debut album, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, came out in 1976, and was a minor hit in the U.K., where he was lumped in with new wave bands. “American Girl” eventually became the hit from the album--it is playing on FM radio, somewhere, right now--but listening to the debut now, it’s hard to see how an album with something as sultry and groovy as “Breakdown” could end up racked alongside “new wave.”
The band, and Petty, would become commercial juggernauts and superstars with 1979’s third album Damn the Torpedoes, which anyone with parents born between 1955 and 1970 can tell you was a standard issue album in everyone’s record collection. It went to number two on Billboard, and sold three million copies. It cemented Petty’s status as one of America’s best rock songwriters, each subsequent album launching hit singles. He made the jump to the MTV generation with 1985’s Southern Accents, which had an Alice in Wonderland-inspired video that’s familiar to anyone who watched MTV or Vh1 when they still played music videos.
Petty’s legacy, his songbook, is one that will constantly surprise you with how much of it you know. He had hit songs for a consistent 25 years and trying to list them all here will only lead those of you reading this to think I forgot your favorite. The first song I played when I found out Petty died yesterday was “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” a song released in 1993 as one of two new tracks on Greatest Hits, to date Petty’s best selling album (he thought of himself as an albums artist, but his hits are so good, when they’re together they’re the best rock album of the ‘70s and ‘80s). The song was released more than 25 years after Petty dropped out of high school, 17 years after the first Tom Petty album came out. That Petty was still that deft of a songwriter, that deep, that a throwaway greatest hits single could be one of his best songs, that he could unwind songs that good, that far into his career, is remarkable.
But then, that he could build on that momentum with his second solo album, 1994’s Wildflowers, a beautiful, countrified album that stands as Petty-heads’ sentimental favorite, was even more unpredictable. Petty was one of the only ‘70s artists whose music meant new things to new people in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. During the peak of grunge, Petty was still out there, writing songs like “Time to Move On,” the song a lot of people were quoting when news of his death came down yesterday.
Tom Petty’s shadow will loom large, as one’s does when you sell 80 million records. You can hear him in artists as disparate as War on Drugs and John Moreland, and his many season arc as Lucky on King of the Hill show his trip was longer and stranger than most. He’s been in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame since 2002, and was even part of the only performance at the Hall that has ever mattered. If you haven’t watched the documentary on him that’s on Netflix, you need to. The possibly apocryphal tales are too robust to relay here.
It’s hard to describe what it was like to grow up in flyover country, and have Tom Petty just be part of your musical vernacular. His music was part of the very fabric of existence, in a way you maybe can’t say about some of the other recently gone-too-soon legends who have passed in these last two, brutal years. Tom Petty was a given; every jukebox, radio station, home music collection had at least his greatest hits album at its disposal. It was almost too easy to take him for granted; if you wanted to hear Tom Petty, all you had to do was tune into a classic rock station and wait 30 minutes. Tom Petty was the music my midwestern family listened to in the ‘70s and ‘80s when they were holding their Miller Lites down at the local bar, and it’s the music I listened to while holding a Miller Lite in college at my local bar. Since Damn the Torpedoes was practically standard issue for people born between 1955 and 1970, it was also standard issue for kids in the back of minivans between 1982 and 1997.
My parents tell a story about when I was learning to talk, and would sing “Free Fallin’” from my car seat as a three-year-old as “Dree Dallin’,” unable to untangle my Ds from my Fs. My whole family sings it as that, now, 28 years later. My dad--who would sing Tom Petty with me in the van-- happened to be in town yesterday, and I had to break the news to him that Petty died. “Ah shit,” he said. “66 is too young.” And if that’s not the feeling we all had late last night, when the news was confirmed a second time, after confusion with the LAPD and TMZ led everyone to respond to Petty’s death 12 hours early, I don’t know what is.
When I was 19, I bought only my second concert ticket for myself, and saw Tom Petty at Summerfest. 12 years later, the thing I remember most is looking around during “Free Fallin’” and seeing people my age alongside people as old and older than my parents sing every single word. Petty was a generational-divide artist, one that people from 18 to 68 could claim as their own. For that, he’ll live on forever.