A funny thing about growing up with parents ceaselessly devoted to the music they like: after a certain point, the idea of a “soundtrack” to growing up dissipates, and you’re left with a pastiche of sounds that, without warning, can trigger any number of nostalgic thoughts years, even decades, later. You didn’t ask for this, but it’s what you got. You live with it, and eventually, hopefully, you become grateful for it.
Along with a handful of other artists, I don’t remember the first time I ever heard Tom Petty because he was always just there. Not to make an assumption on your behalf, dear reader, but I’ve got a feeling that, unlike most of the rest of them for me, you likely don’t remember the first time you heard Petty either. He’s always been there, for all of us, which made it all the more devastating when word officially came down late Monday night that Petty had passed away at the age of 66.
As cool as he was, Petty never really struck me as the “cool guy” of rock and roll dreams. Perhaps his gaunt, somewhat gawkish appearance stood as not representing the inherently masculine ideals of what rock music was supposed to be when I was 3 years old; maybe it had something to do with the ubiquity of “Free Fallin’” in the early ’90s. In any case, it became apparent that, even if he wasn’t necessarily the coolest guy in the room (and, as it turned out, he was), he knew the coolest people in the room and was more than happy to entertain, to bridge any gap.
Let’s get to the point: Tom Petty occupies a unique and remarkable place among rock and roll legends. He came along in the mid-seventies, in between the wretched excess of prog rock and the reactionary, pulsating grind of punk. His closest corollaries at the time were probably Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger, on this coast, and Elvis Costello abroad, all of whom, like Petty, had studied the earliest rock hitmakers and had a knack for melody.
Taking what he could from the likes of the Byrds, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, Petty championed a style all his own. Instantly recognizable even from his debut record with the Heartbreakers, Petty merged southern, folk and garage sensibilities and added his own tender, perpetually laid-back touch. He had a way of making you feel at ease, as though he’d been through everything life had to offer two times over and was prepping for a third trip. Even if you didn’t know how it felt to be him, he knew damn well how it felt to be you.
Similarly to my parents’ garage growing up, Petty was pervasive throughout American music for decades. He worked with the likes of Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne in Traveling Wilburys, all of whom (Dylan excepted) would lend a hand on Petty’s debut without the Heartbreakers, the smash record Full Moon Fever. Go look at that track listing. It’s a veritable greatest hits record on its own.
Toeing the Americana line without falling into cliché can be exceptionally hard, but Petty’s affable indifference informed an earnestness, without which his music would’ve had trouble catching run on a local radio station, let alone nationally. Thankfully, the A&R man ended up hearing hits.
“She was an American girl/Raised on promises.”
In a career full of jarring, stupid-easy yet mind-numbingly good opening lines, this is perhaps the most poignant, especially right now. Fitting, then, that it began the final song he ever played live, a throwback to his first record and another in an unfathomable string of American rock and roll classics. The jangling of his Rickenbacker, which opens the song, is among the most recognizable introductions in music; the Strokes owe him a drink in whatever bar follows this one for that contribution to “Last Nite.”
1976 is by no means 2017, because nothing is, but the idea of the American Dream has been worth challenging for the duration of the period and is, justifiably and finally, coming to a crossroads. What unfulfillable promises was the namesake American girl raised on? Petty creates an immediate juxtaposition: “She couldn’t help thinking that there/Was a little more to life/Somewhere else.”
This is not the America Petty envisioned. Perhaps that place never existed, was never meant to exist. It didn’t seem like asking for too much, though, even if the waiting was always the hardest part. Here’s a truth, as true now as it was then and as it will be in 2057 and in 3493: “It’s good to be king and have your own world/It helps to make friends, it’s good to meet girls.” Can I help it if I, too, still dream from time to time?
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 If you’re counting at home: Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton in various forms, Smashing Pumpkins and Hootie and the Blowfish (Go Cocks) are other examples, offhand.
 The best? For my money, “You think you’re gonna take her away/With your money and your cocaine” from “Listen To Her Heart” sits atop the pile.