Recently the world lost Tom Petty, a great American rock musician. Appreciation pieces popped up on network nightly newscasts and the front pages of major newspapers; Rolling Stone rushed out a tribute issue; and radio stations played extended homages. Rightly so. But a casual observer of the rock scene could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. After all, Petty and his band the Heartbreakers clearly didn’t make a mark—musical or cultural—on the order of, say, the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, or Bowie. What was it that made Petty worthy of all those accolades? For those who are wondering, need reminding, or are just reminiscing, here are five reasons Tom Petty was great.
1. The Anthems. Sure, Tom Petty songs have strong verses and catchy choruses, but that’s not unusual in good rock. What sets Petty’s music apart is its anthemic nature. An anthem, unlike a hook, captures a broadly compelling theme and conveys it in a simple but powerful way. That’s a difficult and rare feat, but Petty achieved it with surprising regularity in songs like “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin’.”
2. The Themes. Rock is well known for lyrics that catalog angst, anger, frustration, and loneliness. Petty began that way; his first album is a series of vignettes about the tenor and frustrations (mostly romantic) of small-town life. However, he moved quickly to the lyrical theme that would define the rest of his career. Rather than dwelling on oppressive emotions and their causes, Petty advocated liberating oneself from them. “You don’t have to live like a refugee,” he told us. In the duet he wrote for himself and Stevie Nicks, she stands up to her lover with the unequivocal command, “Stop draggin’ my heart around.” The unmistakable message: you have the power to escape your misery. That’s an uncommonly positive message in the world of rock.
3. The Voice. Initially, Petty’s voice and singing—with elements of twang, drawl, honk, and a whole lot of slurring goin’ on—proved unfamiliar and polarizing. I recall a friend of mine, when first exposed to Petty’s music, indicating he liked the songs but could not abide the voice. Yet before long he, along with the rest of the world, had accepted that nasal instrument and Petty’s quirky delivery, recognizing them as perfect vehicles for conveying the music’s urgency. In a way, Petty’s unconventional sounding voice was a personification of the rebellion and freedom his songs championed.
4. The Videos. You might be surprised to learn, as I was, that Petty made terrific videos. I was clued into this by some of the aforementioned appreciation pieces. As it turns out, while most rock artists were taking the cheap-and-easy route for their videos—take-offs on live performances—Petty was putting a great deal of thought and creativity into his. Once he settled on a concept, he hired top directors and name actors (Johnny Depp, Kim Basinger) to help him create his miniature works of art. The results were highly experimental but always enjoyably wry. Check out “Don’t Come Around Here No More” for its twist on Alice in Wonderland, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” for its macabre plot, or “You Got Lucky,” wherein a post-apocalyptic Petty and the band stumble across an “ancient” recording studio.
5. The Band. The Heartbreakers were an unusually stable unit that backed Petty through most of his 40-year career. Bands who stick together that long develop a natural tightness that simply can’t be imitated. The Heartbreakers could drop into any of Petty’s endlessly varied riffs and beats and play the hell out of them. The band provided exemplary support to Petty’s trademark power chords, which were the most delicious we’ve been blessed with since Pete Townsend.
On first listen the Heartbreakers seem, like the Stones, to be built around a dual-guitar motif. Indeed, the rhythm and lead guitar work of Petty and Mike Campbell, respectively, intertwine as seamlessly as that of Keith and Ronnie. But with further listening it’s clear that Benmont Tench’s keyboards had equal billing.
Finally, while rhythms aren’t the first thing you think of when you reflect on Petty’s catalog, revisiting those songs today reminds you just how propulsive they were, thanks to the Heartbreaker’s crack rhythm section. In sum, Petty simply wouldn’t have achieved the heights he did without the consistent support, collaboration, and chops of this band.
All these factors add up to one overriding reason why Tom Petty was great: his music was inspirational. Petty’s songs, in their message of freedom, their anthemic choruses, and their pure, powerful delivery, inspired listeners to take charge of—and joy in—their own lives. If that’s not rock greatness, I don’t know what is.