So now then, Tom Petty.
For nearly 40 years, Tom Petty’s been there, like the weather. I became a fan in 1979, when I was in college, and especially when Damn the Torpedoes was in the hot rotation both on our campus radio station and in my apartment. Hard Promises insinuated itself into my life even more deeply than Damn the Torpedoes had. I played the hell out it for years thereafter. Long After Dark didn’t sound quite like the Tom Petty I adored. (Years later, working at a classic rock station, I would suggest that a good alternate title for it might be Benmont Tench Buys a Synthesizer.) After that, Petty’s new music would get a lot of play on my radio stations, if not so much in my house anymore. Through the 90s and into the 00s, he would still occasionally come up with a classic. I’m not sure anybody needs to hear to hear “Free Fallin'” again, but it’s a monument. “The Last DJ” is beloved by radio people for obvious reasons (“The top brass don’t like him talkin’ so much when he won’t play what they say to play”). “Saving Grace,” from the 2006 album Highway Companion, is pretty great, too. He remained a viable hitmaker when many of his contemporaries became oldies acts; his last four studio albums all made the Top 10: 2014’s Hypnotic Eye was #1; 2010’s Mojo was #2.
Three more things about Tom Petty:
—The closest thing The Mrs. and I have to “our song” is “Here Comes My Girl.” The popularity of Damn the Torpedoes coincided with our getting hot and heavy. “Here Comes My Girl” would come on at parties (because of course it would) and I’d sing it to her while our friends watched—if I’d had enough to drink, and sometimes even if I hadn’t.
—Petty hosted a show on Sirius/XM called Buried Treasure. Like Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, one of the main pleasures of Buried Treasure was simply listening to the man talk. He obviously knew and loved the music he’d play, and he possessed a sly wit, which he also displayed in interviews and in his songs. For example, “He got an agent and a roadie named Bart / They made a record and it went in the chart,” from “Into the Great Wide Open,” never fails to amuse me. The Bart/chart rhyme doesn’t feel like an easy rhyme—it feels a little joke he couldn’t help making because of who he was.
—Petty played the main stage at Milwaukee’s Summerfest more often than any other artist, and he loved it: a few years ago, it was his only American gig of the entire summer. Reviews of the shows were universally positive, so we decided that we’d better go and see him. In 2008, he appeared with Steve Winwood, which is about as great a concert bill as I can imagine, but we were unable to attend. In 2013, we were there on a rainy night, comfortable under the canopy (as well we should have been for what the tickets cost) to hear him play the hits. He led an audience singalong on “Learning to Fly,” and he nearly brought down the house with “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” His performance of “American Girl” that night ranks on my list of performances I am most grateful to have seen, alongside Paul McCartney singing “Yesterday,” Ray Charles doing “Georgia on My Mind,” Mavis Staples singing “I’ll Take You There,” and Winwood doing “Gimme Some Lovin’.”
I walked away that night thinking I’d go see him again. I wish I had, because now I can’t.
A couple of days after Tom Petty died, I was driving in Chicago and discovered an AM station playing his songs, segued one after another, no jock, no sweepers, no jingles, just music. I listened for a half-hour before a station ID, and then another half-hour before I lost the signal out in the suburbs. Talk about a highway companion: I’d been mired in gloom since hearing the news of his death, but hearing his music blew the clouds away.
That’s why anybody makes art, I guess—to lift people out of themselves and take them somewhere else, and/or to show people things they need to see. Tom Petty did that. As we re-explore and rediscover his 40-year body of work, he will continue to do it, thank the gods. He’s going to be in our hot rotation for a good long time to come.