Long After Dark – Remembering Tom Petty
by Cori Wilbur
On October 21, Bob Dylan took a drastically different turn at his show in Colorado as he broke out into “Learning to Fly” to pay tribute to his friend and former bandmate who had recently passed. I watched a clip of the performance, Dylan sounded the most coherent he has in years.
On October 2, Tom Petty, the frontman of—and brains behind—the Heartbreakers who gave us some of the catchiest rock staples such as “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” died suddenly from a heart attack at the age of sixty-six. Ironically, the night before the word spread of his death, I had happened to come across The Postman on television, a post-apocalyptic film that features a cameo from the man himself. In 1997, you, me and Kevin Costner all foresaw a future with Petty in it.
Tom Petty’s death— or the death of any musician for that matter—feels apocalyptic to some extent. In the past few years, we’ve lost so many quintessential music greats. What made Petty’s death particularly hard to swallow was that it blindsided everyone. There was no swan song—i.e. You Want it Darker or Blackstar— in fact, quite the opposite really.
Less than a month prior, he had just wrapped up a massive tour with the Heartbreakers, even headlining the Kaaboo music festival in Del Mar. In 2015, the Heartbreakers released an album Nobody’s Children; in 2016, Mudcrutch—his first band—released their second album since reforming in 2008.
What I find most remarkable about Tom Petty as an artist—and why his death hit me like a torpedo to the head—was his reliability. Tom Petty’s music was reliable. He had a friendly quality, a trustworthy nature. Growing up, that nasal voice was always there for me; I could always count on “Free Fallin’” to come to the rescue when the radio ran dry. Also, he was a bit of a hometown hero for me—we both spent some of our youth in Gainesville, Florida.
Ever since Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers busted onto the mainstream scene in the mid-’70s with the earworm “American Girl,” his music never ceased to instill feelings of nostalgia. And as he got older, he got better. He got cooler. Nothing he did was as slick as 1993’s banger “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Its gritty harmonica riff brought a southeast meets northwest grunge blues that both angsty teens and their parents could enjoy. This cocktail of music styles is what makes Petty’s music, Petty’s music. Just the first few strums and you know his nasally drawl is coming. Oh my my, oh hell yes.
In 1979 came Damn the Torpedoes—the band’s magnum opus of sorts—which has come to be regarded as one of the greatest records of the album rock era. “Everybody’s had to fight to be free,” screams Petty on the opening track “Refugee.” What is so great about this song is that you can hear the heart and soul—Petty’s music had that gift in general. He didn’t rest on the laurels of Torpedoes’ success either; he already had more material in the works when it came out. Since the band’s debut in 1976, they put out material almost every year and a half.
Tom Petty had an ability to connect with several generations—his career spanned over the course of 40 years. That’s not to say he was unique—the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan still have him topped. But what made Tom Petty’s long withstanding career so special was that he did what pretty much no classic rock artist has managed to do—stay relevant in today’s musical climate. Where Neil Young is brushed off as “old people music,” Tom Petty was able to bridge the gap.
“Out in the great wide open, a rebel without a clue.” One of my favorite lines from any Petty song. You can’t possibly argue that you haven’t felt this way at some point in your life—the sense of rebelling against the world for seemingly no reason at all. The song almost makes you feel at ease for being uneasy.
Possibly the least established member of the ’80s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys—at least at the time of their formation—Petty kept his composure. In a documentary about the formulation of the band, Petty confessed he felt as though he should have brought an autograph book to every rehearsal. When you listen to “End of the Line,” however, the voice that stood out the most was Tom Petty’s.
Among some of the most notoriously dry personalities in music—i.e. Bob Dylan—Petty’s excitement to be a part of such a supergroup shined through. Based on the smirk he gives in the “Don’t Come Around Here No More” music video, if I had to choose just one Wilbury to hangout with—it would be him.
The true height of his career, though, would be his first solo record Full Moon Fever, which came out in 1989. The most notable hit on it—and one of the most notable hits to come out of his career or any musician for that matter—is “Free Fallin’.” Love the song or hate it, young or old, we know the tune that has become one of the most defining, feel good songs…ever. “The radio has so many rules, songs don’t,” Tom
Petty said about the creation of the tune. “I think that’s one of my best.”
Petty didn’t just reach people through his music either. Earlier in the year, MusiCares honored him as their person of the year for his support in several organizations, including Midnight Mission and Rock the Earth. Back in 1979, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed in the Musicians United for Safe Energy event in New York. I love it when great musicians are good people.
Even though we were all torpedoed by his abrupt demise, we can be grateful that he carried on a true “don’t give a damn what people think” attitude. He knew what was right for him. He had just one life, and he truly lived it to the fullest. For those entire 40 years, despite failing health, he never failed to entertain.