The music world has lost another icon. After conflicting reports yesterday, Tom Petty, famous for penning such songs as “American Girl,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Free Fallin” and “Refugee” among numerous others, has passed away after going into cardiac arrest over the weekend at the age of 66.
Born in Gainsville, Florida, Petty made his mark on rock music via a wide swath of hits, most of which came during the late 70’s and 80’s alongside his backing band, the Heartbreakers, though he also found a good amount of success as a solo artist. Petty exploded onto the music scene in the mid 70’s during a volatile time in music with a string of modestly successful AOR hits. As one of the main purveyors of “heartland rock,” Petty’s music was straightforward guitar-based rock that directly contrasted the direct aggression of the up and coming punk genre and the wild instrumentation and experimentation of new-wave, all while still remaining radio accessible. As those genres began to move underground, Petty found his stride sticking with what worked for him. He kept his music simple, and made the messages he was conveying easy to understand, while his uncharacteristically high-pitched and often nasally singing voice fully displayed his southern roots. As MTV gained in popularity, Petty fully embraced it, starring in memorable videos like the trippy, Alice in Wonderland themed “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” the full cartoon video of “Running Down a Dream” and the Weekend at Bernies-esque “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” During the late 80’s, he also joined forces with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, and Bob Dylan to create the super group, the Travelling Wilburys, though the band’s output was of lower quality than Petty’s at the time.
The news of Petty’s sudden hospitalization and the premature reporting on his death will loom for the next few days. But, let’s not forget who he was – a songwriter for the every man, a balladeer for the weary, and a friendly and recognizable voice on the radio for decades. As the tragic events that unfolded yesterday show us, we need more people like that in music, who grow with us, who face adversity, but are still reliable, warm, and open. Petty’s music checked all of these boxes. Many who listened to his music (myself included) would say that it made the trials and tribulations of the world blow over with a little less pain.
Petty may not have had the sheer name recognition of some of his counterparts, nor did he ever create one outstanding front to back opus (though Damn the Torpedoes came close), but, nevertheless, Tom Petty was an extremely talented singer and songwriter. If you’re looking to listen to some Tom Petty in light of the news of his passing, his 1993 Greatest Hits album summarizes his style wonderfully well, culling 18 essential tracks from his long career, and is a great start for anyone looking to get into his body of work. RIP.